When studying abroad I took a solo vacation to Iceland. I hadn’t researched anything about it before the day I decided to go, and I ended up just “winging” it. I booked a plane ticket a week before the trip and found a modest AirBNB in a suburb of Reykjavik called Kopavogur. When I arrived I realized it was predominantly residential so I had to find my way to a bus station to get downtown. I walked around Reykjavik for about half an hour before realizing that I had arrived. It rained for four out of the six days I was there, including the day I visited the Blue Lagoon. This may sound like a washout but Iceland was by far my favorite destination during my time abroad. It was a unique experience not only as a human but as a designer and here are a few reasons why:

Historic design based on necessity

During a bus tour to Vík, the southernmost village on the mainland of Iceland, I visited the Skaftfellingur Museum. I learned that since Vík is located so far South, it becomes cut off from the rest of Iceland during harsh weather conditions. Some of Vík’s vernacular architecture came about as a way of protection. In this instance, the use of turf for insulation from bitter temperatures was brought to Iceland by Norse and British settlers during the Viking Age. Apparently, it only has to be replaced every 20 years which makes it a very sustainable design option.

Icelandic Turf Houses. Photo by me.

Urban design in smaller doses

The population of Iceland is quite small and villages are spread out. It was shocking to learn that the majority of Iceland’s population lives in or around Reykjavik. The city itself is less dense than a comparable city in America. The buildings are mainly two or three story houses, while some newer construction along the water could be considered “high rise.” Each street is lined with some type of greenery and the entire layout is walkable.

Lokastígur (Loki’s Lane), the street leading to Hallgrimskirkja. Photo by me.

Contemporary architecture interlaced with vernacular

Since most structures in Iceland came about due to necessity, the newer and more modern architecture stands out while still paying respect to Iceland’s history. Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center stands as a joint effort of Danish architectural firm Henning Larsen and Icelandic firm Batteríið Arkitektar. Its design features intricate facades that enhance natural phenomena. Perception and physical senses were a main driver for the design intentions.

View along Sculpture and Shore Way. Photo by me.

National parks and protected landscapes

An important aspect of Iceland’s landscapes is its glaciers, waterfalls, hot springs, fault lines, and sprawling lava fields. I was not expecting to get anywhere near a glacier on my trip, but one of the tours I went on took us to Myrdalsjokull which is sitting on top of an active volcano! Seeing it so close and hearing about the effects of global warming on the glaciers of Iceland was an eye-opening experience. I also traveled to Þingvellir National Park which is located along a fault line. This means that the hike to the Visitor Center follows along the Mid-Atlantic Rift, by which Iceland is divided.

Up close & personal with Myrdalsjokull glacier. Photo by me.

Visitor Center in Þingvellir National Park. Photo by me.

So…did you book your plane ticket yet?! As an architecture student, this experience helped me grasp how a country can have such horrendous weather and still be a hub of culture and history. Now as a recent graduate and intern, I look at the photos I took and remember how it felt to be in such a unique environment. Surprisingly enough, I mainly took pictures of the landscape while I was there. This differs from my normal iPhone camera roll because as someone who is focused on design and the built environment, I usually snap pictures of any building that even slightly catches my eye.