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Edda − History & Design

Edda is a new landmark building in Reykjavík and home to the diverse work of the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies as well as the Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Iceland. The building’s design is meant to provide an adaptable setting for a vibrant scientific community, a space for both stimulating communication among students, instructors and scholars as well as quiet academic study.

The Beginnings of Edda

The story of the building begins back in 2001 when Björn Bjarnason, then minister of education, set up a commission to come up with and shape proposals for a building near the National Library that would house institutions working in Icelandic studies. Six years later Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, then minister of education, appointed a selection committee tasked with organizing an open competition for the design of a new facility to house the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies and the Icelandic Department at the University of Iceland in collaboration with the Architects Association of Iceland. While devising the final competition brief, the selection committee drew on a preliminary studies and drafts of the design brief prepared earlier in the year on behalf of the ministry. The conclusion was that it would be most prudent and efficient to design a single building to house both the institute and the Icelandic Department. The chairperson of the selection committee was Ambassador Sigríður Anna Þórðardóttir and the other members were Prof. Vésteinn Ólason, Prof. Guðmundur R. Jónsson, FAÍ architect Hildigunnur Haraldsdóttir and FAÍ architect Jón Ólafur Jónsson. The selection committee finalized their opinion in August 2008, and results were announced on August 21 with Hornsteinar arkitektar ehf. taking first prize.

The building’s design got underway the same year and was completed in 2012, when the decision was made to begin construction. Katrín Jakobsdóttir, then minister of culture and education, broke ground on March 11, 2013. Construction was suspended during the summer of 2013 and was not resumed until 2016 when the design documentation was put to review. A new invitation to tender was announced in 2018. In the summer of 2019 Lilja D. Alfreðsdóttir, then minister of culture and education, signed a contract with Ístak on constructing the building. President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhanneson and Lilja D. Alfreðsdóttir laid the cornerstone of the building on the last day of winter, April 21, 2021, marking the 50th anniversary that the first manuscripts came home to Iceland from Denmark.

The building was dedicated at a formal ceremony on the last day of winter, April 19, 2023.

Edda’s Design

The building’s exterior features oval contours where gentle, sloping shapes dominate the structure free of any corners extending towards the neighboring buildings. At the same time, the building resonates with its surroundings; its design echoes the curved facade of the National Museum across the street and the elegant layout of the Melar neighborhood with its round plazas and avenues.

The building has three floors plus a basement for a total area of over 6000 square meters in addition to underground parking. The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies occupies the northern part of the building while the Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Iceland occupies the southern part.

Manuscripts and other valuable materials are kept in a secure location at the bottom of the building’s central section, over which the library extends up to a vaulted ceiling. The library is at once a tranquil, elegant and invigorating place to work, a powerhouse of new thought centered in a structure that brings together ancient and current cultures with modern scholarship. Within this hub come together the various undertakings of its occupants, exhibition spaces and lecture halls alongside teaching and work spaces as well as green spaces on the building’s top floors, which form a kind of world unto itself.

The building is situated in a shallow reflecting pool outlined in colorful stone. The main access axis is along a bridge that crosses the water’s surface and forms a distinct connection into the area. The walkway which links the university’s Main Building, the University Center and the National Library is incorporated into the structure of Edda. The building is designed with accessibility for all in mind, including level entry points on the first floor as well as internal access points.

The building’s perforated cladding is backlit in addition to lighting from foot lanterns lining the main access axis to and from the building, which further strengthens its connection with its surroundings. The understated illumination is also reflected in the pool, which takes on a distinctive appearance as evening falls.

Inscription on the South Facade


Inscribed on Edda’s south facade are the words alls vér erum einnar tungu meaning “since we are of one tongue”*. It is a passage from the First Grammatical Treatise, written by an unknown Icelander in the mid 12th century with the purpose of formulating an alphabet for Icelanders, who had only recently begun writing Icelandic text in manuscripts. The treatise is preserved in a 14th-century manuscript known as the Codex Wormianus, which is kept at the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen.


This inscription was chosen because the treatise is the oldest and most significant written work on grammar from previous centuries, the author of which is typically referred to as the First Grammian. This figure is a permanent fixture in the world’s overviews of linguistic history as their writing on Icelandic pronunciation and spelling is unique among grammatical works of the time.


Handritasíða. Ein setning er sérstaklega merkt og hún stækkuð.
*Hreinn Benediktsson, The First Grammatical Treatise.

Inscription on the North Facade

Handritasíða. Ein setning er sérstaklega merkt og hún stækkuð.

On Edda’s north facade is the inscription orð mér af orði orðs leitaði or “Word from word sought a word for me”. This passage is taken from a stanza in the Hávamál, which is preserved in a manuscript from the 13th century known as the Codex Regius. It was one of the two manuscripts that were first returned to Iceland from Copenhagen in 1971.

Original:                                         Translation*:
Þá nam eg frævast                        Then I began to be fertile
og fróður vera                                and fruitfully wise
og vaxa og vel hafast,                   and to grow and feel good.
orð mér af orði                               Word from word
orðs leitaði,                                    sought a word for me,
verk mér af verki                            deed from deed
verks leitaði.                                   sought a deed for me.

Here we have a description from the speaker, ostensibly Odin himself, of his development from childhood (“to be fertile” meaning to mature, “to feel good” meaning to thrive), in how he learns new words one after another and new deeds one after another.

Handritasíða. Ein setning er sérstaklega merkt og hún stækkuð.
*Ursula Dronke, The Poetic Edda.