The Paradox of Sverre Fehn
By Ada Louise Huxtable
Author and Architecture Critic, The Wall Street Journal
Sverre Fehn is a builder, philosopher, and poet, and an extremely gifted architect. Held in high esteem in professional circles, he is surprisingly little known beyond them; the celebrity circuit seems to stop just south of Norway. At a time when globe-circling stars promote “signature” styles, he has devoted himself to the quiet, undeviating pursuit of a subtle, lyrical, and still stringently rational architecture. His buildings, while well-published, are neither numerous nor easily accessible—deep snow can make the roads to his Glacier museum on the mountainous west coast impassable until May—nothing is exactly on the beaten track. Like the Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, Fehn has never fitted easily into the modernist canon; each has managed to break the rules in a highly individual way, and each has had a singular vision. Also like Aalto, Fehn’s buildings must be visited to understand their conceptual brilliance and aesthetic pleasures, and the particular and universal way they belong to the land.
Sverre Fehn is, in fact, something of a paradox; his self-engendered and sometimes curious contradictions can throw even his admirers off base. A respectful inquiry at the press conference for the announcement of his Pritzker Prize, about his mastery of wood construction in the Scandinavian tradition, brought his somewhat unsettling disclaimer, “I have spent my life running away from wood!” and a brief discourse on his use of brick and concrete. What he did not explain was how he utilizes concrete to anchor a building to a rocky ridge or hold back a forested slope, or the way his brick or concrete walls combine with a light and elegant wooden superstructure for a perfect integration of traditional and modern materials. Praised for his extraordinary sensitivity to nature, Fehn says that the very act of building begins the process of destruction; that every intervention, no matter how careful, contributes to the landscape’s loss. Beyond Oslo, the forests seem endless, only the trees interrupt the line between earth and sky. The horizon, with its mysterious sense of limits and infinity, its mythic and timeless connotations, is a constant presence in his art and life. But he sees breaking the horizon line as an intrusive act of disruption and transformation, although, in his hands, this violation turns infinity into perceived and controlled space and establishes our perspective on the world. He possesses an almost magical ability to emphasize and enhance the natural setting—the work of Frank Lloyd Wright comes constantly to mind—and yet he insists that nature should never be regarded in a romantic way, that the architect must create a tension between nature and his intervention. There is nothing romantic about this idea; it poses one of architecture’s most demanding and enduring challenges.
Fehn has built some of the most remarkable museums in the world, but the very idea of a museum troubles him. He considers the museum an instrument of a society that denies death and overvalues material things; he is convinced that this secular age has transferred the idea of immortality to objects, conferring on them a special power; that we give to museums the position and respect accorded to cathedrals in earlier times. But this has not kept him from creating buildings for this purpose that redefine the museum’s role in the modern world.
Fehn’s style, so unaffected, so bound to the earth, is also a paradox—these deceptively simple designs masquerading as indigenous naturalism are a skilled and sophisticated synthesis of many influences. Although his architecture is rooted deeply in Norway’s forests, mountains and fjords, it owes as much to European modernism as to his intimate understanding of his native land. He came of age as an architect at the high point of the modernist revolution. His teacher, Arne Korsmo, a Norwegian architect who traveled widely and built the Norwegian pavilion for the 1937 Paris Exposition, brought the radical new work to a post World War II generation of young Norwegian architects still immersed in the nostalgia of Scandinavian romantic nationalism. With a grant received from the French government in 1952, Fehn and his wife, Ingrid, a musician, went to Paris, where they stayed two years. Korsmo introduced Fehn to Le Corbusier, whose atelier was open evenings to any who cared to come. He remembers dinners with Fernand Léger, Alvar and Elissa Aalto, Peter and Alison Smithson; he became a member of CIAM, the Congrès Internationale d’Architecture Moderne, and was associated briefly with Jean Prouvé. Today, in an act of homage and continuity, he lives and works in the house and studio Arne Korsmo built for himself on a quiet street in Oslo, part of a small enclave of other International Style houses softened by time, remodeling, and the nostalgia of a revolution grown old. The modest entrance leads into a large, double-height, Corbusian space full of light, music, art and books, and the collected artifacts of a creative life.
The winters of the Paris sojourn were spent in North Africa, discovering a world completely different from anything he had known. The simple geometry and rational design of indigenous Moroccan buildings, with their flat roof terraces and unadorned walls, were a dramatic confirmation that the aesthetic principles of functionalist doctrine existed long before modernist theory embraced them. Like many northerners, he reacted strongly to the intense southern light, comparing it to Norway’s “horizontal” light and “long shadows—a flickering, sensitive light,” he explained later in an interview with l’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui … (that) “offers an infinite number of variations … architecture is frequently invisible, enveloped in mist.” Typically, he extended the description into an analogy of northern light with northern character, where nothing is “exact or direct … situations are not cut and dried,” and to literature, “Hamsun, Gogol, and Chekhov described characters who are intuitive and dual-natured.”