Since returning from Iceland, and absorbing myself in the novels of Halldór Laxness, I have found myself constantly musing on the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Icelandic people. In contemporary terms, geothermal energy might lead us to regard Iceland as relatively resource-rich, but until recently it has been in many other respects, incredibly resource-poor. Growing seasons are short and few crops thrive in cool summers. In many parts of Iceland, the weather can be pretty wild; the landscape does unpredictable things — such as divide and erupt — and there are few trees, which meant that wood could rarely be used for either building material or fuel. I love vernacular architecture – to me it is the ultimate expression of the human sense of place, saying so much about the relationship between human bodies and the landscapes that surround them. Iceland’s vernacular architecture is particularly distinctive and expressive.
These are Icelandic turf houses, of which we saw a handful of extant examples, and several careful reconstructions at the museums of Árbæjarsafn and Skógar, both of which I highly recommend. They have some similarities with the Hebridean black houses with which I’m familiar, but differ from their Scottish counterparts in that turf not only forms the roof, but is also used as a building material for the walls, being packed into the cavities left by dry stone work to further insulate the building. Having been inside a couple on a very wild day, I can confirm that turf houses are incredibly cosy and impervious to the elements – which would of course be just what their inhabitants required. But they are also relatively high-maintenance constructions, as the turf cladding requires care and renewal every couple of decades or so. This may account for their relative rarity, as may the poor regard in which they are apparently held by some Icelanders. Again, I was reminded of the Hebrides, where black houses might be thought of as shameful, peasant dwellings, and were condemned by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “improvers” as signs of island backwardness and barbarity, rather than what they actually are: that is, an ingenious human adaptation to the requirements of life in a specific landscape. In Eighteenth-Century Iceland, the traditional stone-and-turf construction was modernised with wooden gable ends and these burstabær – which were still constructed and maintained up until the 1940s and 50s – are the most commonly seen examples extant today.
Like their counterparts in the Hebrides, Icelandic turf houses really speak both to and of the landscapes from which they emerge, and indeed into which they meld. I very much enjoyed exploring them.
Here is another distinctively Icelandic made thing which I can’t stop thinking about.
(image reproduced from here)
This beautiful object is an Askur – an Icelandic food bowl.
The barrel-like section was designed to hold soup or porridge, while the lid flipped out and might be used as a plate. This ingenious dual-purpose construction made the askur ideal for consuming food on one’s knees, rather than a table, as would have been common in many Icelandic homes. These are objects with a purpose, built for a specific use, in a specific environment, but they are also incredibly beautiful, personally-prized decorative objects. Askur might be hand-carved with intricate designs, and decorated with their owner’s initials.
They are mostly carved from driftwood and the fact that their designers transformed a found object into a made one makes them even more beautiful to me. These are practical, ordinary items built for the practical, ordinary business of feeding oneself. But they are also unique ornaments, carved from a rare and precious resource. I’d take an Askur over a Faberge Egg any day.
Both of our guides at Árbæjarsafn and Skógar spoke of the fact that Askur are still regarded by many Icelanders as objects of shame: the signature of a culture lacking the kind of developed industry which might have produced porcelain crockery. But to my mind the Askur should be regarded with great reverence and pride: an ingenious every-day object, a signature of a nation’s resourcefulness and creativity, as well as a testament to the skill of its individual maker.
Yesterday I read these typically thoughtful words on one of my favourite blogs:
“Craft work can be seen as preserving time. Hand made items preserve time in the same way that fruit is preserved as jam, not as the unchanged strawberry or plum fresh plucked, but as something cooked and processed to preserve the taste of summer. Hand made items embody both the hours of making (time) and memories and feelings of people (the times) within the construction of the object . . .a true cultural artefact.”
This is one of the many reasons I love making and reflecting on making, and why I found the Icelandic Askur an impressive and important and deeply moving cultural artefact. I’ll leave you with some other Icelandic made things I also found moving and inspiring: beautifully carved, and just as beautifully knitted, embroidered, crocheted, and woven driftwood chairs and cushions from Skógar.
If anyone has recommendations for further reading about Icelandic vernacular architecture, or traditions of driftwood-carving and askur-making I would be very grateful!