City & Country: A sensible connection

While the landscape in Norway is hardly ugly — with magnificent mountain ranges, staggering peaks, vast plateaus and plunging waterfalls — its beauty is largely defined by its vertical topography.

How does an architect surmount this challenging landscape?

“When faced with a difficult task, pass it to a lazy person and he will figure out the easiest, most efficient way to solve it,” said Borre Skodvin, co-founder of architectural firm Jensen & Skodvin Arkitektkontor in a lecture in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year.

Skodvin and two other Norwegian architects, Snøhetta’s senior architect Ingebjorg Skaare and Oslo-based Jarmund/Vigsnæs AS Architects MNAL partner Håkon Vigsnæs, were here at the invitation of Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia (PAM).

In other words, adapting designs to nature is a simpler, more effective approach to solving architectural dilemmas.

“A relationship between structure and nature will allow us to make a sensible connection between building and landscape,” Skodvin says.

A deeper philosophy underscores this idea. Nature, he says, existed long before man-made structures and will endure long after these structures are reduced to ruin.

To encourage this adaptation, Skodvin suggests drawing up formulas, instead of plans, that can be used on any landscape.

The main difference between the former and the latter is the absence of a specific site. A project is the contextual application of a formula to a site, Skodvin explains, liberating projects and reducing costs and effort in the process.
The Liasanden stop point by Skodvin's firm was based on a formula.
What may sound like a new-fangled and simplistic theory has in fact been applied for centuries in Southeast Asia, Skodvin says, citing padi terraces in the region that are composed of similar steps combined with the unique measurements of each slope.

“[The formula for the terraces] will give you a unique geometry depending on where you apply it,” he says.

This “lazy” approach has been at the forefront of Jensen & Skodvin’s designs, as evidenced by their contribution to the Norwegian government’s national tourist roads project.

One of his team’s first projects, the Liasanden stop point was a precursor to what would eventually become the National Tourist Routes. The routes, mooted by the Norwegian Tourism Board in the early 1990s, are part of the country’s efforts to tap into alternative revenue streams after coming to grips with a post-oil future. Norway was the world’s 11th largest producer of oil up until 2008, but its output has since waned as its reserves deplete.

There are currently six routes — Sognefjellet, Gamle Strynefjellsvegen, Hardanger, Helgelandskysten North, Lofoten and Rondane. The government expects to build 18 stretches winding around Norway’s scenic delights by 2015.

The Liasanden stop point, which is largely made up of poles installed strategically along a 300-metre path designed to mimic a garden path, was the result of a formula used on a computer-generated map of the area’s topography. To create paths, the builders evened out the terrain using pebbles.

The minimal intervention in the natural surroundings allows tourists to interact closely with the area’s flora and fauna.

This approach was embodied by Sverre Fehn, whom Snøhetta’s senior architect Skaare describes as a gentleman and excellent storyteller.

“He said we cannot do architecture without committing violence to nature. It is a strange thing to say for this man who was so gentle to nature,” she says.

He was instrumental in exporting Norwegian architecture abroad, via his Nordic Pavilion in Venice which debuted in the 1962 Venice Biennale.

“The man was obsessed with nature, especially with trees. He wanted this pavilion to have two themes. The first was the trees — he did not want to cut down any trees, he wanted them to grow through the pavilion and exhibition hall, and that all the exhibitioExterior and interior shots of the Svalbard Science Centre in Spitzbergen by Vigsnaes' firmns in the hall should be lighted by natural lighting and only by natural light,” she says.

The pavilion itself was airy yet cocooned, improbably held up by slivers of white concrete pillars, and allowed in plenty of natural light.

Snøhetta’s own project, the Aga Khan award-winning Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria) in Egypt, embodies some of these qualities.

Featuring an Aswan granite wall that is carved with letters from 120 languages, the library is famed for its slanted, sundial-like form which makes it appear to emerge from the sea. Its high, panelled roof allows sunlight to filter into its spacious interior.
Fehn, who died last February, was a mentor to Skaare, Skodvin and Vigsnæs.

Vigsnæs, a partner at the Oslo-based firm, advocates a more relevant approach to designing buildings that blend and function properly in the environment.

Citing his firm’s approach to designing the Svalbard Science Centre in Spitzbergen, he says the challenges presented by the permafrost, frozen ground and winter storms were overcome by putting the centre on stilts. The centre itself, which is long and angular, was designed to counteract snowdrifts and arctic winds. The structure is built using copper and timber — the former grows softer and more flexible with the cold while the latter has great insulating qualities.

He notes that his firm’s designs, like the works of other Norwegian architects, are often defined by large windows to allow generous natural lighting.

Vigsnæs shares a more poignant view of the sanctity of resources and Norway’s all-too-acute awareness of it: “We live in a cold country, and we are always looking for the light.”

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 820, Aug 23-29, 2010.

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