Olli Thomson


The famous Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran church stands on a hill in the centre of Reykjavik and is visible from many parts of the city. With the tower reaching to 74.5m or 244 feet the church was the tallest building in Iceland until the slightly taller Smáratorg Tower opened in 2008. Construction started in 1945 but the church was only finally completed in 1986. The church was designed by Icelandic State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson who, in good ecumenical spirit, also designed the Landakot, Reykjavik’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Hallgrímskirkja is named for Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century clergyman and one of Iceland’s best known poets. Pétursson was the author of many hymns which are still sung today including a cycle of Passion Hymns for Lent.

The design is said to have been inspired by the Icelandic landscape, particularly the basalt columns found by the Svartifoss waterfall and elsewhere in the country (and which are similar to the columns making up the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland). Hallgrimskirkja has sometimes been considered a brutalist work but depite the use of exposed concrete in the construction it does not really fit the style. Instead, Samúelsson is usually seen as an expressionist architect, but one who wanted to shape expressionism into a distinctly Icelandic architectural style.

The striking exterior is matched by the plain, even austere, interior with the simplicity of the architecture and the altar seting off the amazing complex of pipes that make up the church’s organ. On our last day we took one final walk round the city and stopped briefly in the church to find the organist giving a short concert (or perhaps practising for Sunday). Wonderful.

As with Harpa, which I mentioned in a previous post, the church was initially controversial and had plenty of critics, mostly because of its scale, style and dominance. Some critics also felt that the interior was too spare. Over time, though, as is often the case, people have made their peace with the building and it’s now viewed as an an icon of the city and the country.

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