Materials as Memories: How Reykjavik’s building history reflects well on it’s Culture’s past.

The power of the latest trend to destroy what was the “it” thing just days prior, still amazes me. After reading the article titled, “How Reykjavik’s Sheet-Metal Homes Beat the Icelandic Winter” by Feargus O’Sullivan, I realized that no matter where people live on this earth, we all seem to share in the “trend” of looking at past Architectural expressions as too “Passé” to Preserve! That is until of course, when saving those things become all “the Rage!” And in Iceland, as often we have done here, once society comes to appreciates what was done before, much of what they race to cherish, is already lost!

Feargus’s story is multi-faced. One, if you are a fan of building techniques, this will suggest and introduce a new way of thinking for sure. Such as, debating the pros and cons of metal siding’s ability to protect from harsh weather vs. how it offers welcomed breathability to a building. If on the other hand, you want to explore the aesthetics of either the corrugated metal siding, or “modern” concrete as trends, you will find those as well.

But beyond the many directions these topics can take you, I took away it as reinforcement of the belief that, for better or worse, people built with what mother nature provided. As necessary, people only survived by learning how to customize every aspect of “how to live” where they were. Same goes their architecture, as they needed to specialize their building methods, in order to “live where they were.”

With that, it is fair to say that a society’s built environment is a reflection of who they are. But, do we accept the results of the journey, as the definition of a society’s “architectural style?”

On the path of progress, as new structures became more tuned to the frequency of the environment than the last, it is understandable that materials dictated design as a means to attain better performance over a desire for attractiveness. Conversely, we also appreciate that, a point is reached in the growth of society such that, appearances takes center stage, above mere dominance and over their circumstances. Does this mean that, for better or worse, ultimately “trends” reign supreme as definers of a society’s architectural style?

That is where “materials as memories” comes in. Somewhere along the way, wisdom sets in and, people shift their energies into optimizing their dwellings into very specific arrangements that best serve and celebrate all that is the uniqueness of the specific locale they reside. That special something, that sets their architecture, apart from all other cultures living on our beautiful planet. The best way I derived to sum this up is…. when Architecture is, of the area for the area, it falls into the category of things that never go out of style!

For Reykjavik, could that thing be, corrugated sheet metal? At least for the late 19th c, early 20th c. No matter, as materials are not a mirror of a society’s architecture. Instead, materials are the key to remembering this society’s cultural past. This explains why in conversation re: I loved Reykjavik, the words metal siding, rarely are heard. It is not the materials that make “sense of place.” It is the memories you made while in and around the built environment of this intentional, specific and unique material’s use, that leaves you loving the place.

Finally, I was thrilled to read that even though many of Reykjavik’s earliest “Turf Houses” have been lost to the ever praised belief in progress, smart money still understands why living in, the now treasured “Icelandic Ironclads” suits them and their lifestyles best. Certainly, some may feel the sheet metal, more so the turf dwellings, offer outsiders a dim view of early Icelandic peoples. The truth is, and as many a wise soul living in town appreciate, is that for Reykjavik, corrugated sheet metal, is where its at!

With architecture existing as one of the many reflections into a culture’s past, and essential to the greater field of historic preservation, I can think of no better way to ensure it’s survival than, to have it lived in. Better get one fast though, I hear they are in short supply 🙂



O’Sullivan, Feargus, “How Reykjavik’s Sheet-Metal Homes Beat the Icelandic Winter.” Sept. 23, 2020. CityLab Design, Accessed 1-31-22 at: