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  • "Icelandic Putridity":Colonial Thought and Icelandic Architectural Heritage
  • Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson

Scholars have suggested that the relationship between Iceland and Denmark is best defined in the light of the political connections between the two countries, and they have often drawn on the concept of colonialism for that purpose (Guðmundur Hálfdanarson 2014). Others have criticized and rejected the use of that concept and prefer to view the status of Iceland as one of a dependent territory up until 1918, when the country gained sovereignty (Helgi Skúli Kjartansson 1991, 94; Helgi Þorláksson 1990, 181).1 The discussion has mainly focused on an interpretation that elucidates the relationship in view of Iceland's legal and administrative rights in relation to Denmark. It ignores, however, the ways in which cultural authority influenced the relationship. In recent years, historians have increasingly taken steps toward placing a stronger emphasis on the part played by culture in the relationship, although legal jargon remains prevalent in their analyses (Guðmundur Hálfdanarson and Rastrick 2006; Ellenberger 2009). The historian Frederick Cooper contends that colonizers delimit their power with regard to the colonized by means of ideas concerning their own level of civilization and that the colonizing power marks the cultural center of the colonized peoples (Cooper 2005; Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1995; [End Page 53] Leerssen 2010, 15). Cooper suggests that addressing the relationship between colonial nations and their colonies is more accurately described using the term "colonial thought," as it describes the ways in which colonizing nations project their own understanding of the world onto their colonies. Icelanders were not unaffected by Danish colonial influence; the outspoken Icelandic protest against the 1905 Colonial Exhibition in Copenhagen is a telling example of how Icelanders rejected Danish colonial thought and what the Danes deemed as the defining characteristics of Icelandic culture (Kristján Sveinsson 1994, 168; Jón Yngvi Jóhannesson 2003).

In this article, I will address Danish colonial thought in relation to Icelandic vernacular architecture, turf houses, and more specifically the work of Sigurður Guðmundsson (1833–1874). Guðmundsson was a visual artist and trained as such for 9 years at the Art Academy in Copenhagen between 1849 and 1858. After returning to Iceland, he became influential in the production of a distinct Icelandic culture and heritage. Guðmundsson was central in a nexus of intellectuals who contributed to the cultural and sociopolitical debate about Iceland as a colonial subject of Denmark. He created national symbols like the national costume, collected folklore and material artifacts, and was the "founding father" and first employee of the Antiquarian Collection (later National Museum of Iceland). When studying in Copenhagen, Guðmundsson adopted colonial thought regarding the architecture of the time, a position that belittled traditional masonry and values attributed to architecture in the colonies, culminating with the eradication of Icelandic architectural heritage. Studies of the role of architecture in the imaginary construction and management of empires and colonies have multiplied in recent years and underscored the importance of architecture both for colonial rule and as an agent of change for the colonized (Butlin 2009; Gregory 2004; Coetzer 2013). However, as this study will show, many of the studies fall short of exploring the ways in which colonial thought becomes a paradigm for colonial subjects, creating contradictions in their practices of using architecture as a mode of resistance.

Danish Colonial Thought and Vernacular Architecture in Iceland

Denmark has imparted a clearly discernible influence on Icelandic architecture ever since it gained power over Iceland in the fourteenth [End Page 54] century. In light of this influence, the architecture that developed in Iceland was considerably different from the more traditional architecture in the country; previously, buildings constructed from turf, stone, and wood were ubiquitous. Worldly and religious institutions of power were housed in buildings modeled on Danish examples, both in regard to form and material, "producing and codifying a visible hierarchy" (Mitchell 1991, 45). These influences were particularly visible in the eighteenth century, when buildings for administrative officials like Landfógetahúsið, Bessastaðastofa, Nesstofa, and the Reykjavik prison arose (Finsen and Hiort 1978), and timber houses built and owned...


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