There has always been a great deal about Sverre Fehn’s architecture that I feel I’ve never been able to understand. The two sleighs in the exhibition at the Hedmark Museum for example, that have been hung on either side of a large plate of steel. Two white sleighs, hung vertically against each other. Why? So many of the other things in that exhibition are so obvious. – It has to do with death, with the end, says my colleague Einar Bjarki Malmquist. Apparently he heard it once in a lecture. Death?
And that entrance façade at the Ivar Aasen Centre, where the section of building the meets the approach and the glazing fills the concrete vault with a kind of prism of timber and glass. What is that? Where is the logic, in structure or in form? It has never made sense to me.
We made an issue of Arkitektur N about the architecture of Sverre Fehn (1924–2009). It is not a catalogue of works, nor is it a summary. In fact, this issue is also something like a prism – different voices recall, in texts and images, their meetings with the man Sverre Fehn and his architecture, different views into the worlds Fehn has left behind.
It is easy to lean on the superlatives when you talk about Fehn. You will find many superlatives in this issue. A very small number of the people who give form to buildings, just a handful of the world’s architects, succeed in making architecture into an art. In a small country like Norway, there is maybe one such artist per generation. Sverre Fehn was one of them. The people we have invited to contribute to this issue give different insights into why this is so, what they think Fehn brought to the art of architecture, to the world.
Fehn’s practice no longer exists, so there is no one there to answer the phone when the magazines call for pictures and drawings. So for once, we had to get our own. We have selected three buildings from different parts of Fehn’s production, and sent three photographers to bring us a new view of places that might be familiar to many of our readers. These pictures are not directed by architects, no one has accompanied the photographers and requested angles and selected views. This seemed the right way to do it – all this work, all Fehn’s buildings, are part of a larger reality. There is no longer an official version, if in deed there ever was.
In a way, these pictures all show the truth about the buildings, in as much as this is how it was when the shutter opened. In another way, they are a series of lies, of selected and manipulated views; small sections of everything that was there, the edited experience of the photographer. But Fehn’s architecture has room for all these views. When I can’t understand the end façade of the Aasen Centre, it is because there are actually many ways to understand it. This is the key to an architecture of transcendence, that continues to be active in the meeting of people and places long after the last thought has left the mind of the architect. Such an architecture demands our participation, and it changes us.
On the last page of one of Fehn’s notebooks from 1970 a comment has been added. After a few hours in the archives of the National Museum in Oslo, where these notebooks are kept, you realise that he must have done this often – read through his notebooks and added new thoughts and associations in and around the other words, with a new pen, in a different colour. In this case, he has been looking through one of the books from 1970 three years later, and on the last page he writes:
“23. of January 1973
A long time has passed…
But the problems are more or less the same. What matters is to give form to what is already in us. To find an expression for the harmonious union of impulsive and intentional behavior. In our formless existence - without fixed rituals of any sort, there is little reason to have confidence in the impulsive actions. Meditation on the various problems is necessary in order to solve them in a morally justifiable way.”
The emphasis is Fehn’s own. Here, he states it himself: “What matters is giving form to what is already in us”. “In us”. “Morally justifiable”. These are not the words of an artist whose aim is personal expression, but of a man who sees himself and his work as part of something bigger.
In his grapplings with the world, Fehn was blissfully unprejudiced. Both in his own words and in what has already been interpreted and published, for example in the books of Per Olaf Fjeld, it is obvious that Fehn’s eyes always remained open. “He was the youngest man I have ever known”, writes Juhani Pallasmaa. A colleague once told me of a study trip he had taken with Fehn, where the students from their train window had suddenly spotted a person in a very conspicuous but particularly unflattering bright yellow quilted jacket. There was hollering and pointing at the ugly jacket, verdict was immediately passed and both the jacket and its owner were of course excluded from what had been collectively defined as aesthetically acceptable. Fehn, too, looked out of the window. – Yes, that was really yellow! was his only comment. Not ugly. Not stupid. Just yellow. And still a part of a world where everything is a potential source of a deeper understanding of human beings.
“What matters is to give form to what is already in us.” There is nothing simple about this – neither in knowing or trying to find out what is in us, nor in giving it form.
“Not ugly. Not stupid. Just yellow. And still a part of a world where everything is a potential source of a deeper understanding of human beings.”
The other word Fehn has underscored is the word Meditation. Meditation? What did he mean by that? But as you leaf through his notes the same questions reappear again and again, the same figures and the same themes year after year. The sketches of the cave, the animal or the bird repeated again and again, as drawn mantras. The bird flying across a landscape, landing in a tree – on page after page after page. Ten, fifteen pages of almost identical drawings. These drawn meditations do not find their value as the objects of admiration. The sketchbooks are not meant for communication, these drawings are not made for other people, to be cast into concrete or printed on t-shirts. The repetition of the cave drawing is the trace of a deeply personal pursuit, a meditation on a lingering question, in order to arrive at a morally justifiable answer.
Fehn’s meditations are over. His thoughts can not, should not, be “carried on” by others. But his works, his art, his architecture still demands of us that we take responsibility. Responsibility for our meeting with objects, structures, landscape; for the meeting with other people and for what needs to be done, both in his buildings and elsewhere.
Much has already been said and written about Sverre Fehn. We have tried not to repeat it here. But in a way, none of these texts are about Fehn; they are about the authors themselves. Each of them have found something of themselves in the meeting with Fehn or with what he has built. “We love what´s in us”, says Glen Murcutt, “Through the work of others we recognise what we are”.
As the above quote from the notebook shows, Fehn was also aware of these mechanisms. “What matters is to give form to what is already in us”. And in his speech at the Pritzker Prize award ceremony, he said: “Within himself, each man is an architect”. In the world and in the people around us we see ourselves. This insight can perhaps give a sense of isolation, or spark a kind of egocentric reaction: If I only see myself everywhere, then I can never really understand what other people are, so I might as well just be concerned with myself and follow my own vagaries, whatever they happen to be. But of course we’re not going to be let off that easily. And this is where Sverre Fehn’s architecture, where any great architecture, raises its demands. Rather than cultivating eccentricity or originality, Fehn pursued the universal. Not as a style or as an architectonic recipe, but as a subjective expression, his own expression, of a common human understanding of our way through the world. That we see ourselves in each other is not something that traps us within the walls of some individual existential isolation. Fehn’s architecture is both specific and universal, and it is a measure of how much of reality we actually share.
This text was published as the editorial to Arkitektur N no. 7-2009. You can order a copy of the Sverre Fehn issue of Arkitektur N from our sales department at firstname.lastname@example.org.