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Gathering within the hut by Samantha Summers

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

We each took a match, and one by one placed them into the fire. The flames were a part of us, sealing our friendships and warming us to the very core. Even though we couldn’t see the mountains surrounding us, we could sense the vast landscape from our cave. The hide welcomed us like a hug, embracing us after a tiring journey up the hillside. Feelings of overwhelming warmth and happiness enveloped me as I was passed a cup of rum.

The light from the flames danced across the surface of the wood which transformed the room; simultaneously my feelings of weariness disappeared. As Sverre Fehn writes, ‘The open fire gives beauty to experience’ (1983, p.50). Within minutes the dark, cold space became a welcoming environment and altered my mood. The carved timber shell was illuminated and gave the impression of warmth and security.

We were unaware of our surroundings and focussed upon the gathering point. During the day however the large glazed wall allowed the Nordic light to penetrate the space, opening the room to the landscape. Rather than focussing inwards on the material and the textures and our own feelings, our eyes were drawn out towards the valley and away from the confines of the room. Suddenly we had an orientation and we were a part of something much bigger.

‘Light manifests that space which things and life inhabit, and Nordic light thus creates a space of moods.’ (Norberg-Schulz, 1996, p.2)

There is a unique quality of light in the Nordic realm, as discovered by the painters in Skagen in the late 1800s. They gathered at the northernmost point of Denmark to discover the wonder of the light on the sand and the waves and to capture the landscape on canvas. Much like the way the Skagen painters observed the light through its reflection on the landscape, the light interacting with the materials and surfaces at Snøhetta’s Reindeer Pavilion highlights the tectonic quality of the composition. In his text ‘Atmospheres’, Peter Zumthor describes the beauty of light through its interaction with objects: ‘daylight, the light on things, is so moving to me that I feel it almost as a spiritual quality’ (2006, p.61). It is through the reflection and shadow cast over ‘things’ that he acknowledges the beauty of light: the interplay between light and surface, the absence of light and shadow. The texture of the material within the space is accentuated by the shadows that form upon its surface.

The organic sections of pine interlock to form a seating area and create a warm, cavelike interior. The internal space is insulated by the material and the visitor feels physically and psychologically warmer as they enter, taking refuge from the harsh Nordic winds. Traditional shipbuilding techniques were used to construct the seating which links to the local traditions and retains a sense of craftsmanship which is so vital in Norwegian culture.

A sense of scale.

I halted for a brief moment; I absorbed the scene. Only the sound of padding footsteps and clicking cameras broke the silence. It was not an eerie silence, but a silence of reserved dignity. Suddenly I felt uncomfortable standing beneath the grand vaults of the ceiling and decamped to the back of the pews where the undulating ceiling tucked gently in to the timber slats behind me. Here within the concrete womb I felt safe and nurtured; I was in my cave, observing the world from its shelter.

On entering the main hall at Jørn Utzon’s Bagsværd Chuch, one’s eyes are drawn up and out towards the heavens. The roof lights concealed above the undulating ceiling allow light to diffuse across the surface of the vaults down to the congregation below evoking the sense of a higher being. Light is the tool through which Utzon metamorphosed the structure into a transcendent realm.

Bagsværd possesses a timeless quality which does not follow style or pastiche, but uses materials simply and honestly. Although the palette of materials is uncomplicated, Utzon was appreciative of their inherent characteristics and each material was manipulated and finished in differing ways according to function and texture. As Utzon claims, ‘we have to be able to understand the structure of wood, the weight and the hardness of stone, the character of glass’ (Weston, R. & Utzon, J., 2002, p.11). This is seen in the rough, painted, boardmarked concrete vaults which form a dialogue with the smooth, grey, precast concrete columns so the user reads the meeting between heaven and earth. On a more tactile scale, Utzon utilised smooth, bright blue porcelain tiles for the hand rails at Bagsværd. The smooth surface counters the roughness of the walls and guides the hand along the rail; at the corners they break allowing the visitor to turn the corner.

‘A constructive thought is the nerve of an idea, but it is realized through its construction. It dictates a precise dimension and selection of material.’ (Fjeld, P. & Fehn, S.,1983, p.40).

Ultimately, the tectonic quality of a design is read through the weight, density and mass of materials. A visitor reads the physical and perceived strength and warmth of the structure through the use of texture and surface. The inherent properties of a material (how it ages, how it is finished…) creates a poetry of construction which is expressed clearly and honestly. The ‘idea’ is revealed through the tectonic resolution, the unique way in which materials are crafted together to form a structure. Architects have the opportunity to translate the narrative into the built form through the careful selection of materials and the detailing of junctions. Through light and materiality, the space transcends from an ordinary structure to a place of poetic simplicity.

  • Fjeld, P. & Fehn, S. (1983). Sverre Fehn : the thought of construction. New York: Rizzoli.
  • Norberg-Schulz, C. (1996). Nightlands : Nordic building. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press..
  • Weston, R. & Utzon, J. (2002). Utzon : inspiration, vision, architecture. Hellerup: Blondal.
  • Zumthor, P. (2006). Atmospheres : architectural environments, surrounding objects. Basel Boston: Birkhäuser.
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