Fehn’s words have often been described as poetry, and many of his passages are easy to quote. Sverre Fehn was also the head of the Oslo School of Architecture from 1971 to 1991, and his way of talking about architecture has influenced many of today’s practising architects.
Tanja Lie has talked to Per Olaf Fjeld, who has a closer knowledge of this than anyone else through many years of following and writing down Fehn’s words.
Per Olaf Fjeld greets me at the door of his office, shutting the door on the cold October night. Twelve years have passed since he was my teacher at the Oslo School of Architecture. The place where I studied was impregnated with the spirit of a retired professor, with faded chalk sketches that no one removed from old blackboards, with stories told and retold, full of unverified quotes. Fehn was part of the fabric of the Oslo School of Architecture.
Per Olaf is enthusiastically present. We chat about how many young architects seem to be setting up new practices these days, and about how happy he is about the positive reception of his latest book, Sverre Fehn: The Pattern of Thoughts. Last time he collected notes from lectures and from conversations with Fehn and made it into a book, was in 1983. Sverre Fehn: The Thought of Construction was a book where the voices of Fehn and Fjeld fused together in one text, and you never really knew who had thought or said what. The new book takes on almost the opposite form: Fehn’s words have been separated out in a different typeface and are supplemented by, commented on and interrupted by Per Olaf Fjeld’s overall story of his friend, boss and colleague.
–It is a really important piece of work, I say.
–Well, it took four years, Per Olaf smiles.
Sverre Fehn wrote almost nothing himself. Words and stories have been noted and collected by others. Fehn was quoted at crits and juries, and I have seen his sketches repeated by other teachers. And his fantastic nouns, familiar words that are used so rarely that you can’t even find them in the cellphone autotext lists. Cloud. Turban. Cave. Boat builder. And then the words that are so basic that you are almost embarrassed to say them: the sky, the earth, the sea. Per Olaf has heard them more often than anyone else.
Tanja Lie: What did these words mean?
Per Olaf Fjeld: Sverre Fehn was concerned with the simple things. Particularly in the early years of his career: the ruin and the horizon, light and shadow. He tried to seek out the essentials of the relationship between nature and culture. This was also how his architecture emerged. His basis was a few very simple concepts, which became the starting points of architecture. Complexity only appeared when these simple things were put together. He was an extraordinary observer and could capture the finest detail in a meeting of people, in a situation in a cowboy movie, in an everyday occurrence which momentarily caught his interest, or a particular sentence he read in a book – he could go around tumbling that sentence in his mind a whole summer, transported by it. A word could be a recoil to a further movement, approaching architecture.
TL: Not all his words are simple or basic; he also had a lot of exotic words: The contortionist, the flying carpet, the tattoo?
POF: He was fascinated both by the animal trainer and the contortionist – the contortionist who captured a spatial condition in his continuous movements. Aladdin’s flying carpet communicated the ability architecture has to move the horizon.
The tattoo is about adding a new layer, for him the rock carving was a tattoo on the earth. And Fehn was genuinely interested in the object: Architecture is not only about human beings and space; it is also about the object. This is clear in his exhibition projects, in how the objects are cared for and assigned to their spaces, like in the Hedmark Museum. But the object is just as much present in his single-family houses. The best example is the Norrköping House, where there is a direct interplay between the everyday objects and the surrounding space. And between the inhabitant and the objects. The table is there, the bed, and the chair. They have their place. They cannot simply be replaced, the house is not free.
TL: So you have to come there without any luggage?
POF: Yes, and this is where the economy, or the energy efficiency, of his architecture resides. You cannot just fill the house with new things, the house rejects the mediocre, and the kitchen has no need to follow the latest fashion.
TL: But isn’t that a very dictatorial form of architecture? Where life has been set up for you, and all the props are in place?
POF: No, on the contrary, the house is generous. You can use your time and energy on everything else.
TL: Can the stories that accompany all his buildings also be limiting for the understanding of a project? When Fehn talks about how the fisherman finds the mast structure of the Honningsvåg Church deeply familiar, then what is left for all us non-fishermen?
POF: I don’t think the stories cement any particular understanding of the projects. We are talking about a creative process where a word could spark an entire project, in contrast to the narratives and stories that often appeared years later.
“We are talking about a creative process where a word could spark an entire project, in contrast to the narratives and stories that often appeared years later.”
All the conversations with Palladio, for example, were created years after the Norrköping House. Remember, he was never a writer, never a historian or a poet – he was an architect, and everything that happened to him was a potential springboard for architecture. It is a great shame that he was never able to try out more of his stories. But he had no talent for compromise – that was never in him. So that’s how it was. But it was the sketches that got the thoughts started, and from the sketches came the stories…
Per Olaf turns over a sheet of my notes, and with a turquoise fountain pen he retraces one of Sverre Fehn’s sketches from memory, a quick little piece of architectural history.
POF: Man has moved into the cave. The animal stands outside, and it is sad, because it has been robbed of its cave. Later, the cave man moves out and transforms nature into culture; he shapes the rock into a block of stone. The stone gives him a dimension with which to build. With the block comes architecture.
TL: At university, and other institutions of higher education, you are drilled in the building of a rational argument. At the School of Architecture, however, I felt you were at times encouraged to cultivate ambiguity, to pursue the obscure. Statements were left unopposed, teachers could leave their conclusions unsaid, hints were left hanging in the air. Was this institutional ambiguity part of Sverre Fehn’s legacy?
POF: Sverre himself was never ambiguous, but not all his sentences had an intended result. He did not believe that knowledge should be taught, it had to be the result of experience. Knowledge was something each person had to acquire and grasp in his or her own way. He talked about what he himself was doing through the themes he was concerned with. He could lecture on the cut in the ground, on the thief, the tightrope walker, death and idleness – and the delivery became important, in his humour lay his gravity, and he always seemed focused and engaged. But everything that he spoke of, had to be transformed within the listener. This was a form of teaching that suited some people, but not everyone.
“Sverre himself was never ambiguous, but not all his sentences had an intended result. He did not believe that knowledge should be taught, it had to be the result of experience.”
TL: Fehn is quoted in your book: “In my friendship with Utzon I met a constructor. He thought in construction. I think more in stories, in content.” But surely the great strength of the Oslo school, if you can say that, has always been to regard the structure as the bearer of the architectonic idea?
POF: The structure was the most important thing to Sverre. He saw structure in most things. But not in a technological way, he didn’t necessarily strive to maximise structural efficiency. His year with Jean Prouvé had not affected him in that way. What concerned him was finding the right relationship between space, light and shadow. There were two types of stories: the reflections that came after, which I already mentioned, and then the words or trains of thought that were active parts of the creative process.
We often talked about the first step in the development of an architectonic project. You had to see the site, the context, but then it had to rest. The architecture had to develop a character of its own before it met the site again – at that point the site had matured, the thoughts had gained a distance and a fresh discussion could begin. Architecture was created from an impression of the site. We developed a word for it, for the atmosphere or the feeling of a project that you have in your head before anything is put down on paper: Room picture. For Sverre, this room picture was clear before he sat down to discuss anything with the people in the office. Then he could sit down, in a dialogue with his team, and try to capture this room picture. Only then could you use all the tools, the sketch, the model. Tore Kleven, Tom Wike and Henrik Hille were important sparring partners in this, as well as Jon Kåre Schulz. You sat around and drew and talked and moved the room picture towards a proposal for a structure. New stories emerged: of how the columns populated the space, and of the one word that could push a detail further. Details were given names; the projects could be given nicknames.
From there, things got tighter and tighter, the project was more and more defined, until it was finally entirely defined in the working drawings. But in this last phase, the world opened up again. When the team went to find the products, they asked: What kinds of roof tile is available, what kinds of hinge – what is the best hinge in the entire world? The office poured enormous resources into establishing what might distinguish different types of hinges, what qualities the different makers could provide. They never gave up.
TL: You talk about objects as if they had human traits and a will of their own, as if they were animate. The site has to rest. The columns congregate. Was this also the case for each house, that they were thought of as different characters?
POF: There was a great change in 1989, the year that Sverre spent with John Hejduk in New York. New words were added all the time, and the mask was added to his vocabulary. A new layer was added to the architecture; the architectonic mask, which made use of an identity that was added to the structure.
For Sverre, this added layer became increasingly important to him. We were driving towards Alvdal, to check on progress in the construction of the Aukrust Centre. We drove through endless forests. He said that as he got older, the inner layer, closest to the skin, was getting increasingly important: the silk shirt, the thin pyjamas. You can see this clearly in his projects. You see it in the brick house he designed for the housing exhibition in Lommedalen. The house has an expression, something which is added. It is no longer just the structure that creates the form, but something which is an additional layer.
TL: So the house itself becomes a figure?
POF: The Glacier Museum is a figure, a constructed spatial object that makes use of its form as a mask to make contact with nature. And then, one day, that mask is too tight, and the word can no longer fill the thought. In the Gyldendal House and the Architecture Museum he has left the mask behind, and again it is the structure and the daylight that creates the space.
TL: In the introduction to your book you describe his colleagues giving Sverre Fehn a present on his 84th birthday: a gigantic new book about Corbusier. Fehn cheerfully remarks that the next book to be published on Le Corbusier will be so big that it will have to be carried sideways in the door. It seems that you had some good conversations with him, even the last ones?
POF: For Emily and me, on a personal level, the conversations continue, and new words are being added. To Sverre, everything was alive. And therefore all the words we have exchanged, together, will always be alive.
English translation by Ingerid Helsing Almaas