Friday, July 18, 2014
In an unsurprisingly teutonic fashion, the manual for my Norwegian registered 1973 BMW R/75 motorcycle opens with the stern charge:
"The motorcycle is a constant challenge
to a man;
a challenge to experience the adventure of a man's
command over the machine- directly, unadulterated.
Over and over again wind, weather and road must be
Now, forty years after the first owner checked his excitement with this sobering introduction, the words still speak to the values of stewardship, appreciation of material and engagement in process.
While no architect would fully presume complete command over a built work or its environment, the opening lines of this manual have provided a useful foil with which to compare to the more adaptive quality present in traditional works along the Norwegian countryside.
Prior to the present age, the mountainous landscape from Sognefjord up through the Trondlag region had created a world where the farm, the boathouse and church arose from an environment fraught with challenges. Bounding through mountain roads, old farms and footholds along the coast still seem, for all their permanence, merely carved from a vast, dark elemental landscape. Current farms still rise up along hillsides at an unimaginable pitch, their scale and organic shape are wholly different to the Midwest Plains, the fertile fields of Europe, or any legacy of agrarian Rome.
In thinking about the particular quality to early these buildings (whose air is still alive in some contemporary Norwegian form) their simple, crisp resoluteness must a product of the region’s environment. Unlike BMW’s urge for man to master the machine, it would have been impossible to have complete control over materials, distance and the elements. Here, the comparatively unrefined structures don’t tower over the world, but rather meld with it and to create their own.
Built works along the coast and valleys certainly have their own romantic and sustaining quality. Indeed, the Norwegian word for courtyard, or the area between small structures is “tun”, which possesses the same root word for the English word “town”. In these rooted places, the broad civic realm and the platonic foundation of mediterranean civilization has been both skewed and drastically reduced by the low angle of northern light. Paradoxically, while the scope of experience of these structures could never be called urbane, for their loss of a broader connection they have gained their own expansive richness and life.
In newly cosmopolitan Oslo, perhaps it will be difficult to reconcile the countryside-based ethos with a dense and globalized future. In the Norwegian Author Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries, the protagonist expounds on the quality of Norse mythology as compared to the Orient noting, “our myths are marvelous, but they’re different. We can’t conceive of a sun that would shine and burn mercilessly. Our fairy tales deal with the earth and what is beneath it, they are a product of the imagination of peasants in leather breeches, they come-out of dark winter nights psent in log cabins with some smoke vents in the roof.” In a strain, the legacy of the “tun” rather than the “town” can also be seen in Mysteries, where the misanthropic and overly romantic main character reflects on Oslo/Christiania:
he didn’t know why, but every time Christiania was mentioned, he thought of the old part of town and the smell of unaired clothing. He couldn’t help it, thats the way he felt. To him it was a stuffy little town with illusions of grandeur, with a couple of churches a couple of newspapers, a hotel and a community water pump with the most arrogant people in the world.
While Hamsun’s opinions would eventually lead him disastrously astray, it would not be unfair to say that in its 1892 publishing it expressed a widely held uncertainty towards modernity and its norms; an undercurrent debatebly still present today. Perhaps this is why even in the post-war forms of contemporary architecture, great builders like Sverre Fehn did not fully swallow the platonic universalism of the modern movement. Though it would be a fault to reject the values of progress, there seems to be a powerful middleground being made in which vernacular has been interpreted in modern and divergent means. This dialogue and unlikely juxtaposition is bound to further create meaningful space while at the same time forging a third way between the leather britches of Hamsen and Oslo’s Armani suits.