Pragmatism Creates Innovation – A Summerhouse by Knut Knutsen

On the Southeast coast of Norway on a rock facing Skagerrak in Portør, the Norwegian architect Knut Knutsen (1903-1969) drew and completed a summerhouse for his family in 1949. The dark stained structure lays modestly and well-tucked in the landscape. It is not easily spotted amongst rocky outcrops and pine trees, and when finally discovered it does not appear as a typical Norwegian coastal house nor a modernist house. If the house does not pertain to an architectural trend or familiarity, how come it so naturally resonates with us?

Besides being hailed for its careful response to place, the intent of this article is to come to a greater understanding of the creation of this house as an important piece of architcture in Norwegian history by exploring the less mentioned and momentary aspect that influenced the process.

The summerhouse at Portør seen in its surroundings. Photograph: Per Berntsen, 2000

 

A. Plan drawing based on Knutsen’s own draft, technical plan for construction and the actual state of the house. Made by author. Click to see bigger.

Knutsen’s initial architectural response to the place was drawn in a detailed plan.A  Although the angled walls might come across as disorderly to the eye, its structure a logical response to the context. It seeks shelter from the southern winds on a low point in the terrain. Here walls follow the edge of the rock creating a northeast facing atrium naturally shaded by canopies. Along these walls, two cabins, a separated privy and open loggia are connected by a roofed seating area with windows facing the ocean. The structure sits on a natural stone foundation, leveled to follow the slope of the terrain. In the northwest end, Knutsen has placed the residential functions with three bedrooms and a laundry room, each with their own door to the roofed gallery. In the living space on the southeast end a kitchen, dining room, working table and lounge are arranged around the hearth. Here, a composition of untreated pine timber walls creates intimate corner spaces where the family can spend time together, or apart, all in the same room.

Photographs: Per Berntsen, 2000

These type of spaces were without doubt of great importance to Knutsen and his wife, Hjørdis, from early on in the design phase. In the plan drawing one can see that all niches were given a purpose and details of furniture were vigorously drawn to the level of including rugs, textures and tailor-made tables. In a collection of elevation drawings named ‘trial house’, Knutsen draws sections of rooms with dimensions and assemblances of furniture, where the textile is even given colours and patterns.B The level of attention that was given to the composition of spaces and furniture indicates that the summerhouse was not only shaped by its surroundings, but just as much the client’s belongings and specific vision of the desirable atmosphere.

B. Detailed elevation drawing by Knut Knutsen, National Museum of Architecture Archive, 1949

Everything had to be done quickly, because the regulations and restrictions were constantly changing at that time, what you were allowed to do one day, was not possible the other, even if you were considered a professional.”1

In the text Et fritidshus1 from 1952, Knutsen describes his project intentions and how the situation was at the time when the house was built. Postwar building regulations were undergoing changes after the war ended and material resources were limited. Due to this, most of the planning and detail drawings of the house was conducted along the way, with Knutsen in the midst of the construction site with the carpenters.3

North facade of residential unit. Detail drawing by author based on Knutsen’s own drawings and annotations.

Facade drawings by author based on Knutsen’s own drawings and annotations.

Detail drawings by author based on Knutsen’s own drawings and annotations.

Based on a careful study of a selection of sketches and drawings10 from before and during the construction, it seems like the main challenge Knutsen and the carpenters faced were working with a variety of windows and type of timber panels. A series of drawings were made to solve the details of how the insertion and framing of the windows would connect with the cladding.C Big windows with rectangular frames were places towards the view and the smaller square framed windows on the other side. In the photograph one can see four different kinds of window dimensions, the cladding on the right is with ill-natured timber, while on the left side prefabricated timber panels.

Photo: Per Berntsen, 2000

Examples from the house of corner box and window frames as drawn in Knutsen’s details. Right photograph by Erik Lundkvist and left by author.

The materials have done their job, shuttering boards, and other materials that could be collected has to a large extent determined the details. I could have gone another way and altered the house with the materials I eventually got, but this also had complications.”1

As Knutsen explains the composition of materials determined the details of the house to a great extent. Although he expressed discontent with the conduction of transitions between the outside and inside and lack of technical precision, one might argue this is one of the very reasons why this summerhouse is a unique piece of architecture. The conjunction of different kinds of timber panels, old shuttering board walls, windows of different dimensions and timber log columns creates a bricolage of elements that together create characteristic details that otherwise would be absent if Knutsen had later replaced them with more “fitting” materials, as initially planned.

Photographs by Per Berntsen, 2000 

There was an urge for innovative solutions precisely because the summerhouse at Portør is a result of the foreseen (the personal architectural intension and vision) and the unpredictable (time, material availability and building policies). Knutsen’s pragmatic on-site approach to using familiar materials in unconventional ways tells a story about an architecture that has its root in traditions whilst at the same time being a contemporary house.

 

Litterature:

  1. Et fritidshus, Knutsen, Knut; Byggekunst; nr. 8 1952, pg.126-129
  2. Summer house, Grønvold, Ulf; The Architectural Review; Aug 1996; 200, 1194; Art, Design & Architecture Collection pg. 73
  3. Knut Knutsen: 1903-1969: en vandrer i norsk arkitektur, Tvedten, Arne Sigmund, 1982, Gyldendal, pg.37 par.2
  4. Knut Knutsen 100 år, Mikkelsen, Ingvar, Arkitekturnytt; 04.02.2004, par. 10
    https://www.arkitektnytt.no/nyheter/knut-knutsen-100-ar
  5. Never Modern, Scalbert, Irénée and 6a architects, 2013, Park Books, pg.108, 114 and 119

Video interviews and reports:

  1. Arkitektenes hjem, NRK, Sept 2018, S04E01,14:00 min
    https://tv.nrk.no/serie/arkitektens-hjem/sesong/4/episode/1/avspiller
  2. Med hytta i våre hjerter, NRK, Sept 1996, 11:00 min
    https://tv.nrk.no/program/fkur03000196/med-hytta-i-vaare-hjerter

Photographs and illustrations:

  1. Interior elevation, Knut Knutsen, National Museum of Architecture Archive, 1949
    http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/object/NAMT.kkn618.007
  2. Sketch and plan drawing, Knut Knutsen, ref. nr. 3, pg 159
  3. Survey drawings, Høglund, Stein, ref. nr. 2, pg. 77
  4. Photographs are taken by Berntsen, Per, Timberwork by Beate Hølmebakk, 2000
    http://www.perberntsen.com/_commercial/_pages/ww_knutsen.php