Though Jarmund / Vigsnæs made their entry with projects like the Svalbard University Centre and the Oslo School of Architecture and design, the practice is also involved in a large number of small projects.
Through a series of single family houses and transformations they investigate new architectonic and technical solutions.
The firm Jarmund / Vigsnæs AS describes itself as “a general store for architecture”. All told, the office currently has about 40 large and small projects ongoing. And, although it has made its mark with large projects such as the Svalbard Science Centre in Longyearbyen (2005), the Oslo School of Architecture (2002) and the new administration building for the Defence Staff and the Ministry of Defence at the Akershus Fortress (2006), it is the many small projects that particularly characterise the activities of the office. Work on holiday cabins, family houses and alterations involves a continuous exploration of new architectural and technological solutions, which gradually turn familiar environments in new directions.
Ingerid Helsing Almaas: You clearly enjoy the small projects?
Håkon Vigsnæs: We get close to people. These works are very important to the people involved, which makes us very enthusiastic.
Alessandra Kosberg: And it really builds up the pace of work at the office. Things are very intense for short periods while we are involved with the planning, and then the houses are built quite rapidly.
IHA: Is it possible to do things when designing family houses that are not so easy to achieve in larger buildings? With regard to both design and technology?
AK: There is very little repetition in a family house. You have the opportunity for considerable variation in individual programmes, and you can make them very different from other programmes.
HV: Another challenging aspect of building family houses is that this has become a sort of middle-class phenomenon in Norway, and the clients often have limited funds. They often can’t afford to do more than make alterations to an existing home. And this means that we have to really tune the solutions, to economise on space, site use etc. in order to make the most of what is available. Things often work out differently to what we think they will – more efficiently. And that resistance is a very valuable element. If you are designing a 1000 square metre holiday house, you don’t meet the constraints that makes you smart.
Einar Jarmund: We sometimes refer to this as a middle-class ethos: How to create paradise within a tight framework. And this is much more fun than the projects that have unlimited space and funding, where the freedom is only apparent.
HV: It is more difficult to question the ingrained conceptions of affluent people, because, if they see a picture in a magazine, they can afford to buy that particular dream.
EJ: It’s a matter of being able to make priorities. If you can have anything you want, you’re not able to make priorities. However, if you can only have a little, you have to base your wishes on some form of intelligence. And from this point of view, the big houses are at worst totally unintelligent.
"However, if you can only have a little, you have to base your wishes on some form of intelligence."
Affordable material qualities
IHA: What about material qualities? Is there anything that is affordable to people with deep pockets that you feel like using?
HV: We are really more interested in using industrial products in other ways that result in a different quality, without necessarily going back to good craftsmanship, which is awfully expensive today. A house of ours, by the sea near Stavanger, is not an expensive house. It was built in sandwich concrete, which is regarded as almost impossible to use because it is so costly and difficult, but you can find that expertise at a reasonable price in this area, because of the oil industry.
IHA: What about experiments with form? Many of your small projects adopt forms that challenge people’s conceptions regarding a family house or holiday cabin. Even among architects, there are probably many who take a sceptical view of sloping walls and sharp angles... What are you aiming for in terms of form?
HV: We try to free ourselves as far as possible in relation to each individual project. We force ourselves to think in terms of things not all being alike, of every challenge involving an element of originality, and this results in architecture that works well for the project concerned. At the same time, there are usually certain themes that we follow through two or three projects that we take a bit further. It’s a matter of taking hold of some primary elements that we are looking for on the site, and aligning things in relation to them. That is very often what we are aiming for – these precise alignments. And that often twists things out of the orthogonal axes. Form is often driven by an interaction between an internal spatiality and external conditions. Considerations regarding landscape, views, access, gradients... And, if you disregard the rationalist arguments, there’s nothing in the reality of architecture tying us to 90 degree angles. But in those cases where they are needed, where they are logical, we have no problems complying with the constraints imposed by right angles. Then they are an essential condition.
AK: I also think that the projects that are a bit more active designwise possibly escape the “house” concept: The box, the picture, the whole history of architecture with all previous references and relations to being a house. That is quite liberating...
Making the conditions clearer
IHA: The design language that you seem gradually to have developed breaks completely with what one normally expects, even in a world of attractive modern houses. At any rate, from a modernist point of view, it is the arbitrariness of the sloping angles that is the biggest objection against that type of architecture.
HV: We perceive our use of form as the opposite of arbitrary. That it is more an attempt to be precise in the situation. It is always a matter of making the conditions clearer.
EJ: Openness to several or many interpretations has become quite an important theme for us. We see that architecture only comes into being when someone looks at it.
HV: We want to open up for the users and viewers of the architecture.
EJ: And these viewers always have preconceptions of their own that we have no control over.
"Openness to several or many interpretations has become quite an important theme for us."
IHA: But is it not more difficult to build something that has this greater precision designwise, as you define it?
AK: Not necessarily. For example, it makes it possible to conceal all structure. You can use very cheap materials inside the walls because they are clad, or on the walls, for example, because they are angled in such a way that they reflect the light differently, so the material is no longer the most important part of the story.
EJ: And it is not necessarily a goal that something should be easy to build, is it?
IHA: No, but the reference here is to the association between the constructive rationality of modernism and practice in today’s building industry. For example, a carpenter would rather saw straight because sawing at an angle takes longer.
AK: But quality is dependent on skill in all parts of the process. And when you end up with a box lined with standard plasterboard that is completely uninteresting as a room, perhaps there is no place for quality anyway.
HV: It is a bit toothless to say, “Well, it’s neofunctionalist, which is our legacy from the modernist approach”, but then execute it just as latex-painted white plaster boxes.
AK: And then the new rooms just become exhibition rooms for Arne Jacobsen’s red industrial products instead of having their own identity. And this is perhaps something we have tried to strive a little against.
The power of form
IHA: From the way you have now been arguing regarding the creation of architecture, it is actually suddenly very difficult to talk about form at all. But I want to try: In a discussion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006, Zaha Hadid was challenged on the question of architectonic form. She was confronted with the view that her buildings could be seen as aimless preoccupation with form, a luxury in relation to construction and economy, an incomprehensible waste of resources rooted in a subjective artistic indulgence... She responded with a lengthy discussion culminating in a single utterance: “Don’t knock form!” In other words, one should not dismiss the potential of architectonic form as if it were irrelevant, even when the form is challenged by all other rational aspects. We so easily attach importance to explaining everything we do, but architectonic form naturally has an aesthetic effect on people that, throughout many epochs of architectural history has been of central importance regardless of practical considerations.
HV: All epochs.
EJ: But even a shoebox is a form.
IHA: Yes, of course, but the issue is the will behind it, the purpose and intention: What is one trying to make?
EJ: When you consider Zaha Hadid’s projects, you are of course completely bowled over by The Peak. If there is one significant competition project of hers, this is probably it. But it was precisely because it was such a correct response to the situation, to lead up to such a peak, and live a metropolitan life on the top with that view... It was a project associated with both expectations and references in relation to a very broad range, not only of forms, but also thoughts. While, if you look at her building at Ordrupgaard museum, outside Copenhagen in Denmark, you wonder: Why does this look like this? There are very few points of contact with the programme or the location or what goes on there. What we are aiming for with all of our forms is to create such points of contact.
HV: And to combine a programme requirement on the one hand with an idea of light or some other situational quality on the other. So it’s not at all certain that the straight line is the most straightforward way of doing things. And, in that respect, form has a broad range of functions in understanding a situation, and there is much more to it than just proving a theory about rational building.
References and ideals
IHA: Can you say something about your architectural ideals? One thing is the general references in the development of a form, but you surely also have things that you like? How do you relate to them and how do you use them?
EJ: We use them actively all the time. We find things at many levels... Alison and Peter Smithson, for example... The English fifties architecture, such matter-of-factness – that has been important and dear to us. Early Jim Stirling is also a forgotten high point. The Leicester University Engineering Building and the Florey Building in Oxford are absolutely fantastic... If there was ever someone who was able to take Le Corbusier’s power of storytelling a step further, it was him.
HV: He was capable of handling pregnancy of meaning, the material that does more than just being in its apparently logical place in the hierarchy. He turned both constructive principles and use of materials upside-down.
EJ: In a very communicative way. To quote Peter Smithson, “Mies is great, but Corb communicates.”
HV: Rudolf Schindler has been important for us. We’re constantly returning to his...
EJ:…spatial sculptural treatment...
HV:…and ability to construe the location, his materiality, and strangeness. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, Schindler didn’t just choose a theme and spin everything round that, he allowed himself a number of moves that made him seem a bit eccentric. And that is something that we are looking for too. Things must hold some surprises, be a bit strange. A bit ugly, perhaps.
AK: We too can work with the box. It’s not that we have decided once and for all that we’re not going to make boxes, but one has to be aware of the demands involved both when working within familiar frameworks and when working outside of them.
"Things must hold some surprises, be a bit strange. A bit ugly, perhaps."
IHA: One also searches for natural forms in your work. But nothing of what you have said suggests that your use of form comes from associations with nature.
EJ: Well, that is one of our sources.
IHA: That a building should look like a boulder, for example.
EJ: It should, sometimes. That might sometimes be relevant.
IHA: Metaphors, especially natural metaphors, are important to Norwegian architects. People understand them. In many projects, the persuasive power of the metaphor helps to protect the architectural concept through the process. For example, natural forms become an important argument for the project: If the building looks like an iceberg, it must be good.
EJ: But, to what extent does a metaphor actually tell a story? What we want is in many ways a narrative architecture, or to explore the narrative potential of the architecture. And an architectural story should not be clear and simple. It should have a broad range. This is possibly part of the experience we have gained from encountering so many old buildings. A great deal of our work has actually involved remodelling old things.
HV: Our buildings in Svalbard certainly look as if they have derived their form from nature. But those buildings are generated by a mental state in the landscape, by a need for shelter. How does one best tackle the climate conditions? How does one make one’s building yield to nature so that it does not challenge the forces unnecessarily, while at the same time creating the security that one needs, both physically and mentally? And then it is perhaps not so strange, in the light of these principles, that the same things happen as have happened to the landscape, where wind and weather have played their part, and there may be an interrelation between the aerodynamic requirements regarding the building and the geological erosion of the surrounding rocks. However, this is not brought about by imitating the natural form, it is derived from engaging with the location.
IHA: Like a kind of intuitive response?
EJ: A refinement of one’s intuition.
HV: It is important to rework, refine the natural. In Norway, if you are to be honest and straightforward, you must definitely show the woodwork untreated, right? That is the “ultimate truth”. But you can have a layer of piano lacquer between the woodwork and the world, that will preserve the wood, accentuate the fragility and say much more...
AK: We have talked about the fact that the solemn architect, the guardian of the truth, who after all characterised our student days, has been replaced by a different view of the world. You can investigate and experiment all you will, but you are not always completely aware of what themes you come into contact with.
HV: The architect was previously a law unto himself in a way. That is the opposite of what we want. Complexity is a method too; through open seminars, popular meetings and broad discussions, to find a symbiosis in the many parameters of a situation. That is were the originality lies.