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In a typical traditional building, walls, ceilings, and floors meet to form spaces, and corners define the
limits of the space. Walking through Studio Granda’s Iceland Supreme Court, one cannot clearly define
these typical building components. Some walls do not meet other walls at corners, but rather twist and
turn to become ceilings or floors. Many times, corners do not exist at all, and the limits of the volume are
ambiguous in some rooms. “Walls” often are not planar but volumetric. Because of these reasons, the
design of the building should not be described in terms of “walls”, “floors”, or “ceilings,” but rather simply
as “forms.” The forms’ role as a surface is no longer limited to just enclosure of space, but also plays a
major part in the feeling of movement, sense of volumes and sub-volumes, directionality, lighting, fitting in
with the general surroundings, and, simply, the overlaying poetic aura it creates.
An understanding of their native Iceland has been integral to Studio Granda’s work. Iceland is a country
that experiences long freezing winters, with the entire landscape becoming white with snow during the
winter. Often the sense of place becomes a mirage during this time, as the blinding whiteness hides the
desolate landscape already lacking in natural landmarks (besides mountains) that marks place. Hence,
the use of bright colors have been very important to vernacular Icelandic architecture, to provide an
easier visual contrast with the constant snow backdrop 1. A bird’s eye view of Reykjavik reveals a rainbow
of red, blue, green, and black roofs. Rather than becoming hidden during the snowy winter, the roofs
become even more beautiful, standing out ever more against the plain white ground. Here, with the
presence of these buildings, the winter scenery is no longer perceived as harsh and ugly. It is amazing
how something as simple as the Reykjavik multi-colored roof-scape can transform and justify nature as
something beautiful.
Studio Granda also recognizes the challenge of scale in the Icelandic world. Steve Christer, the husband
of the couple team that make up Studio Granda, says, “there are only two scales in Iceland: the massive
and the tiny.2” Bare massive mountains and volcanoes tower over humans; without trees to provide a
medium between the two scales, one may easily feel overwhelmed. The uninterrupted open spaces of
grassy basins and ice plains cannot provide a sense of locality or security. The different uses of forms in
the Supreme Court create volumes that can be read on many varying scales, as we will see later.
Instead of letting nature dictate the way we look at architecture, Studio Granda strongly believes in letting
architecture redefine the way we look at nature. Their practice statement describes Iceland as an “arctic
volcanic desert” made of sand that is “black, shadowless, and constantly shifting. 3” The Icelandic
existence they recognize is harsh, untamed, and even repressive to human living. There is a beautiful
side of this seemingly dark view of the environment, however, and architecture is the key in bringing
these aspects out, and ultimately reordering the way we see nature and the environment. The design of
the Supreme Court is an excellent example of a single building redefining Icelandic forms as graceful, yet
dynamic, adaptable, and meaningful. They get much inspiration for their forms from the natural
environment of Iceland, abstracting its essence 4. Studio Granda describes the topography, weather, and
general aura as constantly shifting and self-destroying. We can see this idea of constant shifting of forms
integrated with the experience of moving through the building. In the building, the organic corner-less
shapes of the volumetric planar forms that layer on top of each other remind us of the way flowing lava
dries and creates layers and layers of new topography, the way Iceland was formed. Although nature, as
a source for ideas and forms, is important to their architecture, Studio Granda believes that people create
architecture to compensate for what nature cannot provide us: shelter, activity, and a humane and more
permanent sense of place. These, a barren landscape that is constantly shifting cannot provide.
Architecture should move beyond the abstraction of nature and into its own pragmatic form and humane
“Architecture and Landscape in Iceland” by Halldora Arnardottir. From
Callwey, Verlag Georg D. W., ed. “Landscape Architecture in Scandinavia. ” Topos European Landscape Magazine.
Munich: GmbH & Co. with Birkhauser Publishers. 2002.
Slessor, Catherine. “Poetic Pragmatism: Supreme Court Building in Reykjavik, Iceland.” The Architectural
Review. August 1998, v. 204, n. 1218, pp 54-59.
Quoted from practice statement at
Many types of forms exist inside the Icelandic Supreme Court. As mentioned above, there are walls that
bend to become the ceilings, while others merge with the ground. Some forms are simply single surfaces
that bend, and these are the most common types found in the building. In every room, we can find
instances when a simple surface wall bends to become another wall or ceiling. In the courtrooms, the
tables of the judges and jurors are pulled and twisted at different angles. There are also walls that are
single surfaces that split into two parts which both bend in different directions. With their craftsmanship,
the main ramp that connects the ground and first floor is not a separate object placed on the floor of the
lobby. Rather, the ramp is created out of the same concrete floor surface as the lobby. The floor surface
splits and the flap adjacent to the windows is lifted, creating the ramp. It rises to the floor above, which is
also a continuation of the ramp. In this way, we can say that the ground floor and the floor above it really
share the same floor surface, and they are related to each other not only through the function of
circulation but also through physical commonality.
Some forms are as small as the wooden sliding door on the second floor where the handle is not attached
onto the door, but rather created by splitting and bending the a surface portion of the door. The door and
handle are of the same wooden surface. Other forms can be very large and extend beyond the room. On
the ground floor lobby, the volumetric ceiling form extends not only over the reception room, but over onto
the other side of the counter where the office functions are located. Here half of the form bends down to
become the wall while the other half ends at a second ceiling form layering above it. This overlaying
common ceiling establishes a relationship between these two spaces, both being more public than the
functions of the floors above. It also enlarges the perceived size of the reception room by letting the eye
continue its glance beyond what would be the “edges” of the room. The main idea in all of these forms is
continuity. Whether they function as ceiling, floor, or wall, they are all perceived as having a form that
extends beyond the limits of a mere wall or ceiling.
As mentioned above, Studio Granda recognizes a challenge with the scale dichotomy in Iceland,
describing it as an inhumane coexistence between the massive and the tiny. They play with the reading
of scale through forms, more specifically, the continuity and containment properties of forms. In the
building, no two flat surfaces touch each other at a sharp edge. Most likely one surface would either bend
to form another surface, or one surface would not touch the other surface, but continue beyond its edge.
In the former scenario, the lack of corners minimizes the perceived volumetric scale as it acts as a bag
(rather than a boxes) that wraps a volume. At the same time however, having a single surface that bends
into two parts rather than having two separate surfaces meet at a corner, expands the scale, as the
unitary surface seems overwhelming in surface area. In the latter scenario, surfaces enclose a perceived
volume, suggesting a limited scale; yet the continuity of surfaces beyond the room that it encloses do not
create edges or corners, and hence suggest that there are no limits to the room. The use of reflected light
from the limitless walls help in expanding the room’s perceived size.
The forms on the interior of the building are made up of several different types of materials, an equal
balance between rough and polished. The ground floor lobby counter that bends around the corner to
become the back wall is made of strips and strips of wood planks, with vertically aligned graining. The
series of columns just in front of it are made of polished concrete, and they seem to penetrate through the
smooth liquid-like plastered ceiling, penetrating into the first floor. The white plaster ceiling eventually
ends in the front part of the room, and a second ceiling of unpolished concrete continues over its edge to
the end of the space, in front of where the ramp rises. These four materials found in the lobby, wood,
plaster, polished, and unpolished concrete are the main ingredients that make up the other spaces in the
building. Each space may use them differently in accordance to its function.
Although the forms significantly make up the language of the building, the building cannot be described
merely by identifying these varying elements that piece it together, but rather by recognizing their
relationships with each other and what they achieve by this relationship 5. The building’s entire
organization around movement and volume cannot be expressed as strongly as it does without the use of
the organic planar forms. As for movement, a form often implies directionality, as it usually starts off its
Barreneche, Raul A. “Arctic Justice.” Architecture. July 1997, v. 86, n. 7, pp. 108-113.
transformation being one form, twist and turn in a direction that suggests path, and ends in another place
as a new different form. The this transition often catches the eye of those walking through the space, and
provides a physical and visual path . For example, in the second floor hallway, a planar ceiling form on
the east side of the building first appears as a typical ceiling that forms a corner with a perpendicular wall.
But as one walks down the hall toward the west, the ceiling begins to separate from the wall, revealed by
light that shines through along the separated edges, reflecting onto the wall from above. As one continues
walking along the wall’s length, the gap between the ceiling and wall becomes larger and one’s
perception of the wall’s height becomes vague, as it seems to continue beyond the ceiling and through
the roof. By the end of the hallway, on the west side of the building, the ceiling form is no longer a ceiling,
as it is completely disassociated with the wall and even with the role of containment that ceilings have.
Instead, it has become a volumetric form, though flat, and is itself a subject of containment, as a higher
concrete slab ceiling is revealed above it6. A completely new level and expression of path is made
possible by the building’s use of organic forms.
Another important path in the building that employs the use of transforming planar forms to express its
directionality and movement is the ramp, which is the circulation center for the public who enter on the
ground floor. Although the way the ramp diverges and rises from the ground attracts and leads people
through the building, it is not the ramp that is significant, but the wall that responds to the ramp by caving
over it. The wall form plays a major part in dramatizing the movement, collaborating with the ramp’s
natural ascension. At the base of the ramp, the wall to its right seems to stand rather straight. But as one
makes the progress up the ramp, the wall begins to curve downward, leaning more and more towards the
ramp. As one further ascends, the closing wall imposes a growing sense of compression, and suddenly
releases this pressure at the end of the ramp landing with the ending of the sloping wall to its edge7. A
glass wall continues its reach beyond the edge of the sloping wall, and provides a bright wash of light (as
opposed to the slots that allow in limited light) upon arrive at the landing. The apertures on the outer wall
following the ramps are better described as long narrow “slots” rather than “windows.” They are all the
same size and are lined up regularly in a series. This regularity is un-regularized by the transformation of
the entire wall, caving onto the ramp as one moves up it. Each slot is too narrow and long to provide one
with a complete view of the outside from the ramp. Instead, as one walks up the ramp along this moving
wall, the regular series of “slots8” and the natural light that shine through them provides a constant pulse,
like heartbeats. It is by walking the length of the ramp and collectively experiencing the windows passing
by that one gets a complete picture of the outside, and more importantly the sense of progression through
space and time.
Not only do the transforming organic forms guide people through the building, but they also work to string
the separate volumes within the building together. One way to express a direct connection between two
separate volumes is to have these two volumes share a continuous surface. Hence all the volumes would
ultimately depend on each other’s surfaces to exist so the entire building is read as one. Achieving this,
there is a underlying language of logical circulation that leads a person in the building from space to
Both the large and the small courtrooms provide good examples where forms create a sensed subvolume within a larger physical volume. Both of these rooms contain a smooth womb-like form that covers
three walls of the room and the ceiling9. The suggested volume immediately enveloped within this canopy
is reserved the judges’ seats as well as the positions for the other panelists. The rest of the volume
outside this “womb” is the common seating area for the audience. The form creates a theatrical
experience for the room, emphasizing the focus of the activities happening within the womb. Being white
and smooth, the materiality of the womb form is de-emphasized, bringing out the emphasis on the volume
within the form. The bright lighting interacts with the form and shines against the corner-less surfaces
makes the entire space glow, further emphasizing the theatrical focus to the front of the room.
Both Slessor and Barreneche describes windows as “slots”
Sara Morgan described this form by the word, “womb.” Slessor describes it as “belly-like.”
Although the womb form provides the ceiling and walls for the front of the room in both courtrooms, it is
only a form within a larger form, creating a volume within a larger volume. The womb form ends while the
larger encompassing ceilings and walls extend beyond it to complete the room. Light is reflected
between the womb ceiling and the larger extended ceiling above it, showing this separation.
As seen in the second floor hallway walls, the contrast between the feeling of containment and the feeling
of continuity is another aspect the organic forms of the building employs to control the sense of volume
and space. The latticed wooden back wall of the larger courtroom is perceived as continuous, as its
height is separated and extended beyond the ceiling. The concrete ceiling form falls short in touching the
continuous back wall. Again, as in the second floor hallway, light is reflected downward onto this back
wall from above, further emphasizing this planar continuity. Perceptually, it opens up the backside of the
room where the audience sit so they can focus on the much more contained “theatrical” space of the
judges and jurors. Although planar forms (walls, ceilings, or forms) often extend beyond the rooms they
wrap around and contain, it is the two levels of perception (containment and continuity) that makes the
building function both pragmatically and poetically10.
The light well that illuminates the first floor smaller courtroom is an example of the use of penetrating
forms to achieve both poetic and pragmatic goals. Unlike the larger courtroom or the judge’s lounge, or
any of the other important spaces in the building, the smaller courtroom is located deep within the building.
It is on the first (middle) floor, surrounded by other rooms on all four sides without any access to side
windows. Studio Granda brought in natural northern light by bringing a massive concrete light well form
down from the roof, penetrating through the entire second floor, and into the first floor courtroom. Here,
the light well form interacts with the ceiling form of the courtroom, as its weight seems to push down
slightly on the seemingly elastic ceiling form, causing it to bend around the opening of the light well. On
the second floor, this light well structure cuts directly and prominently through the common social space.
Being made of unpolished concrete, it is not obvious that it is a light well. It may not even be perceived as
hollow but solid and weighty because of this materiality. The form acts as a piece of furniture, a sculpture
for the entire room. As it does not directly touch the ceiling form above it, it perceptually penetrates and
pierce through the roof. Functionally, the light well form as seen on the second floor acts as a space
separator between the main functions of the offices and common socializing room, and the more
secondary function of the photocopy room. As the inside surface of the light well provides a surface for
light to reflect and diffuse into the cave-like space of the smaller courtroom, its outer concrete surface on
the second floor also functions as a surface off which light reflects from the penetrated ceiling form above.
Not all forms essential to the building were built, as some are natural, stemming from Studio Granda’s
ideas of transforming harsh Icelandic natural forms into something beautiful. From their practice
statement, Studio Granda describes the new built environment created from architecture as a “a datum
against which everyday judgments are made.” The permanence of architecture is not only “built
testimonies to man’s will to move beyond the limitations of nature,” but also provides a permanent canvas
in which the temporal, ever changing nature can express its self, especially weather and light.
Architecture is the backdrop in which nature can showcase itself. 11
On the exterior of the Icelandic Supreme Court, the prominent waterspout that follows the slope of the
roof and reaches out over the eastern wall to overlook the city of Reykjavik , is one of Studio Granda’s
artwork of nature. As a form, the waterspout marks the peak point to which the second floor hallway
narrows. It also suggests a continuing direction of the sloping roof beyond the edge of the building,
pointing outwards in the direction of the waterspout. What is most significant about this waterspout,
however, is not its form, but rather the form it transforms into during the winter. During the cold season,
snow and water flow down the waterspout and slowly collect at the end of the waterspout, where it forms
a grand stalactite.12 This sculpture of nature is not only a part of the lava roof garden it flows onto, but
also a part of the entire building as a whole, as it expresses the direction of water flow, the slope of the
entire building toward the east.
“pragmatically and poetically.” See Slessor for “Poetic Pragmatism.”
Although the building is created from seemingly free flowing forms, the Supreme Court fits very well in its
formal urban environment of grid streets and conservative buildings. Much of this effect has to do with the
external expression of the building itself, being very different from the expression of the inside. From the
outside, the building’s façade expresses a much more formal and conservative language of containment,
as the building, after all, is designed to contain a single political institution. Despite all the diverse and
organic forms that freely form the inside spaces, the building unifies this interior entanglement by
wrapping a single, solid wall around itself, much like how a single skin cleanly wraps itself around a
complex collection of internal organs in the human body. By containing itself within well-defined walls, the
building becomes a clear, unified, and rather heavy volume (as oppose to the lightweight forms on the
inside) as with all the other buildings around it.
Despite the more formal and simpler language of the building’s facades, the exterior walls do not
completely hide the complex and dynamic world of the inside. On the south-facing façade, the walls are
pushed outward, sliding onto the ground, by the ramp form on the inside. This push of the outside skin by
the inside forms is further emphasized as we can see the ramp form breaking the southeast corner and
penetrating through onto the outside. From here, viewers on the outside get a small glimpse into the
world of the inside. Also by manipulating the form of the outer skin as if it were as soft as a curtain, a new
form is created in conjunction with the ground lawn. The outer wall seems to slide off the building and
continue in the form of the ground, reflecting the continuity of wall and floor forms commonly found inside
the building.
Unlike the inside, the outside is also made of fewer, more basic materials. Most of the building is wrapped
around in pre-patinated copper cladding, rectangular sheets regularly arranged like shingles. The building
rests on a base of unpolished basalt, a volcanic rock native to Iceland. The entrance of the building is a
tower of polished basalt, being more civilized and inviting. Making the outside out of two primary materials
as copper and basalt is another way Studio Granda unifies the diversity of the building. Not only is there a
simplicity in the types of materials and textures present, but there is also a uniformity in presenting the
building’s facades with only two colors. From the outside, the building is blue-green and gray, reflecting
the grassy topography of the immediate surroundings during summer, the blue-green ocean in the
distance, the sky, and the gray mountains peaking in the backdrop of Reykjavik, the natural Icelandic
Throughout the Icelandic Supreme Court building we see forms that bend, twist, turn, and penetrate,
ultimately creating different functional volumes out of seemingly continuous surfaces. These forms can be
planar or volumetric, and may vary in thickness within the same form. Forms interact with each other in
many ways to achieve different perceptions in the way one views the space, and the way one moves
through from volume to volume. As seen in the ground floor lobby ceiling, some surface forms spread out
over other forms gently like the edge of a puddle of water on a surface. Others, like the light well’s
relationship with the second floor ceiling form, confront aggressively by penetrating through each other, or
cutting each other short of touching other surfaces. Studio Granda’s exploration with the language of
interacting organic forms creates a multi-sensory, perceived experience of being in the building, one that
cannot be found in the typical building with walls, ceilings, or floors. Studio Granda’s Icelandic Supreme
Court building challenges our perceptions of the limits of space and inherent movement, while using
forms that respond to needs particular to Iceland, a new modern vernacular.