Sverre Fehn. Hedmarksmuseet – Learning from Scarpa

No one can deny –either in Norway and the outer world- that Sverre Fehn’s Hedmarksmuseet in Hamar (1967) is a top masterpiece in the field of restoration and dealing with the past. Far from calling it plagiary, it is obvious that there is a strong influence of the works by Italian architect Carlo Scarpa in the same field, and also of his way to understand the restoration of a building and relating this with exhibition design.

Sverre Fehn: Hedmarksmuseet in Hamar      formigo

Carlo Scarpa (1906 – 1978) is often defined as a unique and rare figure, a Venetian architect educated during the boom of modernism who managed to stay in two different –and opposite- worlds: Europe’s mainstream modern movement and the anachronistic, hermetic and singular universe of Veneto after World War II. During his career as an architect and designer, Scarpa successfully joined and merged both traditions, refusing the lack of detail and material poorness of radical modernism. In the 1950s, he changed the way for architectural restoration and renovation projects, with works that, instead of simply fixing problems, transformed and gave new meaning to old buildings. Two main works in this topic are the addition to Gypsoteca Canoviana in the 1955 and the renovation of Castelvecchio in Verona, finished in 1975.

In the field of exhibition design, Scarpa clearly stands out in his time: each piece in a museum must be a cult object. Each piece must be displayed in a singular way that gives a new and wider meaning to the object itself. The architect not only must decide which is the best way to show each piece, but also design the structure to display it. Carlo Scarpa is often depicted as half goldsmith and half architect.

BW_CARLO SCARPA_3        4a45ab8f39d98f099fd27195b8d1f6a6

Sverre Fehn, born in the south of Norway in 1924, is somehow also the son of a tradition that is very different from the rest of Europe. Far from trying to establish an analogy between Venice and Scandinavia, I think it is important to point out the fact that in Nordic countries more importance is given to design and crafts and its relation to architecture, even in the case of Sverre Fehn, who always refused somehow to be depicted as a “Norwegian” or “Nordic” architect.

Fehn’s building in Hamar is not only a notable work in the field of restoration. It was commissioned in 1967, and its design followed during all his career. The architect’s main strategy is to build a concrete promenade that allows the visitor to go through the building without actually stepping on it. This structure also goes in and out of the museum, and gives a wider dimension mixing exterior with interior spaces.

second floor plan    third floor plan

Nothing comes from nothing.

While Carlo Scarpa’s renovation project in Castelvecchio is more complex, this strategy is also used there. The project consisted, again, in building an exhibition space in an old castle. Even though, the Italian was more radical, and during the restoration he even removed parts of the castle’s old fabrics, something that Sverre Fehn refused to do. That allows to create also a mixture between in and out.

In Hamar, there’s also an enormous and intense effort in small details that somehow can be linked to Scarpa: it is a museum in which every object is somehow displayed in a different and accurate way. The objects themselves –everyday stuff from the middle ages- would have a very different value if they were displayed in a mainstream archaeological museum building anywhere else. Sverre Fehn thinks about which is the best way to display each object, depending on its size, its importance and its plastic qualities: no matter if it’s a piece of leather, an agricultural tool or a religious object. Fehn displays each one in a new way, somehow exaggerating the value of it.

It is a fact that the value of an object changes depending on the way it is displayed.

P1060024     hamar     P1060056

Throughout all the works by the Italian architect, this emphasis on reinventing the way of displaying objects is a constant issue. In fact, it is one of the landmarks of his architecture in the field of exhibition spaces design. Not only in the Gypsoteca or in Castelvecchio, but also in other projects: it is hard to believe that Sverre Fehn hadn’t been influenced somehow by Scarpa’s way to display the columns in Palazzo Abatellis or religious objects in Correr Museum, both from the 1950s.

scarpa2        scarpa1


There is no evidence in Fehn’s archives of a close study on the work by Scarpa so far. We can say somehow that both Sverre Fehn and Carlo Scarpa are in two different stages of a tradition in the field of restoration that was developed during the second half of the XXth century and still exists nowadays.


Further reading

Scarpa: gypsoteca canoviana

Scarpa: Castelvecchio

Fehn: hedmarksmuseet


Credits/ information sources:
Sverre Fehn: projects and reflections /ArkitekturN & Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
CARLO SCARPA /Robert McCarther/ Phaidon 2013.
Pictures & media:
All Hedmarksmuseet pictures: taken during the excursion, 09/2015.
Hedmarskmuseet floor plans: from the book Sverre Fehn: projects and reflections.
All pictures of Carlo Scarpa’s projects: from the book CARLO SCARPA.