By Drew Allen, AIA, project architect at Perkins&Will and Editorial Committee Chair  

If you scroll through Instagram or any other social media feed, there is a strong chance that you will come across at least a few pictures of Iceland. The country has experienced a huge influx of tourism in recent years, from people looking to explore the unique landscapes and Game of Thrones film locations to taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon or any number of the geothermal baths around the country. This combination of distinctive landscapes, geothermal pools, and relatively easy access has spurred the recent tourism boom and made Iceland one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It has also helped to fuel the work of Basalt Architects, who are based in the capital city of Reykjavik. Over the last decade, Basalt has worked to create architecture all around Iceland, most notably projects based on wellness and geothermal pools, such as the Blue Lagoon and Geosea. Their distinct Icelandic architecture is deeply rooted in nature, creating a sense of place, and reconnecting the user with the landscape of Iceland.

I had the chance to catch up with Hrólfur Karl Cela and Marcos Zotes, both partners at Basalt, after their captivating presentation at the AIA Practice + Design Conference this past fall where we discussed their work in Iceland, how their practice has evolved, and what the future may hold.

(Disclaimer: the following has been edited for clarity)

Drew Allen: How has the unique climate and landscape of Iceland shaped your work? Is there anything that influences your architecture more than others? IMG_5977 (1)

Hrólfur: All of the projects we talked about today have very different conditions. A very integral part of our design strategy, as always with these kinds of projects, is to integrate it into the natural surroundings so that the users really experience what was already there before they came.

Marcos: When you look at Icelandic history and how people lived in the past, nature was always so present. There was a way of dealing with nature and the daily struggle with how to fight nature and how to make the best of the resources that you have and how to protect yourself from the weather. Interestingly enough, most of this tradition has been lost in the 20th century and the last few years.

Drew: Is that something that you set out to (re-establish) when you started Basalt? Did you initially start out with the mindset that nature would play a large role in your work or is that something that materialized over time?

Hrólfur: Well in these types of works (bath/geothermal pool projects away from city centers), yes. We also have urban projects where we have a totally different approach. There may be more social or economics (based) approaches to those projects. But, coming back to what Marcos said, historically we were not able to rely on any sort of imported materials, which is also a very good thing for our design heritage because we were not burdened with specific building traditions of Europe or anywhere else. We were forced to develop a very contextual Icelandic sort of approach, which I think, especially in our projects, is still relevant today.

Drew: As Basalt has developed over the last decade, so has the tourism industry in Iceland. What are your thoughts on that and how has it affected your work? Basalt Architects

Marcos: I think that it’s a very good thing, actually. Just looking at Reykjavik today, it’s a very lively city. When I first moved there in 2001, almost twenty years ago, it was very beautiful, but there was no life. It was very charming, but it’s very different today. It’s more of a European and international city, which is very good for daily life – to have more interactions with different people. But, it’s a double-edged sword. You have millions of people coming through every year and need to have the infrastructure to allow for that. When this hasn’t been planned for, things may get out of hand. The question is how to create that infrastructure when it doesn’t exist. One way is to create lots of smaller projects that, in a way, create the beginning of that masterplan. Right now, there isn’t a large masterplan for everything, but we are seeing the beginnings of one through these smaller projects.

Hrólfur: I think this is a very relative point. We have already begun to see the damaging effects of tourism on the natural landscape that we are working very hard to counteract. So, like Marcos said, it is a double-edged sword, for sure.

Drew: Do you think there is an ideal amount of tourism that can be accommodated in Iceland without damaging the natural environment? Basalt Architects

Hrólfur: I think there a number of ways to deal with this. Some nations have simply limited the number of tourists that can visit per year. This is one approach. I don’t think that we (Iceland) have to grow just to accommodate endless amounts of people. Recently, one of the largest airlines in Iceland (Wow Air, who offered cheap airfare to Iceland and was largely responsible for the massive influx of tourists to the country) went bankrupt. And, while many in the tourism industry were crying their eyes out over this, I think this was a positive development. Many of the companies that don’t think long term or about the impacts on the environment and are just there to make a quick buck will go away. Then you’ll be left with the ones that really care and are able to offer something special.

Drew: It seems that many tourists that visit Iceland are drawn to the bathing culture of the country and experiencing places like the Blue Lagoon. Obviously, many of your projects are centered around this culture, but do you find that that bathing culture influences your office culture? How have these projects influenced Basalt Architects as you’ve worked through them over the last decade?

Hrólfur: Everybody at the office works on these projects and we all have some experience working on them (so we all bring our own experiences to them and take away certain lessons with each project). We actually have a “fun committee” at Basalt and, next spring, we are planning on taking a tour around Iceland to visit all of our bathing projects around the country where we hook up a sauna to the back of the bus and just bathe and sauna all around the country.

Marcos: Yes and you know, bathing culture is very important in Iceland. It’s not just bathing, it also has a very strong social aspect. People use the local hot tubs to go everyday and meet your neighbors and talk about everything – the weather, work, everything. It’s actually the social space where people relate to each other. You can find these pools and geothermal baths in every town. It’s something that everybody does and is so important to the people of Iceland.

Drew: Do you think that that Icelandic culture sets you apart from other firms because you approach projects differently? Do you think that positions Basalt to do work that maybe others are not doing?

Marcos: We have an experience that we carry with us and we try to learn from each project. We try to always do things better than what we did before. But, for each project we have a rule that there are no preconceptions. We have to do something that feels right for the space without thinking beforehand what we are going to do. It becomes a process of researching and understanding the site in order to create something that is relevant and local; something that celebrates the unique features of the site.

Hrólfur: I think that being Icelandic helps to equip us with a certain knowledge of the landscape because Iceland is so small. All of our collaborators are so close and so familiar with the conditions, it’s easy to create a team to tackle these projects. I think our methodology to each site could apply to anywhere in the world, though. We may be less familiar with the conditions and different networks, but because we research each site so much, we are able to do the same things (site specific, local, and heavily researched) elsewhere in order to create something unique to wherever the site is. Basalt Architects

In speaking with Hrólfur and Marcos after their presentation, it not only helped to give me a clearer picture about their work at Basalt, but also painted a broader picture of Iceland and let me to reflect on my own experiences with that country. My wife, Meg Schubert Allen, who is also an architect, and I have had the opportunity to visit Iceland twice over the last three years and both times have taken a trip to the Blue Lagoon. One of the first things that struck me was how the architecture was so deeply rooted in the dense lava fields that surrounded it. At first, I thought that this was just an interesting aspect of the place, but having seen how much thought Basalt put into grounding the architecture in the place, which included mapping out rock formations and walking the site to chart the best locations for different parts of the building in a field of lava, I have a new appreciation for the work that Hrólfur and Marcos are bringing to Iceland and am greatly looking forward to tracking their future projects, wherever they may be.