Witches‘ memorial, Steilneset.

Witches‘ memorial, Steilneset.

The installation by Louise Bourgeois.

The installation by Louise Bourgeois.

From the long space with one window for each of the 91 victims.

Witches‘ memorial, Steilneset.

The timber structure is pin jointed to take up wind movement.

The long space along the shoreline.

The fjord at Steilneset.

The town of Vardø.

Detail of the glass wall around the fire installation.


The landscape is vast and barren. It has no scale. Water, land and clouds create constantly changing images. Horizontals dominate. The solid grey mass of the sea is icy, whipped to a bright foam by the wind. The colours are pallid. The sparse vegetation – grass, moss, lichen, tiny flowers – cling to the jagged rocks of the coastal landscape. In this landscape, it is hard to imagine that a community killed ninety-one of its members in the name of their Christian God.

There are pictures of a bygone Vardø. They show a lively fishing village with a harbor full of boats. Today there are not many people who can make a living in Vardø. The long wooden rack at the edge of the village, once used to dry fish, now stands empty. You can tell which houses are still inhabited by the light shining in the windows after dark.

The design
At the beginning of our collaborative venture, Louise Bourgeois suggested that I take a look at the location and start working out a design. I went to Vardø early in 2007 and while there came up with the idea of devoting a window to each of the victims that looks out onto the landscape and lights up at night.

There is a light in every window.

The design brings together ninety-one windows in one long room. Inside, a narrow walkway leads from window to window, from view to view, from light to light. The room, as I initially envisioned it, is a long corridor hovering above the ground. It is suspended in wooden scaffolding. The structure stands slightly apart from the settlement on the coast in a place called Steilsneset. This is where the victims were burned at the stake.

Collaboration with Louise Bourgeois
In February 2007, I committed my design to paper. Louise Bourgeois saw my watercolours in New York and soon came back with her idea of an installation of fire that she explained in words accompanied by a small sketch.

It took me a while to realize that her idea was not meant as an alternative to my long room but that it was to be another part of the memorial. She wanted me to design an architectural shell for her installation and she wanted the two self-contained buildings to form a single whole. And so the memorial became a composition consisting of two buildings: a line and a dot.

Tour of the Memorial
The memorial, consisting of two parts, follows a path. From the settlement, the path passes the church on the way to Steinsneset, the site of the executions. There it meets up with the building, goes through the building, goes out the other end to the glass pavilion and from there back to the village. This path can be taken in both directions.

Pavilion for the art installation
Louise Bourgeois’ installation consists of a metal chair with flames shooting up out of it. Seven mighty mirrors multiply the fire. This installation is protected by seventeen glass panels that spiral around it. The panels are blackened. They mirror the landscape, and the flames from inside the building shine through them. The ground plan of the pavilion essentially follows the sketch that Louise Bourgeois sent.

Windows, fabric and light
Ninety-one windows, small vitrines of silvery metal, are mounted on the textile walls, undulating along with the fabric when the wind blows. The vitrines and the textiles move in the wind. They are placed at regular intervals and at six different heights. Simon Mahringer threw a die to determine the height of each window. A naked light bulb with visible filaments is suspended in front of each window. Each bulb has its own electric cable.

On the fabric between the windows are printed the names, dates of birth and death, and an excerpt from the trial documents of the ninety-one people who were killed.

Wooden scaffolding The scaffolding, a construction consisting of sixty frames, attempts to use the simplest means to provide a loadbearing structure for the long textile space. There are no conventional wooden joints which would require working the beam at the point of juncture. Where the beams cross, they are simply pressed together by a single screw. The wooden parts are all as slender as possible. The structure is reduced to what it takes to resist wind and storms.

The textile space The long main room of the memorial is soft; it moves in the wind. It consists of a textile membrane stretched in the scaffolding. The tunnel-shaped pieces of fabric were made in advance. One element comprises three fields. Seventeen elements, joined on the construction site and closed off with two end pieces, form the textile space, its colour light outside and dark inside.

The membrane consists of a Teflon-coated, fiberglass weave, produced especially for this building. Production techniques and the fastening of sails in shipbuilding inspired its construction.

Peter Zumthor


The project has been realised as part of the National Tourist Routes.

This text is taken from an unpublished booklet produced by Zumthor's studio during the completion of the project. Thanks to Simon Mahringer of Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner, and to Knut Wold.