Are Norwegians culturally closer to to nature than other people? And why are there no decent cities in Norway? Sverre Fehn dispels some myths about the foundations of Norwegian architecture.
Ingerid Helsing Almaas: The general impression abroad is that both traditional and contemporary Norwegian architecture is influenced by two things: our very close relationship with untouched nature, and our well developed skill at building in wood. Do you think there’s anything in this?
Sverre Fehn: The nature of Norway is nature untamed by cultivation. Here in Norway nature is the norm, whereas in many other places it is the cultivated land that people take for granted. In most parts of Europe almost every tree has been planted, while here, even in Oslo, you can build a villa, let’s say a villa like Villa Schreiner, on pristine land. This aspect of nature in Norway is sensational. On the other hand, I don’t think Norway has been especially innovative in this respect.
When someone wants to build a house, they first cut down all the trees, then they sow a lawn, and plant a few plum trees [laughs], and then along the foundation wall they might put a row of tulips. It’s as if you were to put a tree in a flowerpot in the middle of a wild landscape. It’s quite moving, really, there’s something fine about it [laughs]. But this form of culture isn’t particularly inspired... In Japan, for example, nature is enhanced, they cut off a couple of branches, and train and wire them, and make the tree smaller or larger and that sort of thing, you could almost say they torture nature...
"Here in Norway nature is the norm, whereas in many other places it is the cultivated land that people take for granted."
IHA: But are Norwegians any kinder? Is this why they just plant a few plum trees?
SF: No, not at all, they’re just naive. Or perhaps our nature is so harsh that we do everything we can to make it seem romantic and pretty. But you won’t find anything especially inspired from an architectonic point of view. And then this passion for traditional log houses. All these farms and barns, they take up so much space, it’s absurd to try to develop this trend any further today. This is also a form of romanticism that we haven’t managed to do anything with – we really haven’t managed to do much at all with the log.
IHA: So do Norwegians have a thoughtless approach to nature?
SF: Yes. Yes, you could say that.
Nature as metaphor
IHA: Architects have to make a real effort to get people to understand what they do. One of the easiest arguments to use is to associate the project with nature – contact with nature is something that almost everyone regards as positive, whether it’s nature in terms of a lovely view, or a closer contact with the landscape and topography. In Norway it’s easier to explain architecture with reference to nature, or by using natural metaphors, like calling the building an iceberg or a bird’s nest. Isn’t that a little too simple?
SF: Yes, but in Norway our relationship with nature is an active one, we escape into it as often as we can. You can’t make contact with God unless you’ve been skiing! Every week! [Laughs.] So there is something in it. In some projects this relationship is a fundamental principle. You follow it to its logical conclusion and build something like the Glacier Museum, for example, which is a kind of altar to nature. You can go there and worship nature and find God in nature. But this idea hasn’t been developed very far.
IHA: Does this kind of experience of nature lead to anything? Some insight?
SF: Nature is basically cruel. Human nature is also fairly ruthless, and when it breaks out it can have quite violent results. We don’t really understand very much about this aspect of nature. Our present culture is taking us further and further away from for instance perceiving the horse as an animal that pulls the plough or works as a war machine. The horse is being reduced to the level of aesthetics; it flies around a race track, and it’s so beautiful you think you’ll faint. But it’s no longer anything more. Even though the horse is a fantastic thing that has shaped a lot of our technology. So in our culture we are moving further and further away from nature, and from nature as something that we use.
Architecture also follows these trends. But this means we can become like the Japanese, who have cultivated nature in relation to the home: sliding doors, a view you can look out on, the way you step down onto the ground, the stones placed before the threshold of a door, that kind of thing. Through their religious philosophy they’ve raised the use of nature to a philosophy, which has resulted in a very particular architecture. But if you try doing something like this in Norway, as I’ve tried to do in Villa Busk and Villa Schreiner for instance, it isn’t really successful. In cases like this you work closely with nature and try to find a cultural expression that will achieve a dialogue with the trees already growing there. This is what I tried to do, but I didn’t really manage it. But after all those houses are also in Europe, part of a tradition that includes Le Corbusier and his table structures, and his very different way of doing things... It was something like this I was thinking of when I created those houses. But in Norway we haven’t done very much that reflects the relationship between nature and architecture.
"Norwegians’ worship of nature consists merely of going as fast as you can as far as you can."
IHA: Why is this? Is it because over the last two generations people in Norway have been so prosperous that it hasn’t been necessary for most people to think very hard about anything, or because before that we lived under such demanding conditions that we weren’t able to think about anything other than our basic needs? After all, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe before the success story of Norwegian oil began in 1970?
SF: No, we don’t have a philosophy on which to base our ideas. We have a concept of God, but that’s still rooted in Palestine and the country of the Jews, which is natural I suppose... But when we try to imagine that God is here, with us, we turn to nature to find out what constitutes the sacred and the holy... But then, Norwegians’ worship of nature consists merely of going as fast as you can as far as you can – it’s just an achievement. You climb to the top of a mountain and look at the spectacular view and so on, but this form of belief is really quite a simple one.
IHA: But nature isn’t anything in itself. When you stand on a mountaintop and look at the view and say ”Isn’t this a marvellous view?”, it’s not nature that’s marvellous, nature just is. You are the one who feels marvellous on your mountaintop.
SF: Yes, that’s right.
IHA: But what about our cities?
SF: If we do have any cities. Well, the cities are there, there are urban places in Norway, but only just. The cities are very small.
Because people live so close to each other, cities need a love of other people. You have to like shoes, your hat and coat, you must become a distinctive figure in a place. You have to love looking at another individual – the clothes they’re dressed in, what they’re carrying, what mask they’re wearing. This is what makes a city. I think this actually has to do with laziness – because people think cities are productive, but they don’t actually produce anything. The production of a city serves idleness: chairs, jewels, a beautiful dress, beds and tables are conceived and produced in cities. Everywhere in a city, even on the street, you’ll find places to sit. When a culture has developed up to a certain point, people have time, they have time to sit, and to think. This is the nature of the city, sitting and thinking and waiting – for a war, for the boat to leave, working out how to earn money.
"The production of a city serves idleness: chairs, jewels, a beautiful dress, beds and tables are conceived and produced in cities."
As soon as you’re in the countryside, you’re immediately involved in production – the hay has to be brought in, the cow has to be milked and it’s a hell of a life [laughs]. You can’t turn round without having something to do. But the city is a kind of container; the most natural thing in a city is the chemist’s, where the poisons are locked up…
IHA: Well, in the countryside they have time off as well...
SF: No, they bloody well haven’t.
IHA: ... for weaving rugs and decorating their things...
SF: No, they sneak some time in for those activities during the winter [laughs]. I remember being interested in the fishermen on the Spanish coast, that was before all the hotels were built there. I was filming the fishermen’s houses down by the water. But although their boats are drawn up on the beach, the first thing they build is a wall, and then a house behind it, and then they can’t see the sea from inside the house. It’s not until they open the door that they come in contact with production, the beauty of nature, the fish and grey skies and hard work. And then they go into their little walled-in houses, all clustered together.
IHA: Perhaps to get away from the sea ?
SF: Yes, to avoid looking at their factory. But this leads to very beautiful dwellings, very organised and well thought out... But if one perceives the city as a function of the waiting I mentioned above, the situation changes completely. In a city, thieves give rise to law courts, and morality gives rise to the church and the monastery, and this is quite different from thinking in terms of production.
Architecture and democracy
IHA: What’s it like being an architect in a democracy? Building projects are large scale operations and involve a lot of money and a lot of people. As an architect, you have to make decisions on behalf of others, and sometimes your decisions have to be altered to fit in with other considerations and interests?
SF: Yes, but in urban architecture you must always have an initial idea, a proposal. Today proposals have become so democratised that it’s no longer a real proposal. The user or the developer is actually the one to submit a proposal, but they don’t go through the government bureaucracy, they go straight to let’s say the city council, and it’s the political parties represented in the council who then make the decision... It’s no longer a question of beauty or size or anything like that, it’s a question of whether the developer has the right contacts. This leads to a city based on commerce, which is what Oslo is becoming. There’s no brake that can be applied to such a process. But you don’t actually need a brake, you need a positive proposal. If you had an architectural competition, or a City Architect or planner with a vision...
IHA: Perhaps this also has something to do with resistance, like in our discussion about nature? These forces also need some resistance to develop?
SF: Yes, you have to be able to put a brake on the process... Because the people on the city council aren’t experts, poor things! But I’ve noticed that if a client is presented with a really interesting project, they usually go along with it. But you must always be in a position to make a proposal.
IHA: Would you say that the more complex or diffuse the commission is, the more important it is to find one’s own approach? In order to present this initiating proposal?
SF: Yes, of course. And the weaker the client, the more you have to contribute, the two have to balance each other. And yet, if you provide a weak man with a solution, he’ll actually be afraid of it, because it shows up his weakness. I think people have to be very strong to cope with good architecture.
IHA: If you’re going to persuade others to adopt your proposal, you need a strong argument. But must one have the gift of persuasion in order to be an architect? In order to produce a good design?
SF: No, not at all – as Matisse once said, if you want to be a painter, cut out your tongue. But you have to be able to persuade people and so on ...
IHA: But in this case wouldn’t it be tempting to go with the design that is easiest to explain? That is the easiest to justify?
SF: Yes, but you’re anyway always trying to find the simplest solution. There are a lot of factors you have to take into account, but a simple solution often provides answers to several different questions. But you can’t just begin building, you have to reach an architectonic expression before you start. The drawing is vital. To be a good architect actually requires great humility. You have to make the most of the very small amount of knowledge you possess. Many young people today don’t have the patience. In my time we had to make maximum use of what little we had. In my case what remained was a tiny little villa – this sort of thing is mainly what I’ve been doing. And this kind of humility, or patience, is basically missing in our society today.
This interview took place in Fehn’s office in Oslo, Thursday 18th September 1997. Photo: Stina Glømmi