The contending aspects of Hamsun’s life and work are paralleled by Steven Holl´s design for the Knut Hamsun Centre. Peter MacKeith travelled to Hamarøy.

I. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway, on December 20, 2009, dawns clear, still, sharply cold and thickly snow-layered; at this latitude only a nimbus of light silhouettes the mountains surrounding the Presteid fjord. The morning lightens by degrees, to a golden-hued pale-blue illumination, reflecting off of the white landscape – this veil of light will hover delicately throughout the mid-day, to descend rapidly into a purpled twilight by early afternoon. East of the village, the houses and shops give way to farm fields and copses of bare-limbed trees; the road crests, traverses a slope, and then swales down to a salmon fishing camp and the ice-crusted Presteidstraumen river rapids, flowing through the mid-winter ice. A white concrete church and bell tower lies upslope, amidst the white stones of the community cemetery. Downhill, to the south, the mid-morning sky backlights a dark-stained, canted, 23-meter high tower, punctuated by irregular apertures, and wound by a copper-clad segmented stair. The tower stands stolidly, centering the still landscape. In the distance, the rapids ripple, and a dog barks, and barks, and barks. The Knut Hamsun Center, designed by Steven Holl, and greeted with great festivity in August by Princess Mette-Marit and thousands of celebrants, is closed at the winter solstice – to all but the most intrepid pilgrim.

Sketch of the site at Hamarøy by Steven Holl.

“I read Robert Bly’s translation of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger on the airplane travelling to Norway,” Steven Holl recalls of his 1994 journey to confirm the commission for the Knut Hamsun Center, “and underlined passage after was evocative, provocative, surreal.” The book – and its companions in Hamsun’s early triad of significant works, Pan and Mysteries - was also emphatically inspirational in specific architectural terms, and the Hamsun Center commission a near perfect match for Holl’s passions, ambitions and talents as an architect. Indeed, so powerfully allusive are the intentions and experiences of Holl’s designs for the Hamsun Center, so closely do they adhere to the delirious, disoriented, and specifically imagined perceptions of Hamsun’s characters, it might well be said (to paraphrase Voltaire), that if Knut Hamsun did not exist, it would have been necessary for Steven Holl to invent him.

"If Knut Hamsun did not exist, it would have been necessary for Steven Holl to invent him."

Knut Hamsun.

The cover of the first edition of _Hunger_ from 1890. Photo: NasjonalbiblioteketPage 19 of _Hunger_, with the quote above.

Of course, Knut Hamsun’s life and work are real, perhaps all too real, in both the literary history and the political history of Norwegian culture. Honored nationally and internationally for his vital role in the transformation of modern literature in the early decades of the 20th century, Hamsun’s advocacy and recognition of Adolf Hitler and Hitler’s Nazi ideology amidst the collapse and recovery of Norwegian independence during World War II made him a pariah in the stunned eyes of the Norwegian nation. Over the course of the last fifty years, since his death in 1952, the seeming paradox of Hamsun’s intellectual and artistic life – some would say the damning betrayal of essential values at a critical cultural juncture – has not led to an easy, gentle passage to cultural recognition in the more permanent, tangible terms of an architecturally realized museum, library, or monument. Even as the last decades have seen numerous Norwegian cultural heroes (Petter Dass, or Kjell Aukrust, for instance) accorded honorific reification by Norway’s leading architects, Hamsun’s legacy resisted such recognition. Hamsun even envisioned such difficulty, predicting that, “in the future, young people should know that I am not the moral conscience of Norway.” In a conventional post-modernist irony, until the August, 2009, opening of the Hamsun Center in Presteid, Knut Hamsun’s presence in Norwegian (architectural) culture could be mainly understood by its absence.

This essay cannot presume to know, describe or address fully the complexity of Norwegian cultural response to the contending aspects of Hamsun’s life and work; but more importantly, and responsibly, neither did Steven Holl – despite his own deeply felt Norwegian heritage – attempt to address or represent those political tensions in architectural terms. For Holl, Hamsun’s place in the national cultural pantheon, his significance in the larger world of artistic accomplishments, rests on the depth and vigor of the author’s imagination, on the dexterity and virtuosity of his writing. For the architect, the responsibility of the commission in any political terms was to achieve and promote a reconciliation of the historical figure with the overarching literary legacy. Aware of the similar dichotomies characterizing many modernist cultural figures – Morandi, Pound, Celine, Heidegger, de Man all sympathetic or complicit with fascism - Holl is both forceful and encouraging in the potentials of the architecture: “if the building is understood in one way as Hamsun’s character in Hunger perceived himself – as an individual “battleground of invisible forces,” as (in Holl’s words) illuminating certain dark corners of Hamsun’s life - it is also just as much a reconciliation of these contending cultural perceptions and tensions over Hamsun into a grounded, rooted form …in these constructed ways, we must come to terms with such history.”

Sketches, Steven Holl.

II. Up a sloped entry ramp, and the silver-handled doors give way to an immediately vertical interior, its white walls washed by light entering from multiple apertures. Ahead, through the thickness of the building, lies a window wall and through it the distant shoreline of the fjord and the more distant mountains. The light gleams off of the brass-clad elevator shaft, flickers across glass panels, inlaid brass discs at the edges of the stair treads. A run of stairs leads upward to further levels; the view ascends into a dizzying array of stairs, ramps, balconies, overlooks.

Politics responsibly set aside, for Holl, Hamsun’s literary explorations of life’s “mysterious paradoxes” are paralleled by the architect’s own tumultuous 15 year odyssey through the commission since its award in 1994, its completion of substantial construction in summer, 2009, and the building’s subsequent regal opening reception upon the author’s 150th birthday. The direct award of the commission, the local architects who attempted to possess the project as their own, the shifts in siting (a good thing, if unplanned), the vagaries of funding, the fierce (and often absurdly exaggerated) criticism of the design (STOPP STEVEN HOLL! screamed the headlines of the October 19, 1996 Nordlandsposten) , the addition of a 230 seat community auditorium to the program (a good thing, if unplanned), the resumption of construction, the accelerated fourteen month, three labor shifts-a-day construction schedule (an amazing thing, witness the high quality of construction), the arrival of the princess – all could be seen as elements in an architect’s absurdist drama. Against this backdrop, Holl’s arrival to the Center’s summer opening in a loud yellow suit (much as Hamsun’s Nagel, the protagonist of Mysteries, arrives in the novel’s opening pages to a small, unnamed Norwegian seacoast town) possessed its own surreal, representational logic.

In fact, the Hamsun Center, by nomenclature and architectural intention, presents itself in literary, narrative, representational terms – albeit highly personalized ones - and in so doing, compels evaluation both of the architect’s communicative intentions and the architecture’s ultimate experience. Indeed, the representational strategy, the analogical tactics, are laid out openly, unabashedly, to be viewed, puzzled over, deciphered (or not), and recognized for their referents; many of these intentions and ambitions, in fact are clearly labeled in Holl’s recognizable water-color concept sketches.

From those sketches, and from the constructed “body” of the building, it is clear that the architect’s bespoke-suited identification with Hamsun’s literary protagonist was simply the ultimate embodiment of the literature’s characters, details and sensibilities, found otherwise animating the design of the Hamsun Center itself. At the largest scale, the tower type appears repeatedly throughout Hamsun’s work, white and circular in some moments, black and octagonal in others. The declension of literary references telescopes to entrances, apertures, and details, transforming from written image to architectonic element. Holl’s underlined passage in Hunger already provides two constructed representations apparent upon approach to the Center: the correlative of “the dog collar of Mexican silver” can be found in the paired half circles of the Center’s main door handles, that of “the girl with her sleeves rolled up…polishing the window panes,” given correspondence in the Center’s first floor balcony sheathed in yellow glass. And, too, as Holl has also described elsewhere, during the design phase of the Center, he took to carrying an empty violin case – again in homage to the behavior of Mysteries’ Nagel – especially in his journeys between the Kiasma commission in Helsinki and visits to Norway; the Center’s second floor sheltered balcony, lined in fragrant cedar, is referred to as “the violin case,” and has been designed to accentuate sonic qualities.

Sketches, Steven Holl.Sketches, Steven Holl.

But to view the Hamsun Center simply as an exercise in architectural narrative – a skillful collage of literal transformations of selected Hamsun moments – or as a anthropomorphic or anatomical analogy – a gesturing “body” with a vertical elevator “spine” and a bamboo fringed “hairline” - would be to truly miss the Norwegian forest for the Norwegian trees. Holl’s architecture does have a long history of such narrative or analogical emphasis, both in fundamental conception and in the finer elements of secondary constructions and detailing; such an approach has informed the domestic scale of his work (the Stretto House, the House at Martha’s Vinyard) as well as the civic scale (the Pinault Foundation project, or the philosophical groundings of Kiasma in Helsinki).

Steven Holl: Kiasma, Helsinki, 1998.Steven Holl: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, 2007.

Steven Holl: Fondation Francois Pinault, Paris, 2001.Steven Holl: Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle.

"There is a danger in this emphasis, as there is any similar transformational exercise, of approaching superficiality or caricature."

There is a danger in this emphasis, as there is any similar transformational exercise, of approaching superficiality or caricature – these dangers are particularly acute as the commissions increase in scale. However, the best of Steven Holl’s work, across the years, has avoided those failings: the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, for example, or the recently completed Nelson Atkins Museum additions in Kansas City. Although more didactic in its narrative and literary references, the Hamsun Center’s siting, scale, materiality and interior luminosity assist it in approaching an equivalent quality.

Steven Holl: House at Martha‘s Vineyard, 1988.Steven Holl: House at Martha‘s Vineyard, 1988. Watercolour sketch.

Steven Holl: Stretto House, 1991.Steven Holl: Stretto House, 1991. Exploded axonometric.

III. At the fifth level of the interior, disorientation and vertigo vie for primary sensation; the effect is not disconcerting, only dreamlike in the pale winter light. The floor slopes in two directions, a wall cants outwards, a corner is dissolved in glass, another corner of the floor opens to a drop of several levels, apertures are disassociated from stair landings or floor levels. The exhibitions are not yet installed, the spaces are pure material, light, air.The midday light streaming in through the opened corner projects the light-form of an opened book on the black floor; the reflections off of the perforated brass of the elevator send slanting patterns of light shimmering down the walls. From the shelter of the ceilinged interior, the view is to the distant tree-line, the sky. On upward to the roof terrace, where an upright fringe of bamboo stalks surrounds the parapet; the wind drives them together in hollow clicking: is this the last vestige of a desired sod roof? In the gathering twilight, the wind carries the ripple of the salmon-run. A dog barks, and barks, and barks.

In an era when the primary referents and conceptual points of departure for design most often begin and end either with dry, technical statements valorizing “program” and “performance,” or hyperbolic, spiraling assertions of “morphogenetic form,” Holl’s conceptual proposals, with their deeper cultural ambition and valuation of site and material, possess an appealing individuality, a more apparent emotional character and a more evident emphasis on materiality, detail and atmosphere. Hamsun’s literature is characterized and celebrated for such qualities; on these terms, at the least, it could be said that the commission came to the right architect. This would be so even if Holl was not of Norwegian heritage, was not possessed by (in his words) “an emotional, spiritual connection” to the climate and light of the Nordic latitudes, to architecture made for the conditions of the place and culture. “I like the horizontal sun,” he says, “…architecture looks best in the horizontal light, its textures in relief…its character takes off…”

Steven Holl: Hamsun Centre, Hamarøy. Interior.

In so saying, Holl indicates that the fundamental things really do apply; the stamina for his fifteen year long journey with the Hamsun Center commission relied on his commitments to deeper architectural issues – “site, circumstance, movement, light, purpose,” he says, gesturing emphatically for each, “and the landscape…the desire to give dimension to that fantastic natural landscape.” For Holl, these are all foundational, and form the consistent rhythm of his work.

“…architecture looks best in the horizontal light, its textures in relief…its character takes off…”

Even as the building’s site shifted over the course of fifteen years, each of the sites were meaningful in Hamsun’s life, and the final one, so close to the salmon run, has “the historic dimension of his presence,” Holl avers, Hamsun having spoken so fondly of “the sound of streamtide at Presteid.” The open siting compelled a building conceived “in the round,” open to all four orientations, with sufficient height to hold its own in the terrain, gain the precious northern light from all angles, and by which to obtain views out to the horizon.

Even if the commission was not overtly spiritual and utterly modernist in subject, Holl felt strongly that the Center’s surface could draw upon the black peat soaked wooden stave churches of the Norwegian vernacular (yes, to recall as well “the dark tower” of Hamsun’s imagination).The traditional skills in wood construction are further resounded by the close board forming of the cast in place concrete interior vertical tube, laced together by post-tensioned concrete beams; the white painted concrete face of the interior, when washed by light, reveals the striations of the board jointing – and the craftsmanship of the carpenters.

Even if the program suggested dedicated exhibition areas, staff offices, and the requisite reception, bookstore and café in defined quantities, Holl’s design draws the visitor into a continuous vertical interior, centered around a brass-clad elevator shaft containing a glassed elevator. Ascension, descension, traverse, and exhibition throughout the interior are controlled by a continuous black, ground-face terrazzo floor of shifting surfaces, slopes, balconies and stairs; coupled with the cant of walls outward and inward along the sequence of movement, the visitor’s lateral movement and body position are in a continual dynamic.

Lastly, even with the exhibitions detailing Hamsun’s life and work not yet installed, Steven Holl has still produced an architecture exhibiting the layered atmospheres of that life and work, employing phenomenal means to do so. All the architectural conventions are called into action towards this ambition: the long approach to a strategic site, the abnormally canted vertical form, the tightly wound plans of stairs, ramps and small floor plates are in tension with the porous, worked section, the angled surfaces of both compress and disorient the inhabitant. Detailing is kept highly tactile, but crisp in profile and restrained in presence. Light is projected deeply and dramatically through the section, through both a variety of apertures and the character of interior reflective surfaces.

Knut Hamsun’s world, the dissonant realities of his life and the fevered imaginations of his literature, can perhaps best be approached by Steven Holl’s considered means. The overt, literal elements need only be emblematic; the phenomenal effect possesses more lasting and meaningful experiences. Here, movement leads to its moments of stasis and direction, but also disorientations and vertigos. Here, all details are significant, distinct, all too real. Here, darkened corners of human construction are opposed by ones opened to light and significant views of the natural world. “A battleground of invisible forces,” indeed.

“Despite my alienation from myself at that moment, and even though I was nothing but a battleground for invisible forces, I was aware of every detail of what was going on around me. A big brown dog ran across the street, towards the trees and the Tivoli; it had a small collar made of Mexican silver. Further up the street, a window on the first story opened and a girl with her sleeves rolled up leaned out and began polishing the panes on the outside. Nothing escaped my eyes, I was sharp and my brain was very much alive, everything poured in toward me with a staggering distinctness as if a strong light had fallen on everything around me.”1

See the presentation of the Knut Hamsun Centre by Steven Holl here.

  1. From Knut Hamsun, Hunger, translation Robert Bly (London, 1974, Duckworth), page 15. Passage underlined in Steven Holl’s copy, 1994. 


Steven Holl’s quoted statements are excerpted from an interview with the architect in New York City on September 11, 2009.

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