Halvor Weider Ellefsen
This year’s architectural triennial in Oslo was executed under the heading ”Behind the green door” and focused on sustainability in architecture. The Oslo School of Architecture’s contribution was to articulate an exhibition that addressed Norwegian architectural culture and its relation to the current sustainability discussion. The key to approach sustainability was to scrutinize the role and relevance of nature and the natural in relation to the architectural discipline and its practice forms within the framework of Norwegian architecture tradition.
Possibility of tradition
An early advocate for environmental awareness and ecological thinking in Norwegian architecture was Knut Knutsen, that through his essay “Mennesket i Sentrum”, published in architectural magazine “Byggekunst” in 1961, provided a humanist, ecological manifesto for a modest and restrained architecture in a world of limited resources, contrary to the imaginaries of heroic utopia projected by his Norwegian colleagues and by the international architecture culture of the 1960s. The connotations from Knutsen’s professional approach to context to current sustainability debates are obvious. Through the 50s and 60s, forms of environmental awareness manifested themselves both through the built environment and through architectural theory. Practicing architects like Wenche Selmer and Eliassen & Lambert-Nielsen evolved the legacy of Knutsen, stressing the importance of context and material use, while theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz addressed the issues of “place”, monumentality and tradition for over a decade as the editor of “Byggekunst”. Common to the above mentioned is that their environmental awareness was a disciplinary instrument as much as a political statement: What we today call “Sustainability” was an integrated aspect of architectural production, as well as a tool to articulate regional specificity and tradition in an increasingly globalized modernity.
As environmentalism became increasingly pertinent in a more politicized discipline in the late 60s, forms of environmental awareness continued to define Nordic architecture. In Norway, Sverre Fehn came to represent a generation of architects thought to be internationally orientated but locally rooted. But also more commercially orientated offices would help establish the idea of a specific and “Nordic” approach to architectural practice forms. Among these, Nils Torp’s Scandinavian office model proved to be among the most influential. From the mid 80s however, and parallel to the evolution of a technological, ecological architecture, a new generation of architects emerged that revisited and re-conceptualized the Norwegian architectural cannon. Their work represented a rejuvenated approach to nature and landscape, accentuating specific discussions, approaches and techniques within the discipline that would establish a new agenda for Norwegian architecture throughout the 1990s. An early example is Jensen & Skodvin Architects’ “Liasanden Tourist Road that displayed a conceptual approach to the landscape that was simultaneously grand and underplayed. Arne Henriksen’s work for Norwegian railroad company NSB explored wood-based construction techniques within new conceptual frameworks for execution. Finally, Askim & Lantto’s “Fetsund Lenser” can maybe be mentioned as one of many projects that illustrated an approach to context where landscape became integrated and utilized as a tool to strengthen and legitimize the building itself. The issues of magazine Byggekunst from this era witness of a new and vitalized mode of architectural production in Norway.
The exhibition CUSTOM MADE – NATURALIZING TRADITION refers to the interplay between convention and customization: Custom relates as much to the idea of conventional practice as to the idea of the tailored and unique. The exhibition is about the systematic exploration of tradition: both how the production of tradition unfolds itself and also how the tradition of production is being perpetuated. This dialectic has been translated into two manifestations: the collage and the ready-made. The collage of 55 illustrations and photos shows architecture as built within a school of thought: it illustrates the tradition of production by referring to the physical building environment. Its narrative is structured around the meaning of nature: it unfolds trajectories of nature references, ideals and ideas within the Norwegian architecture yet without having a linear narrative. The collage draws upon the stretch from Knut Knutsen’s emerging voice in the 1950s, to the current Norwegian cannon flanked by the contemporary debates on sustainability. The ready-made is an embodiment of the total Norwegian architectural discourse from 1945 to the present day. It exposes the production of tradition by referring to how architecture is understood, discussed and legitimized. This 165,228 page long collection contains 2126 books, catalogues, pamphlets, magazines and manuals classified under the DDC code 72 subset “Norwegian language”. It projects two interdependent perspectives: it exposes the increasing collection of written knowledge within the field of architecture simultaneously as it shows the expansion of themes within the architectural discourse.
Unfolding the collage – three themes of nature
The utilization, interpretation and understanding of nature as concept within Norwegian architectural production claim an almost mythical status among the country’s practicing architects. As approach however, it can be “decrypted” in to three main themes: Nature as found, nature instrumentalized and nature imagined.
The first theme, “nature as found”, deals with nature as a physical constraint directly informing architectural production, represented most evidently by how architects approach topography and climate: By means of simple tools and techniques, nature is seen as a physicality to be accepted and even accentuated. This exposes a will for contextual adaptation rooted in frugality both in terms of prudence but also as ideological approach to architecture. Exponents of such attitudes are projects by Norwegian icon Wenche Selmer, but also contemporaries like Lund Hagem Arkitekter, whose approach to the plot in projects Villa Furulund has a footprint based on a mapping of the tree roots found on the plot.
The second theme, “nature instrumentalized”, aims to describe projects where nature is utilized to validate, legitimize or stage architecture. Here, nature becomes the silver screen on which architectural illusions are projected as autonomous buildings strengthened by the rhetoric and narrative that landscapes can provide. An evident example is Lisbeth Funck and Thomas McQuillan’s “Erve Summerhouse”; simple and small in its tree-clad articulated container-shape, but voluminous in its scope through localization and orientation. Other prominent projects in this category is Jensen & Skodvin Architects’ Mortensrud kirke, whose integration of bedrock as a literal altar within a religious building accentuates the transition from Selmer’s perceived authentic humbleness to an architectural scenography articulated in Norwegian glacier-polished stone.
The third theme “Nature Imagined” projects nature as a conceptual platform from which architectural imaginaries emerge, though concepts, fantasies or narratives. These can be either digital or analogue, but share a common denominator in the exploration and interpretation of nature beyond the physical and spatial frameworks of the discipline. Here, it is worth mentioning Atelier Oslo’s “Transcribed Nature”, where a piece of landscape is pixelated, regenerated and explored as architectural space through digital tools of projection. The most sophisticated example of built architecture, however, is Carl Viggo Hølmebakk’s “Summerhouse Nipe”, where the project’s terrain survey becomes embedded in the buildings representations, displaying an amplified topography though the registration of 5 cm highline cote far beyond the buildings physical and juridical boundary. This does not only witness a fixation of the importance of landscape adaption, but also the will to combine landscape narratives with the physical projections of architecture.
The works of the above mentioned and their peers are frequently tied to a scale and scope of architecture diverging from the format of complex and voluminous building structures. Still, many of the offices mentioned in exhibition also work with large-scale buildings conceived within strict economic and political constraints. The urban areas in the Norwegian cities have undergone significant transformation last 25 years – only waterfront in Oslo’s Bjørvika harbor is expected to develop around 1 million square meters of built space by its completion in year 2020. Is it possible to spot the echoes of nature awareness in current urban developments?
We believe so. The revitalization of the Akerselva, a small river that runs through central Oslo, is defined as an environment park meant to revitalize parts of the city as a new urban space with a diverse set of cultural, commercial and educational institutions connected to it. The plan blurs the relationship between urban fabric and landscape, providing the city with an ecologically based urban environment.
When it comes to the “Fjordbyen” development across the Oslo harbor front, the discussion is more complex. On one level, the strategy is perceived from the fjord landscape and aims at utilizing the already vibrant use of the waterscape and its islands. Oslo’s slogan “the blue, the green and the city between” witnesses of both a branding strategy and identity tied to the town`s surrounding landscape. The importance of sightlines and ocean views are both based on strategies for real estate development and ideas for preservation of urban quality. All in all, these projects balance between being green and merely being “greening”.
Finally, one may question to which degree the Norwegian architecture tradition is relevant in relation to the overall architecture culture of today. Many of the presented projects may be seen as exotic and self-referential. The reproduced texts, publications and books may be too locally based. Rather, our aim has been to use Norwegian architecture tradition as a case capable of deciphering the dynamic of architecture culture: how proliferation of ideas happen, how certain sensitivities and attitudes emerge and eclipse, and how ideas become institutionalized. Custom Made is as much about one particular tradition as about architecture culture in general, its imaginaries, constraints and its forms of expression.