Writing through Building and Building through Writing

It’s the 1960s, and Christian Norberg-Schulz is about to become one of the most influential architectural theorists in post-war Europe. While designing a private house for one of the most important Norwegian post-war modernist painters, Jakob Weidemann, his architectural thinking is starting to take shape in his first book of architectural theory – Intentions in Architecture (1962).

The basic ideas of Norberg-Schulz’s architectural theory today can be understood, not only through his written opus, but also his built work, which has received much less public attention.

Villa Weidemann, a private house, designed for Norwegian painter, Jakob Weidemann, and a writer, Anne Marie Weidemann, was a team work, done by both architect Jan Inge Hovig and Christian Norberg-Schulz. Considering the principles used in designing the house, as well as the whole context of its emergence, it is classified as an example of Norwegian post-war modernism. The drawings are dated May 1959 and the house, which is located in the Vinderen neighborhood, in Oslo, was completed in 1960.

Intentions in Architecture was published two years after the completion of the house. In this article, I will try to investigate Villa Weidemann and applied design principles by looking at it through the scope of Norberg-Schulz’s own theoretical postulates presented in the book.

THE BUILDING TASK

In the Norwegian architecture journal, Byggekunst, talking about the project, the architects explain how challenging the task was. They were confronted with very specific requests, coming both from the clients and the plot itself. Jakob wanted a large indoor studio with direct access to an outdoor studio, for painting in the open air. Yet on the other hand, Anne Marie needed a small, intimate study, for her pen and typewriter work, and a library, for numerous books. Also, the plot set its terms that needed to be overcome – narrow, windy and situated on a sloping terrain, with a wonderful view of the fjord.[1] Now, it was up to the architects to come up with a solution that would satisfy all the environmental demands.

Fig.1. Villa Weidemann, photo: Christian Norberg-Schulz, source: Byggekunst 7 (1960)

According to Norberg-Schulz, the purpose of architecture is to give order to certain aspects of our environment. This means that architecture controls or regulates the relations between man and his environment, while creating a meaningful frame for man’s activities. This control has several different aspects[2], from which I would like to single out the aspect of physical control and functional frame[3] for the purposes of investigating this particular house.

PHYSICAL CONTROL AND FUNCTIONAL FRAME

The physical control is basically creation of an artificial climate. By using walls, doors and windows, architecture is protecting man against environmental influences such as climate, light, sound, smell, etc. But it also depends on the human activities that building is providing space for. So the building itself is the functional frame for human activities. [4] In order to explain these aspects further, Schulz is introducing the terms filter, connector, barrier and switch.

In general we define a ‘connector’ as a means to establish a direct physical connection, a ‘filter’ as a means to make the connection indirect (controlled), a ‘switch’ as a regulating connector, and a ‘barrier’ as a separating element. An opaque wall thus serves as a filter to heat and cold, and as a barrier to light. Doors and windows have the character of switches, because they can stop or connect at will.[5]

Fig.2. Analysis of physical control and functions. left: a connector, b filter, c barrier, d switch, e switch, f switch. center: functional zones with connecting filters. right: functional zones of a simple dwelling: living, sleeping, kitchen, hygiene. author of diagrams: C. Norberg-Schulz

Relying on these postulates, the case of Villa Weidemann is analyzed through the following diagrams:

Fig.3. left: Villa Weidemann – entrance floor plan drawn using Schulz’s connector, filter, barrier and switch symbols. right: diagram of functional zones of Villa Weidemann. author’s own illustrations

Fig.4. left: Villa Weidemann – first floor plan drawn using Schulz’s connector, filter, barrier and switch symbols. right: diagram of functional zones of Villa Weidemann. author’s own illustrations

The functions of the house were divided in three parts:

1 Jakob’s 4m high indoor studio with an outdoor extension, situated on the entrance level, on the north side of the house,

2 large living room (for social activities) with dining area and kitchen, half a floor up from the entrance level, heading towards the fjord

3 and more private spaces, such as bedrooms, Anne Marie’s study and the library, half a floor down from the entrance.

Fig.5. Interior of Villa Weideman, photo: C. Norberg-Schulz, source: Byggekunst 7 (1960)

FORM

Previously mentioned environmental factors made it hard to set a conventional body for the house. So the solution was a trapezoidal form, which is emphasized by two opposite side walls, materialized in brick, with a long horizontal line of windows between the ceiling and the walls. The reason for introducing the windows is breaking the volume, so it is not perceived as a mass. Also, the windows are forming a gap, providing light for Jakob’s studio and the living room.

It is neither convenient to split an architectural form into molecules and atoms, nor to consider the whole building an element, because we then lose the possibility of investigating its organization. [6]

The walls were supposed to give a sense of a fortress on the exterior, and close the house at head height against the footpath on the southeast and the neighboring property on the opposite side. They are also directing the view towards the fjord.

Fig.5. Axonometric drawing of Villa Weidemann describing formal aspects of the house. left: spatial relation between roof and side walls. right: formation of interior spaces; voids, barriers and connections. author’s own illustration

In architectural practice, writing is an important aspect of thinking architecture and space. Designing, building and writing should be closely interwoven and related actions. If at some point of a professional life, one of the aspects becomes more dominant, this does not necessarily mean that the others are neglected. They are always supplementing each other.

Schulz’s contribution to the architectural theory is remarkable, and that’s why his built opus should be brought into focus as an accompanying element of his theory, since it offers important clues into his architectural thought.

 

 

[1] Villa Weidemann. (1960). Byggekunst, 7, pp.184-191.

[2] Norberg-Schulz, C. (1992). Intentions in architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, p.109-112.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p.112-114.

[5] Ibid., p.113.

[6] Ibid., p. 132.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gjøsteen, P. (2014), Weidemanns hus av Norberg-Schulz og Hovig, KUNST OG KULTUR, (4), pp.230-239.

Otero-Pailos, J. (2006), Norberg-Schulz’s House. The Modern Search for Home through Visual Patterns, [online] Architecturenorway.no. Available at: http://www.architecturenorway.no/questions/histories/otero-pailos-planetveien/ [Accessed 7 Nov. 2018].

Norberg-Schulz, C. (1992), Intentions in Architecture, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press

Egeland, E. (1986), Weidemann: portret av en norsk modernist, Oslo: J.M. Stenersens Forlag A.S.

Norberg-Schulz, C. (1980), Genius loci: towards a phenomenology of architecture, London:

Academy Editions

Norberg-Schulz, C. (1971), Existence, Space & Architecture, London: Studio Vista

Villa Weidemann, (1960), Byggekunst, 7, pp.184-191.

http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/

https://digitaltmuseum.no/

http://www.oslobilder.no/