Högna Sigurðardóttir Anspach (1929–2017)

Högna Sigurðardóttir Anspach, 2009. Photo: Arnór Kári

“I AM NOT LIGHT, I am heavy” were the illuminating words of the Icelandic architect Högna Sigurðardóttir Anspach, whose petite and fragile figure only emphasized her bold and uncompromising character, which was manifest in the raw, in situ cast-concrete architecture that she created. When I first met Högna in person, I had the idea of doing an exhibition on her work at the Reykjavík Art Museum for her eightieth birthday, and to my surprise, next to no written research or documentation existed on her houses. I soon realized that for my research I would need to gain her trust so that she would allow me access to the thoughts, drawings, and pioneering efforts that she had materialized for her buildings, which were limited in number but of unusually high quality and insight.

Högna was born into the small and tight-knit community of a fishing village in the volcanic island cluster of Vestmannaeyjar, just off the southern coast of Iceland, and she took the leap from the black and barren landscapes to the sophisticated culture of Europe to study architecture in the renowned École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She established her practice in France but managed to design a small handful of unique single-family houses in Iceland, mainly constructed between 1960 and 1970. The Bakkaflöt house (1965–68), which has been praised as one of the hundred most remarkable buildings of the twentieth century in World Architecture: a Critical Mosaic, is a fine example of Högna’s approach, where landscape, form, and space are merged into an enveloping whole, with reference to ancient Icelandic building heritage as well as to contemporary use of concrete and other Brutalist features of modernism. Bakkaflöt is situated on a small plot in the dormant municipality of Garðabær, and the form of the house is almost dissolved: It is thrust into a manmade grass-covered hill with only the brimmed edge of its flat roof rendered visible. The interior layout revolves around a central living room with a massive fireplace beneath a skylight, which provides the seemingly closed building with generous light inside. The organic molding of the space is both horizontal—as the sleeping rooms, reading nooks, and other intimate spaces sprout from the center with floor-to-ceiling gliding doors—and vertical, as the levels of the floors and ceilings are deliberately raised or lowered to define smaller rooms within the open space. Materials are restricted to untreated raw concrete, elegantly crafted hardwood, and a bit of leather, with most of the furniture (sofas, benches, tables, bathtubs, and even the beds) cast in concrete, making them part of a coherent whole with the visible main structure of the house. This provides the dwelling’s inhabitants with an overwhelming spatial and textural experience, best described as embracing, comfortable, and warm, like an animal must feel in its shelter.

Even though the stark form and careful shaping of space seem like natural fits for a harsh, unruly environment of rough wind and varied light conditions, it is not until recently that Högna’s architecture has gained the attention that it deserves, rightfully welcomed into today’s discourse as a site-specific, poetic way of building, with precious consideration for people’s well-being.

With gratitude to a genuine architect departed.

Guja Dögg Hauksdóttir is an architect and writer based in Reykjavík, Iceland.