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Browsing the AJ Buildings Library: Clare Wright on the Archbishopric Museum of Hamar

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Clare Wright, partner at Wright & Wright Architects, tells us about the ‘rich and complex’ Archbishopric Museum of Hamar, Norway, by Sverre Fehn

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The unexpected discovery of a building that touches your psyche with its familiarity and unfamiliarity is a wonderful visceral experience, akin to falling in love. I nearly didn’t visit Sverre Fehn’s museum at Hamar - Norwegian distances are so vast, and it was off the beaten track - but, luckily, I took the detour. The result is that I saw this wonderful building, which continues to reverberate through our practice’s work.

Built on a site of historic resonance, the building raises a treasure trove of architectural questions and choices, which Fehn addressed very poignantly, saying he sought to present to the public ‘what time offers them confusedly’.

The museum site juts into a lake, which from ancient times was a major trading route from Norway to southern Europe, and had been built on repeatedly. Fehn’s commission was to design a museum to display peasant life as well as the archaeology it was anticipated would be found on the site. Building traces could be seen around a great stone ruin of a building, which had been an 18th-century farm integrated into the remains of a 14th-century bishop’s fortress.

Fehn’s development was carried out in phases, and this had a strong and interesting impact on the design. The farm barn was renovated first and the exhibition installed there while the archaeologists carried out their work below and elsewhere on the site. This established an aesthetic of the ruin alongside an archaeological dig with a temporary form of enclosure, which was parodied in the final building. However, this development is about far more than this - it is about building in relation to place and presenting time in a moving and tactile way. In this building, there are four layers, in form, defined in materials.

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First is ruin, which forms the base and is stone - the fortress and archaeological ground.

Second is a temporal layer, composed of concrete and glass. A concrete ramp is separate from and barely touches the historic building or ground. Instead, it weaves inside and out, telling the narrative of the site’s history, with its parabolic form defining the line of the ancient fortress wall. Square, unframed plate glass pinned over the crumbling openings of the ruin form the doors and windows.

Third, is a new enclosure in timber. It is completely freestanding, and where necessary forms upper walls and a structurally discrete roof. Internally, this is expressive, warm and golden, contrasting with the coldness of the stone and concrete. Externally, it is clad in blood-red stained boarding and roof tiles. The latter are interspersed with blocks of glazed tiles, which provide excellent top-lighting. It creates a building with a powerful 20th-century aesthetic.

Finally, there are the artefacts, displayed on steel and glass. There are two types: farm objects and archaeological finds from the site. Each one is individually considered and displayed to best effect. I especially liked the light box that showed minute finds suspended in space - a tiny lost key, figurines and nuts and bolts.

The construction is very straightforward, but the contrast and intersections between the completely autonomous layers create a very rich and complex whole.

Fehn described the concrete ramp that rises among the memory of lives seen as tumbled walls and steps that now lead nowhere as a ‘story and path through time’. His work here both belongs to, but also strongly contrasts with, the surrounding landscape, the context and the place. It enlivens the historic by creating something altogether new. It has nothing to do with false objectivity pursued by modern restoration theories. There is no balance of ‘benefits’ against ‘harm’. Instead, as he said in his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech: ‘My most important journey was into the past … I realised that only by manifestation of the present, you can make the past speak. If you try to run after it, you will never reach it.’

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Fehn considered museums an instrument of a society that denied death and overvalued material things. Here he achieved the opposite. The experience is of walking through a ruin, in which you could not overlook the temporary nature of life.

The artefacts are displayed with a reverence that frees everyday objects from their time, and sets them in space, so they take on a new meaning. A hammer, a vase, a stone … I have been to a lot of funerals this summer, and all I can say is, if I can achieve in the buildings I am working on now what Fehn achieved at Hamar, I will die very happy. 

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