Charles R. Wolfe

Colorful buildings, monuments that blend, and exciting waterfronts.

I like to travel purposely, first, for visual inspiration, and second, to inform professional practice regarding settlements and cities. I found fodder for both a few days ago in Iceland, amid a basalt terrain of lava fields seemingly created only yesterday, among contemporary accounts of renewable energy and epic stories of settlement dating back little more than a thousand years.

In Icelandic landscapes, in small towns, and in the resurgent capital city of Reykjavik, are scenes and stories that transcend nature, culture and the built environment. In the imagery of such places, we see scaled expressions of urban settlement and transport, both past and present, including dramatic examples of human interactions with the raw elements of nature.

Others have described how the legendary sagas that help define the country’s national identity largely lack description of visual surroundings, but rather center on elements of humanity and survival. As a modern supplement, here is my more image-oriented summary of lessons learned from Iceland’s interplay of the natural and built environments, including human capacity to adapt to the opportunities and constraints of place.

1. Measure urban sustainability by clarity of the sky at night

The legendary Northern Lights dominate the evening. Why not use clarity of the night sky as a new measure of city sustainability?

2. Encourage minimalism that blends with surrounding nature

A small church and outbuilding on the Snæfellsnes peninsula honor natural surroundings with simplicity and scale.

3. Allow fusion businesses and food trucks in an urban setting

A branch of Copenhagen’s cutting edge Laundromat Cafe and a contemporary food truck show Reykjavik as consistent with worldwide urbanist trends.

4. Provide street retail integrated with sidewalk life

Streetside shopping activates the sidewalk in Reykjavik.

5. Use building color to make a statement in all seasons

In Stykkishólmur, an iconic red offsets winter weather conditions.

6. Champion practical building materials consistent with tradition

Where native trees are scarce and light is variable (short in winter, long in summer), color and corrugated iron cladding have replaced turf, stone and concrete as dominant building features in Reykjavik.

7. Employ simple materials for monuments, blended with surroundings


In Borgarnes, a symbol of human significance echoes surrounding nature.*

8. Foster the interaction of urban fabric with an iconic city pond

In Reykjavik, the historic town and a modern city hall frame Tjörnin, the best-known small waterbody in Iceland.

9. Recall the contrast of the man-made with landscape and clouds

Throughout the country, unrivaled cloud formations offset paving and structure.

To fully understand cites, I believe we should return to places where human settlement still stands in awe of larger forces, and to view the nascent built environment with discernment and care. For me, last week’s journey to Iceland was a primer on the very underpinnings of human movement, settlement and consequent urbanization.

* An earlier version of this post misspelled Borgarnes.

All photos courtesy of Charles Wolfe, all rights reserved.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of Los Angeles in 1962
    Transportation

    Mapping the Effects of the Great 1960s ‘Freeway Revolts’

    Urbanites who battled the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1960s saved some neighborhoods—but many highways did transform cities.

  2. a photo of a small fleet of electric Chevrolet Bolts cars.
    Transportation

    Should Electric Vehicle Drivers Pay Per Mile?

    Since EV drivers zip past gas taxes, they don’t contribute to the federal fund for road maintenance. A new working paper tries to determine whether plug-ins should pay up.

  3. A photo of anti-gentrification graffiti in Washington, D.C.
    Equity

    The Hidden Winners in Neighborhood Gentrification

    A new study claims the effects of neighborhood change on original lower-income residents are largely positive, despite fears of spiking rents and displacement.

  4. A man and a woman shop at a modern kiosk by a beach in a vintage photo.
    Design

    Why Everyday Architecture Deserves Respect

    The places where we enact our daily lives are not grand design statements, yet they have an underrated charm and even nobility.

  5. an aerial photo of urban traffic at night
    Transportation

    The Surprisingly High-Stakes Fight Over a Traffic-Taming ‘Digital Twin’

    Why are some mobility experts spooked by this plan to develop a data standard that would allow cities to build a real-time traffic control system?

×