Protecting the Cathedral of Hamar

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One of Norway’s most important historical ruins is the Cathedral of Hamar from the middle-ages, specifically from 1200. Today, what is left of the church is incased in a steel and glass framework that was designed by Kjell Lund and completed in 1998. Like with many other museums, the architect’s role is to provide a canvas for the work exhibited and to discourage that the building steals the visitors attention from the star of the show. I ask myself whether this protective structure fullfills this objective?

The architect has enveloped the ruins in a large vacumous space, whose extents are bound by glass and whose plates are held by steel. This space is sacred. The height of the ceiling and its pointy top, the acoustics, the light and the biblical ruins all collaborate to revive the Cathedral that once stood here whole.

Given that the building is largely transparent, one is constantly connected to the outside of the building. Hence this material choice helps the visitor to understand the sense of surroundings in the time period of the cathedral. Unlike other museums, this one doesn’t seem to require controlled and flexible lighting systems. The glass cover allows a generous exposure of natural light to hit evenly over the ruins, rather than targeted spotlights that one might find in other museums. Between the ruins the floors have been filled in with a simple stone paving that allows you to walk freely in and out of the structures.

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Our museum guide informed us that the steel construction was the latest technology available in the late 90’s and that some argue that it is even “ahead of it’s time.” Fair enough. However I personally felt that the steel was too heavy. When the glass cover is supposed to exemplify lightness and transparency, I believe it is vital that the seams and supporting structure does the same. I wanted to enjoy this sacred space. But somehow part of me felt like I was back on a school trip to Kew Gardens.

The program of this project was to design architecture around architecture. For me, these ruins are so precious and have stood there for such a long time that they have almost become one with the landscape. They are so wonderful to examine, so I wonder how difficult it is to design this “protective structure” when no matter what, the pieces exhibited are so interesting in themselves? So my conclusion turns into another question. Would Kjell Lund have been just as succesful if he had encased the ruins in a gigantic glass cube, dome or blob?

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