Arne Korsmo and Sverre Aasland. Havna allé – Between modern and tradition

The twelve villas in Havna allé, designed by Korsmo and Aasland, mark an important milestone in the development of Functionalism in Norway. An analysis of their development, and features borrowed from the past, as well as from contemporary sources, can help to understand the transition to a new era in Norwegian contemporary architecture.

1. Havna allé 9 

Walking along Havna allé, in the district of Blindern in Oslo, is to walk on the threshold between two different phases in architecture. On the left-hand side villas feature timber panelling, pitched roofs, and (stereo-) typical Scandinavian suburbs; on the right-hand side of the street sits a more compact version of the International Style villas’ neighbourhood that spread around Europe in the 20s.

It takes only few seconds, though, to get over the familiarity with the modernist forms, and realise that even the houses on the left might have sparked the same amount of curiosity – and perhaps disapproval – when they were first proposed and then built in 1933.

A deeper look reveals that they share more in common than not with their “siblings” on the opposite side of the street, and are, in fact, a part of the same development, representing variations of the same modernist ideals introduced in Norway by a group of architects who at the time were looking at the new current in Europe as a basis to create a new type of architecture.

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The history of Havna allé starts in 1928 when the young architects Sverre Aasland and Arne Korsmo decided to start a practice together shortly after having completed their education and their first working experiences.

Sverre Aasland trained as a bricklayer and studied architecture in Munich.  We can speculate that here he came in touch with modern architecture, even though his previous works mainly consisted of neoclassical building.

2. Havna allé 1

Arne Korsmo, trained as a civil engineer, formed himself as well within a classical education, as shown in his diploma project, but he soon developed an interest in the Modern Movement ideals spreading at that time. His first working experience was in 1927 at the office of Ellefsen and Bryn; in the same year, Johan Ellefsen was among the architects introducing Modernism in Norway.  Ellefsen’s article on Byggekunst appears to have influenced Korsmo’s formation.  The importance of “taking into account the climate and terrain, […] materials, […] architect’s personal contribution”1 in the pursuit of a new architecture that is not only following the modernist principles but also “distinctively national, local and personal”2 features prominently in his later works.  Another important step in his career was the trip around Europe.  The Gothic architecture in Prague, the sense of festivity in Italian villages, the simplicity and treatment of light and materials in Mendelsohn’s works, the encounter with Louis Kahn, as well as getting in touch with Dudok and his new Hilversum town hall, of whom he admired the “simplicity in solving the problems”3, all played an important part in the idea of architecture that Korsmo was developing.

The young practice immediately received many commissions for homes and interior design.  Their first projects were mixing traditional materials and details, such as timber and pitch roofs, with modern ones: concrete, corner windows, “screen-like treatments of the walls”, and flat roofs4. Their drive towards a new type of architecture was clear, but they also had to mediate modern shapes and materials with what could be accepted by their clients and the public.

3. Havna allé 3

In 1929 they collaborated on the development of the area of Frøen/Blindern in the Aker municipality.  Initially, they mainly dealt with the masterplan of the area and the conception of a home prototype that the other architects would have to follow to complete the neighbourhood.

A year after, as a successive step in the development, the wholesaler Axel Dammann commissioned them to build an estate of 14 one-family houses along Havna allé, as well as a villa for himself (and his art collection) at the end of the road.  This pivotal moment in the architects’ career finally provided the chance to push the boundaries of their architectural research.

4. Villa Dammann

The first project presented by the two architects for “Havnen” was a simple plan showing the arrangement of the 14 houses in relation to the street.

The layout showed a rhythmic series of volumes arranged along both sides of the road. Each building was oriented with a north-south axis and, from the few details of the project, it can be surmised that living areas and terraces were facing south, while the entrances were oriented to the north.

Analysing the area of the project, we can see that the only constraints imposed on the two architects were the position of villa Dammann at the end of the street, as well as the concentration of buildings in relation to fire regulations. They initially exceeded the density limit, but at a later stage, an exception was granted to the two architects in order to complete their project5.

Between 1931 and 1932 Aasland and Korsmo completed the initial proposal for the whole estate and presented it to the municipality for approval.

Debate continues whether the 14 houses were based on a single model or varied in shape, but what can be seen from the initial drawings is their functionalist character, based on flat roofs and pure volumes.

These modern features were initially not accepted by the Aker municipality, which had a fundamental role in the successive development of the project.  Researching dialogues among the actors and modifications in the project, the municipality greatly influenced the position, the shape and the material for some of the houses designed by the two young architects6.

Ultimately a compromise was found.  The houses on the east side of the street, visible from the nearby train tracks, had to maintain a more traditional character, while on the opposite side, less visible, they were allowed a more experimental approach.

Area plan (1:1000). Houses at no. 7 at no. 8 are not part of the development.

If we compare the plans of the built houses, we can notice how the compositional schemes are however quite similar on both sides of the streets, sharing the same succession of rooms. At the entrance of the building there is a small room that acts as a threshold between outside and inside; this can easily be connected to the traditional typological element of the vindfang, necessary in cold weather as an insulation device. The entrance area is directly connected to the kitchen and the living room, both connected to the dining room (sometimes the two latter merge in a single open space).
Often, the passage from kitchen to dining room is mediated by a small room, which can be comparable to the “office”, the space in typical Biedermeier houses where the attendants could make the food ready to be served at the dining table next door.

It is interesting to note how this inclusion of traditional spaces can be found in the work of other key figures of Modernism, among which Adolf Loos, who himself developed part of his architecture by combining traditional types and materials with more modern ideas.  Whether Aasland & Korsmo were aware of these examples or not, it is worthy to note how the transition between vernacular and modern was, at the time, a concern in many places.

As mentioned, the main orientating principle of each building is its position in relation to the south; this causes the position of the entrance door to vary. The entrance is connected to the street, in relation to the overall arrangement of the internal spaces and the circulation between them.

Another common element unifying many of the houses is the importance given to the hearth as a focal point in the plan layout.  By looking at the archival drawings of every single house, it emerges how the fireplaces were usually designed ad hoc for each of them, often as an exploration of different languages and personal aesthetic expression. The placement of the hearths varies as well  Sometimes it is in the more traditional position at the centre of the house, but often it is located right within an external wall or even in the façade, resulting in a stronger expression of the volumes and in a challenge to constructing methods and conventional layouts.

Diagram showing the organisation of ground floor spaces and entrances, in relation to Havna allé (in the centre).

Walking along the street today, despite seeing the complex as a whole, at first glance one notices that the houses seem to be divided into two different groups according to their position: more traditional ones on the east, more unconventional ones on the west.

Havna allé 1 & 2: street façades and plans (1:100). The difference in the external language of the two houses at the beginning of the street is an example of the motif of the whole development. It is also possible to notice the difference in structure and plan organisation.

To understand the reasons for this impression of contrast requires analysing the houses according to their single constitutive elements: types of windows, the shape of openings, material and constructive techniques, colours, plan layouts, roofs, etc.  From these constitutive elements, a pattern book emerges, from more traditional to more innovative, supporting the claim that for each house the architects combined them in different ways and with different reciprocal relations.  As a conclusion, a house is more of a modern or traditional type depending on the composition of these chosen elements. 

5. Havna allé’s elements: collage showing a collection of fundamental elements found in the site, more or less relating to vernacular examples or more innovative ideas.

The relation to tradition, or distance from it, is not only expressed on a visual level but also in terms of functionality and use of spaces, as already mentioned in regards of the plans layouts, as well as in terms of structure.  The vernacular typology of a timber structure laying on a stone basement is in some cases used exactly as per tradition – with the only exception being a plinth made of concrete instead of stone.  In other situations, the concrete structure starts to gain more importance and expands to upper storeys and wings of the houses, reaching the point of being the only material used in the construction (or in a combination with masonry), covered by a uniform coat of render to emphasise the pure volumetry, as it happens for many of the houses on the right-hand side. A similar evolution can be found in the roofs, varying from timber-structure hip roofs, low pitch roofs, single-pitch roofs (hidden by walls), and actual flat roofs in concrete.

Havna allé 2, 10 & 11. Diagram showing different types of structure (and relative external material expression) in the houses; dark grey is plastered concrete/masonry, light grey is timber.

The causes for this differentiation in style is not clear.

We already mentioned how the municipality played a role in the final outcome of the estate. According to Norberg-Schulz, however, the other main reasons for the divergence might be the different approach and sensibility of the two architects.

Looking at his preceding and successive works, Aasland appears to aim for simplicity and compactness, as well as more conventional solutions. On the other hand, Korsmo’s language is more original and personal; his interiors show a distinctive “feeling for details and effects”.  The rooms transformed into “dynamic compositions of different elements”, collages of surfaces and forms, use of colours, and modern furniture like tubular steel7.

It seems natural, therefore, to assign the more conservative solutions to Aasland’s hand, and the more unconventional ones to Korsmo’s.  This seems also partly confirmed by Korsmo himself, who used to refer to villa Dammann as his own work, while not showing much interest for the houses on the left side of the road (it has to be added that Korsmo always gave credit to Aasland for other instances of their work together, as to highlight how this shouldn’t be read as an attempt to diminish the latter’s role in their practice)8.

6. Havna allé 12

Villa Dammann is certainly the strongest voice in the Havnen development and can be considered a breakpoint in Norwegian contemporary architecture. We know that the freedom given by the client to the architects was almost total, to the point that they referred to it as their pure creation in a 1933 article on Oslo Illustrerte (significantly titled “«Er mitt hus mitt?» «Nei, det er vårt», sier arkitektene Aasland og Korsmo”)9.

A different thesis is supported by the scholar Erik T. Bøe, who argues for a more important role of external forces in the differentiation of the two styles. We already mentioned the influence of the municipality in the process. In this equation, Bøe introduces also the clients and developers as essential factors determining the styles.

Houses 4, 5 and 6 shared the same builder and first owner, and we have no reliable sources on the influence of the latter on the project. Instead, the houses 2, 9, 12 and 15 were carried out by another contractor, Age Kynø, who was more active and influential in the design of the buildings. In particular, in the house at number 2, belonging to Kynø himself, we can see a variation from the preliminary design: the initial square plan becomes rectangular, and a pitched roof is added, after doubts on the effectiveness of flat roofs10.

As for house no. 9, Villa Bryn, it is unknown if the owner made specific requests regarding the design, or simply left the two architects the freedom to design the building reinterpreting his maritime profession. In the house, there are command bridges, bunk beds, and other details that reflect not only the client’s passion but also the fascination for ocean liners typical of many early modernist architects. However, we know that the living room in the initial project was on the ground floor and was later moved to the upper floor at the request of the client. One of the other requests related to the house was having a view towards the sea, that Aasland and Korsmo solved by placing an accessible panoramic terrace on the roof, connected by an external staircase that in its visual strength recalls the lexicon of Le Corbusier; in support of Bøe’s thesis, some correspondence emphasises Aasland’s role in the design, as this terrace was nicknamed «de Sverre-Terrasse»11.

Havna allé 9, axonometric view. Breaking from tradition, the house has a very peculiar language, leaning on nautical references and typical modernist elements. 

House no. 12, included in the “traditional” group, represents another controversial point on the matter. Korsmo himself lived in the house with his wife Aase This, but he never referred to it as his own design, as reported by Norberg-Schulz12.   Archive drawings of the proposed project clearly indicate Aase as the client for the villa, further supporting the hypothesis that the municipality had a strong voice in the final design.  If Korsmo had been free to conceive his own villa, it is likely he would have done it with a more modern language13.

Havna allé 12, axonometric view. In Korsmo’s own house, the materiality is expressed as a mix of plastered concrete and timber.

In conclusion, we consider plausible that both Norberg-Schulz’s and Bøe’s theses are not mutually exclusive;  they complement and influence each other in understanding the layered development of the estate.  Aside from the differences, the elements of modernity that connect all the houses in the complex highlight a new Norwegian architecture. To cite Norberg-Schulz, “despite their differences, [Aasland and Korsmo’s] houses have a great deal in common, and the partnership between the two architects was unquestionably a fruitful one”14.

Havna allé 3; ground floor plan, elevations and section. An analysis of the building as a whole highlight the mix of elements and their interconnections.
1: The strip window in façade is actually interrupted in structure, for constructive reasons but also to accommodate the internal partitions for a traditional layout based on vindfang and separate kitchen;
2: The traditional layout of day areas is opened up to create an open space, again with the only exception of kitchen, vindfang and food preparation room;
3: A flat roof is partly suggested by the side walls of the building, which instead conceal a single pitch roof with a timber structure (probably needed for technical reason in relation to the weather). The same pitch roof is however expressed in façade by its overhanging, needed to protect the plastered wall.

Furthermore, Havna allé’s modernity shows the maturity of not merely following the rules, but adapting and reinterpreting them. In retaining some of the traditional features of the area, it places the houses in a terrain of the intersection of tendencies, representing the shift in taste and interests in the profession, as well as of the sensibility of the architects. A shift towards a new architecture in Norway happened gradually and contextually, borrowing elements from different sources, in the bid of being accepted by clients and authorities, but also in the interest of not submitting to a style lacking in a personal or local touch.

 

1. Christian Norberg-Schulz, The Functionalist Arne Korsmo, (Oslo, Universitetsforlaget, 1986), 36.
2. Ibid., 36.
3. Ibid., 38.
4. Ibid., 40.
5. Jon Brænne, Eirik Bøe and Astrid Skjerven, Arne Korsmo: Arkitektur og Design, (Oslo, Universitetsforl, 2004), 60.
6. Ibid., 75.
7. Norberg-Schulz, Arne Korsmo, 40.
8. Ibid., 50.
9. “Er mitt hus mitt?”, Oslo Illustrerte (4 mars 1933), 26-27.
10. Brænne, Arne Korsmo, 77.
11. Ibid., 82.
12. Norberg-Schulz, Arne Korsmo, 52.
13. Brænne, Arne Korsmo, 57.
14. Norberg-Schulz, Arne Korsmo, 52.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Norberg-Schulz, Christian. The Functionalist Arne Korsmo. Vol. 3. Norske Arkitekter. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1986.

Brænne, Jon, Eirik T. Bøe, and Astrid Skjerven. Arne Korsmo : Arkitektur Og Design. Oslo: Universitetsforl, 2004.

Bøe, Eirik T., and Universitetet I Oslo Avdeling for Kunsthistorie. Bebyggelsen I Havna Allé 1931-1933 : En Studie I Aasland Og Korsmos Tidlige Arbeider : B. 3 : Andre Illustrasjoner B. 3 (1996): Bøe, Eirik T., 1964- Bebyggelsen I Havna Allé 1931-1933 Oslo : Institutt for Arkeologi, Kunsthistorie Og Numismatikk, Avdeling for Kunsthistorie, Universitetet I Oslo, 1996.

Ellefsen, Johan Fredrik. “Hvad er tidsmessig arkitektur?” Byggekunst 11 (1927): 161-170.

“«Er mitt hus mitt?» «Nei, det er vårt», sier arkitektene Aasland og Korsmo” Oslo Illustrerte (4 mars 1933): 26-27

PHOTOGRAPHS
1, 2, 3. photos by Giuseppe Miotto
4. Teigens Fotoatelier, Villa Damman, Oslo, 1949 – 1960
5. photos by Giuseppe Miotto
6. Næss, E., Semi-detached house for Aase Korsmo, Oslo   (n.12)

DRAWINGS
All the drawings are made by the authors.