Sverre Fehn, Geir Grung. Økern alders- og sykehjem – A room with a balcony, a house?

I first came across this building while driving to a site in the outskirts of Oslo during springtime. Laying on a widespread, nevertheless uphill, plateau it caught my eyes easily. Appearing as a horizontal straight line, the low structure sits on top of the hill. Slightly touching the edge, it almost seems as if it is floating – an elegant presence most intense. At that time I did not know this was an early piece by Sverre Fehn and his colleague Geir Grung; in fact, it was Sverre Fehn’s first piece, and their first work together.


The complex rests under the treetops of the great linden trees which stand as the only remnants of the farm that once stood there. Often described with a great deal of poetry, it is said that the elderly living at Økern make friends with the neighboring trees, spending their last years in symbiosis with its branches slowly growing towards the sky.

The repetitive way the trees were planted seems to have had influence on constructing the plan, shown below, which displays a very rational disposition of rooms. All the rooms for the tenants are ordered around two rectangular courtyards. The plan consists of a grid module based on the measurement of the width of the room. The concept of the plan seemingly aims to emphasize a certain autonomy to each room and its inhabitant.

Reducing the floors to only one, with no need of stairs, circulation is possible for those struggling with their physics. By gathering all the other facilities in “cores,” between the rows of rooms on each side, the tenants always have access to the exterior. Either through their balcony, to the outer terrain, or the inner courtyard. Nonetheless, the balcony and courtyard work as shared spaces, preserving a sense of fellowship and collective bonding – still though, isolated from the exterior world. In addition these enclosed fields also bring light into the structure, having the ability of letting sunshine and air flow through the building mass.

“The module of the building is a room. A room with a balcony is a house.” (Fjeld P.O., 1983,)


Fehn and Grung wanted to maximize the sensual as well as the physical experiences for the residents – to reduce the feeling of being institutionalized. By making freedom matter in this piece of architecture, one could suggest they fulfilled making a building that would respect that cause. One sensation while visiting Økern was the variety of possibilities one could have as a resident: You are allowed to choose the silence in your private room or listen to the sound of pouring water by the pool. By choosing to sit inside one could enjoy the daylight through the wide south facing window, or one could also step in the balcony – to link to the outer world. The thick walls enable you to listen to loud music without disturbing your neighbor, but by entering the courtyard you again find a feeling of togetherness.


Is a room with a balcony a house? It could be. I found Økern Aldershjem to be a notable work because the architecture not only enables and dignifies, but also nurtures a profound human need: the freedom of choosing the collective or withdrawal to one’s own private nest. It is not the slender and elegant architecture you are filled up with after visiting here; somehow, it is a feeling of resilience – life still thriving there – as if you have visited a home.

Houses within a whole.


information sources:

Fjeld, P.O. (1983) Sverre Fehn, the Thought of Construction. New York: Per Olaf Fjeld and Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Norberg-Shulz, C. and Postiglione, G. (1997) Sverre Fehn, Samlade arbeider, Oslo: Orfeus Forlag AS

Fehn, S. and Grung, G. and Byarkitekten (1956)Økern Aldershjem’, Byggekunst, 1956, 4, p.89

pictures & media:

all pictures and drawings from: Fehn, S. and Grung, G. and Byarkitekten (1956)Økern Aldershjem’, Byggekunst, 1956, 4,

video taken and edited by Daniel Backlund, videos taken during an excursion 23.09.16