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Architecture Design Process: The Retreat at Blue Lagoon Iceland

Indeed, preserving the bond between man and nature was at the forefront of the design and construction process.

Improvisation is the process of spontaneously discovering, exploring, and utilizing new methods to create something unique. Improvisation has played a critical role in the expansion at Blue Lagoon. The complex that has risen from the Illahraun lava plain—the Retreat—was designed and sited according to the natural formations of the lava, but there was no way of knowing what the lava would reveal when construction began. Therefore, it was vital that the architects and engineers embarked on the project with open minds. The lava field was essentially a blank canvas, consisting primarily of a single flow from the year 1226. The striking aspect of this flow is that its molten source—the crater Eldbörg—exhausted itself as the lava was reaching across a concordant flow from 2000 years ago. The remarkable crossroads of these two flows created the formidable, fragmented plateau on the south shore of the Blue Lagoon. This enchanting expanse of moss-covered lava became the location of the expansion. While the architects had certain assumptions about the color, composition, rigidity, and density of the lava, they were acutely aware that this volcanic canvas was not completely blank. They knew that the confluence of convergent lava flows was bound to hold secrets that could only be revealed when the earth was excavated.

When working within the parameters of this kind of improvisational approach, the will of the earth supersedes the will of the design. “You don’t know what to expect,” says Sigríður Sigþórsdóttir, co-founder of Basalt Architects and the project's lead architect. “You have to be prepared for changing your design and adapting it to nature. You sometimes have to stop and rethink everything.” Depending on the conditions of its volcanic provenance, some lava is brittle—crumbling easily. Other lava is robust and impenetrable. "You cannot know what the lava will reveal of itself until you have entered it," says Sigþórsdóttir. "There was often a sense that any given location was a gamble." In some cases, features mandated by the design were not supported by the type of lava laid bare by the construction. Conversely, some lava was so unique and beautiful that it required that work be stopped so that the architects could devise a strategy for incorporating it into the design. For Sigþórsdóttir and Basalt Architects, lava is not a tool. It is not static. It is an entity forever imprinted with all the eruptive energy that was present at its creation. It is something to be honored and admired. And it takes on new life as its depths are unearthed and its strata exposed, becoming the foundation of an organic process.

The intrinsic sanctity they hold for lava and the Illahraun lava field is evidenced by the fact that prefabricated elements were an integral part of the construction process. This had two key benefits: it reduced the environmental impact at the construction site while enabling the architectonic synthesis of large, smooth surfaces that are uninterrupted by joints. Similarly, when they discovered geologically unique features requiring preservation, they quarried them by hand or with light machinery. It was only when they forged deep into the earth that more traditional—and less delicate—excavation methods were utilized. “And we know the elves did not disapprove," says Sigþórsdóttir, jokingly. "Because nothing bad has happened.”

Indeed, preserving the bond between man and nature was at the forefront of the design and construction process. They were guided by the principle that building and geology should become one—unified by the inspired transit of form, function, and the volcanic earth. This mindset embodies the approach that proliferates through all of the constituent elements—design, lighting, engineering, architecture, and sustainability—that have given life to the Retreat at Blue Lagoon Iceland. Everything converges on the notion of the interconnectedness of man and nature.

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