Sometimes in summer with its sharp contrasts of light, or in 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 with a number of outbuildings for various purposes related to a society of farmers and fishermen. 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 to be 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. About 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 bords, 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 they were kept together by common dimensions, materials and colours.
With growing wealth, these houses were by and by replaced by larger houses with high attics and carved details, still wooden houses, but now with corrugated sheeting to protect the bording. 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.
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 bording, white windows, and, as the distinctive feature, the white bell tower on the green turf roof.
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 wood was very costly and rare, but little by little the snail moved out of its shell, everything was 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.
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 requested some active town planning, resulting in projects that may be called special, not only in the Faroes. 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 of density, shelter and good neighbourhood formation? The answer was to allow everybody to build his or her individual house in a strong stucture built in advance. The ideal was to link together the unity of the past with the variety of the present, inviting the individual builders to be their own architects.
And thus this multicoloured serpent of houses has become an architectural landmark and a tourist attraction for many foreign vistors to the Faroes Islands.