Lunch with the Busks

“Villa Busk is caused by intuition and a number of coincidences.”

The following interview was an attempt to understand the moment when the right client meets the right architect. In this special case because the reason why Mr. Busk came across Sverre Fehn was mere chance and the intention to have a house designed by him, was based on faith and pure intuition.

 

Kjønnøya 21th  October 2017

Ten minutes past one and Terje stops playing his guitar. Astrid was walking down the stairs to the music studio where we all had been for a while. I wasn’t very sure for how long we had been there. Between Pritzker prizes and Artist of the Year we had been there talking and jamming for quite some time. Lunch was ready. We followed Astrid and the smell of a fish soup still boiling, up the stairs into the dining room.

The setting couldn’t be better, looking outside one could see the rain washing way the leafs and showing the beautiful patterns of the Carrara marble that make the centre of the outside patio. The rain was dense and we could no longer see the sea. Inside, it was warm and cozy. The solid concrete wall, and  it’s irregular cuts for the windows, together with the terrazzo floor reminded me of the the exhibition rooms in Castelvecchio in Verona by Scarpa, and gave a certain feeling of shelter. And there we all were, seating on wood table, designed by Fehn, drinking wine and about to start eating.

1989 – Villa Busk by Sverre Fehn
Source: http://ta.no

 

TERJE WELLE BUSK: People believe it was a very conscious act choosing Sverre Fehn to design our house. They are shocked to hear that we didn’t know who he was when we contacted him! (…)

We grew up in the 60’s. So we were kind of hobby hippies, you know?,  and yeah… I mean the Beatles meant everything to me. [laughter]

We were dreaming of living in the countryside, me having a music studio in the barn, our kids running happy around eating wild strawberries from the fields. You know? [laughter] This very romantic view of life.

Astrid got this site from her parents as a wedding gift when we married. But of course [initially] it was meant to be a site for a summer house because of the thousands of summer houses around. (…) This is actually one of the most popular places in Norway to own summer houses.

But then we thought, why don’t we build a house here? Then we would have a summer house and a home, in one!

We had a small sailing boat, which we still have, that we use a lot. And to own a summer house, a boat, and a home… that’s one thing too much, we thought!

Then we decided to build a house in which we could live all year. But we had never, ever been in a new built house, which we liked! We felt that new houses did not have  “soul”. I mean, you know… all these mass-produced, pre-designed houses… that’s what we thought a new house was.

And then we started looking in magazines.

And, I mean, live better, live cheaper, live more expensive… all these kind of magazines… But what do we actually like?  [short pause]

(…)

If there’s something which is done very well… there is a lot of different kinds of things which are good! And we knew that if we’re going into a process… if one starts playing guitar, or drawing, or something. One [has to] go through a very long educational, maturing process. After a while you listen to recordings of what you previously played. “Hum… Wasn’t I better?”

We didn’t know anything about modern architecture so we were very conscious that we had to go through that educational, maturing, process. So, actually we knew, that we couldn’t have too much to say on how the house should be designed. In a way we knew that we needed a house we didn’t approve, or understand. We had to have a house we didn’t like, which we would [only] understand after a while. Because if we understood it fully when we moved in, then maybe [after a while] we would develop away from it. And then I started thinking of… “Which type of architecture, which architect should we choose?” and that was the most important, to pick the right architect.

(…)

People in Norway know little about architecture. I mean, I am teacher so I have some kind of education and we learned about painters, we learned about composers… but not a single word about architecture. Walking through a residential area with newly built houses with all the different styles and ways of expression mixed together, is kind of depressing. People tend to choose the easy way out, because one has to be educated in order to make wise choices.

Me, as a musician, If I was going to do a recording, and I wanted to have a special “sound”. “Which studio should I use? Which producer should I choose?” The best thing would be to call the editor of a “sound” magazine, explain to him what I was looking for and say: “You have been to most of the Studios, Which producer/recording studio do you recommend for my purpose?”.

So I called the editor of and architecture magazine in Oslo and asked – “We have this large, beautiful site on an island and we want to experience “this being out in nature”. Which architect should we choose?”

We had never heard of Sverre Fehn. And the editor said Sverre Fehn. “Is that with an “H” or without an “H”? [laughter]” – It was really with an “H”. [laughter] – “Do you have his number?” – yeah… [the editor answered].

Twenty two fourteen something I [still] remember. I called Sverre Fehn and said – “Hey, people tell me you’re very clever at designing houses.” [laughter] It was at that level, you know? –  “Can you design a house for us?” – “yeah sure!”

Sverre Fehn hadn’t actually any work at the time, he was a professor at the school of architecture in Oslo but he had no work as an architect. (…) We agreed that we would take pictures of the site and come to his office. We went to see him, at Villa Dammann  in Havna allé in Oslo.

SALVADOR: Yes, indeed. He lived there at the time. In a house designed by a big friend and also his mentor, Arne Korsmo. Funny, you mention the pictures. You know, he did that quite often? He would only visit the site after speaking with the client, seeing site pictures, maps, and organising his ideas and dreams for the project.

IMG3_Villa Damman, Arne Korsmo, 1932

TERJE WELLE BUSK: Yes, he did live there, the house by Arne Korsmo. We drove down Havna allé with all this “Funkiser”, which we still don’t like! I mean, it’s way too much LEGO to me! And in the end [of Havna allé] it was the biggest funkis house! Wow!! – “Is this the kind of house he will design for us? then No way!. No!” And we told him!

Sverre and his assistant Henrik, came down [to Stathelle] in November [1986]. After [visiting the site visit] we were so excited, that we were calling them once a week – “How long? How are things going? Can we came to see what you’re doing?” – “No.. uff.. We have trouble, we have trouble…”  – and January and February – “No!, No way!, But can’t we come and see you? You must have done something?” – [you] know? They had to solve all the problems before they wanted to show us.”

In March, they called us and said – “Now you can come in”. In his living room, at the big table was a site model with the house. Actually, exactly as it is now. Not the details of course, not the details… but the long body, the roof, the storage, the tower, the bridge, everything was there. I can’t remember what they’ve were telling during the presentation but Sverre was speaking for nearly an hour to explain the philosophy behind the design. Astrid and I were standing there like pillars of salt, silent like oysters. And Sverre was sweating…

When Sverre had finished we didn’t say a word, didn’t come up with a single question. They told us later! Sverre was exhausted so Henrik had to take over the presentations and after a while  he stopped and asked us “What do you think?”  [short pause] After five seconds we [Terje and Astrid] looked at each other, and said – “This is rock & roll! Go ahead!” [laughter] “We buy it!”.

IMG3_Villa Busk, Sverre Fehn, 1989
corridor view towards east, alignment with the outside tree.

 

SALVADOR: So, as I could understand so far, this was actually the first time, the two of you saw a Fehn project. Before seeing this presentation, you had never visited any of his previous projects or looked at any pictures?

TERJE WELLE BUSK: No no, Nothing.

SALVADOR: So what was the key element, a quality… if there was something, that made you choose Fehn to design your house? What did Fehn had that you couldn’t find in the others?

TERJE WELLE BUSK: As I told you earlier we chose him by recommendation from that editor! We hadn’t seen any of his works. So we, of course, we took a big risk. But I strongly believe that a lot of things in life is caused by intuition. Villa Busk is caused by intuition and a number of coincidences. In retrospective I can say that there are works by Sverre Fehn I’m not a big admirer of… I find our house in many ways different from many of his houses.

When we decided to go for the “pre-project”, we wanted to make Sverre understand who and how we were as human beings rather than talking about windows and how big the living room should be… I remember saying to him “We don’t want an ordinary house, we want a place to be”. Astrid and I have spent all summer holidays on the islands out here. We love the moss, we love the junipers, the rocks, the pines, the smell of wood burning, the sound of seagulls…

Actually we wanted a big glass bowl over the site, summer temperatures inside all year. Then we could walk around wearing T-shirts barefooted listening to Beatles, Eagles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin! “Sverre Fehn, design a house in which we can go for a walk!”.

ASTRID BUSK: (speaks in norwegian, mentioning Henrik)

TERJE WELLE BUSK: Henrik, he was very important because he was the assistant, the only one working at the office, so those two, they designed this house. I mean, he’s younger than us, but somehow, from the same generation, so I think he was a kind of translator between us and Sverre Fehn. Because Sverre Fehn… he was living in this own world. Absolutely! And Henrik, he gave us all these books about Carlo Scarpa, Louis Kahn, Mies van der Rohe, Gropius … Le Corbusier, all these guys. Wow! And I mean Frank Lloyd Wright. To me Frank Lloyd Wright was a song by Simon & Garfunkel you know? [laughter] Frank Lloyd Wright, he is the best, absolutely the best.

A new world opened up! It was like discovering progressive music in 1970! I was up all night reading about it and looking at these fantastic designs. And what is it about architects? They get crazier the older they get!

SALVADOR: During the whole design process you spoke mainly with Henrik?

TERJE WELLE BUSK: In the beginning during the “pre-project”, we didn’t speak with them, because they wouldn’t say anything! It was like that they locked themselves in a room and wouldn’t talk to anybody. But no, not only Henrik. We got a very close relationship with Sverre.

ASTRID BUSK: But when they were going to design the house, Sverre asked us – “What are we going to bring into the house? some furniture from old grandparents or something?” – No, we said, books, LPs and our clothes. – “Ah! not some old furniture from grandma!” [laughter]

Then he would have to design the house around the furniture. [laughter] Maybe he was tired of designing museums…

SALVADOR: So, not only the house but also all the furniture is designed by Fehn?

TERJE WELLE BUSK: All original. And It’s all protected. The whole house was considered patrimony after two years [1993]. It was listed by Riksantikvaren. So all the furniture is listed and that’s a big relief because then we have no discussions about [buying] a new sofa. [laughter]

(…)

I mean the architecture and the interior spaces are one. Three things we said to him about the house we wanted.  This room [living room], were we could look down to the sea. A place close to the kitchen where we could bring our food in the mornings, and sit outside and have breakfast. And finally a bathroom, a bathroom that was bigger than the usual, a place were we could stay. So we didn’t want this big swimming pool, so we have a very small pool, one only sits there. But its not a jacuzzi!

IMG4_Villa Busk, Sverre Fehn, 1989
interior swiming-pool

There’s one thing we didn’t want. We didn’t want a bar in the house. To me that is bad taste in this environment.

I remember the first time we went to the site along with Sverre and Henrik. Astrid and I had tried to figure out where the house would be placed on the site.

But I mean, after five minutes he sent Henrik over there, to where the bathroom is. Which is forty meters along a steep rock!! He went with this målebånd, this measure. – “What is he doing over there?” – We didn´t understand, but Sverre knew immediately the positioning of the house on the site.

 

We had so much respect for him. During the three years of designing/building we were in touch with Sverre and Henrik maybe every second day. We learned so much. During conversations you asked him different issues, you know, and then his answers were so straight to the point, so obvious that we blushed…

So we kind of had so much respect for him. That was…  that was not always pleasant, until we were self-assured enough to make our own decisions. You had this [grabs a flower pot standing on the living room table and moves it around] ”Shouldn’t it stay here? Should it stay there? I don’t know! Maybe there? OK, we call Sverre and ask.” [laughter]

ASTRID BUSK: [standing up, holding two candleholders and moving them closer to the window by the fireplace] Sverre was coming down to the house one day. These candleholders were placed at this table, and Sverre moved them over there and said, “This is the place”. [laughter] They have stayed there ever since.

SALVADOR: What do you me by being “non-compromise-man”?

TERJE WELLE BUSK: OK, Sverre Fehn was a “non-compromise-man”, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t listen to you. Because he did! And believe it or not, as the work progressed, we had a lot to say in how the house was designed. Like this window [walks towards the upper window on the left side of the fireplace], I mean you have this rhythm on the windows down there, from the bathroom to the bridge. But up here in the living room it was just a square window. And I was looking at the drawings and designs and I asked Sverre – “Why isn’t this rhythm continuing up here?”. Then after two days, new facade drawings containing sketches of windows similar to the ones of the rest of the long concrete wall. So that happened because of my question. I didn’t have the solution, but I felt something…

IMG5_Villa Busk, Sverre Fehn, 1989
Section of Villa Busk + South elevation

SALVADOR: Earlier you mentioned Henrik, and how he was giving you references of other architects. Fehn, used to say to his students, that they should be more relaxed about copying things they liked. Also himself, he acknowledges that he did it. How do you see all the references that where given to you by Henrik and Villa Busk?

TERJE WELLE BUSK: In one of the books about Carlo Scarpa we saw this big Tomb [Tomba Brion] with all this concrete form work. And we told Sverre, that is nice! Here [pointing to the fireplace] this was only a hole in the wall. After my remark he changed the design [pointing at the concrete formwork].

And these concrete shelves, they weren’t here originally. He had the shelves designed for the kitchen, and then I asked if we could have something like that in the dining room wall [pointing to the shelfs] and that was done after two or three years. So it was also our idea.

IMG6_Villa Busk, Sverre Fehn, 1989
View from the livingroom into the Trosbyfjorden

Detail view of an inside room

IMG7_Tomba Brion, Carlo Scapa, Italy, 1978
View of an inside room

People told us, when we said that Sverre Fehn was going to design our house“Oh Jesus you have no say! you have no say!”And in a way it was like sitting back on a motorcycle, driving at two hundred kilometres an hour. Because you couldn’t get off until it stopped! [laughter]

SALVADOR: Was there any moment where Fehn proposed something and you were completely against it?

TERJE WELLE BUSK: Never! I think the unique thing is that he understood what we were searching for…

IMG8_Villa Busk, Sverre Fehn, 1989
South facade

IMG9_Villa Busk, Sverre Fehn, 1989
Detail Cross Section.

IMG10_Villa Busk, Sverre Fehn, 1989
North facade

SALVADOR: The harmony and honesty of how the materials, be it wood or concrete, stone or steel, are used is very present in the house, and in all Fehn’s work in general. But Fehn also considers Light as a material of construction.

TERJE WELLE BUSK: Definitely, the best thing about the house is the experience of the light. And I don’t think we have a house, we have a place were we live. Or we have a house, where one can go for a walk inside.

But you never get the feeling that you’re coming inside, you’re still outside. All the energy of nature just flows through the house. From April till August, I think we never have lights on. You don’t need it! Because the house is designed according to the movement of the sun. In the bathroom, the first room you use in the morning, that’s towards East and that’s where the sun rises. And here of course [living room] you have all the evening sun, Northwest.

And these roofs [pointing to the little roof above the T shaped window] they are very good because you don’t need to have awnings to protect from the sun, in the rest of the year when the sun is low and weak, its ok to have it in your face because it’s so weak. Makes you feel warmer. In Summer, when it gets stronger, and its higher in the sky then the roof makes shadow. You don’t see the sun. You just have all the light.

We don’t ever think of – “oh no! It’s bad weather” – I mean the worse the weather, the better it is to be here.

IMG11_Villa Busk, Sverre Fehn, 1989
Stairs up to the living room

SALVADOR: You know, Fehn said once, that one of his biggest fights is when he builts on a site in the Nature that is totally unspoiled. Nevertheless he strives to make a building that makes people more aware of the beauty of the setting. How does nature, you and the house cohabit ?

TERJE WELLE BUSK: Nature… the scenery, it changes, the light and the colours in the nature are changing all the time, colours in the house also. And personally we think that this is the best time to be here [late Autumn]. Look at the colours out in the nature [pointing out to the landscape] it’s like the same melody inside the house. It’s one universal unit, I mean it’s the same thing absolutely the same thing.

We don´t have a single painting or artwork in the house. We don´t need it. It could, and to quote Sverre Fehn, “destroy the house”

When he [Sverre Fehn] designed the house he had cardboard figures of us in his office. So he could always remember how big or small we were. A scale [stands up and reaches the living room ceiling with this hand.] You see, that’s why, that’s why this is the hight, I can reach it. The Modulor I think.

SALVADOR: Wow, true. Actually that is a clever idea, to have a client as a measuring system.

TERJE WELLE BUSK: Of course, for example look at the kitchen, Astrid is working there more than me, so the counters fits her size. Not some standard measurements.

SALVADOR: Frank Lloyd Wright would say to very tall people, they would ruin the scale. In connection to what we discussed before, these top light chandeliers, I was told there was a story behind. Can’t remember now. Was it Frank lloyd Wright?

TERJE WELLE BUSK: No no, You know, he had a model of this table [living room table] and he was siting there [living room] and looking up to the lights, and sketching. Suddenly he stood up, took the model, put it in the lamp, and voilà!

[laughter]

1989 – Villa Busk by Sverre Fehn
Long section of Villa Busk

 

SALVADOR: How was your relationship with Sverre Fehn, after he finished the building? Did you remain in contact?

ASTRID BUSK: We invited Sverre and his wife to come down to stay overnight and experience the house, but he didn’t want to.

SALVADOR: Not even later?

ASTRID BUSK: He was proud of the house and liked to show it to his close friends once in a while. Once he came down with Glenn Murcott. So he was here from time to time and we also dropped by his office in Oslo to see his works…

We were also invited to the Pritzker Prize Ceremony in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 1997.

But when the house was finished, it was like he didn’t want to get too much involved in the house any more. He had done his job. Now he gave the house to us.

We had to continue the story…

 

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Drawings:

Author

Pictures:

_IMG-1 – http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no
_IMG-2 – http://ta.no
_IMG-3 – http://architecturenorway.no
_IMG-4 – http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no
_IMG-5 – http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no
_IMG-6 – Photo: Guido Guidi
_IMG-7 – http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no
_IMG-8 – http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no
_IMG-9 – Nasjonalmuseet archive
_IMG-10 – http://ta.no
_IMG-11 – Author