“I am going to make you a nest,” said the architect to the family of six in the year 1963. So the story began, and, fifty years later, the nest that became a house is now known to be one of the greatest buildings ever made in Iceland. So how did it come about? A young woman called Högna Sigurðardóttir moved from Iceland to Paris to study architecture and soon showed clear signs of having extraordinary talent. After finishing her studies, Högna won a competition that enabled her to get permission to stay on in Paris to work as an architect, where she would spend the rest of her working life, leaving many interesting projects behind. She also received commissions from Iceland, few of them being residential houses that also stand as a reminder of a great talent. Gloomy concrete buildings on the outside with fascinating interior, raw and somewhat brutal, but at the same time exquisite and modern.
Hafsteinshús, or the house of Hafsteinn, was one of the residential houses Högna created in Iceland. It is considered by many the jewel in the crown of all the houses she made and we think we know the reason why. The lovely lady that now lives in the house is Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir, a well-known artist in Iceland with a long history of exhibitions. She and her late husband Hafsteinn, decided to start the project of building a house for their family, right after they returned to Iceland from Copenhagen, where they had both gone to finalize their respective careers; he as a dentist, she as an artist. They travelled to Denmark by ship, as was usual in those days, with their two eldest sons, and without having been able to find any permanent accommodation. Luck was on their side, and they were offered the chance to take care of a beautiful house in Søllerød, right outside of Copenhagen. The only obligations that came with the house had to do with the vast land surrounding it; making sure that the grass was cut and the apple trees watered. They moved in and rapidly packed up all the fine Danish china and silverware that belonged to the house, and settled in to stay for a while.
On returning to Iceland they had it in mind to build a house. Högna was at the time working on another residential house, and since Högna and Hafsteinn were close relatives they managed to visit that house just before it was finished. They became fascinated with the way Högna used few, but strong, materials: concrete, wood and natural stone. They knew that was what they wanted. So they started planning, among other things deciding on a neighbourhood in which to build the house. Once that was decided, they had to wait for a good while to receive a positive response from the right authorities in order to actually start building. No answer was given for a very long time, so in the end they went knocking on a few doors. It turned out that the town council had a big problem with the house; they did not like it at all. Luckily someone changed his mind and they got permission to start construction. First they decided to build the garage, which is now Ragnheiður’s work studio, and, once completed, they moved into the 40 fm2 space where they – the couple, their four sons and a dog – would live for the next two years while the house was being built. By the time they moved out of the garage and into the actual house, they had become a family of seven, as son number five had arrived.
The building of the house took more than a few years, perhaps because every detail of Högna’s design was seen through to the end. The workers said they had never seen drawings as precise as the ones Högna had made, covering everything from the very complicated structural system down to the design of the small bedside tables. They never allowed for any short cuts and everything had to be done exactly the way Högna had envisioned it; out of respect for the architect, Ragnheiður says. They gave Högna complete freedom when it came to designing the house, with two conditions. The key criteria for Ragnheiður and Hafsteinn, was that the main area would be built on two platforms, each in different height, where the height difference, or the ledge, would be utilized to formalize seats throughout the entire living room, circling around the robust fireplace seated in the middle of the house. The second criteria was that the house needed to grow with them, they wanted to make sure that the four rooms where the boys slept would open up, and become part of the main living room when the they would leave home.
So everything is made with sliding doors, closing down and opening up spaces, which is perhaps one of the most beautiful features of the house, to highlight just one of many. The house is a true masterpiece and as such was nominated as one of the 100 most remarkable houses to be built in Northern-Europe in the 20th century. It was thought of as a modern turf hut built for a contemporary family and became one of the most emblematic buildings in Iceland; all based on trust, talent and clear vision.
Ragnheiður is one of a kind, as elegant and strong as they get, like the house itself. She walks us through the building process, pointing out every detail, explaining when and by whom each part of the house was made. She also points out the places that her children liked, for instance the small space at one end where the impressive bench turns into a table, saying that they always ended up playing there when they were very young. Since then her grandchildren have done the same, and now her great-grandchildren. Hafsteinshús is like no other house we have ever seen, a real and genuine paradise, a solid house built around a solid life and everywhere you look you see the signs of love and care. We thank Ragnheiður for her generosity in letting us in; it was a true pleasure.
Text: Auður Gná // Photography: Íris Ann