Talk to me, Superunion.


Well, the first question is sort of an obvious one; how did you find your name? Superunion? What does it mean to you? How did you come up with that name? It means… I guess we wanted to have a name that is saying something about a strong collaboration; we didn’t want to have the name of individuals. We wanted a name that sounded optimistic, and at the same time a little humoristic, maybe. But I guess it’s a bit random what kind of name you choose; you’re kind of in a hurry and just think of something. Now we’re very satisfied with the name, though. It says ..


Istanbul DPEC, 2011 — international competition

.. something about how we think architects should work: As a team, being strong together as a union. So »Super-union« implies that you are more than a mere union? More than just people sharing an office, but a group of professionals really pulling together in one direction? Yeah. So how did you all find each other? It does state on the website that you attended university together, but you didn’t establish a practice together right after you graduated, did you? My partner and I first met at AHO and after finishing our studies we both worked in Rotterdam for a couple of years. I worked at OMA, she worked at another office called Powerhouse Company. We both moved back to Oslo five years ago and we always had a dream of founding an office together. We started also teaching ..


.. at the school together, when we started our office back then; that’s where we recruited most of our team. Like Enya [points to the desks behind him]; she used to be our student. It’s a bonus to know the people you hire from before and very important for us as a small office. So you and your partner never really parted ways? Was it by accident that you both moved to Rotterdam? No, not really. We’re also a couple, so… Ah, okay. How many employees do you actually have? We’re four people, the two of us, one employed architect and one intern. Even though we have been running the office for almost five years we still feel we’re sort of in an establishment phase. Many things are still very uncertain. ..


Kunstnernes Hus, 2014 — 1st prize, invited competition

.. You’re a small office and suddenly you get a larger project and you need to hire people or you lose a project and have to let someone go. Things are moving up and down. So sort of the »adolescent phase« of an office? Yes; I guess it takes a very long time to establish a stable architecture office. As you answered the first question earlier, you try to act as one creative multividual. Still, do you have some sort of specialization structures in the office? One doing visualizations, one doing the details; or does everyone take part in everything? Everyone more or less works on everything, but we do have different styles. My partner for example is very good at photorealistic visualizations; I do more of collage style perspectives. It ultimately depends on the project, but everybody tries to contribute in every possible way. If we grow to become a bigger ..


.. firm we can have more specialized roles within the firm, but we’re still very involved in everything. So you try do work together as closely as possible, but do fulfill different roles in the development of the office as a whole? You can say that, yes. But it was not really planned—it happened organically. So, away from the background of your office; let’s talk about your architecture. To start off with a quote by Archigram: »When you are looking for a solution to what you have been told is an architectural problem — remember, the solution may not be a building!«. This in mind, how do you approach an architectural problem? First and foremost we are concerned about the context of the project. We work on some urban scale projects and there we are not really building the architecture, but laying down the framework for it. There I agree totally with the Archigram statement; it’s a really important job, probably more ..


Ruten Sandnes, 2013 — 1st prize, prequalified competition

.. important than the building itself—but it is a job that has been underestimated immensely in the past. We try to create every aspect of a design in view of the surrounding environment and architecture. In our rapidly growing world now it’s very important to think about context, urban planning, public space; even when designing a singular building you have to work with the underlying framework, you have to see how it works in the context it’s placed in. If you were given the opportunity to design a solitaire, a single building in the middle of nowhere, without real context — what would you do? Would you take the opportunity or would you still search for context, maybe in materiality? Well, no context is also a context. Then we try to create a context. So do you think that there is a hierarchy to an architects work? Buildings first, interiors and exhibition after that? Do you consider different projects being of different value for your personal portfolio? Because we scouted your website and, apart from many prizes and interior designs, there was no realized building to be found. At the moment we’re mostly working on urban scale projects. There we are—as I said earlier—laying down the framework for future building. We won some big competitions, but they take years ..


.. upon years to be completed. But apart from that, it’s very important for us to have a range of scales to work with; I hope we realize some bigger buildings in the future, but I also like planning small scale things, interiors, exhibitions, furniture; precise and detailed. Considering a hierarchy among these I’d say that the underlying ideas are what counts and those are equally important. So, you put as much work into a building or an urbanism project as you would put in a kitchen? Well, no, because of the different levels of complexity of course, but as I said—the ideas themselves have the same importance to us. Do you think that you are developing a particular style of your own? A »design signature« so to say? You talked about context earlier, but contextual design itself can hardly considered a style. There are many architects that use the word »contextual« when talking about their architecture; Rem Koolhas says he works contextually; Renzo Piano says he works contextually—but ultimately builds something that does not really ..


Kitchen, 2013 — private commission

.. serve it’s immediate context but more of a theme that he considers is contextual for Oslo; sort of a maritime flair thing. So, your »style« does not really manifest in how the design looks, but…? Well, I guess it would be mostly the clarity of concept or the simplicity of the solution for a problem. It’s actually not something we think is important to develop. Our work is very different, maybe inconsistent; I think what all our designs have in common is a very simple concept and a clear idea. We try to find a holistic solution to a complex problem. So you try to establish a signature style, but in a very subtle way as opposed to maybe a Frank Gehry, where every simpleton can grasp the authorship. Yes. I think we won’t try to find a formal standard design language, it just impairs creativity in my opinion. Norwegian architecture is renown for its affinity with its surroundings, for example the use of endemic materials and the ..

Asker square, 2012 — 1st prize, open international competition

 .. general focus on resilience. Would you say that your work is influenced by this »cliché« about norwegian architecture? Sverre Fehn for example was a big influence on that »norwegian tradition« and of course our work refers to that; but we try to interpret it in a new, or better, our own way. We try to make our own contribution to this tradition; back in the ’60s and ’70s things were more regional. The contemporary world adds a whole new layer to the tradition that the elders could hardly anticipate back then. But you still wouldn’t use oak wood from overseas if there’s plenty of pine here? Well, we actually did. But it was just for a veneer. Do you use wood a lot? Do you try to use it to its maximum capabilities? There are examples of architects building highrise structures out of wood. Let me rephrase that: Do you have a preferred material? There are a lot of architects working with wood in Norway that try to build housing projects and small highrises in massive wooden construction. But we ..


Vilhelm Christensen

.. don’t really have a preferred material—Wood is not always the best option. We experiment around and try to find the material best suitable for the structure and the context, we don’t have an ideology about material. For us, it’s just as much part of the design as the form or the program is. Do you try to use experimental materials? Would you try to change a design to »sneak in« a material that is relatively new to the building world, insulation concrete for example? We don’t experiment just to experiment, but if its suitable, sure. One particular thing about norwegian architects is that many of them actually start a design by choosing the material and deriving the form out of that. Our approach is somewhat different, as we first make try to develop ideas about the spatial program or make volumetric studies, then experiment, then settle on the best fitting material in progress to materialize the program or the volume—and of course it’s also a matter of building costs. You stated that a strong focus on the material is something you consider »norwegian«. Is there something else you think is typical for the architectural tradition of this country? Something you wish would be more commonplace, maybe become general practice amongst architects worldwide? I think when you speak about norwegian architecture you speak about architecture in the tradition of Sverre Fehn; very contextual, critical, regionalist architecture working very close with and being very respectful towards nature—but the architects working in this tradition are a very small group. The bulk of architectural production is conceived by the bigger commercial firms working together with real estate developers and such. What is norwegian architecture? Is it just this small group or the whole spectrum? I think it is important to not ..


Skeiane Masterplan, 2014 — 1st prize, invited competition

.. label the big, commercial projects a priori as »sh*t« but consider that those offices work in a completely different architectural reality than those working in the tradition of Sverre Fehn as a vital part of the norwegian architectural landscape. One must now build a bridge between the small offices that build beautiful, small scale architecture and the big corporate architecture firms that build huge real-estate-development-driven housing projects. That’s where I see Superunion; to mediate between those two poles somehow. So you want to try to bring the very precise and beautiful small scale architecture to the big scale? Yes, or at least the quality of it. That is very hard to do, though; but if you look at Lund Hagem Arkitekter, for example: They are a quite big office but started by designing small cabins and houses. Recently they started to design bigger buildings but somehow managed to keep their precision and dedication. The problem I see is that many architects of that small, Sverre Fehn affine group just don’t want to either design or even take part in the conception of those big projects. But it is important to try and draw their expertise, because the big offices just don’t have the time and resources to design as thoroughly. That is something that, in my opinion, would benefit architecture in general; and again, it’s one of the directions we want to go with our office. //


Bankplassen, 2015 — invited competition

Interview held by Simon Heidenreich and Kaspar Fischer
with Vilhelm Christensen of Superunion Architects AS.
Images No. 1, 3, 5, 7 and 10 copyright Simon Heidenreich, 2015.
Images No. 2, 4, 6, 8, 9 and 11 with kind permission
of Vilhelm Christensen, Superunion Architects AS.