In this essay, Thomas McQuillan discusses the two new pavilions at the Hedmark Museum, designed by Sverre Fehn and completed in 2005. McQuillan describes Fehn’s approach in the barn as “gentlemanly», but searches in vain for this sensibility in the new structures. –A place that retains fragments or traces of the past can be empowering, says McQuillan, as it lends a sense of gravity and purpose to life. Place stores time: A well-formed place embodies this extended experience of time and allows us to both connect with our human past and lay plans for changing it. Fehn’s original transformation of the mediaeval barn into a museum, completed several decades ago, demonstrates this with unique clarity. Although they bear many of the other hallmarks of Fehn’s architecture, this clarity, the resonance with past stories and physical traces, seems to be lacking in the new pavilions.
I love Sverre Fehn’s Storhamarlåven project. It’s one of the most compelling pieces of architecture that I know anywhere, let alone in Norway. The combination of elements there is sublime, somehow both lithe and crude at the same time. The project has always seemed complete. That’s why it is interesting to see the two new pavilions that have been built there, some of the last products of Fehn’s work. The 70’s project created a full and poetic place, a clear example of the ability of architecture to surpass rooms and functions by enclosing a whole set of meanings and experiences. Revisiting this place through the design of new buildings would seem to be quite challenging indeed, even for its original maker. But how would that subtle place be changed by the addition of new construction?
Given a defined architectural space, there are many ways to understand the human meaning of that place, both biological and intellectual factors that shape that way that humans inhabit it, speak about it, gather in it. For some, a place brings together and embodies an identity of those that live in it, giving form to the use of the natural landscape and the architecture that shelters them from it. For others, place resonates strongly with human evolutionary heritage and the tactics of prospect and refuge that allow the human predator to survive and to dominate. Place, too, can be seen as the accrual of cultural practices and social norms, as if a theater in which the artificiality of human life can be played out. Finally, a place can be a memorial, separated out from everyday life and curated to highlight all of the factors above.
All of these features are seemingly essential, ideas and arguments whose validity is based on deep-seated values and evolutionary constraints, and they appear self-evidently true to those who have studied them. The concept of place is central to the human mind. And yet despite the overwhelming power of these concepts of place in human culture, it has become increasingly clear that we no longer master place in this way. Oddly, we no longer seem to be able to construct the kinds of places that we feel comfortable in. Place, in the architectural sense, is becoming a rarity, something to be visited as a tourist, or sought out like an unusual experience. And the theorists tell us that we have become placeless, that somewhere along the line we simply lost place and aren’t able to rediscover it.
But upon reflection, what’s really been lost is our ability to creatively use place to accumulate time. Traditionally speaking, place has been the stable background against which the volatility of life has been expressed, the frame of reference in which individual lives and social groups have acted. The beauty of place seen from this perspective is that the activity that unfolds within it also changes it, however subtly, constantly creating new features and leaving traces. In this way, place becomes a record of life that extends beyond the limited span of time that any individual possesses and presents to its inhabitants a deeper, richer and more varied dimension of time that stretches into the past and foreshadows the future.
In other words, the promise of architecture and urbanism, if if seen with a certain generosity, offers us a connection in both feeling and thought to an enlarged spectrum of time. Place allows us to feel more of it. In one direction, there are the layers of historical time, different but still somehow familiar, full of all the power and certainty that history can provide. A place that retains fragments or traces of the past can be empowering as it lends a sense of gravity and purpose to life. In the other direction is the unknown of the future, not disturbing in its uncertainty but reassuring in it structure and order. All activity is in the present, but all activity expects something in the future. A place which encourages everyday life in the present can free us up to construct dreams and future plans. A well-formed place embodies this extended experience of time allows us to both connect with our human past and lay plans for changing it.
The ability to create and preserve these kind of places depends on the capacity to see and understand the complexity that they present. If, as we have been told, we have lost this ability, is it because we no longer need it or that we no longer care? Perhaps when we talk about something lost, it is only because we can not yet really see what we have gained instead.
So place stores time. And architecture (especially that of the museum) articulates this time in relation to the present moment.
Storhamarlåven illustrates this exceptionally. Fehn liked to say that “If you chase after the past, you will never catch up with it. Only by manifesting the present can you make the past speak.” The existing buildings at Domkirkeodden that formed the basis for Fehn’s renovation were an amalgam of various structures pieced together over the passage of hundreds of years. Buildings were first built in wood for the Bishop of Hamar in the 12th century. The defensive walls that are its earliest visible parts appear to have been built in the 13th century, and structures of various sorts were constructed in the shadow of these walls over the next several hundred years. After its transference to the crown at reformation the site was sold and the ruins rebuilt in the 18th century as agricultural buildings. These remains of these are what form the basis of the museum at it appears today.
Thus the existing site is overlaid with a number of programs and structures whose relation to each other is more often pragmatic than symbolic. The form of the architecture itself over time at this site is complicated. Structures are reused or partially reused, while other parts are left to decay. Programs change: from a defensive fort and stables to farm buildings and finally a museum. While the stones remain, the image of architecture is constantly shifting. Fehn’s lovely intuition in this context is to recognize life and death as the symbolic thread that runs through the site in time, and to stage the story of these lost lives within the new space. As he remarked, “A museum is the dance of death things in which the artifact and its relation to human movement is what is important— as opposed to architecture in which the human plays the primary part and the artifact is secondary.” And the corollary to this is that it is not the building itself that is of primary importance; it is the understanding that is created in the visitor about this great heap of lost life and the life that he is now living among it. The museum expands the sense of time in the visitor, by drawing attention away from the frame of the architecture and onto the physical artifacts that bear witness to the passage of time.
The astounding aspect of Fehn’s 70’s project at the Storhamarlåven was its combination of sensitivity and audacity. The basic shape of the 18th century ‘barn’ was re-established; the roof completed and the facade closed by simple planes of glass. The volume itself remains resolved and quiet. In this way, the insertion of the concrete ramp into the space gains a stronger dynamic. The transformation does not occur to the existing building: the architectural innovation appears as a new point of view on the past, radically distinct but respectful of the old stones. The shape of the ramp is a tracing of the old fort wall, repositioned to lead from the main entry to the suspended level of the exhibition passage. A subtle game of copying and inventing occurs in the relation between the site and the intervention.
As such the project is extraordinarily graceful. It is bluntly original and completely transformative of the space of the barn, but exquisitely deferential to what is there. The work as a whole is gentlemanly. The ruins and digs are enframed and showcased, but the architectural mechanics of this process are restrained, fading into the background. Like a black-clad bunraku puppeteer, who despite his clothes is clearly visible but disappears through the sensitivity of his art that appears in the doll, Fehn’s original intervention at the Storhamarlåven brings the artifacts it displays to life.
Thirty years later, Fehn is at work again at Hamar. Two wooden sheds that have long sheltered more delicate ruins are to be replaced. In the intervening years, a glass tent has been erected over the church ruins to the west, by someone else. The place of the museum as a whole has become more layered with intention, more complex in its configuration. There is quite simply a lot more going on these days.
And these two new pavilions manifest their time. The shelter to the left is an accordion-like structure over the remains of the Hjørnetårn. Superficially it might be said to re-enact the space of Fehn’s Venezia pavilion, creating a weave of structure and light that provides a paradoxical combination of weight and weightlessness. But there is little of Venezia’s subtlety here in these heavy beams and conspicuous galvanized hardware. There is a certain beauty to the rippling space within and the odd angle that makes it appear as though it is sinking. But the finicky detailing in the curved cut of the glass and heavy foundation that is pushed up against the neighboring building has little of the gentlemanly grace that the 70’s project radiated. Of the fact that a tower one stood here there is no trace.
Nearby is the shelter over the Borgstua, whose arching form recalls a lightweight tent but whose materiality is ponderous. Beneath, the remains of the 13th century vaults are visible. Here, the concrete ramp that leads though the barn proper is reused, creating a passage from the yard to the basement of the Storhamar gård building. Though the configuration is similar to the main building in the insertion of a ramp into an existing ruin, the space in this pavilion feels collapsed, pressing hard upon the rooms below while remaining an odd bump in the exterior space.
Both new pavilions approach the ruins similarly. In contrast to the 70’s project which restored the space of the ruins and provided a new path through this space, the new works step away from the existing walls and create an autonomous container around them. Both are ostensibly deferential, but isolate the ruins rather than complete them. Both occupy the foreground, and relegate the past to the background. Thus they reverse the dynamic that the 70’s project so beautifully exemplified.
The new pavilions bear the unmistakable features of Fehn’s later work, in their discussion of structure and light, shape and material. And the presence and scale of the body is still palpably present. But spirit of these new buildings is very different from the original project. Where the first project opened a window onto the “dance of the dead things”, these new works hold up a mirror to themselves.
Things change. Time builds up. Place remains.