Unprejudiced and uncompromising, Fehn’s approach to architecture cannot be reduced to a “style”, nor does it do justice to his projects to assign them a purely “Nordic” identity. Fehn’s works are both critical and poetic, says Alberto Pérez-Gómez; they are an embodiment of human truth.
Sverre Fehn’s architectural work is without doubt among the most significant of our time. Modifying from within the terms of a utopic, often mute and senseless modernist architecture, without engaging in futile nostalgic evasions, his works have had a profound influence on architects and educators, particularly on those of us who, through study or practice, have been affected by the crisis of meaning that has afflicted our profession since the nineteenth century.
Fehn’s work is both critical and poetic, two attributes that can be easily coupled in a sentence, but whose synthesis, a requisite of authentic artistic creation in our century (according to Octavio Paz, among others), is immensely difficult to implement. Perhaps for this reason, his work remained underated most of his life. Architects of the 20th and 21st century have often attained recognition by adopting one or the other banner: either a pseudo-poetic formal language as a sign of "style", one that may be easily consumed or engaged as a commodity for capitalism and tourism, or a critical stance extrapolated from other disciplines like philosophy, science, political theory or gender studies, which the public might identify as a correct political position. Sverre Fehn’s work always avoided such deceptive reductions. His architecture is indeed profoundly critical of conventional building practices, but the critique is first and foremost a gift of the imagination, luminous and visceral.
During a memorable panel discussion that took place in beautiful Villa Mairea (as part of the Third International Alvar Aalto Symposium in 1986), Sverre told us a story to help unpack our discussion of the cultural conditions of contemporary architectural practice. He pointed out that modern architecture was like modern warfare, abstract and remote. In the past, he emphasized, when you killed someone you had to look your enemy in the eyes, you had to witness his passing in the depths of your own bodily being: it truly mattered. Today, in contrast, bombs have no eyes, just as light has no shadows; everything is remote and disembodied.
“Fehn pointed out that modern architecture was like modern warfare, abstract and remote.”
Indeed, Sverre Fehn’s architecture is the remarkable embodiment of this call to presence, a call for the thinking hand, constituting a radical criticism of representational clichés; a careful, patient consideration of materiality that allowed him to recognize and engage a true alchemical modus operandi in his architectural projects: to transmute the light of Venice into the luminosity of a polar glacier in the Biennale pavillion, or an old barn, some medieval stones and a concrete path at the Hamar Bispegaard Museum into the stage of Norway’s archeological past and humanity’s shared genealogical history, a tribute to Gaia, the earth. The materials in his buildings are alive, and his configurations are are profoundly metaphorical, giving us in experience a mysterious reconciliation of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum). Most remarkably, his work has been recognized for its “Nordic” identity, praised for revealing its regional character while retaining its modernity. Such description, however, hardly does justice to its accomplishment, for the work is modern in a truly ecumenic sense, as a universal resonance, without any reference to ethnicity or nationality.
Fehn’s architecture is a paradigm of techne-poiesis, the Greek term used to define the nature of the work of art as a revelation of what is: the abyss – as an embodiment of human truth. In his careful valorization of materials that are both new and recognizable, his poetics appear as a discovery through making. Fehn’s work is implicitly critical of the processes of production that tend to reduce architecture to a mere set of signs to be transcribed into a building. His architecture seduces us into falling in love, its beauty strikes a blow that reveals reality as is. Thus, it can be said to embody knowledge, but rather than clear logic, it is knowledge understood in the Biblical sense: a carnal, fully sexual and therefore opaque experience of truth.
“His architecture seduces us into falling in love, its beauty strikes a blow that reveals reality as is.”
For this reason its “meaning” can never be objectified, reduced to functions, ideological programs, formal or stylistic formulas. Rather than acting like an “idol” (or a signpost – like the logo of a corporation or a national government), his architecture rather allows us to see through to meaning precisely by not restricting it, in itself meaning no single thing.
Sverre Fehn’s work is critical also in a more familiar sense. His projects question a naive acceptance of tradition and social practices. The architect‘s responsibility is never merely aesthetic in a restricted sense, architectural forms embody values and these can often be repressive in our epoch of “incomplete nihilism”. Architecture contributes to social order, and is capable of proposing a framework for poetic inhabitation, not merely reproducing conventions but rather creating the possibilities for a more enlightened social fabric.
Yet Sverre Fehn’s work can never be grasped in the simplistic terms of a critique, because it is not merely revolutionary: while it destabilizes and wakes us up to our humanity, it always proposes a world, it allows for re-orientation. Consequently, it can never become stylish or merely fashionable. Most significantly, his architecture never reproduces itself, nor is it a system liable to be imitated by others. His heritage is therefore dissimilar from the majority of architecture that may be recognized as successful today. Every project, every drawing, every work poses a challenge, asks all the questions, and proposes a new answer. It challenges simplistic critical categories because it is immensely imaginative, yet compassionate; profoundly poetic, yet respectful of its role as a medium to suggest a “different” social order through the careful rewriting of programs drawn from the cultural traditions it addresses. Its magic is atunement or resonance, balancing the imperative of semantic innovation with a recognition of the meanings given a priori in the world of experience, stratified through history. It is therefore impossible to reduce to style – it demonstrates a better way for our future practices.
“Fehn’s work demonstrates a better way for our future practices.”
Sverre Fehn’s architecture affirms being and the reality of the human spirit, a rather rare occurrence in our materialistic world. Most importantly, this affirmation is not dogmatic. It is simply a recognition that our continuity as humans hinges on shared questions which must be acknowledged, questions that architecture must address if it is to become a true order. What is affirmed, therefore, is not something forever stable and unchanging, rather the work‘s eloquence rests on a recognition of the great void where all things begin, the infinite source of our most intense vibration. It connects us to our biological life, that which we all have in common, and the ultimate origin of our sense of the sacred.
Sverre Fehn’s work challenges the machine and subjects it to obedience, but it is never historicist or nostalgic. The threat of a blind technology that may create or destroy with equal determination, is confronted with existence as a miracle. Technology is destructured by a playing of the absolute forces imbued in the animate materials, echoing silence, yet always inviting dialogue, necessarily completed through the participation and interpretation of the inhabitant, spectator or interlocutor.
Fehn’s architecture is incandescent, like Rainer Maria Rilke‘s crystal cup that shatters even as it rings. It has the power to change our life because it is always new, and always familiar. It reveals the coincidence of life and death in our moment of communion with the work, disclosing both the absurdity of a nihilism of despair, and the delusion of positive scientific or theological dogmatism.
At every encounter, Fehn’s architectural utterances have the power to remain fresh and reformulate previous production: it is a making as self-making, architecture as a verb, a process of enlightenment that embraces the often forgotten ephemeral nature of our human condition. Passionately engaged and yet detached, this is a work of the personal imagination that is also radically cosmocentric, it is for and about the Other, proposing a world where we all may realize our spiritual wholeness.
Meaning inhabits the work of Sverre Fehn. Such meaning is. It cannot be paraphrased or elucidated. It is a resonance, an atunement: stimmung. It cannot be conceptualized as something added to the work that we may dissect, that we may reduce to information and then deconstruct. Meaning inhabits the surface and depth of the work, it is in the medium (the pencil tracing, the brush stroke) and in the building. It speaks directly to our bodily experience, to our heart and our stomembodied consciousness which is also the universal mind, opaque yet luminous.
“Meaning inhabits the work of Sverre Fehn. Such meaning is. It cannot be paraphrased or elucidated.”
Our life in Fehn’s architecture, between dark beginning and beyond, places us in a position to grasp a sense of direction. It reveals limits in our horizon of experience. This is the power of his work: to help us question destructive nihilistic assumptions and perhaps recognize our purpose as mortals on earth.