300 square meters, new construction.
Ráðgáta - Iceland Cave Visitor's Center
competition (with Nick Grover).
As one approaches the Grjótagjá cave site, a figure appears on the horizon; the figure seems familiar yet has an uncanny sense of unidentifiability. Some visitors have said they initially saw an old farmstead; some thought it was a lava flare, and other more mythologically-minded visitors imagined the petrifed remnants of a troll.
Rising out of the Mývatn plain, the Visitor’s Center at Grjótagjá is meant to be as mysterious as its surrounds. Part fissure, part flare, part farm, part cave, part lava arch, part enchanted cliff, part torfbæir, the Grjótagjá Visitor Center is all and none of these things simultaneously. Its enigmatic presence is both ominous and reassuring; it is delightfully undecidable.
The Grjótagjá visitor‘s center not only aims to mark the site, provide information, wayfinding and services, but also set a mood: it extends the spirit found across Krafla volcanic system—a spirit drawn from geologic processes and a mythological imaginary. As such, the visitor’s center is meant to intensify the experience of the caves on site, as well as complement the memories or projections of regional visitors that might be thinking of, say, the mysterious beauty of the rock formations of the nearby Dimmuborgir site, while also evoking the trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði, who are said to reside there.
The building is sited so as to separate the parking from the caves, directing visitors to park along the southeastern side of the site. Once parked visitors proceed through the archway formed by the ramp and are immediately presented with the Karlagjá cave entrances, with the visitor center entrance evident on the direct periphery. The long northeast/southwest axis of the building directs visitors to theVogagjá caves by way of Kvennagjá (both are marked by complimentary structures and connected by the path module); meanwhile the ramp itself offers visitors, like souls escaping the volcanoes, the opportunity to rise from the plane, survey the vast landscape, and ultimately come to behold the fault line that marks the meeting of the two continental plates.
The wayfinding provided by the building is reinforced with a human-made landscape of permeable pavers that form the parking lot and pass underneath the arch and gravel walkways that connect the visitor to the outlying companion structures. The overall site design is meant to provide legibility to the landscape and protect the fragile ecology, while still encouraging an exploratory spirit.
Section and Plan
The longitudinal building section rises up and gradually presents the surrounding plane to visitors along their promenade to the top. Upon reaching the terminus of the ramp, visitors are presented with a dramatic vista of the North American and Eurasian plate tectonic divide. The ramp is constructed at 1:12 ratio in order to make the tower accessible to those with mobility challenges (without having to resort to the segregating effects of an elevator).
In specific building terms, the project is deceptively simple. It feels almost traditional yet does not point directly at any one forebear. It is equal parts barn gable, poppet head, and bridge with a cave-like interior that is subtracted out of earthworks, adopted from the turf building history of Iceland, to form a thermal barrier around the visitor center proper. The whole structure is clad in a Norwegian pine rainscreen, treated with a classic pigmented Falu Red pine tar.
The floor is a concrete slab-on-grade, equipped with hydronic tubing, chosen for durability and for its potential to be utilized as a radiant heat source that leverages available geothermal energy. The building is thoroughly insulated with both a layer of external rigid insulation to prevent thermal bridging and a combination of cellulose and spray foam on the interior to limit air infiltration and provide maximal thermal stability throughout the course of the year.
The roof structure, composed of wooden trusses that perch on a wood and concrete (base) tower, shelter the requisite programmatic areas. The program is accommodated via: 1.) a singular collective public zone where visitors have access to refreshments, information, and services; 2.) a private upstairs zone where there is an office and storage. A gender-neutral restroom is provided on the ground floor to serve all who use the site.