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Architecture Vision at The Retreat
"We have the perception that the building is floating."
The Blue Lagoon began life as an unexpected reservoir of geothermal seawater that accumulated in the shadows of the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant on the Reykjanes Peninsula. From the time of the lagoon’s formation in the early 1980s to the time when the decision was made to design and build proper spa facilities, it was essentially a makeshift operation. There was a tent for refreshments and a small bathhouse for changing and showering.
In 1998, Sigríður Sigþórsdóttir – a founding partner of Iceland’s Basalt Architects – was contracted to conceptualize and design new facilities for the Blue Lagoon.
Grímur Sæmundsen, founder and CEO of the Blue Lagoon, gave Sigþórsdóttir the total freedom to locate the lagoon and its facilities wherever she chose.
“Grímur was a pioneer,” says Sigþórsdóttir. “He travelled abroad to learn about foreign spas and to learn what to do and what not to do, to learn from the mistakes of others. He was incredibly enthusiastic.”
The original idea, predating Sigþórsdóttir’s arrival, was to relocate the lagoon to the base of Þorbjörn, the 24,000-year-old mountain that dominates the southern horizon of Svartsengi. The primary motivation for situating the lagoon near Þorbjörn was the fact that the mountain would be a natural barrier from the winds and storms that roar across the Reykjanes Peninsula.
In order to determine the best placement for the lagoon, Sigríður spent many hours wandering through the lava at Svartsengi, analyzing the volcanic terrain. Her research into the composition of the lava field revealed that it was predominantly the result of two different lava flows: a smooth, flat, hard lava dating back 2000 years; and an 800-year-old flow that is characterized by extreme fragmentation and brittleness – dangerous features that inspired its name, “Illahraun”, or evil lava.
The most unique aspect of this volcanic crossroads was the fact that the younger flow, the fragmented lava, stopped abruptly in its tracks, with lava production from its source crater having been suddenly exhausted. This created the conditions that formed its substantial leading edge. As the flow cooled, the lava at the leading edge expanded and thickened dramatically, like the leavening of bread, creating a broad natural boundary – a lava cliff – which, 800 years later, with the dawn of geothermal energy, became the geologic feature that guided the evolution of the Blue Lagoon.
In fact, the concordant forms of the two flows meant that the tranquil blue overflow from the existing lagoon had already begun to form at the current site. In essence, nature had already made the choice as to where to place the lagoon. And Sigþórsdóttir concurred: instead of forging a new site for the lagoon, and in the process overtaking pristine, untouched parts of the lava field, they would preserve, not break, the earth—thus honoring the sanctity of the volcanic frontier at Svartsengi.
Placing the lagoon in the wide-open vista of the lava plateau, versus in the shadows of the mountain, also meant that it would be perfectly positioned for visitors to experience Iceland’s exquisite solar phenomena: the Midnight Sun, the Northern Lights, the delicate arctic glow of winter.
“The light is so dramatic,” says Sigþórsdóttir. “So beautiful. The sun always gives you a different experience. There are always different things going on with the light.”
The site, with its natural sheltering properties created by the lava formations, turned out to be a fortuitous choice, opening up a wealth of possibilities for future development.
In 1999, the relocated lagoon, with beautifully architected spa facilities and a mesmerizing half-kilometer lava corridor leading to the entrance, was opened. The complex embodied the seamless integration of nature and architecture—the synthesis of geology and geometry.
By the turn of the millennium, Sigþórsdóttir and Sæmundssen had already begun to conceptualize further expansions—where and how the complex might grow—concluding that it should take shape along the west bank of the lagoon.
Eight years later, the magnificent lava formation on the lagoon’s western shore was incorporated into Lava Restaurant, continuing the convergence of architecture and nature that was manifest in 1999, and creating a breathtaking addition to the spa facilities.
“It’s a beautiful wall,” says Sigþórsdóttir. “Everybody felt the connection. People started to touch it. So after that, there was this concept to continue with the lava rock as much as possible.”
Such was the power of the wall’s commanding presence that it became the fulcrum of the 2017 expansion—a breathtaking palisade forming the boundary between the past, present, and future.
Proceeding from the wall, the Retreat at Blue Lagoon Iceland—consisting of a spa carved into the volcanic earth, 62 elegant guest suites surrounded by the Blue Lagoon's mineral-rich waters, and a restaurant dedicated to the reinvention of Iceland's culinary heritage—completes the southward movement of the main complex, following the western shore of the lagoon and expanding organically into the historic lava plain.
In totality, this formation conveys the sense that the Retreat is embracing the Blue Lagoon. But this embrace, this horizontal movement, is complemented by vertical movement—the concept of stratification. There is a lagoon layer, a lava layer, and a moss layer. Rising from the shimmering warmth of geothermal seawater, the Retreat moves through the volcanic earth and into the floral terrain of centuries-old moss that stretches as far as the eye can see.
The experience is likewise stratified, allowing us to move from lagoon to lava to moss, with each level creating its own unique possibilities for pleasure and wellbeing.
Surrounded by water in the same way that a moat surrounds a castle, the suites at the Retreat are both within the lava and above the lava, straddling the divide between water, earth, moss, and sky. We have the perception that the building is floating.
Sigurður Thorsteinsson, Chief Creative Officer of Design Group Italia and one of the conceptualists of the expansion, says this: “The function of the water is multiple. In some areas you can actually bathe in it; in other areas it’s actually cold and more decorative; and it also gives this feeling of being an island in the middle of a lava field.”
While the Retreat's shape is drawn by the water, the Retreat itself is oriented toward the sun and the exquisite wonders of the arctic sky. Each suite’s floor-to-ceiling window creates an extraordinary perspective on the surrounding lagoon and the volcanic horizon—a landscape that transforms according to the ever-changing angle and intensity of Iceland’s natural light. It might be said that the light of Iceland is a wonder unto itself, and the Retreat was conceived accordingly.
The suites, ranging in size from 40 sqm to 200 sqm, are essentially one-sided.
“The setup is very simple,” says Thorsteinsson. “We wanted to emphasize the lagoon, the outside. So one-third of each room is a living area by the window, one-third is for the bed, and one-third is the bathing area.”
In totality, the suites create the conditions for timeless comfort in an often extreme environment, giving guests the full spectrum of Blue Lagoon’s marvelous possibilities.
The spa at the Retreat, a subterranean realm that enables a journey into and through the volcanic earth, connects the Retreat and the Blue Lagoon. Moving from the strata of moss and accommodation, we proceed into the spa and ever-deeper through enchanting realms of inspiring design and luxurious heat, emerging, at journey’s end, into the shimmering waters of the Blue Lagoon.
The central idea was to create a spa experience that is both unique from, yet eminently of, the Blue Lagoon.
“You go deeper and deeper,” says Sigþórsdóttir. “With the depth, you get further away from natural light. This makes the experience more private. And then you come out into the water and into the world. In some sense it’s like you are a newborn.”
Likewise, the body of water surrounding the spa and the suites – the Retreat Lagoon – is the shimmering nexus connecting the history of this place with all the stories yet to be written. Indeed, geothermal seawater is the heart and soul of the existence of Blue Lagoon: its past, present, and future. In that sense, the water is timeless—spanning generations, the wellspring of all Blue Lagoon experiences. This sublimely beneficial element circulates throughout every aspect of the expansion, erasing the boundary between hospitality and wellbeing.
Everything is connected
The vision for the expansion blossomed from the natural boundaries created by the intersection of two historic lava flows. The process of bringing the vision to life has been simultaneously organic and meticulously orchestrated. A new dominion of pleasure and wellness has emerged from the west bank of the Blue Lagoon, following the concept set forth in 1998. But everything remains connected by the resource that existed long before the existence of Blue Lagoon: geothermal seawater. And the water’s transformative powers continue to create transformational experiences – experiences that have now moved beyond the confines of the original lagoon and into a new horizon of wonder, fulfilling Grímur Sæmundsen’s dream of a uniquely extraordinary retreat in the heart of an extraordinarily unique environment.
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