By Byron Kuth, FAIA and Elizabeth Ranieri, FAIA
Last fall, Manuela King of RHAA Landscape Architects asked us to join her in entering an international design competition for a new visitor center at the Black Lava Fields in Iceland’s Dimmuborgir region. At the time, we were in the middle of deadlines for our San Francisco Airport Terminal 1 project. But once we read through the competition brief, we said yes. The remarkable landscape of Dimmuborgir was formed 2,300 years ago by the eruption of a volcano, and molten lava flowed through the area’s wetlands. As the water boiled, it rose through the lava before evaporating, leaving behind unusual forms of black lava rock evocative of a lunar landscape.
Today, the Black Lava Fields is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland. There is an existing visitor’s center, a simple building made up of container modules that house a gift shop and café. The Bee Breeders, architecture competition organizers, held this design competition to replace the existing building with a structure more worthy of this amazing environment.
We only had two weeks to design the center and produce the renderings. We began with both offices participating in a design charrette and from there developed sketches and small physical models, then evolved the design into a digital model and renderings. We sited the visitor’s center at the top of a ravine above the lava fields to optimize the remarkable views but also to allow for a dramatic entry sequence.
We conceived of the center as a castle extending the labyrinth of black lava that shapes the surrounding landscape of caves and formations. It would be a simple cubic form with carved voids to allow for specific ways that visitors could relate to the surrounding landscape. The captured distant and distinctive scenographic views include the expansive Dimmuborgir site, the Hverfjall volcano, and the Mývatn Lake.
The center’s programs are organized on three levels, each oriented to frame different elements within the surrounding landscape. As an educational destination with areas for gathering both formally and informally, the center operates as an extension of the park, with a roof terrace that is open and accessible when the main Visitors Center is closed. The journey through the Center’s interior tells the story of the site’s natural history and lore and offers spaces that allow for contemplation of one’s place within the intertwining of the land and sky.
View of Arched Entry
The arched entry portal to the southwest invites visitors to ascend the stair to the upper terrace or enter into the Center. An information desk, store, cafe and patio open toward the panoramic views to the dramatic volcanic landform. The main level overlooks the lower level where exhibits, offices and restrooms are located. Its two-story window spans both levels and frames the monumental view to the lava fields.
The lower level terraced seating allows for informal lectures and viewing at the apex of the lava field ravine. The exhibits include a sweeping curved wall to showcase a narrative history of the geology and myths that make up the mystique of this place.
The ascent to roof level is enhanced by large-scale openings that frame specific site features. An overhead canopy directs the views as well as accommodates an elevator and grab-and-go concession. The upper terrace is designed as a landscape in its own right and offers 360-degree views of the entire scenery. The competition brief specified that the design should include a terrace outside the café. We extended that terrace into an entire level of its own, an outdoor top level that remain open, flexible and accessible to visitors, even when the center itself was closed, providing shelter from the cold and snow.
We drew on many inspirations for our design. American artist Gordon Matta Clark, for one, whose work often involved acts of cutting and carving into existing buildings, creating openings and unexpected views. For Clark, erasure is form, in a way.
Spanish abstract sculptor Eduardo Chillida was fascinated by the void, too. His monumental abstract works reach out like expressive hands while at the same time capturing intimate spaces. Erasure can also be a way to connect things that might not be physically connected. Consider Argentinian architect Jorge Silvetti’s Tower for Leonforte in Italy, which recalls the torso of St. Sebastian punctured with arrows. Strategic cuts at the top level allow visitors to view all the other monuments in town. The tower facilitates an experience between you and something you can’t touch. Charles Moore’s house in New Haven, Connecticut, was another touchstone for our design. When Moore started teaching at Yale in the mid-1960s, he bought a small, two-story colonial house in New Haven and removed all the internal walls as well as the ceilings and floors. He then inserted three towers that contain voids, framing views between the house’s various programs on levels.
Conical Intersect by Gordon Matta Clark, Paris, France 1975
Monumento Alla Tolleranza by Eduardo Chillida; Seville, Spain 1992
Just as the Black Lava Fields were shaped by water that created forms by its absence, so too our structure is about the voids. You can’t get much more site specific than that. Although our entry didn’t win, we love having the opportunity to investigate the uniqueness of a site and create a vision for the building that could be both a gateway to the landscape as well as a bridge to the site’s history—a poetic program that includes but also goes beyond its functional requirements. Developing works on paper is a way we can continue our research and extend the thinking around our larger body of built work.