Speaking through the hand

Taking a closer look at aspects of Are Vesterlid’s home reveals how the often silent architect spoke through his drawings and built work.

 

 

Would you live in a house of your own making?

This question, often posed to architects, was clearly answered by Arkitim – a team of architects constituted by Are Vesterlid, Finn Bø, and Per Torp Ildahl – when they designed the housing complex at Hamar, meant to become home to, amongst others, the architects themselves and their families. Despite the shared contribution of the team, Are Vesterlid was the main coordinator of the project. He spread his influence through the overall design, despite each house being adapted to the family it would receive.

Vesterlid became his own client, the main character with impact and influence in the project of the house he would inhabit, which therefore holds every condition to be considered the perfect case study, the perfect illustration of his architectural concerns.

Are Vesterlid was not a man of many words, as Einar Dahle[1] stated during a conversation about the architect, “he was once asked to write something about the Trepris [Timber award][2] he won in 1962, and he wrote so little that they had to call him back in so he could develop the content a little bit more”.

He was in many ways a builder, which he demonstrated in his work as a construction teacher at AHO. What lacks in written content about his practice, is made up by the amount of drawn work, and by the careful details of his built projects. This article will consist of a reading of Are Vesterlid, not of his words, but of his the drawings together with his built work.

 

Img. 1 & 2 View from the exterior and top view of the housing complex,  Furubergvegen, Hamar, Norway. Are Vesterlid’s house is the second from the right.

 

 

When and why?

In order to make some sense out of the concerns central to Vesterlid’s architecture, it is necessary to frame the design process in its specific time context, on an international, national and personal scale.

The design process for the complex of atrium houses in Hamar began in 1959 and was a long-running project. This becomes clear from an article published in Byggekunst in 1963, which still describes some of the houses as ‘under construction’.[3] This timeline places the design and construction of the houses in the late post-war period, an era marked by the revision of the modern movement – portrayed in Norway by the appearance of the PAGON[4] group – but also characterized by the existence of a wide range of building limitations (such as limitations to the built area), and material shortage.

It is also significant to note that at the same time Are Vesterlid was (in collaboration with Hans Østerhaug) developing the project of the Engen Villa in Moelv (1959-1961), which the jury of the timber award considered to be “especially impressive”.[5]

As we will find below, the kind of issues that are at play in both the general and the most specific context – the conflict between modernity and tradition, rationality and human experience – will be interpreted by Vesterlid in his own way, influencing his drawings, his design and remaining ever present in the choices made.

 

Img. 3 Atriumhus i Furubergveien, Hamar, ‘Prinsipp for boligområde’ (principle for the housing complex), 1959. One of the first drawings produced for the housing complex.

 

The drawing shows a very schematic plan, revealing a first approach that is almost diagrammatic and simply conceptual, with a house that appears to be undefined at this point, since there’s no information about the interior of the building. However, the importance of the exterior space begins to stand out: The courtyard seems to be at least 4 times the size of the built space. The street facade – mainly composed of wood panels – lets us perceive that we are dealing with the idea of an introverted house since the few windows are located in a retreated plane.

 

The conflict between modernism and tradition

It is also possible to perceive from the drawings that the small complex of atrium houses that are built (8 houses from 50 to 130m2[6]) is but a portion of an originally bigger urban plan for concentrated and low-rise buildings. The principle subjacent to the typology consists of the design of individual houses, which share partition walls, thus establishing a close relationship with the neighboring house, and not becoming solitary and detached volumes.

In contrast with the traditional Norwegian housing system of detached houses, which spread irregularly through space, this typology allows for a sense of unity for the entire settlement or landscape, reduced costs of construction, as well as the development of some urban values – like the possibility of defined roads and streets. However, modern developments often come associated with the sacrifice of the existence of a private outdoor space, a value traditionally associated with the detached housing system. 

The principle inherent to the design is then very clear: The possibility of resolving the detached house problem, without sacrificing one of its major virtues.  

This understatement of the overall scheme seems to say something about Are Vesterlid’s position in the conflict between tradition and modernity: He integrates a thought about traditional housing typologies, considering its virtues but in the end, maintains a critical position towards it, readily addressing the issue with the aid of modern solutions such as the typology of the atrium house.

 

Img. 4 Plan of Vesterlid’s house, with the modular grid represented. The different hatches represent the different functions of the compartments in the house, namely the collective spaces, the sleeping spaces, and the service compartments

 

There’s a second aspect that can be understood by the analysis of the houses’ floor plans. Taking as an example house number 2, Vesterlid’s family house: The existence of a very clear modular system is inherent to the houses’ design, which is not only perceptible on the floor plan layout and organization, but also on the structural frame of timber piers and beams.

The 2×2 grid on which the modular system is based is transversal to all of the houses in the complex, granting them a certain consistency, despite their slight differences. The structural rhythm of the load bearing studs alternates between spans of 2 and 4 meters, that establish a clear hierarchy between certain types of compartments. The ‘service’ compartments – refrigerator, bathrooms, washrooms – are always placed next to the partition wall, between the 2m span, thus freeing the facade for more important and central parts of the program, like the main collective spaces. There is, however, one compartment that seems to break this conceptual line of organization: the main bedroom, located at the corner of the ‘L’, is partially within the 2m span. The collective spaces, together with the majority of the sleeping cells, enjoy a 4m wide span and direct openings to the garden in the exterior courtyard. This systematization of measures also opens up the doors to prefabrication, since the timber could be delivered already cut.[7]

 

 

Img. 5 Floor plan of the housing complex

 

 

Making and breaking the rules

The small differences between the houses that have been superficially mentioned before, present a clear proof of the flexibility potential within the established rules. This idea becomes visible after a closer look at the conjoint plan of all the built houses, where the differences in the number of bedrooms, in the layout of the kitchen and living room stand out. This game of flexibility and adaptation is also visible in the position and shape of the windows: Both from house to house the general position shifts, but also in the same house the different windows are adjusted to the space they light.

This adoption of systems, modules and grids and the exploitation of their potential for flexibility reflects a somewhat very rational and modern side of the design, in accordance with the experiences of other architects from the same period, like Arne Krosmo’s Planetveien 12.

But there’s also something interesting to add about this rational side of Are Vesterlid, namely the way he deals with conflicts and accepts contradictions within the system he created. Here stands out the particular design of the master bedroom – the only sleeping compartment partially within the 2m span – where the bed, separated by sliding doors, becomes almost like a service compartment on itself. Perhaps the most strictly rigid rational mind would not be able to accept the bedrooms’ position in the first place. 

 

Img. 6 Axonometric view of Versterlid’s house. The timber piers are the frame for the windows, and the beams in the interior divide the space.

 

 

Img. 7 Sketch of the interior of the house, the beam and the fireplace dividing the living room and kitchen space.

Considering the expression of the buildings themselves, it should be underlined how the structural elements – especially the beams – are on most occasions not concealed, but rather celebrated, becoming an important part of the house’s interior and exterior expression, either by marking the spatial transitions between compartments and spaces, or the transition between different elements of the facade like the wall and the roof.

 

 

 

Img. 8 & 9 Views from the exterior of the house with the detail of the roof and its beams.

As for the materials used, there is a predominance of timber construction, that constitutes both the structure and the main non-structural construction material of the house. There are also some fundamental brick elements, such as the fireplaces and the partition walls. These brick elements seem to be designed in relation to fire security since the brick partition wall would prevent fire to spread so easily across the mass of wooden houses. These materials appear naturally in the house’s expression and are not hidden away behind paint or plaster.

 

 

Img. 10 Sketch of the living room towards the fireplace

 

 

To build a coherent expression

The overall language of the house derives from the concern for the material dimension of architecture: Its techniques, predetermined dimensions and limitations are not a barrier, but instead a means to construct a coherent expression.

In fact, this might be where Are Vesterlid’s real architecture begins, in the detailing, in the understanding and posterior surpassing of a constructive knowledge, that goes beyond the traditional and standard use of the material. The living room and the fireplace become the key elements that clearly depict this perspective. In the living room, the floor is lowered in order to guarantee an interior/exterior continuity that is in a way not natural for a timber house (since the wood should always be lifted from the ground). Whereas in the fireplace, the expressive properties of the material are pushed to the limit, in a way that makes the object surpass is primary function and become much more fundamental to the space and character of the room.  

 

 

Img. 11 Tracing of a section through the living room with the lowered floor

 

Img. 12 Constructive details of the fireplace

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References:

[1] Einar Dahle is an architect and professor at the AHO’s Institute of architecture.

[2] An award that gave credit to young architects who sought to “revise the traditional building methods (…)” and “(…) revive the traditional types of wood (…)”. Are Vesterlid and Hans Østerhaug were distinguished with this award in 1962. 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 

[3]Byggekunst – The Norwegian review of architecture, Norske arkitekters landsforbund, Oslo, nr 2, 1963, pag. 47

[4] PAGON – Progressive Arkitekters Gruppe Oslo, Norge; the Norwegian part of the CIAM, formed, amongst other by Sverre Fehn, Arne Krosmo, Chr. Norberg-Schulz and Jørn Utzon [Byggekunst – The Norwegian review of architecture, Norske arkitekters landsforbund, Oslo, nr 6-7, 1952]
B

[5]ROGNLIEN, Dag. Treprisen 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1986 = Thirteen Norwegian prize-winning architects. OSLO: Arkitektnytt, 1988, pag. 39

[6]Byggekunst – The Norwegian review of architecture, Norske arkitekters landsforbund, Oslo, nr 2, 1963, pag. 47

[7]ROGNLIEN, Dag. Treprisen 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1986 = Thirteen Norwegian prize-winning architects. OSLO: Arkitektnytt, 1988, pag. 39

Sources:

Interview with Einar Dahle, architect, and professor at the AHO’s Institute of architecture, October 24, 2018
ROGNLIEN, Dag. Treprisen 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1986 = Thirteen Norwegian prize-winning architects. OSLO: Arkitektnytt, 1988
Byggekunst – The Norwegian review of architecture, Norske arkitekters landsforbund, Oslo, nr 6-7, 1952
Byggekunst – The Norwegian review of architecture, Norske arkitekters landsforbund, Oslo, nr 2, 1963 

 

Image Sources :

Featured Image: Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections, author’s photograph 

Img. 1: Photo by Normann Fotoatelier/Domkirkeodden

Img. 2: EIE – https://eie.no/bolig/hamar/enebolig/overlitunet-1-a-og-b/72180060, edited by the author

Img. 3: Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections, photograph by Larsen, Frode, edited by the author

Img. 4: Author’s drawing, based on original drawings found at the nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections

Img. 5: Author’s drawing based on original drawings found at the nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections

Img. 6: Author’s drawing based on original drawings found at the nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections

Img. 7: Author’s sketch

Img. 8: Photo by Normann Fotoatelier/Domkirkeodden

Img. 9: EIE – https://eie.no/bolig/hamar/enebolig/overlitunet-1-a-og-b/72180060, edited by the author

Img. 10: Author’s sketch

Img. 11: Tracing of a section by Are Vesterlid. Original drawing from Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections. 

Img. 12: Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections, author’s photograph