Are Vesterlid. Villa Engen – A Framework for Everyday Life

Are Vesterlid created architectural wholes from a series of carefully designed details. Villa Engen is inspired by everyday life, which is articulated in thoughtful architectural objects: a Gesamstkunstwerk. During my visit to the house, I experienced even more how the architecture grows from its significant details. 

 

Everything became in a way part of the framework.Are Vesterlid.1

 

 

 

 

Villa Engen camouflaged by the pine tree forest of Moelv. ©Photo: Normann Fotoatelier (Domkirkeodden)

Embedded on the shores of Lake Mjøsa in Moelv lies Villa Engen, its slender silhouette is camouflaged by the surrounding pine tree forest. Vesterlid designed this 280m2 family house in 1961 for Bjørn and Vivi Engen and their four children, largely exceeding the building standards for a 60s one-family dwelling.2  The way of living and the organisation of dwelling activities in the post-war era was both a research question and an inspiration for him in the reshaping of a generic modular framework into a unique pattern of life. Villa Engen was also the final project of Vesterlid’s twelve year collaboration with interior architect Hans Østerhaug. One year later their architecture won the Norwegian Timber Award. According to the jury, Villa Engen showcased the essence of the material at the same time as using innovative construction with local types of Norwegian wood like spruce and pine.

 

Are Vesterlid, Villa Engen. Plan first floor and significant construction detail façade. (1959) © Photo: Nasjonalmuseet

 

Functional tradition

The softly sloping topography and preservation of the local vegetation were considered the stepping stones for the house itself, resulting in an architecture that alternately sits onto and emerges out of the surrounding forest landscape of Moelv. The shape and layout of the house is defined by a linear sequence of functions and articulated in several stepped volumes in two perpendicular wings, thereby forming an L-shape which encloses the surrounding nature more into the domestic realm. 

In this regard, the plan layout is in my opinion reminiscent of traditional Norwegian farmhouses of the 11th century: klyngetun (cluster-farm) which organises different buildings in a cluster around a grassy place, according to the sloping of the terrain. Yet him being the son of Arne Vesterlid, rector of the Norwegian Academy of Craft and Art Industry, where Are graduated in 1944, he was more inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement than by Norwegian tradition. The plan layout of Villa Engen is without any doubt very radical and functional for its time. 

 

Are Vesterlid, Villa Engen. South and north elevations with various openings to the surroundings (1960) © Photo: Nasjonalmuseet

 

The single storey bedroom wing is parallel to the public road, oriented towards the east and rests with slender wooden columns on elegantly moderated concrete pillars onto the site. In contrast, the perpendicular living wing is divided into different volumes with adaptive widths and heights. The kitchen area and the submerged fireplace both rest on a far more prominent concrete base and are connected with the earth, as indicating and accentuating the entrance on the basement level. But at the same time this wing also harmoniously ends in a sheltered outdoor terrace, floating on thin timber pillars and sensitively growing into the irregular nature.

 

Half-enclosed wild garden, bedroom wing (west elevation) on moderated columns. © Photo: Pauline Truyens

 

The proportions of the house (in plan and section) and the window openings are directly derived from the different activities they embrace, expressing a playful and ‘free’ patchwork in line with the Knut Knutsen tradition. Are was taught by Knutsen during the postwar Norwegian Architect Programme and worked for him as an assistant.3 Different infrastructures (benches, tables, cabinets, ventilation) are pushed against and between the outer framework, and detailed as small pieces of architecture: they are totally embedded into the outer shell. This creates a continuous flow and movement throughout the house, which is a quite radical concept in Norwegian domestic architecture. As the kitchen, for example, traditionally formed a space for peace and rest, the cooking and eating zone is the central motor of spaces and movement in house Engen.

 

Plan and sections Villa Engen: concept of built-in functions 36% (black) vs. open space 64% (white).

 

The module as pattern of life

The general constructional concept of the house is articulated in a lightweight modular timber frame structure with modules of 120 cm: a framework for living, not for a theoretical concept. Are Vesterlid studied in 1952 in the US at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and continuously traveled in the US and Mexico. It seems convincing that he was inspired by the American ‘lightness’ of the steel framework and translated this in native standards and Norwegian materials.4  This concept was the key for a renewed thinking in domestic architecture, focusing on flexibility, prefabrication and openness, but also respecting the privacy and security of family life.

I consider the framework itself as the general pragmatic ‘concept’ of the Engen House, as the basic module to organise the everyday life in the family house. Each room has appropriated the structural framework in its own manner, thereby the modular framework becomes in itself a playful ‘pattern of life’ and meets the individual and his needs harmoniously. Wherever natural light and visual contact with the surroundings is needed, the protecting shell is provided with openings and the framework left exposed. While experiencing each room from the interior, all these oddly-appearing proportioned windows become functional and everything but arbitrary. 


While standing in front of the entrance door, two small peepholes lend a first peek into the house – one on adult height and one on children’s. Proceeding along a short staircase towards the living room, a ceiling to floor corner window offers a glimpse towards the wild blueberry garden and surrounding pine trees in the south.

 

Glimpse through the door peepholes and from the hallway window. © Photo: Pauline Truyens

 

In the kitchen, a wide window on eye level between the kitchen counter and the cabinets provides an interesting view towards the north entrance and gives an entertaining background to the act of cooking. Elin Evensen, the current owner, spends most of her time in the eating/working area along the open kitchen and she experiences this as the house’s epicentrum. Are himself also loved spending time in the kitchen, every morning baking his own bread.5

COOKING – Axonometric kitchen counter and cabinets.

 

Open kitchen with eye-height window between kitchen counter and cabinets. © Photo: Normann Fotoatelier (Domkirkeodden)

 

Detail drawings of hallway cabinets, sewing table and kitchen bench: section, elevation, plan and details of sliding and rotating elements. (Are Vesterlid, © Photo: Nasjonalmuseet)

 

The kitchen is not seen anymore as a small sad space at the rear of the house, but the driving motor of the modern house where the whole family gathers and participates. While sitting at the kitchen table, every window opening falls in place: one can lead one’s gaze along the entrance staircase into the varying depth of the living room, fireplace lounge and outdoor terrace. But you can simultaneously observe the perpendicular bedroom wing and the half-enclosed nature through the south facing windows.

EATING, WORKING, ORGANISING – Axonometric hallway cabinets, sewing/working table and kitchen bench.

 

Central eating area, connection with open kitchen and deep perspective into the living room wing. © Photo: Normann Fotoatelier (Domkirkeodden)

 

Detail drawings of open kitchen: elevations, sections, plan and details. (Are Vesterlid, © Photo: Nasjonalmuseet)

 

When walking through the bedroom hallway, one is surprised to discover some generous views towards the playful living room wing that cheers the otherwise monotonous functional hallway. All these examples are very carefully chosen and embedded in the shell, giving the dwelling a vitality and flow throughout the space. “The house is complete in itself, you hardly need any additional furniture to dwell here”, according to Elin Evensen.6

SLEEPING, PLAYING – Axonometric with children’s cabin-like bedrooms.

 

Cabin-like children’s bedroom: room-wide window and integration of desk, storage and bed. © Photo: Normann Fotoatelier (Domkirkeodden)

 

Detail drawings of children’s cabin-like bedrooms: section, elevation and plan. (Are Vesterlid, © Photo: Nasjonalmuseet)

 

Besides these sensitive openings to the context, the framework also contains plenty built-in infrastructures for daily use. The kitchen walls are a composition of curious cabinets in all kinds of shapes and a hidden sewing table and fixed benches are located by the south facing window. The introverted fireplace lounge is submerged and surrounded by low seatings with square cushions, all fitting in the topography of the room – a feature echoing the fixed furniture in traditional Norwegian farmhouses.

GATHERING, RELAXING, READING – Axonometric submerged fireplace lounge, cabinets and bookshelves.

 

Submerged fireplace lounge with fixed modular seatings. © Photo: Normann Fotoatelier (Domkirkeodden)

 

Detail drawings of living room bookshelves, cabinets and bench: elevation, plan and essential detail cabinet door handle . (Are Vesterlid, © Photo: Nasjonalmuseet)

 

On technical level, the air ducts of the heating system are built-in in the floor and ceiling – designed in collaboration with Bjørn Engen, an engineer running a ventilation firm. Program and form are seamlessly intertwined into the tiniest details. Are Vesterlid had an infinite knowledge of construction – he taught the construction course Bygge II in the Oslo School of Architecture and Design – and it is clearly visible that the details make his architecture, not vice versa.

Villa Engen is a very complete and thoughtful composition of elements in an architectural whole or Gesamtkunstwerk, nothing is arbitrary or left to coincidence. This precision was one of Vesterlid’s key characteristics and while discussing with carpenters on site, he often concluded: I go back to my drawing board and go check with reality.7

 

 

 

Footnotes

1 Berre, Nina; “Reserved Reservoir.” As Built. Project: Villa Engen, architect: Are Vesterlid. Oslo: Pax Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, 2014, p. 35-36.

2 Berre, Nina; “Reserved Reservoir.” As Built. Project: Villa Engen, architect: Are Vesterlid. Oslo: Pax Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, 2014, p.19.

3 Berre, Nina; “Reserved Reservoir.” As Built. Project: Villa Engen, architect: Are Vesterlid. Oslo: Pax Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, 2014, p. 27.

4 Berre, Nina; “Reserved Reservoir.” As Built. Project: Villa Engen, architect: Are Vesterlid. Oslo: Pax Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, 2014, p. 36.

5 Interview with Professor and Architect Aina Dahle on 24 October 2018. 

6 Interview with Elin Evensen, current owner Villa Engen, on 27 November 2018. 

7 Interview with Professor and Architect Aina Dahle on 24 October 2018. 

 

Bibliography

Berre, Nina; Lending, Mari. As Built. Project: Villa Engen, architect: Are Vesterlid. Oslo: Pax Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, 2014.

Mjelva, Håkon. “Are Vesterlid og Hans Østerhaug: Enebolig i Moelv / Villa Engen. Byggekunst 8/1961, Oslo: Norske Arkitekters Landsforbund, 1961. p.249-251. https://www.arkitektur-n.no/prosjekter/enebolig-i-moelv?cat=2710 (last accessed 15/09/18)

Rognlien, Dag. Treprisen 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1986 = Thirteen Norwegian prize-winning architects. OSLO: Arkitektnytt, 1988. p.33-48

Tallaksen, Harald; Knudsen, Eirik. Vernacular typologies in the south of Norway. Aust-Agder Province Heritage Authorities, 1995.

Perann Sylvia Stokke, “Are Vesterlid”, Store Norske leksikon, accessed 28 September 2018, nbl.snl.no/Are_Vesterlid

Visit of Villa Engen and interview with the current owners Are Koppang and Elin Evensen, the current owners of Villa Engen (4th owners) who bought the property in 2003 and lived there with two daughters, a cat and a dog. They have renovated and recycled different parts of the house, but in the spirit of the original design by Are Vesterlid. (27/09/18, Moelv)

Interview with Professor and Architect Aina Dahle on 24 October 2018.  

 

Pictures

Online archive of The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design: http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no

Normann Fotoatelier (Domkirkeodden) on DigitalMuseum: https://digitaltmuseum.no

Author’s own archive.

 

Drawings

Author, based on original drawings Are Vesterlid from Archive Nationalmuseet.