Art plays a significant role in Icelandic culture, with several dozen registered galleries in the Reykjavík area alone. Exhibitions aren’t just limited to galleries; many artists exhibit their work in other public places including shopping malls, restaurants, cafes, and abandoned herring factories. Sometimes buildings are turned into works of art, such as the illumination of Icelandic lighthouses by artist Arna Valsdóttir in 2004. Some of the more prominent contemporary artists in Iceland include the postmodern artist Erró, Kristján Guðmundsson (the Carnegie Art Award winner of 2010), Ólafur Elíasson (the Danish/Icelandic artist famous for the installation The Weather Project at London’s Tate Modern), and Ragnar Kjartansson (also of the Icelandic band “Trabant”), whose recent exhibition The End—Venice won critical acclaim. For more on art in Iceland, has good listings for galleries and exhibitions. The Reykjavík Art Museum at Tryggvagata 17 (tel. 590-1201) also has good online resources at


Traditional architecture in Iceland was very basic, suffering from the lack of wood. Icelanders built their homes out of sod and turf, with supporting structures often made from driftwood. Some of the later turf houses have been preserved, such as Skógar, Glaumbær, and Keldur. During the medieval period, many wooden-framed churches were built, followed by a number of stone constructions in the 18th century. The church in Hólar is the largest stone-built church from this period.

The first notable influences on Icelandic architecture were Danish and appeared during the expansion of Reykjavík, when merchants set up trading posts in Iceland. These houses were typically wood-framed with pitched roofs. The Swiss chalet style (a Norwegian import) was another strong influence, here modified with corrugated-iron surfacing in place of cladding and painted in a variety of hues.


Some believe that one of the greatest tragedies for Icelandic architecture was the arrival of functionalism. The Reykjavík cityscape is dotted with buildings that look like stacks of Legos (though some are nicely painted) and concrete apartment blocks. The lack of any decent town planning has resulted in a mish-mash of vastly different styles that only clash with every new building project. During the boom period before the economic crash, skyscrapers were raised next to traditional wooden houses without any consideration for creating an aesthetically pleasing complementary style. As a result, the smaller buildings simply look out of place. Some beautiful buildings do exist, however, including the Alþingishús, the current parliament building in the heart of the city, which is hewn out of Icelandic stone, and Háteigskirkja, a snow-white church crowned with four elegant black turrets in the 105 area of Reykjavík. The $150-million Harpa concert hall and conference center on Reykjavík’s waterfront is built around a steel framework covered with geometric-shaped glass panels of different colors resembling the scales of a fish.

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