Sunday, October 26, 2014


It was the prettiest of hues trimmed with a refreshingly brisk lightness, modest but certain, calmly self-assured. It stood out as a beacon in the tiny village at the terminus of the fiord encapsulated by the steep, soaring, snowy mountains, the source of the feared avalanches. While most of the other timber buildings in this east-coast settlement were painted in strong blood reds, rich navy blues, luscious thick creams and deep dark greens all highlighted with dainty, white decorative trims, this timber-framed church in Seydisfjordur, Iceland was a surprisingly intense sky blue with the same cloud-white trim seen everywhere around the village: see -
The colour looked like a Renaissance sky without the exuberant drama of radiant rays of golden light and angels. It was an unusual tint for Seydisfjordur that spends much of the year white, covered with a dazzlingly cold snow surrounding its fractured, frozen pond. In this context, the cathedral colour glowed with the luminance of light gleaming through the depths of an iceberg.

Arriving at Seydisfjordur

Appropriately the analogies - sky and luminance - have to do with the heavens and light, both metaphors and symbols of the church. Indeed this building does stand out from the rest, not only because of any cathedral spire height or detail, although this form is unique in the array of structural elements in the village; and not only because of its wonderful colouring, but also because of its considered location and siting. The church sits in amongst an ad hoc sprawl of roadways, tracks, lanes and paths, paved and otherwise for no apparent reason, that arc in layers around the fiord. In the midst of this unruly array, at the end of what one discovers to be a slightly skewed axial way, a little blue church is revealed. One knows that it is a place of worship as it has the familiar form of one of Wren’s London churches: a symmetrical gabled facade with a central spire on a stubby tower. The coherent formality of this organisation in the carefree collection of appendages and attachments of this settlement is surprising.

As one strolls around the village discovering its nooks and crannies, one slowly comes to realise that one is walking down a different, self-consciously patterned surface unlike any other in the village, one that has pavers in the centre with a bitumen surface either side. Looking up, the western elevation of the church can be seen closing the vista in the best of classical manners, enclosing public space with arched windows in a pale blue wall topped by a steep roof interrupted by a short spire on a tower base, with each portion separately framed in fine white. It is truly pretty, proud, complete with a quaintly delicate appearance and fine proportion and detail, glowing with a gentle certainty of being. It offered a startling contrast to the looming sky-scraping faces of the ancient, craggy, snow-capped geology that is its background - rock of ages. These massive mountains made the village look less than a miniature: thoroughly insignificant, minute.

The fiord from above

Looking down on Seydisfjordur at the end of the fiord

View of Seydisfjordur from the fiord

It is a beautiful placing for this spiritual centre, on the edge of town but linked formally to it, as if to mark its different importance in this random array of places that, at times, had a careless, ill-considered, frontier feel about it. As one gets closer to this Wren-like form with the expectation of it being made with the customary load-bearing, solid, rendered masonry seen in Britain, it is discovered that this church is clad in an unsophisticated corrugated iron and fitted with plain glass timber windows. The disparity with this familiar material that is usually used for sheds and shantytowns being used for the house of God was somewhat alarming, but, once the apprehension had been overcome, one realised that this material performed well. There was a surprising elegance here in this ‘lightness of being.’ Somehow the honesty seemed to overcome all preconceptions and offered a satisfactory whole that could be admired.

The apse on the eastern end of the church

One could accept the idea and respect the considered, astute detailing that created this little gem - proud and complete, standing boldly transparent in the harshest of harsh environments, celebrating its identity with a light-flooded interior that reminded one of Wren’s St. James in Piccadilly. It was when sitting in Wren’s church on one occasion that a local resident, who came with his lunch for the musical recital, turned to tell us that he loved the space for its unsullied, natural light. It was indeed beautiful, with no cringing stained glass ambitions. Wren had high walls of clear glass that let the light stream in even on London’s worst days: and so did the light in this tiny church at Seydisfjordur that ignored any rough reference its cladding might suggest to hold a quality that made it more cathedral than chapel, in spite of its size.

The building did not try to replicate the cliché pointed Gothic arch openings that churches seem to favour: see -  In one way the church appeared Norman, but the points were there to transform this identity with a spikiness provided by the repeated gables that had been placed over each opening on both the north and the south walls and around the tower, a zigzagging capped with the fine point of the spire. This little building held authority greater than its size suggested. The corrugated iron gave it a ruggedness, an individuality that could be admired. This light metal material enclosed the building efficiently and cheaply, as it does on simple sheds and shacks. The ambiguity danced with a lovely contrasting twinness - house of God, shearing shed; rough edges, exquisite detail; hard steel wall, soft sky colour. It was a true delight. It does show how conditioned we have become with our cliché expectations. Could anyone familiar with shearing sheds, Penang shacks, and shantytown images ever anticipate a corrugated iron church or chapel? - see:

The tiny portico, almost Romanesque

Walking around closer to this little surprise, one could appreciate the detailing. It was complete and thorough. Flashings with corrugated wall sheeting always need careful attention if they are not to be messy or ineffective. Here, in this harsh climate, folk know how to seal a cladding and to protect horizontal ledges from the ravages of winter. All sills and joints were nicely considered and resolved, especially those around the arches, surely one of the most difficult of details to achieve; but it was neatly managed here.

Although this settlement is remote even for this island - it is a region that Lonely Planet oddly called ‘The Empty East’ in its travel guide on Iceland - the requirements for disabled access had not passed this place by. These rules make their own demands when there is a need. While it might have been expected that Workplace, Health and Safety issues would have loomed large in the village fishing industry, the general demands on access for those with a disability might possibly not have yet had an impact on this region; but no. The sweet set of stairs rising up pyramidally, Aztec-like, to the tiny entry portico of this church had been supplemented with a ramp. One could get along it, possibly with some care, but it would be a precarious journey with such a narrow ply deck with a mid-landing return and no balustrades. It seemed that the locals might have heard about access but not seen any of the standards. At least this modest wooden structure did not impose too much on the church entry even if it was the equivalent of a wheelchair tightrope ride.

The access for the disabled
The only handrail is on the steps

Turning from this church, one was immediately thrust into the ad hoc clutter of this village that held other gems in its messiness like pearls in seaweed. These structures were the Norwegian prefabs  - timber-framed, corrugated iron-clad, well insulated - that had been brought over for the fishermen in the early 1900s in the best ‘Ikea’ tradition. It is truly remarkable that these buildings remain in such a good state of repair in this most rugged of remote places that has such a treacherously punishing climate. They are a joy to behold – a scattered set of nearly sixty buildings that formed the core of this place that the Lonely Planet, in spite of the ‘emptiness’ of the region, nominated as the most beautiful village in Iceland. It certainly has a magnificent church that has the presence of a cathedral: see -

For more on shearing sheds,see:

P.S. 28 October 2014
The Old Library at Queen's University, Belfast is a grander building than the little church at Seydisfjordur, but it has a similar form, with an array of gables on the side elevations around a main gable roof form.

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