Founders of two of the leading Scandinavian architecture studios, Bjarke Ingels (BIG) and Kjetil Thorsen (Snøhetta), coincided in Pamplona during the IV International Congress of the Fundación Arquitectura y Sociedad, held under the motto ‘Change of Climate’. Though their works are readily distinguishable and evidently different, their approach to architecture is practically the same. They both take inspiration from the landscape, the one they have known since their childhood, and that, as in the case of so many Nordic authors, has marked their career and work.
Bjarke Ingels: Maybe this is a cliché in the concepts of Scandinavia but the fact that you guys do this annual hike to the Snøhetta mountain is very interesting to me. We also go on an expedition every year, but last year there was a terrible snowstorm in which seven people had died, so we had to stay in the valley. It was so shocking though that we haven’t actually planned this year’s trip.
Kjetil Thorsen: But you have to do it. It is like a car crash, you have to go straight back to the car, or you will be always scared of driving. For us it is important because you build many new kinds of relationships. When you get so close to landscape, you are almost having sex with the landscape…
BI: I have been thinking that I get so much out of getting into nature. Not just staying in a nice hotel and then seeing a lot of nature, but mostly disappearing into it in a way that is so fully unprogrammed and uncategorized that it is entirely up to you to enjoy or inhabit it. It is a gigantic playground for grown-ups.
KT: It is also a way of learning about architecture. Skiing, for example, is the best way of describing the section of a landscape, through height and speed. You are following the contour lines of landscape continuously, so you get a really close perception of the abstraction of the landscape when you are skiing. But it is the same with the slowness of climbing. When you are climbing, and you are hanging from the wall, you get the feeling of being far from everything, but at the same time the wall could not be any closer.
BI: I remember this amazing experience. We were walking up this pass, it was like an 1,800-meter ascent and it was raining non-stop, endless rain for a week. Everything was slippery, so climbing up was super hard. It was beautiful. Up there we were in the clouds, and once in a while they would open and you would have this magnificent view, but right after they would close again, very fast. Finally, when we walked down, we constantly had to lie down, flat on the stomach – we could not do it on our backs, because we had the backpacks – and slide down this kind of greasy mountain. It was a complete surrender to the elements.
KT: We keep drifting in the direction of having sex with the landscape… For me there are only two situations in the world: the mountains or the sea. Everything in between is kind of boring.
BI: I totally agree.
KT: But I like that. That type of challenge. I have this feeling sometimes, that if we don’t have enough wind I would close the office sort of thing, because you need the forces against to get there. If it is not windy enough, stay home. If you see where our offices are located in Oslo, we are completely exposed to the weather. The location is directly south towards the fjord, twenty meters away from it, and it is this huge warehouse that sits in the outermost peak of Oslo, below the castle. So you are getting all the weather: the winter, the spring, the autumn, the summer… We have all the fisherman in front. It is actually this kind of closeness to these things, as we were discussing before, that makes you learn from them. To design something you need to be filled with it. You have to be under the skin of things. Landscape does that to you.
BI: Just to finish this landscape theme, I think that there is something that our work shares, this idea of invitation. You called it generosity. It’s an invitation to something different. One of our first buildings, the VM Houses, has these triangular balconies, 5 meters long. The idea was to get so far out into the air that you could actually turn around and look at your building. When you are standing there, you feel in the air, surrounded only by your neighbors. Obviously also with The Mountain and the Eight House, where you climb up a ski slope. In other words, the idea that each project somehow tries to make available something that would normally be off limits, so that you end up having not an accumulation of private domains, but rather a new kind of man-made landscape.
KT: We talked about architecture being active. To me it is about prepositions: in, over, through, within… Anything that can relate to many prepositions all of a sudden moves into active positioning in relation to people. If you can walk through, over, in, under, and so forth and so forth, then you are close to the landscape. Because the landscape and our whole language is based on the fact that we develop prepositions to define our position. Where we are in relation to something else. If architecture is only ‘in’ then it is not active, because it only defines one preposition. It has to have a whole range of prepositions in order to be active. This was the discussion we had at the Venice Biennale, and that is why I am no longer happy with the separation between inside and outside in the debates on public space, simply because I believe that it is limiting to the architecture, and to the public space. These are the type of things that I try to follow, and I see in your designs that you are trying to create active buildings too.
BI: Definitely. We normally differentiate when there is a need, “a must have,” or a desire, a “nice to have.” The more “nice to haves” you can add to what the client is asking or to the program, the better.
KT: For instance, there’s a debate now at the urban city planning offices in Oslo because they don’t know how to represent the Opera House in plans. Is it a building? Do they cut the building below? Or is it outer space? They don’t know! And that’s fantastic.
BI: That is exactly my dream. I have been saying this all the time, in a city map building is yellow, public building is red, park is green… and I have been focusing on this idea that industrial is gray. It is like this cancerous tissue in the city map, but I am curious to see how are they going to label the power plant. It should be green, or maybe red… but definitely not gray, even though it is also gray.
KT: I agree. These are the kinds of hybrids you learn about by moving back to nature and landscape. Landscape was never only one thing. Unless we accept the complexities of the systems we are dealing with, we will get nowhere. And I think that is something to learn from nature. We cannot copy nature, but whenever we create a new building, it is not an abstract landscape but a new reality. And reality can learn things from how nature operates, hybrid aspects. You have been focusing a lot on that when it comes to your social infrastructures, where you add one function on top the other. It is a fantastic strategy because it is what landscapes do. They provide you with water but you can also ski. They provide you with trees, but you can also walk.
BI: In my view there are two tendencies. One is an extreme centralization. For instance, global companies (Amazon, Walmart…) have bigger and bigger distribution centers but are more and more centralized, as if they were trying to create a single warehouse for all of America. But there is another process, happening in cities, which is extreme decentralization, or mixing. Roof farming in New York, for example. There is a huge desire for it, almost as an ideology, maybe as a hobby, though most people living in cities are too busy to grow their tomatoes. But I really think that if you get a company to call out warehouse owners and say: “we would like to take possession of your roof, we will install, manage, operate, maintain and you will get 50% of the crops,” everyone would benefit.
KT: We have also studied it and we calculated the weight of the earth and the productivity of the earth that you could get straight out of the agriculture soil that was already on the ground once its clean. The 30-centimeter layer of agricultural soil is full of embodied energy. To throw it away and not use it as food production is kind of a waste.
BI: We are doing this power plant in Vancouver, and aside from several sustainable energy systems we are using a fairly commodified Dutch farming system where you don’t have soil. You have these tubes where plants grow out of the tubes, so it consumes much less water. Everything is painted white, the floor is white, the tubes are white, so that no photon is swallowed by light-sucking colors, everything is bouncing around. A completely effortless roof farming concept.
KT: That is cool. Also, we have to rely on the future technologies, and their development. So much could happen in the field of industrial design. It is one of the areas where I feel that we have done a lot but at the same time, nothing. The industrial design elements in architecture, for instance, are completely missing, so one of the few things that we are starting to do now is actively moving more into the hardware production line of smaller things in life. Pocket lamps, for instance. A torch is a fantastic invention because you carry the light with you. There was this fiction writer who talked about glass that retains light, and for light to penetrate through the glass it takes about twenty years. So that means that you have this panoramic window, and then you build it into your home. You don’t have a TV, you have a one to one vision to Niagara Falls in New York, because the delay of twenty years actually puts the real image in your living room. Simply through the delay of light penetration. It is science fiction of course, but it is actually beautiful.