HOUSES ON THE FJORDS
Europan Norway Implementation phase: Preliminary project
Images: ONIRISM Studio, Milano
Site: Bossekop, Alta – Norway
Client: Municipality of Alta and private investitor
Collaborators: E. Zetti, M. Soupe
LOCATION AND URBAN DATA
The project “Houses on the Fjords” is located south West of the town of Alta, in Norway. Alta is a small town with a population of about 20.000 people. It is characterized by an urban fabric made mainly of small wooden houses with gabled roofs, having a maximum height of two or three levels and small streets that adapt to the morphology of the territory. The planning underlying the urban fabric shows the intention of preserving the territory from the phenomenon of densification and to enhance, on the other hand, the relationship with the surrounding landscape and the need of intimacy and privacy of its inhabitants. Today the economy of the town relies on small and medium industry, on fishing and some activities related to the production of slate and wood, but also on tourism, which is made easier by the presence of an airport connection. The plot where the housing complex in question will be built is located near Bossekop, on the main road named Straindvein, which runs along Skiferkaia port for a while. The surface of the plot is about 4240 sqm with about 3500 sqm of building possibilities. A 4m height difference describes the section of the lot from the road to the sea level, while on the other side of Straindvein the orographic situation shows a town built on a promontory with the maximum height 40/50m from the sea level, open to the fjords and in a close visual relationship with them. Near the area in question there are rare examples of medium-large industrial sheds, related to the activities above mentioned. The area under study was mainly used as an open-air deposit of slate labs.
Crossed by the Arctic Circle at 66 ° 33′ north latitude, Norway is the northernmost European state: North Cape is considered the extreme point of the continent. It is bordered to the east by Sweden, to the north-east by Finland and the Russian Federation. It is washed to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Barents Sea, to the west by the Norwegian Sea and to the south by the North Sea. The territory is almost entirely occupied by mountains, the scandinavian Alps, which in the central area mark the border with Sweden, the highest peaks are in the Jotunheim massif in the southern part and exceed 2000m. In the south, on the other hand, there are flat and coastal areas. The coasts have wide and branched inlets, they develop for a total length of about 22,000 km and along them there are several islands of various sizes. To the west, the glaciers that formed during the last glaciation in the river valleys gave life with their erosive action to the fjords, a landscape of extraordinary beauty and strong identity. Thanks to the warm air current of the Gulf, the coastal areas have an Atlantic climate characterized by temperatures on average less rigid than expected. Snowfall is frequent throughout the territory and 30% of the whole territory is occupied by forests: coniferous, broad-leaved forests in the southern regions and birch forests.
The town of Alta is located in the extreme north of Norway, far beyond the Arctic polar circle, on the shores of the Norwegian sea. The river Alta, (Altaelva), from which it takes its name, flows through it.This river, which comes from the Finnmark plateau and digs one of the largest canyons in Europe, was once a privileged place for the Sami to fish. Developed on a long coastal stretch of almost 15 km, Alta is rather extensive for being a center of about 20,000 inhabitants. The two main centers are just less than 2km from each other: Bossekop, on the hills towards the west and Sentrum, in the central area, both characterized by blocks of anonymous residential buildings.The town is dominated by the Komsafjell, with a height of 212m, at the foot of which the earliest traces of human settlements in the Finmark region were found . The remains belonged to the koma civilization, which settled on the coasts around the 7th millennium BC.On the surrounding cliffs, which were declared UNESCO World Heritage in 1985, it is possible to observe, in fact, about 5,000 rock carvings dating back to the end of the stone age, a period between 6,000 and 2,000 years ago.
TRADITIONAL BUILDING MATERIALS
If we start considering the oldest anonymous Norwegian buildings, moving, then, to an observation of the vernacular houses in the Viking villages, up to the emblematic Stavkirker, paradigmatic models of a building technique that has no equal in the world and in which the field of formal and tectonic representation has reached the most representative results, not to mention the extraordinary engineering of the Drakkar and the Knarr, we can certainly state that wood is the most widely used building material in Norway’s architectural history. The deep constructive wisdom of Nordic carpenters, their structural clarity, their knowledge of the material and respect for its properties have created a real art of building, consolidated over time up to recognize itself as an identity. The constructive skill of Norwegian architects and craftsmen is, as a matter of fact, the fundamental element of a tradition of tectonics of the framed building system: in fact, in it, the peculiarities of the wood are highlighted as a material more suitable to define plan grammars with punctual elements and spatial scans obtained from the serial iteration of the same. The idea of tectonics is therefore associated with the ability of the material to work better under tension stress, showing in the interweaving and in the compositional wefts a behavior similar to that of fabric. The specific case of the area in question and the continuous observation of traditional Norwegian architectures leads us to consider a second building material, especially used in the base parts or in the coverings of the roof layers: slate. Alta is, indeed, one of the main slate extraction sites in the whole Norway along with Oppdal, in the central area. In Skiferkaia, for example, right near the project area, a local industry deals with the production of slate slabs that can be used in architecture. The building tradition of Norwegian houses shows in several project drawings and photos the walking surface isolated from the ground by wooden substructures or by stone bases upon which the structure is placed. The stone base serves to better isolate the wood from the rising of water by capillarity which would otherwise damage the structure and, therefore, the static balance of the entire building.
CRITICAL REGIONALISM AND THE EXAMPLES OF SVERRE FEHN AND WENCHE SELMER
“The Tactile and the Tectonic jointly have the capacity to transcend the mere apparent of the Technical, in much the same way as the Place-Form has the potential to withstand the relentless onslaught of global modernization”.
Kenneth Frampton, Towards a Critical regionalism, in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture, London 1983
Critical Regionalism is the set of formative rules of an approach that the historian Kenneth Frampton brought to the attention of contemporary debate in 1984 thus providing an alternative to the widespread internationalism of our age. Its aim is clearly against adopting efficiency parameters in assessing architectural spaces and materials and in favour of the development of “a strong culture, full of identity, yet open to contacts with the universal technique”. The implementation strategy of this approach is not at all comparable to a nostalgic-like feeling. It basically relies on two specific tools: mediation, in order to achieve a balanced mix between the product of universal civilization and the elements that can be derived from the characteristics of a particular physical place, and inspiration, drawing on the presence of the site peculiar qualities, such as, for example, the tectonics used in traditional buildings, the notion of architectural time, the topographic conformation, the characteristics of the openings (flush with the wall, set back, protruding, fitted with sunblinds or not, with a slot) and the perceptual relationship with the materilas used. Another fundamental aspect of regionalist poetics is, indeed, the use of materials capable of activating most of our sensory perceptions, not only those related to the aestheticizing image of contemporary “Ephemeral Architecture”. To this end the qualities of light and darkness will be considered, but above all the qualities perceived only by experiencing the space from within, that is, by the users:
“The heat, the cold, the flavour of the materials, the sense of humidity, the almost palpable presence of wood, where the body feels it belongs, the speed of our pace and the relative inertia of the body while crossing a plan, the echo and resonance of our steps”.
M. Heiddeger. Quote from Frampton: Costruire, Abitare, Pensare. 1954
Tactile and tectonic are, therefore, the two lost qualities that Regionalist architecture intends to recover in order to activate a process of resistance to the technological imperative that mass culture has excessively introduced into contemporary culture. This process is aimed at stopping the loss of cultural identities and, on the other hand, at fostering evolution and progress, connecting them with the reach of traditions and the history of places. According to Frampton, Norway somehow confirms the correctness and appropriateness of his Critical Regionalism, an interpretative artifice and reinterpretation key of all modern and contemporary architecture. Along with the extraordinary work of the architect Sverre Fehn, there’s another, no less important, work that should be considered. We are talking about the houses of the architect Wenche Elisabeth Selmer, who graduated from the National Crafts and Art Industry School of Oslo in 1945 and from the National Architecture Course in 1946. The analysis and studies carried out on Selmer’s different typologies of houses were of fundamental importance as they confirmed the use of the materials described in the previous paragraph, the tectonics of parts, and, at the same time, they highlighted the typological scheme that has consolidated over time within the “culture of living the house” in Norway. The plans of the Wigert Summerhouse in Brekkestø, for example, as well as those of Wohnaus Wenche and Jens Selmer’s one in Oslo or the Wohnhaus and Fotoatelier for Jim and Trine Bengtson in 1974 and the Hütte for Jan Herman and Birte Reimers in Sølbøseter, all share some repetitive elements which can be therefore considered, according to an analogic-comparative reading, typological invariants. One of these is certainly the fireplace, the heart of domestic space, usually made of bricks and placed within the living/dining area, just after a hallway. The kitchen is always open and communicates with the living room, while there is a clear separation between this area of the house and the sleeping area. The formal archetype takes up the type having a two-pitched roof made of wood with slatted covering boards vertically or horizontally arranged. The volume of the houses almost always consists of one, maximum two levels, with small-medium openings to preserve an internal condition that seeks a dialogue with the surrounding landscape through glimpses of the outside. Many of the examples analyzed use the basic solution with a stone base, testifying through their realization the effective efficiency of the isolation system from water infiltration by capillarity.
Although apparently arranged as if they were the product of an urban aggregate resulting from a spontaneous culture, the volumes of the designed houses are the result of a careful urban morpheme. Through the articulation and iteration of the “scale-volume” elements this morpheme manages to provide for each lodge the same quality of light and air, as well as the same visual relationship with the landscape facing the fjords. All the houses, in fact, have an open day area facing the sea. The project proposes therefore two large volumes with residential functions and a smaller one dedicated to a mix of specialistic and public functions placed as a termination of the complex. The visual relationship with the landscape and the link between the city and the sea will not be compromised as demostrated by the scheme of permeability hereunder, by the axonometric one and by the corresponding sections of the project.
The urban section analyzed in the project area shows, at present, a height difference of about 4 metres between the road named Straindvein and the sea level. Although this particular topographic situation was initially seen as a problem, it turned out to be a unique opportunity to develop a project proposal coherent with the heritage of the houses previously considered in the Regionalist chapter, meeting, at the same time, the specific request of the client of not wanting to carry out any excavation for the parking area reserved for residents. The idea of extending the sea level up to the limit of the houses actually shapes the base on which the wooden structures are set and below which there is room on the one side for the garage of the residents, and on the other side (at the same level as the coastal one) for the whole system of public spaces serving the new neighbourhood.
The designed open public spaces are well integrated with the functions placed within the base. The small supermarket, the shops, the shared kitchen, the outdoor anphitheatre and the multi-purpose room with a small thermal bath, open in the landscape in the ground floor, are all spaces with a collective vocation designed to favour meeting opportunities in the community and to satisfy, in this way the requests of the client who showed, right from the start, his interest in the dynamics of interrelation between the functions included on the ground floor and the public access areas. An important role in compositional and functional terms is certainly to be attributed to the long line that defines the extent of the intervention at sea. We are referring to the pier, set to draw a boundary between everything that is urban and what is instead the natural landscape. The wooden structure, consisting of an iterated module along its entire length, performs multiple functions. The first of these concerns the problem described by the commissioner to be able to find a solution to reduce the force of the waves coming mainly from the North-West. The structure of the pier is in fact imagined to be built on a base that, in the same way as the residences, acts as a substructure but also as a breakwater.