‘Norwegianness.’ A conversation with Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk

by Alberto Ballesteros Barea and Jingyi Zhang.

[intro]

10:30. After nearly two months trying to arrange a date, we are finally about to meet him. We step into his office, a warm and intimate space dominated by a large wall shelf and a working desk, all in wood. Models, books, papers, plans are spread all over the room. Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk is sitting and discussing with a collaborator. He excuses himself, he needs to make a phone call before attending us. First things first. Just as the past two months, this morning he seems quite busy. But he saves some time for us. A conversation between a Norwegian, a Chinese and a Spaniard. Being a non-English speaker, he doesn’t beat about the bush. He makes his words clear and elegantly straightforward. Just as his architecture.//

It is a great honour to be here conducting this interview. We know you have been –and still are– really busy, so we would like to thank you for your time.

[/intro]

It’s not always like that, is just this period which has been been so busy.

So it goes in seasons-

Yes, more or less. Sometimes you are not as busy as you would like to be, but this fall there is specially a lot to do. There is a construction site that is taking much time.

Is it a competition, a commission…? Are you during the phase of design or are you already supervising construction?

It’s both. I guess every architect is different, but I am very often busy because I want to participate in the team. We are only 4-5 architects sitting here (he points to his desk) and I like taking part in almost everything. In this period I am traveling quite a lot too. I have to be out around two days a week. Then I come back here to do more things, check my mailbox… There are no people in the office in charge of the administration, so I have to jump from thing to thing.


Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk

So you are undertaking different things at the same time.

Yes, yes, yes…The thing I like the most is –of course– sitting down, drawing, and discussing with the others. But then I have to do these other terrible things. (He laughs) I am not very different to other architects with small firms like mine. Maybe in larger offices each person can just have a single task, but here most of the time I need to do many. Even if I’m not very good at some of them.

As this is a small office, the contact with the client is more personal? We have the impression that in smaller practices you can discuss things in further detail than in larger ones.

Yes, that’s a thing I feel very strongly. I am not interested in having an office where people are sitting and doing different projects. It’s not necessarily the only way of running a good architecture firm, but I wanted to have just a small group. We work very close together, discussing everything. Of course sometimes we have to divide some work, but there are no drawings or documents going out of the office that I am not aware of. I started here around 1992 or so, and worked alone for 8-10 years. So I guess it has turned out to be my way of working. I want to have a lot of control myself. That’s why I am so busy, I always want to participate in everything. (He smiles)

We have noticed that your work deals basically with small scale projects. Do you think it is also for the same reason?

It is. Of course, we cannot manage a really large building. When you are 4-5 people, the size you can manage is the one of a cottage or a small work. There is a connection between the size of the office and the scale of the project. However, we are trying to do competitions and get commissions that are not only private houses for rich people. Those are nice projects, but even though we are a small office, is good to reach public buildings as well. In that way, I have been working the last years with the Tourist Route Project. For me it has been a way of working both with a small scale project, but still reaching many people. And of course, coping with nature.


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 Jektvik Ferry Quay AreaJektvik, Rødøy. 2010

These projects you mention are really interesting for us. Pieces of architecture that create physical opportunities for tourists but also add some value. The Tourist Routes works comprise perfectly the characteristics we perceive, as foreigners, in Norwegian architecture. Do you feel identified with this vision of Norwegian architecture?

I do, I really do. Ironically, Norway is a rich country and is being represented by these very small, inexpensive projects in the mountains. Norwegian architecture is about the way one uses architectural knowledge. What we call grunnforskning. Really profound studies of how architecture connects with the place, with nature. When I am in other countries, sometimes I feel that this knowledge is not present. It is something you have to train.

Then do you consider this as a knowledge specifically acquired in Norway, rather than a widespread attitude? All around the world people always say architecture should respect nature, but here in Norway it seems to reach another dimension.

Of course it’s an attitude, everybody wants to protect nature. But on the other hand, it’s also something you need to learn and experience very closely. I have seen it many times in students. Maybe a student wants to bring nature into a project –that’s his personal attitude– but does not know how to do it –he lacks the knowledge. Then he has to learn which mechanisms work and discover which ones he could apply to the project, translating natural relations into his architecture. Then it is more about knowledge than attitude.


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Vøringsfossen Waterfall Area. Eidfjord. 2008 –

And in your case, where did you get this knowledge? From school or it is a self-imposed motivation?

It is a mix. During my education, I had important teachers, like Sverre Fehn, who talked about this. But at the same time I very often think it’s quite personal. When I was a little boy, I liked going in the woods to build things. I spent most of my time as a boy in nature, so these experiences have left a profound footprint in my personality. Even though this is a profession, I feel that the work attitude I have now is not very different from the joy of doing it when I was a child. It’s a basic and quite personal feeling I have.

You mentioned the Tourist Route Projects, and we would like to focus on one in particular: In Sohlbergplassen Viewpoint, the intention was to recreate the same visual experience as in one of Harald Sohlberg’s paintings. How was starting to work with a strong reference from a discipline not directly related to architecture?

It was somehow a double feeling. When interpreting a site, one comes with his own senses and experiences, but in this case, I had to relate not only to the site itself, but also to this painting. Have you seen it? It is a Norwegian icon, nearly everybody knows it…

The essence of Norwegian landscape…?

One vision that always Norwegians will be identified with, something poetic and sentimental. I think it is a beautiful painting. But that was an odd starting point for architecture, because we had to relate to a former interpretation.


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Sohlbergplassen Viewpoint. Atnsjø. Stor-Elvdal. 2005

Maybe this approach has some relation with your education background? We know you started in AHO, but after you went to Cooper Union. New York is such an inspiring place, it seems you can absorb everything from the city. Do you think working with references is something you learned there?

More or less. I went to AHO and studied with Sverre Fehn. He himself had visited Cooper Union and taught there for one year. So he was a friend of John Hejduk, who was also in Cooper at the time. I had been struggling, and one semester it did not end up well, I had a crisis. Then Fehn said to me, ‘Maybe you should go to John Hejduk at Cooper.’ He suggested that I apply there, and I think he also arranged it somehow. So I could stay there for one year, a very important year for me. And it was certainly a new approach. Do you know Hejduk’s work? Many people say he is very different from Sverre Fehn, but I don’t. They had many things in common. Hejduk was a New Yorker, a beautiful draftsman, and a poet. And perhaps Fehn was more a builder, but a poet too. So regarding this way of approaching a building task with a reference, I would say I took it from them, both in Oslo and Cooper Union. I think it is a way of working that many architects use in different ways.

Did you find that year any big change in the way in which architecture is taught?

Yes. For me it was like an architectural psychoanalysis. At Cooper they work very differently. I went to a thesis studio and they were working with paintings, literature, movies…always these references as a way of generating architecture. That was the common way of working at Cooper. My experience from Oslo –more pragmatic, more physical– along with Cooper Union –with these abstract ideas–, was in my case a very happy combination. However, when I came back from New York, my crisis continued. I tried to do a diploma, I gave up…even decided not to be an architect. After some time I started teaching at AHO and almost thought –but not decided– that not building was OK, only drawing architecture. As John Hejduk more or less did. It took me maybe five or six years until I did my first building. Then it was like a review of my days in AHO, with a given site, and nature…Pieces started to fit together, and I realized that practice is an important part for the architect. I still think Hejduk’s work is important and beautiful, although with his built works –very few things– I was disappointed. For me his strongest contribution is through his drawings. I don’t know why, maybe because he lacks of this (points to the ground) background.

More pragmatic…

Yes. When his work has been built, perhaps other architects have come into the building process, and it has become…mmm…scenography. By contrast, lots of Fehn’s works have both qualities: he was an excellent builder and still very poetic interpreter of a task.

You have mentioned the importance of drawings in the design process, but what about the approach through models?

Sometimes we work a lot with models, and sometimes less. It depends. But the model approach has been threatened now when we are beginning to do things in 3D. Although I may insist that they aren’t the same thing. It is very useful to work with 3D in a screen, but to work with physical models has always been important for us. A few years ago, we did a project in which we worked almost for a year with a model. That was quite nice. But now we are working a lot more with drawings and descriptions. Not so many models.


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Torghatten Footbridge. Brønnøy. 2009 –

We have also noticed that in your works the structure does not only bear the loads of the building, but also tries to emphasise the spatial experience of the project.

True!

We wonder if this is also something you could relate to the Norwegian background.

Yes, many would say that has to do again with tradition at AHO and Sverre Fehn. To me, structure and construction are the most important. I know architects which work very beautifully with –let’s say– a skin, a layer. But I am not like that. It’s more about what you express when construction is part of the architectural interpretation, and gives quality to the room. I am not that interested –or maybe I am not good at– this plastic approach. I am much more interested in details, if they are part of a whole story. For instance, many clients ask me about a colour, whether it goes this way or the other. (He puts one pen in two different positions) To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter unless it is part of an architectural whole.


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Garden Shed and Workshop. Ullern, Oslo. 1995

Then we could conclude that there is a ‘School of Oslo’, couldn’t we?

Yes, I’ve heard that expression before. Now I’m not sure, there are different studios and teachers working in various issues. I don’t know the situation at the moment. But at least it used to be so. Not only Sverre Fehn, but there were other three or four important professors for my generation. They are part of this tradition, but now there are too many things going on, so maybe it has changed.

It has been certainly fascinating for us to discover this ‘School of Oslo’. Despite representing the very essence of modern Norwegian architecture, it lacks some international projection. When foreigners –including us– begin delving into the topic, what they first encounter are these macro global-range practices, like Snøhetta. To what extent have this large office moved away from the School of Oslo?

I think that a lot of Snøhetta’s projects are really impressive, but they are not based in this tradition we are talking about. Neither is Kjetil Thorsen, who was educated in Switzerland in a different background. But he is Norwegian, they are Norwegians! I think that even when they present themselves, it is important to highlight they come from Norway. It’s their trademark. But it’s not the Oslo School ‘Norwegianness’.

So what would it be the flagship of the School of Oslo? The Tourist Route projects?

In a certain way, yes. Quite many of the projects are about how to relate to nature. And that has always been –even since old times– one of the most important things in Norwegian architecture: how does a house stand on the site, how does it coexist with nature. As I have previously said, the relation between architecture and nature has been fundamental in Norway. Until these days, we haven’t been a country with much urbanism at all. We are not very urban people, so nature is more present than in other countries.


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Sight Apparatus. Sognefjell, Luster. 1997

That is true. Even here in Oslo –the largest city in the country– you can see that people experience nature more often than in cities in our countries. At the earliest opportunity they move to the countryside to do sports, fish, picking berries…The use of landscape is a cultural issue. Is that why the projects have gained a lot of attention?

Yes. The Tourist Routes program has been very popular. I think it was two years ago, when they wanted to have eight or nine new, young architecture firms collaborating in the project. There are 250 offices or so in Norway, so it was quite a lot. The projects attract many people, and many architects feel that working with this wonderful sites and views is something they had always longed.

It is also interesting to see how varied the projects are: different contexts, different practices, different approaches. This diversity enriches the overall plan, in a way which wouldn’t have been remarked if just one office had undertaken all the projects.

I totally agree. Besides, it has also been a great opportunity for new offices to make their way professionally. Throughout this past 15 years, there have been plenty of young firms which have started their careers with these projects, and have grown and consolidated. The Tourist Routes have contributed to develop contemporary Norwegian architecture.

In your case, did the projects credit you some further recognition?

I think the Tourist Routes works have been very much presented in architecture magazines and publications. Hopefully, because they are interesting as projects themselves. But also because they feature so beautiful sceneries. The pictures are idyllic, like postcards. But you know, (he smiles) this good-looking ‘backstage’ is also part of the success. It is best-selling, both for publications and prizes. (He doesn’t mention, but his projects for the Routes were nominated to the Mies van der Rohe Award)

On a slightly different note, in other projects such as the garden shed or the Asker mortuary, we have noticed that light builds up a perfect atmosphere. However, in your texts and website you seldom talk how you deal with sunlight. Is it because you consider it a basic matter, needless to mention?

In the mortuary the work with light was really important. I think I mentioned it in some lecture. The way light is let into the building was crucial in the spatial and also the symbolic experience of the place. It’s quite an old cliché, but light is the most important material. As students, we always hear about that, but one isn’t fully conscious until five or ten years later, when designing. The experience of light must be almost like a feeling when you are drawing.


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Mortuary at Asker Crematorium. Kirkeveien, Asker. 1999-2000

Time is running out. We would like to conclude with one observation. All your work is located in Norway, and that goes hand in hand with the issues we have discussed: the vernacular knowledge, the distinctive understanding of landscape. Would you dare –if given the chance– to build outside Norway?

No, I wouldn’t! Some years ago, we were asked to apply for a project in the United States, but we were not chosen. That was my only chance. I know that many architects are starting to work also in other countries, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I wouldn’t have connection with the place. I would feel lost.

11.25. The interview is over. We start picking up our stuff, but in the meantime, we cannot help asking yet another question. Hanged in the wall by his desk, a superb black-and-white photograph of a seemingly unexplored Norwegian pine forest almost dominates the room.//

Where was this picture taken?

It is not mine! It was made by a Norwegian photographer called Per Berntsen. He is one of the best Norwegian art photographers. His works are a little bit ‘project-like’. (He stands up, and looks in the bookshelf for a book about the artist, which he is eager to show us) This project here deals with the huge forest belt that is among Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. He spent three years with his car taking photographs up there. They were exhibited some years ago in a gallery here in Oslo.

It is definitely a great source of inspiration.

Some might say that Per Berntsen is the master of boredom. I understand, he takes pictures of monotone places. But I like it very much.

It is the best summary of all the issues we have discussed!

Yes! That’s why I have it. (He laughs) I have another photograph. Also a famous Norwegian photographer… (He searches behind his desk, and takes out another fantastic black-and-white image, now depicting a New York skyline) I want to have it also on the wall.

And with these two images, between Norwegian woods and skyscrapers, we leave him. Working. //


foto

Private Library. Ullern, Oslo. 1990-1991

Interview held by Alberto Ballesteros Barea and Jingyi Zhang.
Picture #1 copyright Jingyi Zhang, 2015.
Pictures #2-9 courtesy of Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk AS – Arkitektkontor / site