Architecture Imitates Nature in the Land of Fire and Ice

Bárðarbunga_Volcano, - Version 2

At 64° North Latitude and only 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland has no shortage of cold and snow. With roughly 10% of the island covered by glaciers, the name “Iceland” seems perfectly justified.

But if it sounds like a cold, quiet place, you might be surprised when one of its 30 active volcanoes blows its top. Its most recent activity at Bárðarbunga is an eruption under a glacier: clearly in the fire and ice category.


For a creative person, it would be difficult to live in a place with such extremes and not be inspired to borrow an idea from nature. In 1938 state architect Guðjón Samúelsson did exactly that when he designed Reykjavik’s main landmark, the beautiful and unusual Hallgrimskirkja.

Hallgrimskirkja church 2

This church, named for Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson, has towering columns built to simulate what geologists call “columnar jointing.”


These hexagonal columns form in the volcanic rock basalt, and are a result of contraction during cooling.

Columar jointing iceland
Columnar jointing at Vatnajökull, one of Iceland’s largest National Parks

This is an excellent example of columnar jointing, and after seeing the similarity, there’s no doubt where the architect got his inspiration.

Hallgrimskirkja church

Iceland is one of the most geologically active places on earth. In the past 100 years more than 15 of Iceland’s volcanoes have erupted. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, normally covered by thousands of feet of water, is at the surface here creating a volcanic hot spot. For scientists it’s a veritable plate tectonics playground where it’s possible to see, touch and walk along the plate boundary (picture a gaggle of gleeful geologists) between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Not only are the volcanoes responsible for the very existence of the island, but they’re a constant reminder of the ferocity of nature.

“When you live in a country which moves alarmingly under your feet every five years or so with an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, you face, like the saga heroes of old, a choice of two courses of action, neither of them good: Either to flee the country and all its hazards, or to stay and brave them out. For more than 1100 years the people of Iceland have chosen to stay and brave them out.” —Television presenter Magnús Magnússon, Reykjavík


On the day I visited the church a volcanic plume in the distance reminded me that volcanoes are never far away in Iceland. Now I have a feel for what must have influenced Samúelsson as he designed the attractive and unorthodox Hallgrimskirkja.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. If you’d like a drone’s eye view of Hallgrímskirkja, this short Youtube video provides a 360° tour of the building, a nice view of Reykjavik, and a nifty techo-vibe soundtrack as well.


Photo Credits:
1. Peter Hartree via Wikimedia Commons
4. Johann Dréo via Wikimedia Commons
5. Dom2508 via Wikimedia Commons


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

65 thoughts

  1. I had no idea Iceland had so many volcanoes. That landmark, the Hallgrimskirkja, is very impressive. How interesting that it takes its inspiration from Iceland’s stunning and volatile landscape. 🙂

    1. Cathy, with a couple of large, troublesome eruptions in the past few years, Iceland has been getting more and more media attention. In fact, on our last trip to Europe, we were on pins and needles to see if the ash cloud from an eruption at Bárðarbunga was going to cancel our flight. We wanted to go, but not via an ash cloud. ~James

    1. I’m sure that you’ll enjoy yourself Fi. The small island has such a huge variety of things to see and do. It’s a bit out of the way from your neck of the woods, but it will be worth the effort. Enjoy. ~James

  2. Incredible guys! Iceland has long intrigued me, but only recently have I begin to read and discover a little about the country and its people. It sounds like I place that I would adore – an intertwining of creativity and nature. Thanks for sharing this! Giving more even more of a train to take that short plane ride there one day soon! xo

    1. Liz, we stopped in Iceland on a freebie stopover on a flight from the US to Europe. We spent all our time in Reykjavik, and really enjoyed it. But to see all the island has to offer will probably mean an organized tour (if you go for that sort of thing) or a car rental. It’s probably only three hours from Sweden, so you should definitely visit while you’re living in Northern Europe. ~James

    1. Alison, Iceland Air has cheap airfares to Europe from a few, select places, and they let you stop in Reykjavik for free. If you can pull it off, it’s a very unique place to visit. ~James

    1. Andrew, I hadn’t heard that one before, but given Bárðarbunga’s behavior of late, it’s probably not a bad idea. It’s interesting that the rental company holds you responsible for “Acts of God”. ~James

      1. I said that if the car suffers devastating amounts of volcano damage and I am in it then I am very unlikely to be worried about the insurance excess!
        Did you to the top of the church when you were there?

    1. This really is a unique church Laura. It’s so different in size and look from all the other buildings in town, and you can pretty much see it from anywhere in town. You can also see the volcanic plumes from anywhere in town. 😉 ~James

  3. Gorgeous photos and fascinating narrative. Love the photo of te rocks to explain the church design. I’d love to go to Iceland some day. My brother-in-law lived there for a year with the U.S. Air Force, but we never made it there to visit him and I have been thinking of going there ever since.

    1. Thanks for your kind words Cathy. Iceland usually doesn’t show up on most travelers’ radar, but it’s certainly worth visiting. There really isn’t anywhere like it in the world. I bet that your bro-in-law enjoyed his time there. As I said to someone else, Iceland Air has cheap airfares to Europe and when we visited they let you stop in Reykjavik for free. ~James

    1. Thanks for your kind words Martha. They’re good to hear. As you may have picked up, we try hard to not be just another travel blog, and finding interesting angles is what we’re all about. It’s good to know that readers like you notice. Thanks. ~James

  4. Thanks for sharing these pictures from Reykjavik and Vatnajökull. Quite an interesting comparison, something you do so very well. I’d love to see Iceland someday, but until then, it’s blogs like yours that bring the world to me!

    1. Thanks Rusha. Due to Iceland Air’s cheapo fares to Europe, we’ve traveled through a few times, and are glad that we finally were able to stop. As I said before, it’s a unique place, unlike anywhere else on earth. That alone makes it worth a visit. I hope you can make it. ~James

  5. Lovely. I’m intrigued by Iceland – weird moonscape terrain. Do you know the cycling dutch girl’s blog? (fantastic – she’s adorable) She spent quite a bit of time biking and camping and taking amazing photographs and staying with the locals.
    As always, love following your travels!

    1. Thanks Tricia. I’ll check out the cycling dutch girl’s blog. And yes, lots of Iceland is a moonscape. It’s all those millions of years of lava flows that haven’t weathered into topsoil with grasses. ~James

  6. Now that I’ve heard about the volcanoes, I’ve changed my mind about Iceland. The architecture, however, is most appealing. It quite evident the architect took his cue from nature. Gorgeous. Stunning and most attractive. ❤

    1. Tess, if you haven’t yet, you probably will eventually be a recipient of some volcanic ash from Bárðarbunga. You may remember all the air traffic problems it caused a year or so ago. It’s a very active volcano and isn’t likely to calm down anytime soon. Having said that, a little ash is no reason to skip a place as interesting as Iceland. ~James

  7. A few years ago air traffic in the UK and much of Europe came to a standstill because of volcano dust from a volcano in Iceland that was erupting. People were told to stay inside in the most affected areas. It caused great disruption for several days. Living in the shadow of such volcanoes must be challenging.

    1. I do remember all these problems Dorothy. That troublesome volcano is Bárðarbunga, which is the same one mentioned in this post. In fact, this same volcano was erupting last October when we were flying to Europe. We were a bit nervous that it might cause problems for our flight, but luckily, it didn’t. Given its history, I don’t think you’ve seen the end of volcanic dust in the UK. Hey, but on the bright side, it will enrich your garden soil. ~James

  8. Oooo I really enjoyed the drone flight. Do you suppose one could strap oneself atop for a little ride? 🙂
    Iceland is definitely on our list and the next European trip we think will be with a stopover. Like you we had a tenuous booking with ash cloud almost barring us from arriving to Italy. Luckily it cleared in time for us to travel.
    A great post you two. Are you just back from Iceland?

    1. Thanks Sue. Do you not love that drone video? A devilish gear geek sits on one shoulder whispering “Dude, you really NEED a drone!” And the anti-gear angel sits on the other saying: “What on earth would you do with it? You’d only get in trouble.” We were in transit to Denmark at the same time Sue and had the same nervous concerns about volcanic ash. If you can stop in Iceland, a couple of active types like you will love it. We only spent 3 days there, which really isn’t enough if you want to get around the island. ~James

  9. We can hardly wait to visit Iceland. Our friends who have stopped over on their way to Scandinavia have all said, ‘We wished we would have stayed longer in Iceland!’

    As usual, you whet our appetites for places we have yet to visit. Also, sharing the information on basalt columns was a nice addition. – Mike

    1. Mike, we can join that crowd as well: We wish that we had spent more time as well. After being there, it’s on our list for later. One recommendation: if you want to get around the island and have some flexibility, a rental car would be a good idea. Transport isn’t readily available, but you might be able to arrange organized tours if you like that sort of thing. And … bring money. It’s not cheap. ~James

    1. Thanks Shelley. July should be the perfect time to visit. Are you planning an around the island tour? There are lots of good blog posts out there to help. Have a great trip. ~James

      1. We are going with Overseas Adventure Travel and we will be touring around the island. Thanks for the tip about the blog posts. I’ll check them out.

  10. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to visit Iceland … So alluring and mysterious and close to NYC !
    Your post is very interesting … Definitely the architect got inspiration from the landscape around him.
    And oh, those plumes of smoke in the distance?! Breath-taking!!!!
    Thanks to you both for always sharing your adventures with us!

    1. Iceland really isn’t that far from NYC Lia, and it would make a perfect and easy “exotic” trip. It’s unique in the world and should definitely go on your list. If you decide to go, visit in the shoulder season when crowds thin out and prices go down. ~James

      1. Thanks James … Indeed I believe it’s only a five hour flight from NYC ? I’ll definitely get there one day… An easy and exotic trip as you said! Definitely shoulder season would be ideal!

  11. You stopped by Iceland – fantastic! I really appreciate and love how you showed the church and the geologic columns – fantastic juxtaposition. We are anxious to go back, and we just went last June! Alas, probably won’t be this year (but we’ll see).

    1. No Dawn, this was from a previous trip. Iceland doesn’t get much travel media attention, and I’m sure why. I’ve never heard of anyone visiting that, like you, didn’t fall in love with the place. ~James

  12. This may be one of the most fascinating churches I have seen. I had not thought to have Iceland as a travel destination until I saw your posts. Beautiful! 🙂

    1. Isn’t it cool LuAnn? Sniff around, there may be some columnar jointing in your part of the world. There are always a few rockhounds wandering around in the west who will know this sort of thing. ~James

    1. You’re exactly right. The locations you mentioned are probably the two most famous examples of columnar jointing in the world. It could have something to do with accessibility. ~James

  13. Such other worldly photos – the architecture is so unique and the way you interspersed the photos really illustrated the inspirations. Would love to visit one day.

    1. It’s a nice place to visit, but….. I’m with you Marie. Even without the volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers, living on a small isolated island wouldn’t be my first choice. ~James

  14. GREAT post! I read, or someone once told me, that Iceland has no ice, and Greenland is not Green. I’d like to go there to see the northern light display during winter…

    1. I’ve never been to Greenland, but as I said, 10% of Iceland is covered in glaciers, so you can update that part of the story. Like you, I would love to see the northern lights, but haven’t ever been successful. Anytime I’ve been in the right place at the right time, the Aurora wasn’t on show. So obviously, it takes some planning as well as luck. ~James

      1. OK. So there is ice on Iceland. Good to know after all these years of bad information! I bet there is even grass on Greenland. Proves you just can’t trust anyone.

  15. Wow! Thanks so much for visiting my blog so I can find you. Can’t afford to travel outside Australia at the moment so living vicariously through travel blogs is going to have to satiate the travel bug for the time being. A very interesting post covering different angles and I love the Church and its inspiration. Wow!

    1. Thanks for the comment Rowena and for dropping by the blog. I’ve only been to Australia once, but the globe doesn’t do the distance justice. It’s a long, long way from everywhere (well except maybe NZ), and I’m sure its expensive to travel anywhere. But, the good news is that it’s a huge country and one could spend lots of time seeing it all. I’ll check out your blog to see some of its sights. ~James

  16. These are wonderful photos! I’ve just started a travel blog with my best friend, and I am SO inspired by your content, your photographs, and your lifestyle. Now I know what I’m working toward in life!

    1. Thanks for your comment and for dropping by the blog Meagan. Also, thanks for your kind words. I’m sure that you and your friend will enjoy blogging. Like you, Terri and I are a team, and it’s nice to have someone to share the load. Blogging, done well, takes lots of work, but for us it’s a creative outlet and has enabled us to connect with interesting folks all over the world. Best of luck in your new blog. Keep us posted on how it’s going. ~James

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