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“We should go to Iceland.”

That’s what UT student Sydney Bittinger told her classmate Lauren Taylor when their architecture professor assigned their class to design a “place of immersion” in Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik.

The junior architecture majors—Bittinger, from Marietta, Georgia, and Taylor, from Jackson, Tennessee—took Tracy Moir-McClean’s design studio last fall and quickly realized they wanted to see their design site in person. They even paid for the trip out of their own pockets.

Moir-McClean, an associate professor of architecture, selected Reykjavik for her fall design studio because of its climate, culture, and landscape challenges.

“Remote project locations allow students to learn and refine strategies for distance research of site conditions using public databases available on the internet,” she said. “The downside of working with a distant landscape is that field visits are difficult to make—but Sydney and Lauren were determined to visit.”


Bittinger and Taylor had just 48 hours in Reykjavik to understand its culture, local thermal bathing traditions, and the downtown historic district. They met with Moir-McClean several times in the weeks before their departure and did a large amount of research to maximize their two-day itinerary.

After 24 hours of flying and layovers, they walked through Reykjavik’s center city neighborhoods and markets, visiting a church, the local theater, and a park and historic district.

They found time to bathe in some of Iceland’s famous thermal pools, go scuba diving in the Silfra Fissure, where the tectonic plates that lie under Iceland meet, and see where the country’s parliament met centuries ago.

The assignment

Moir-McClean said the opportunity to design projects for unfamiliar landscapes and cultures is an important element of design education.

“This was an extraordinary educational and cultural experience for Lauren and Sydney,” she said. “During their brief visit, they spent every minute fully immersing themselves in studying Reykjavik, meeting local people, and seeking to understand local culture, places, and landscapes.”

The students were responsible for selecting a site along the downtown square and designing a place of immersion, a space that involved water.

“It’s important to go someplace to understand the people you’re designing for,” said Taylor. “Iceland is only now coming into a building boom. One of the most fun parts for me was the research side. Tracy would ask me a question and then I’d come back to her with an answer.”

Lessons learned

Taylor said what she learned both before and during the trip heavily influenced her design for the rest of the semester. She opted to focus on the open space of the square as a place of escape.

“I could have done all of the research in the world but never understood how the Icelandic people embrace their climate,” she said. “I learned that Icelanders love their heritage and protect it fiercely. Being in Reykjavik taught me how to look at a place both through the eyes of research and through the eyes of the people. The strong variety of buildings in the area encouraged me to be bold with my design.”

Bittinger said the experience helped her learn about Iceland’s actual conditions and resources as opposed to what can only be seen on Google Maps. She opted to focus her design on a scuba diving center. The culture of bathing is very important in Iceland, and she wanted to play on the history of geothermal hot springs.

“We interacted with the locals, who gave me a new perspective on patriotism,” she said. “The colors and materials in their architecture reflect the vibrant personalities of their people. Reykjavik caters to all who live there and to all who visit. It is a melting pot of people and styles.”

After their return to Knoxville, Bittinger assembled a booklet of images that captured the mix of culture and architecture in Reykjavik. It showcases a weekend of flea markets, downtown streetscapes, waterfalls, parks, volcanoes, and scuba excursions.

“For me, one of the most valuable things in any profession is to understand where you’re working, and you can’t understand that until you go there,” said Taylor. “It was an incredible opportunity for us, and it was all experienced in 48 hours.”

Taylor and Bittinger will graduate in May 2020.


Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,

Amanda Johnson (865-974-6401,