Contemporary architecture in Norway stays true to its traditions of simplicity and refinement, and uses its mastery of timber to explore increasing sustainability
There is a timeless, sustainable aesthetic to Norwegian architecture and its trademark timber structures that have ensured it is still highly relevant today, as studios seek to put eco-friendly principles at the heart of their practices. But while this traditional approach to architecture still figures largely in the nation's architectural studios, there are plenty of contemporary architectural icons to behold in Oslo, such as Snøhetta's Norwegian National Opera and Ballet – a flat iceberg shape with inclined white lines – and the Statoil (now Equinor) headquarters in Fornebu, for which architects A-lab arranged five 'blocks' spectacularly stacked on top of one another.
Snøhetta continues to push the architectural boundaries with the creation of Under, the first subterranean restaurant in Europe and the world's largest, with seating for 100 guests. Situated in Lindesnes on the southern coast of Norway, it is designed to resemble a rock formation emerging from the sea and rests directly on the seabed five metres below.
Architect & partner at Snøhetta Marlene Fenger Vedal says the brief was to develop something that would also double as a marine biology research centre. "From the
outset, our client was very focused on maintaining a level of excitement when arriving at the seabed, which is why we couldn't expose everything instantly when entering the restaurant. This is why the movement of the customer was essential to how it was designed. The great panorama window at the bottom, which works as binoculars peeking into the surrounding ocean, is even more apparent the further down you move inside the restaurant," she says.
The biggest challenge for this project was how to withstand the forces of the ocean and ensure the building is 100 percent waterproof and fixed to the seabed in a stable, secure way. Installing air-conditioning, the sewage system and other facilities without making these visible to the visitor was also difficult. "One more particular challenge was the lighting as we couldn't use any light sources that would create reflections in the panoramic window," says Vedal. "Yet good lighting is an essential part of a great dining experience, so we had to solve this by 'hiding' the light-bulbs in the ceiling and angling them in the right direction."
The restaurant is designed to withstand heavy waves from all sides: the curve of the building ensures the water pressure will 'slide' over it, without causing damage. The shape is also dictated by the means of entry: visitors are taken from three metres above ground level to five metres below sea level where marine life teems outside the panoramic window. The neutral colour emphasises how its form follows the environment without compromising it with any attention-seeking design, says Vedal.
Snøhetta worked closely with marine biologist Trond Rafoss throughout the entire construction process. "For several months, they performed underwater tests to see how the fish would react to sound, light and feeding," says Vedal. "This was such a great learning experience for us too, as we learnt a great deal about the sea, and the species living there. They were very pleased with the end result and are thrilled to have such a unique venue to study these species in their natural habitat without disturbing them. They've already discovered species they didn't even know could exist this far up north." The research team was also instrumental in developing the surface of the building to optimise it as a substrate for kelp and mussels to settle on, without making it easy for crabs to prey on the mussels.
Other landmark architectural developments of late in Norway include Zaha Hadid and Oslo-based A-lab's development of the Fornebuporten and Fornebu Senter metro stations, which are inspired by glacial landscapes. Geir Haaversen, founding partner and chief executive of A-lab, says it has been inspiring to work with a big international office. Both studios cooperate on the design, with A-lab working more on-site and focusing on the client, the future users and contact with authorities and engineers. "We're also using this project to research how to use VR to communicate and do virtual site visits with smart building information," he adds.
A-lab is also working on Økern Sentrum, a construction project in Oslo that aims to be Europe's most sustainable city development, and Kanalbyen, an urban housing project by the sea in Kristiansand that reflects Norwegians' wish to be in contact with both the city and nature simultaneously. "Making a canal gives all the apartments contact with water so they can have one foot in nature and one in the nearby city of Kristiansand," he says.
Oslo's population has grown to almost 1 million, but urban expansion is curtailed by the protected habitats and natural geographies of Oslofjord to the south and the surrounding mountains and forests. "What makes Oslo unique is its closeness to nature on all sides. With city sprawl we get neither city nor nature but something in between. We aim to let nature be nature, and instead create cities that integrate natural qualities in the urban fabric. As a sustainability strategy, densification with urban qualities is necessary for the future, both in Oslo and elsewhere," Haaversen says.
He adds that unspoilt nature is a large part of national identity. "With sunlight scarce in wintertime, the best Norwegian architects spend a lot of time searching for natural qualities, light and openness that somehow emulate what we love about nature, also in the built environment and dense urban situations. At its best, we believe this approach is future-proof and people-friendly."
Smaller Norwegian architectural firms are also making waves both domestically and internationally. Architect Jon Danielsen Aarhus' first project, Cabin Ustaoset, situated 3,500 metres above sea level between Oslo and Bergen, and clad in pine inside and out, was included in the Wallpaper* architect directory for 2017, raising his profile abroad. He is currently working on another small project, House Son, a diminutive dwelling in a rural area outside Moss, a small coastal town near Oslo, where views to the sea and adaptation to the landscape were of utmost importance.
Aarhus believes there is more attention given also to Norwegian architecture worldwide: "This has a positive effect on how architecture is seen domestically, and more attention is given to it. It makes us better." But he would like to see more social responsibility in architecture. "There should be willingness to invest in good design for the public," he says. "But this is a political issue, where architectural quality is something the public can benefit from. There also needs to be more diversity and will to experiment in housing production – ways of the living, economic models, different forms, materials and so forth."
There is a larger Nordic, modernistic tradition of which Norwegian architects see themselves as a part, he says. "[1997 Pritzker prize winner] Sverre Fehn is central, and I think you can still see clear traces of his work in much of our best-known architecture."
Given his desire to see more diversity and greater experimentation within Norway's architectural sphere, Aarhus would undoubtedly be impressed by London's Waugh Thistleton's proposal for a zero-carbon community village, Trenezia, which aims to revitalise central Bergen. Waugh Thistleton's Kirsten Haggart explains the process: "We worked with an international team to develop the concept of Trenezia, adopting a rigorous approach to establish a viable concept. The team and our client [housing association] BOB BBL had the shared goal of creating a zero-carbon community that was accessible and open to all; that would provide homes for young and old, families and students. She adds that Norway has the resources and the political will to achieve a zero-carbon economy in the next 30 years.
Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, is extending further into the countryside, which has led to the city centre slowly dying. "The municipality wants to breathe new life into the centre but has been restricted by the mountains that surround the city," says Haggart. The lake was heavily polluted but action was recently taken to remove industrial waste. "While Norwegians are sceptical about building on lakes, Store Lundegardsvann [the bay] provided a unique opportunity to provide inner city housing while at the same time adding activity to the lake by creating a new shoreline where theatre, swimming pools and kayak clubs can thrive," she explains.
Crucially the boardwalk, which forms the spine of the project, physically links the old city with the cultural hub emerging around the lake. "Bergen is dark in winter and it rains almost every day of the year. Maximising the amount of daylight and sunlight into the flats was therefore vital for the well-being of residents and to reduce the light and heating load on the building," adds Haggart.
The solar corridors play a fundamental role in achieving this. "By orientating the canals and the roads within the project 30 degrees east and west from due north, sunlight in the morning and the evening can enter deep into the apartments throughout the day," she says. "The two- and three-storey blocks are positioned to the south with the mid-rise blocks positioned to the north in order to minimise overshadowing." The entire superstructure is timber and the substructure is made from at least 50 percent recycled aggregate from local infrastructure projects, she adds.
Norwegian architecture is perhaps known for a sense of simplicity, which often leads to an emphasis on refinement rather than ornamentation
Timber has always played a central role in Norwegian architecture and continues to do so, as demonstrated by the topping-out of Mjøstårnet by Voll Arkitekter this March in Brumunddal, a small town one and a half hours' north of Oslo. Certified the world's tallest timber structure, this 84.5-metre, 18-storey mixed-use building has become something of a game changer in the architectural world, proving that cross-laminated timber is a viable alternative to concrete and steel. Asked to outline the challenges of this project, Øystein Elgsaas, senior partner at Voll, says, "Fire was of course the issue we were most concerned about – but there was no need for this. The fire measures carried out at Mjøstårnet make this one of the safest buildings along Mjøsa. In the event of a fire, wood is very predictable and fire development is slow; the smoke development in a wooden building is moderate and can maintain the carrying capacity and stability of a fire much longer than other materials," he says. He adds that the wood will char and form a protective layer for the timber within, so that the structure will stand in a fully developed fire to provide more escape time for those in the building.
The large columns and trusses impacted on the plan layout. "We had to integrate the columns as part of the architecture itself," says Elgsaas. "In the end, many of the columns, which have a high degree of furniture-level finish, work as just that: furniture. They are beautiful to look at, smell good and give the interior a warm, soothing feel. Most buyers asked specifically to know where the columns and beams were visible, because that's the apartment they wanted to buy."
The completion of Mjøstårnet was a landmark moment for Elgsaas. "It's exciting to see that wood construction has gained a new renaissance and we're proud to be able to help develop wood architecture to new heights. Mjøstårnet is not the blueprint of a tall timber building but a contributor to further sustainable development. The most important aspect of this building is to show it is possible to build large, complex timber buildings, and inspire others to do the same," he says.
Further afield, the petite island of Manshausen off Norway's north-west coast boasts award-winning sea cabins designed by architect Snorre Stinessen, stylish glass and timber structures that seamlessly blend into the natural environment. Due to its remote position – and the fact there are just 16 cabins – it's a popular getaway with Norwegian celebrities. The island is owned by the country's most famous explorer, Børge Ousland, who has made more solo trips to the North Pole than any other person.
The architect was also involved in Manshausen 2.0, an extension to this remote luxury resort. Three new cabins were added to the rocky north end of the island, as well as a sauna located in a small seawater pond. "The sauna is made from left over materials, both from the first building stage and also by re-using older materials found on the island," says Stinessen.
As with the first cabins, the new ones are positioned to provide an immersive view of the landscape but also privacy to guests, with an emphasis on a minimum footprint and disruption of the island's flora and fauna, vulnerable in the Arctic climate. The cabins are anchored to rock formations and placed out above the sea at high tide. The closeness to the sea, with occasional sea spray and high salinity, led to the choice of aluminium sheet cladding for the cabins. "The design seeks to relay both the movement from the rocks out above the sea but also the dramatic landscape," Stinessen adds.
The architect says he was fortunate to earn Ousland's trust to design the resort he wanted to establish and is proud of what they achieved with this relatively small project. "Manshausen continues its work to not only showcase and teach respect for nature but also develop a truly sustainable resort in every way. Today, they grow most of their own produce on the island, use the resources of the sea and interact with local producers, produce almost no waste, are continuously cleaning up close waters and land for plastics and work to become self-sustainable with a mix of new technology and old traditional crafts."
The Norwegian architectural approach continues to serve its inhabitants, says Stinessen. "The traditional architecture of small wooden buildings with a pitched roof is still the predominant way of building houses in Norway, which in many ways suits our climate well. Norwegian architecture is perhaps known for a sense of simplicity, which often leads to an emphasis on refinement rather than ornamentation."