During my Diploma at The University of Nottingham in 2010, I wrote an article which was published in the RIBA’s ‘Articles from our writers’ annual publication.

The article investigates the thoughts and meanings behind several projects of Architect Sverre Fehn, following a field trip that I organised for my fellow Diploma students.

Past, Place, Presence

”If you run after history you will never reach it – only through manifesting the present can you make history talk.”

This often cited Sverre Fehn quotation summarises the depth and poetry of his built (and unbuilt) projects, which have earned him numerous awards including The Pritzker Architectural Prize. Fehn’s work is inspirational, his poetic words, minimalist sketches, and unconventionally beautiful built projects are widely published. However, as the fourteen students and two staff from The University of Nottingham who recently returned from Norway discovered, it is only through visiting his built projects that you begin to fully grasp his understanding of materials, technology, light and place. According to Glen Murcutt, Fehn was “one of the very greats” because of his ability to produce “an architecture that belongs where it is.”

In experiencing the Norwegian landscape directly, it becomes clear that Fehn has a deep understanding and sensitivity to it that underpins the conceptual framework of his work. Stepping off a bus, at dawn, after a long 8 hour journey, the surrounding mountainous landscape of Fjaerland provides a dramatic backdrop for the Glacier Museum. Like all of Fehn’s work, the museum tells a story, this time of a rock, rolled down from the top of the mountain and embedding itself into the earth below. The sharp geometries of the rock reflect the memory of a glacier, which formed the area some 3 million years ago. On this crisp spring morning, the museum responds animatedly to the dazzling white of the snowy landscape; even within the confines of the café, you are in the midst of a glacier. Fehn is the storyteller of an art form that is in many ways beyond drawings, he creates a deeper narrative through his interaction with the place. His use of materials and technique show his understanding of place, and in the glacier museum particularly, he has used a unique method of exposing concrete in a highly erosive environment. Similarly, in the Hedmark museum, the existing fabric has been neither used nor protected but treated as a naturally deteriorating existing fabric.

Fehn is a craftsman, meticulous in his detailing and in the Hedmark museum, Hamar the landscape is enhanced by the existing fabric of the architecture of the past. Once a medieval fortress, later a barn, Fehn uses a modern intervention to navigate a story through the site’s history. A courtyard presents the observer with various ruins and a ramp, which seamlessly glides into a renovated barn structure through a frameless glass opening. Ramps lead the observer through a series of exhibitions where lighting and partitions create an intense atmosphere and where memories almost seem to utter in the silence of the spaces. The effect of the wood shuttering in the concrete paraphrases the medieval stone structure, which welcomes the intervention as if a new life. Throughout his planning, Fehn is careful not to intrude on the past and allows the ruins to breathe under the elevated ramps whilst inhabiting every exhibition piece as if they too are telling a story.

Skadalen School in Oslo whose construction in 1971 followed immediately that of the Hedmark Museum is in contrast set in the semi-urban context of north-west Oslo and the village-like organisation of the school on the site informs and generates the design. The site in itself raises several issues of privacy where visual connections are particularly important for hearing impaired children for whom the school is designed. Such concerns are handled seamlessly through a careful response to landscape and topography that creates interesting spaces in which Fehn has successfully integrated public and private areas. The children’s dormitories and classrooms remain private and strategically connect with outdoor play areas via small windows designed specifically around children.

Set in the urban context of central Oslo, The Gyldendal publishing house uses Fehn’s greatest ideal of manifesting the present within a restoration project. The grand hall of the publishing house creates an open atmosphere for public events and acts as a light well for the surplus 4 floors which circulate the large central gallery, roof-lit by eighteen pyramidal lanterns. The materials again reflect the modern intervention of the project where concrete and timber are juxtaposed, accentuating the tactile qualities of each material. Comparably, the Museum of Architecture uses the same expression of materials and planning to create an introspective situation with the existing building.

Sverre Fehn’s deep understanding of context and construction seems to furnish him with the ability to nurture and develop the genius-loci of place in all of his built projects. He demonstrates, that even in this industrial world we live in, the architect can undoubtedly still be, a Craftsman.

Author: Lucia Milone