What is a “Norwegian” house? It is an idea that will probably not make sense much longer. Since the dawn of modernism, the world has been shrinking; there are more and more people, a lot of them on the move. We share interests and ideals across the borders of nationality and culture.

What is a Norwegian House? Throughout most of the 20th century, Norwegian modernist architects dreamt of openness, of large glazed walls and slender mullions, of the minimal detailing of Mies and the temperate climes of Southern Europe or California. But universalist ideals, the so-called ”International Style” quickly becomes problematic in a Northern European climate, and more problematic the further north you go. After a century of a generalist, homogenised approach to architectural form and technology, environmental and energy issues are pulling the constructional strategies of different climatic regions in different directions again. In Norway, we now need an architectural reply which looks for the inherent qualities in our particular situation.

Brit Andresen.

Brit Andresen, professor at the University of Queensland and partner in Andresen O’Gorman Architects, was born, partly raised, and trained in Norway, and lives in Australia. She is a Norwegian citizen and an Australian resident.

Ingerid Helsing Almaas: You know the Norwegian climate and you have been fed the Scandinavian modernist ideals through your architectural training. And then you have lived and practiced for 30 years in Australia, in Queensland, in a climate where all those ideals can suddenly be realised. Looking at these two realities, what do you think Norwegian architecture could be if we finally turned our back on the old dream of openness?

Brit Andresen: Intuitively, the flat-roofed glass box is not the obvious building solution for either sub-tropical Australia or Norway.

However, there seems to be real possibilities in architecture for expressing the coexistence of opposing conditions. We recognize that the human appetite seeks balance when faced with extremes – for example we long for sweetness when we have too much bitterness and vice versa. This analogy might be extended to our experience of the environment – so that we long for light where we have too much darkness or for cool shade where there is too much bright heat. Similarly, in architecture we search for intimate enclosure in super-scale rooms and wide-open spaces in contrast to confining interiors.

"In its extreme, modernism can be said to have banished interiority and lost the art of making the "world of the interior"."

Modernism strived for a continuum between the inside and the outside to find freedom from conventions of past traditions. In its extreme, modernism can be said to have banished interiority and lost the art of making the “world of the interior” – architecture of the modernist continuum no longer depended on a defined interior. And yet, the making of a defined interior, “the world inside”, presents us with the all-important architectural questions about shelter. It also encourages new ways of regarding relations with its twin-opposite – the room, open to the world outside.

The world inside. Breakfast room, Sir John Soane‘s House, London. Photo: Martin Charles

Making such a relationship – coexistence between opposing conditions ¬ is an architectural search. Alvar Aalto, for example, proposed that a Finnish house could have both an interior winter face, and a summer face – such as an open porch and terrace – on the exterior.

In the sense of the coexistence of opposite spatial conditions, a Norwegian architecture might incorporate both the “wooden caves” and the “world of penetrated layers” that Christian Norberg-Schulz talks about.1 Generally, in architecture we could also aim for a more balanced coexistence between the poetical and the pragmatic in the design of our homes, buildings and cities.

IHA: I think the view has been the saving grace much of Norwegian modernist architecture. The view to some magnificent outside, in both small- and large-scale buildings, takes the attention away from the indifference of the interior. But compared, for example, with Japanese traditions of borrowed landscapes, this is not very developed, conceptually or culturally. Another reference might be Adolf Loos, He was obsessed with the intricacies of the interior, yet he is seen very much as part of the early modernist revolt against convention.

Einar Bjarki Malmquist: There is no reveal in Norwegian houses. No gradual discovery. You always get the big picture immediately. Wham! It privileges the experience of the view, whatever that view is, over all other experiences.

BA: Yes, there is an art to framing a view or in placing an ordinary window in a wall as, for example, Ann Cline describes so well in “A Hut of One’s Own”.2 The subtlety that transforms the ordinary, such as the positioning of Cline’s window, derives from two opportunities. The first is the opportunity to create simultaneous readings, or layers of meaning (not-only/but-also), and the second is the opportunity to establish a world of interaction.

IHA: That would be an especially interesting spatial strategy in cold climate. What do you mean by emergence? Does that have a constructive aspect, or is it mainly a question of the immediate, sensual experience?

BA: If we think of the Italian portico, a space that you can make semi-enclosed, or the English greenhouse, or Aalto’s porches – these seem to me to be places that could mediate between inside and outside in Norwegian houses. Traditionally, there is the “vindfang”, but that has limited functionality. There is also the “svalgang”, but again this is primarily a circulation space.

"Svalgang", exterior gallery on traditional Norwegian timber house.

Of course such spaces compete with indoor spaces for light – but what they offer, these threshold spaces, is very significant, potentially also in an extreme northerly climate.

In Architectural Reflections, Colin St John Wilson draws our attention to the phenomenon that at any point in time “…we are inside or outside; or on the threshold between. There are no other places to be”.3 This reduction to three places draws attention to the potential in architecture, both poetical and pragmatic, for expressing spatial difference and boundaries between those differences.

"The porch, portico and veranda are places where architecture can engage with qualities of the “in-between”."

The porch, portico and veranda are places where architecture can engage with qualities of the “in-between”. A semi-enclosed, in-between-place for greeting, homecoming, lingering and leaving the secure interior, presents potential for supporting social ritual and reconciling or mediating environmental contrasts.

Portico, Villa Argiano, Montalcino, Italy.

IHA: Extreme temperature, particularly the cold, is a challenge for making these kinds of spaces in Norway. Conservatories and porches tend to extend the interior of the house during those seasons when you can be outdoors anyway. But as my husband Simon, who is British, says: Norwegian houses really need the opposite; they need to be bigger in the winter than in the summer. That is a real architectural challenge.

BA: Well, that, too, is an opportunity for re-invention and expression.

EBM: And you have to do it in a reduced space. As far as environmental sustainability goes, the most significant thing architects – and clients – can do, is to reduce the total built area, which in Norway means the total heated area. Even in the winter most heated rooms stand empty most of the time, while we move from heated room to heated room, spending a few hours here and there, sleeping, eating and so on.

But the re-introduction of the intermediate spaces, with reference to the Australian house, could inform a re-thinking of this as well. A house is often very static. There is little difference in the structure between summer and winter, little you can do to modify your environment, and as a consequence a lot of technology is needed to control it.

BA: Tuning houses with moveable elements to moderate enclosure etc., is easier in climates that are not as extreme as Norway’s. Brisbane, for example, has a temperate coastal climate – mid-winter temperatures are about +10 to +25 and mid-summer +25 to +35oC. Even within reasonable margins of temperature tolerance it would be possible to camp outside all year. Australian architects, like Glenn Murcutt, Richard Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury for example, have made beautiful use of this opportunity mainly in open landscapes. These architectural “campsites” are privileged locations, of course, but local climates are moderated for wind and heat by ventilating and screening with louvres, battens, layered roof and wall elements etc., and solar gain is achieved through orientation and material selection. “Camping” like this is not for everyone, but clients and architects who select this way of living certainly build up a sensitivity to their surrounding environments.

"There seems to be real possibilities in architecture for expressing the coexistence of opposing conditions."

Andresen O‘Gorman: Rosebery House, Highgate Hill, Queensland, Australia 1997. Kitchen.

Andresen O‘Gorman: Rosebery House, Highgate Hill, Queensland, Australia 1997. Fireplace.

Andresen O‘Gorman: Rosebery House, Highgate Hill, Queensland, Australia 1997.

IHA: Can you say something about your background from NTH, the technical university in Trondheim? You must have had your training there at a time when universal solutions were in focus?

BA: Obviously construction was related to the Norwegian climate, focussing on heat loss, insulation and cold bridging, which was probably a useful way of learning the core principles for any climate.

Professor Arne Korsmo was among the many teachers who taught us. It seemed to me that the teaching tended to stress pragmatic aspects, and I think this was well taught. I remember there was an introduction to modernism, with glass and concrete and images of outdoor living. I also distinctly remember classes by Professor Erling Gjone on particularly pre-C19th Norwegian timber architecture, including the farmhouses and the stave churches. One summer we made measured drawings of timber structures that intensified our understanding of materials and construction.

After completing my studies I was awarded a Norwegian-Dutch scholarship and moved to the Netherlands. One event after another took me abroad, and so I never practiced in Norway. In the 1970s I practiced in Cambridge, where I was part of the team that won the competition for the Burrell Museum in Scotland. When the project was temporarily “shelved” I travelled to Australia to take up a teaching position for a year or so until the economic situation improved.

IHA: That must have been a very different climatic context?

BA: And a new and ancient landscape of sub-tropical plants and animals. But yes, I had to re-learn construction in the first few years. Peter, my husband and partner, had worked as a carpenter’s assistant before he graduated as an architect and he knew Australian hardwood timbers, particularly the eucalypts. Australian hardwoods have different properties from Norwegian timbers. Most Eucalyptus timbers, however, should not be used in the same way as a North American or European softwood.

Andresen O‘Gorman: Rosebery House, Highgate Hill, Queensland, Australia 1997. Plans.

Andresen O‘Gorman: Rosebery House, Highgate Hill, Queensland, Australia 1997. Section.

We have written: “Most species of Australian hardwood offer magnificent material for domestic building. Strong and durable, the timber is capable of playing a significant role in exterior expression. The inherent toughness of Australian hardwoods usually requires that they be used while still ‘green’, at high water content, for easier workability. Cut from logs with a pronounced spiral growth and a high variability of moisture from heartwood to sap wood, the material continues to dry, usually while held in the building. The timber is subject to inconsistent shrinkage, warping, twisting and cupping across the grain. This has been the traditional criticism of hardwood for building construction. Hardwood remains an active material after the construction has occurred.”

When it is exposed to take advantage of its durability and strength, the hardwood is available to contribute to the expressive form of the building in which it plays such a physical part. The timber frame is released from its concealment in the stud wall, and a number of architectural opportunities become possible.

IHA: That particular possibility is not available to us in Norway.

BA: So you have to look for different opportunities for expression.

EBM: There are a number of new technical possibilities opening up with the lamination technology, the timber slabs, where you can work with timber as a mass.

BA: Timber is a wonderful material. The tree, with its hierarchy of parts and capacity for yielding dimensional variation, inspires ways of building as diverse as weaving with fibres, layering and bending with laths, framing networks of posts and beams and ”lafting” with logs laid horizontally.

"Timber is a wonderful material. The tree, with its hierarchy of parts and capacity for yielding dimensional variation, inspires diverse ways of building."

EBM: In Norway, the programme of energy conservation also means that what you often end up with is a timber concept, which is then covered up with the necessary thick layer of insulation. This challenges our expectations of a framed building.

You said you had to relearn a number of things. Was there anything that you had already learned in Norway that was valid or interesting in Australia?

BA: Many of the architectural principles introduced in Norway remain valid. There are also some particular elements that we included in our work, such as the wooden, built-in “bed-box” sometimes found in older timber houses in Norway.

EBM: What about the other way? Are there Australian ways of doing things that we can learn from in Norway? Shading devices for example, or low-tech solutions for natural cooling?

BA: In the sub-tropics, where I work, operable or fixed, external, timber batten screens are used to shade walls and windows to reduce heat-gain and glare from a low morning and afternoon sun. These devices are based on simple well-known principles.

I expect, however, that the harsh weather in Norway would require sound local knowledge of materials, techniques and detailing – sometimes re-discovered in older traditional building practices.

  1. Norberg-Schulz, Christian: “ Treverk,” i Arkitekturhefte 1, published by Trelastindustriens Landsforening, Oslo,1998, p. 8. “The Nordic people still dream of wooden caves, while the Japanese live in a world of penetrated layers.” 

  2. Cline, Ann: A Hut of One’s Own – Life Outside the Circle of Architecture, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 28. 

  3. St. John Wilson, Colin: Architectural Reflections, Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford, 1992, p. 6.