“The sun does not realize how wonderful it is until after a room is made” – Louis Kahn.
Creating spaces that evoke a sense of harmony with their surroundings and their people is considered important for creating good architecture. Sometimes, when we see the life and work of architects that have been and will be noteworthy in history, it inspires us to think, explore and create. One such architect is Ar. Sverre Fehn. Awarded the Pritzker architecture prize in 1997, his architecture could be described as a poetry of sorts, where the spaces and the buildings had a bond with one another, flowing into the glistening sunlight of their surroundings in the Nordic mountains. He was known for his work in designing spaces like pavilions and museums in the post-world war era.
Sverre Fehn started his journey in architecture by attending the Oslo School of Architecture and received his degree in 1949. Fehn was one of the post-World War II generations of architects who emerged from the Architectural School of Oslo. At that time, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto was a strong influence on European architecture. Arne Korsmo, one of Norway’s leading architects, became a great friend and mentor to Sverre Fehn. His career started in the boom of modernism in architecture, with examples of works by Corbusier, Frank Llyod Wright and other important figures before him.
Understanding the need of the times, he, along with other Norwegian architects of the same generation, formed an organization which was the Norwegian branch of CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture). This organization called PAGON (Progressive Architects Group Oslo Norway) sought to create architecture having a firm foundation in the Modern Movement, but also expressing their language with influences and materials from their region and time. He later travelled to Morocco and was in Paris in 1953 and 1954, where he experienced a lot of newer thoughts and architecture. Then he settled down in Oslo, starting his practice where he continued to work and live for the rest of his life.
He worked on many small houses and museums in the earlier years of his practice. But it was his design for the Norwegian pavilion at the 1958 World Exhibition in Brussels and his Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 1962 that first gave him worldwide recognition. The clean and distinct brightly white lines of the pavilion with the trees peeking through the roof put forth a new vision. Fehn managed to perfectly capture the essence of Nordic life and nature into his modern pavilion.
Career before receiving the Pritzker Prize
Sverre Fehn has also been a teacher of architecture as well as an author, manoeuvring in the various aspects of an architect’s nobility and dedication. His attitude towards architecture was honest and clear, with nature playing a very important part in it, thanks to his life spent in Norway. He was inspired by prominent modernist architects like Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Frank Llyod Wright, whose houses he describes as each being a poem.
According to him, striking a balance between your thoughts and the language of your expression was important. Sverre Fehn was also intrigued by the Japanese’s way of interacting with nature in their built forms. Schreiner house is one of his designs where one can see his inspiration from houses in Japan. One of Fehn’s first buildings, the Handicraft Museum at Lillehammer in 1953, truly expressed this new direction in the country’s architecture.
Another one of his important works is the Glacier Museum, which was first built in 1993.
His Glacier Museum has been considered a major landmark in contemporary architecture. It takes the concept of expressing a glacier through the strength of its materials and the definition of its abstract forms. The building becomes a stronghold like a rock among the mountains, just like one would understand a glacier.
Another interesting venture among his designs was his proposal for the Nordic Pavilion at the Osaka World Expo in 1970. Very unlike his usual expression of modernity, it was a delicate structure with a rhythm unusual for the time. Even though it did not end up getting selected, the pavilion, also known as the “breathing balloon, shaped as two bubbles, represents the value of protecting the air we breathe, as per the theme of the Expo.
The Pritzker Prize
When he was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1997, Sverre Fehn had long been recognized in Europe as Norway’s most gifted architect. His accolade has been credited to his influence on Post World War II architecture and Scandinavian tradition, with a lyrical but also a technical language of its own. Fehn’s work has been described as poetic, thoughtful, and even sentimental. It is striking but blends in with the surroundings at the same time. His buildings, with their quiet and subtle presence, put forth a new vision in modern architecture, contributing to his success. They are a continuing search for meaning and authenticity, without any extravagant sense of achievement or showcase. According to the Pritzker Prize Announcement, Juror Toshio Nakamura, editor and architectural writer from Japan called Fehn’s work “remarkably specific in his approach to design in terms of its regional inflection, material, imagination, and implied geometry”.
Philosophy and Legacy
Sverre Fehn always wondered about the relation of people with nature which constantly influenced his architecture. Having grown up and lived his life in the Scandinavian hilly regions, he thought that nature is as humans see it. According to him, for people in Norway, nature was a very important part of their lives but never being in the forefront. He strived to interpret this sense of being so intimate with nature a modern architecture, which could speak for itself and its people.
Through his architecture, he sought to understand nature and incorporate it with its beauty as well as brutality in our lives and our homes His architecture has been worded as being of a “poet of the straight line”, which speaks of his clarity in terms of what he wanted to achieve while designing. He always firmly expressed the importance of structure in architecture, describing it as the basis on which one can create a real building from poetic ideas of design. According to him, the materials are the alphabets and the structure along with the materials together express architecture.
Even after receiving the Pritzker Prize, which is one of the highest honours for an architect, Sverre Fehn continued his pursuit of understanding his approach to architecture and his origins in the Nordic landscapes. As Fehn’s work progressed over the years, he became more sensitive to the quality of the Nordic light, as well as the relationship of building to the site. Alongside numerous residential projects like villas and bungalows, Fehn spent his later career designing museums. His museum designs in the later years exhibit his total commitment to form and materials, but at the same time, allowing his free exploration of new horizons in design. Notable projects by him after receiving the Pritzker include Villa Holme (1998), Ivar Aasen-tunet (2000), and Preus museum (2001) where he continued to explore the relationship of buildings to the natural context of their sites, juxtaposed with unique forms and materials.
Fehn’s notes recall, “Only by reincarnating the moment can we begin a dialogue with the past.” He saw spaces as poems with a spiritual connection to people and sought to achieve that deeper connection with the., which is what made him unforgettable.
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