The Australian architect Glenn Murcutt first met Sverre Fehn after a lecture in Oslo in 1989. The two architects found common ground in an opposition to the postmodernism of their contemporaries, and went on to develop a friendship. “He understood place, technology and an appropriate architecture of our time,” says Murcutt.
Glenn Murcutt: I first met Sverre Fehn in Oslo in 1987, on the 24th April. I remember because it was the day before a national holiday in Australia, and it was 25 degrees in Oslo, very warm for that time of year, and everyone was out catching the sun, people were all white as lilies. I was doing a lecture at OAF, and Fehn was there, and afterwards he spoke to a young architect, Gitte von Ubisch, who took me to the Hamar museum the following day. Fehn himself couldn’t come, and actually the museum was closed, but they called and got them to open up for us. I didn’t know the project beforehand.
And I was bowled over. It was the most significant architectural experience of my life until then. And I was 51 years old at the time. Afterwards I have been there many times. I got to know Sverre and Ingrid, they invited me to their home, and I had the chance to visit more of his projects.
Fehn was a man of his land. A man of immense integrity. An emotional, determined, upright human being. His architecture is some of the most sublime and powerful work of the 20th century. To me he is one of the very few greats, perhaps the most important man in my world of architects. Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto were of course remarkable, but Fehn had a connection to place, materials, light, history – all synthesised into an architecture that belongs to where it is. There are lessons in his work to be learned for generations to come, once we get over this stupid period of too much money and too many silly works. Fehn’s architecture belongs to a world of architecture outside the world of ’isms. He was rooted in his land, as a thinker and as a practitioner – he understood place, technology and an appropriate architecture of our time. He was a proud Norwegian man.
He never came to Australia – we were friends, and I invited him of course, but by then he was 69 years old, he didn’t like air travel that much anyway, and he had a lot on his mind... This was at the turbulent time of the Copenhagen project. But I came to Norway many times, and joined him for dinner, or at the office. Talked.
IHA: What did you talk about?
GM: About our common respect for Jørn Utzon. About materials. About his background, his pride in his viking heritage. Trips and adventures. And the tough times of his career. He told me that there had been a matron who severely and publically criticised one of his early projects in the press, and he said that the article actually devastated his career. And he maintained that such bad press caused him to not build anything for 19 years.
IHA: Did you talk about nature?
GM: All the time. “The Nature”, he called it. And about the Norwegian royal family, how marvellous they had been during the war, when they gave over the palace grounds so people could grow food. We talked about how nature informs us.
IHA: You were both in different ways in the forefront of a new sensibility about natural conditions, even if Fehn was never expressly focused on environmental concerns. Did you feel yourselves in opposition to the times?
GM: We were concerned with orientation, materials, light, space, planning strategies, structure and more – we thought that form should be a consequence of all these things, not an “event”. And we were fiercely opposed to Post-modernism. So in a sense we pedalled down the back streets of architecture, and let the rest of the lemmings all fall into their own soup. I really think Post-modernism set architecture back 25 years. I am still staggered by how many of my colleagues at the time joined that lemming fraternity.
IHA: To my mind, a postitive aspect of Post-modernism was that it allowed the definition of a number of radically different positions in architecture, outside the hegemony of international modernism.
GM: The problems arise with the practitioners of these isms. People get lazy.
IHA: I think you could even say that Fehn’s work, despite the fact that it is often understood as a poetic extension of modernism, actually can be regarded as a Norwegian contribution to Post-modernism. A way out, so to speak. When you look at a project like the Glacier Museum, for example, it is a figurative project. The building mimics the glacier, almost without abstraction.
GM: That’s true. There is something folksy about parts of that project. There is something a bit noddy about that circular element at the end, something quaint.
IHA: A touch of romanticism perhaps?
GM: Yes. I think that is correct. Fehn’s work combines the romantic, the poetic and the rational. It is a junction of the poetic and the rational, but in that it rises to the very highest levels.
“Fehn’s work combines the romantic, the poetic and the rational. It is a junction of the poetic and the rational, but in that it rises to the very highest levels.”
IHA: What was it that so bowled you over when you first went to Hamar?
GM: History. His very direct understanding of history. The Hamar museum is very modern, even if he is working with old remains. The building clarifies differences, the old and the new, most beautifully and with great sensitivity. He was a kind of Norwegian Carlo Scarpa, but not so ”navelgazing”. Tougher, honest, more direct. The way he combined concrete and stone, brought light into the old building, stretched a ramped pathway over the exposed ruins and through the building. His choice and use of timeless materials – tile, steel, concrete, exposed structural timbers and timber sidings, and the natural colours of those materials.
We love what’s in us. The qualities in another’s work that embodies our own values and thinking. Through the work of others we recognize what we are. Fehn and I had a way of thinking and working that were not so far apart. I actually loved the man and his mind – we were ”birds of a feather”.
From Glenn Murcutt’s journal, April 1989.
“Discovered the geography of Oslo city by foot – a great way to get around and exercise but it is still raining lightly. Spring is here, the bluebells, crocuses, daffodils are all up and just in flower with all trees budding and leafing.
… Gitte met me 12.30 and we left for a drive to (Hamor?) to visit a museum designed by Norway’s great architect Fehn. Gitte von Ubisch – did the trip by car alongside the lake; – was beautiful – the landscape and villages are very beautiful with some snow lying about still. The weather damp (8oC) but comfortable. 3½-4 hr drive brought us to one of the most unexpected and also one of the great experiences in visiting a master’s work, and I did not know it existed. A museum within a very old barn, done in the most beautifully detailed timberwork, concrete, glass and Scarpa-equal exhibit design. This is a great work by a master – I wish to meet this man – what a joyous experience to be in such manmade work. The staff were equally good in opening up especially for my visit. … I cannot believe how good this work is. It is of the Utzon, Aalto quality, extraordinary! So uplifting to know it is being done. Heard that he is not properly appreciated in Norway and has little work but is a brilliant teacher. Running late now for dinner where I meet the OAF board at 8.00 pm.”
“… Returned for selection of slides for talk – taking 2.30-7.30 to do the selection – I must get better organised. And the sun is here, just great.
Talk received way beyond all expectations, incredible enthusiasm. I met Sverre Fehn who designed museum at Hamar + the two young Norwegian architects who designed the leper’s community in India. What a marvellous evening this has been. I am just so impressed with these 3 men as people and as architects. Received book from OAF of Fehn’s work which he signed and received me so warmly saying ”We are one in our work” – this is such an unexpected response from this nation’s living national treasure. Finished evening with celebration of talk – Astri [Thån, ed.] who introduced me said that it was not only by far the most attended talk but most enthusiastically received.”
“… Arrived on time at Oslo central station [after trip to Trondheim, ed.]. It is beautifully warm today. Met by Astri, taxi to hotel to drop off luggage, walked to the opening of an exhibition of Utzon’s work by Sverre Fehn. Met again Sverre, this marvellous 65 yr old Norwegian architect. He invited me home for a light meal. His wife is also a beautiful person, musician, teacher and living in a house designed in 1924-28 by Arne Korsmo. It is a very good modern house. Sverre showed me the design of a new house nearing completion – it looks marvellous [Villa Busk, ed.]. He will take me to the finished work when I return. The client, he says, is special. What a most wonderful pair both Sverre and Ingrid are. Left by taxi to hotel, repacked slides (2 hrs) – and Norway is over – unfortunately!”
This interview took place at the Alvar Aalto symposium, Jyväskylä, Finland, on 8th August 2009.