Sometimes during the summer, when you experience sharp contrasts of light, or during the winter, when mountains and slopes are black and white with snow, you may think that Nature herself has given shape to the greatest pieces of architecture in the Faroe Islands.
At this scale of observation, houses and buildings scarcely exist, and you have to turn the binoculars of your mind to see any sign of human constructions in the overwhelming structures of the landscape.
From excavations, we know about the longhouses of the Viking settlers; the houses with a number of outbuildings for various purposes, related to a society of farmers and anglers. They were low houses built of stone and turf under heavy grass roofs, carried by a timber construction of driftwood and tucked into the ground to protect them from a climate with violent changes of wind and rain. Thus, the houses were part of the landscape, just mounds and hummocks, hardly separated from the surrounding fields except for the smoke that came up from the central farmhouse.
This housing pattern developed slowly from isolated farmhouses into villages, and later – when fishing became the main industry – new villages, independent of the farmers and the landowners, were founded. At around the end of the 19th century, a new type of house appeared. The classical fisherman’s house, wood-built and tarred brown or black with white painted windows and boards, but still under a heavy grass roof and built on top of a new housing element; a basement of the local field stones and often whitewashed. The houses had lifted themselves up from the ground and now they stood as buildings in their own right, although common dimensions, materials and colours kept them together.
With growing wealth, these houses gradually replaced by larger houses with high attics and carved details – still wooden houses, but now with corrugated sheeting to protect the boarding. This sheeting needed painting every other year, and suddenly the houses leapt out of the landscape and became individual manifestations of the owner’s special preferences for colours. This individuality has been described as a cultural loss, and the characteristic unity of past times seems to have disintegrated. On the other hand, these houses reflect a heartiness and gaiety which, in the course of time, has become a quality of its own, especially when the sun finally breaks out after a long period of darkness and rain.
Elegant wooden churches
Architecture as special works of art may be rare in the Faroes; still, there are sudden wonderful and amazing buildings to be seen, and the finest of them are, undoubtedly, the remaining wooden churches, built in a brief period of time from about 1830 to 1850. Although modest in size, these churches dominate the villages with their whitewashed stone foundation, black tarred boarding, white windows, and, as the distinctive feature, the white bell tower on the green turf roof.
The interior is a veritable treasure of detailed woodwork in unpainted scrubbed pine. The design is humble, yet elegant in its simplicity. The supporting timbers and joists are exposed, and each detail reveals a distinct profile or bears a special carving, most outspokenly in the choir screen, which is carved into a latticework of different figures: the cross, hearts, bells, ocean waves and the tree of life. Even violins are carved; an instrument very rare in the Faroes of the time, yet so delicately carved that you can almost hear heavenly music stream from the choir down to the sinners sitting on the hard pews in the nave of the church.
The village churches were built by local craftsmen in the old tradition of stone buildings with an inner wooden house, like a snail protected in a rocky shell. In this treeless land called the Faroe Islands, wood was very costly and rare, but little by little, the snail moved out of its shell. Everything changed, but nobody asked about the architects. They belong to a later epoch, the first Faroese architects being educated, mostly in Denmark, in the beginning of the 20th century. The best known are H.C.W. Tórgarð, with buildings like the Catholic School and Church and the Theatre building in Tórshavn, and later J.P. Gregoriussen with, for instance, the Post Office in Klaksvík and the Art Museum in Tórshavn.
Architecture in modern times
The last fifty years have seen a fast growing capital city, and the municipality of Tórshavn now has about 20,000 inhabitants or 40% of the Faroese population. This growth has required some active town planning, resulting in projects that can perhaps be called special – not only in the Faroe Islands. One of them is the long line of terraced houses on top of the hill, Inni á Gøtu, at the entrance to Tórshavn from the North. How could the strong wishes for individual expression be respected in a concept based on density, shelter and good neighbourhood formation? The answer was to allow everybody to build his or her individual house in a strong structure built in advance. The idea was to link together the unity of the past with the variety of the present, inviting the individual builders to be their own architects.
Thus, this multi-coloured serpent of houses has become an architectural landmark and a tourist attraction for many foreign visitors to the Faroes Islands.