Sverre Fehn

Architect, Norway
Sverre Fehn began his career after graduating from the Oslo School of Architecture in
1949. He is one of a number of post-World War II Norwegian architects who believed in
bestowing universal modernism with both regional and site-specific values, espousing an
architecture that, while always rational, recognized local crafts and culture, mythology,
and folklore. His concerns with the topography of the site, climate, local identity, and
tectonics are central to issues of both regionalism and phenomenology in architecture.
In 1950, Fehn joined the Progressive Architect’s Group of Oslo, Norway (PAGON), a
division of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), along with his
former teacher Arne Korsmo, architectural theorist Christian NorbergSchulz, and design
collaborators Grung and Ostbye, among others. CIAM was a network concerned with
how ideas of modern architecture and town planning were communicated internationally.
Although CIAM had no direct influence on his own work, he would have been
acquainted with many leading contemporary architects and artists through his association
with the Congress.
Between 1952 and 1953, on the advice of Jørn Utzon, Fehn made a journey to study
the so-called primitive architecture of Morocco. This journey was seminal to his
recognition of eternal themes in architecture, values that existed long before being
embraced by the functionalist doctrine of modernist theory. Fehn remarked on the mutual
harmony between the structure of natural and man-made place and the relationship
between the ground and constructed form, as well as the clarity, simplicity, and common
sense of regional architecture regarding systems of environmental control, planning, and
construction and how these systems characterized rituals of habitation. It was a journey of
recognition rather than discovery that helped Fehn see clearly the character of his native
Norway as well as the qualities in the works of earlier modernist masters, such as Le
Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Entries A–F 849
The poetic modernism of Fehn’s architecture derives from a unified and formal
relationship between the site and the physical and psychological dimensions of the
program and of the people who inhabit his buildings—reduced to a conceptual clarity and
expressed through material construction. He describes architecture as a necessary
interference with nature, in opposition to it yet also revealing the character of the
landscape. His buildings articulate a relationship between earth, sky, and horizon, a
recurring theme that is developed through his writings and drawings.
Fehn’s buildings are generally constructed of concrete or brick and wood used in a
modern rather than traditional way: mass construction to anchor the building to the
ground and timber construction to articulate openings in walls or the connection between
roof and wall. His timber detailing is reminiscent of the traditions of Nordic boat building
and of Japanese architecture. Modular repetition and geometric configuration of structure
give spatial definition to both interior volume and exterior surface. The ground plane of
his interiors often relates to the natural topography of the site and to external views.
The works of Fehn date back to 1949, when he, with G. Grung, won an international
competition for the design of the Craft Museum at Lillehammer. The winning project was
never built. Subsequent works and projects typically have been for houses and museums
but also include designs for religious, community, education, and recreational buildings.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s Fehn’s designs for the Norwegian Pavilion at
the Universal Exposition in Brussels (1958), now demolished, and his Pavilion of the
Nordic Nations in the Gardens of the Biennale (1962) in Venice, Italy, garnered
recognition. Both buildings employed Miesian qualities of a regular grid with a free plan
and featured roofs that masterfully controlled the natural light within the exhibition
spaces. The Schreiner House (1963) in Oslo, named “Hommage au Japon” by Fehn for its
references to spatial relationships and construction in Japanese architecture, consisted of
a structural timber fame around a brick central service core—a device developed from his
time in the 1950s with Jean Prouvé, an architect noted for his industrialized fabrication
and servicing systems. Planning and volumetric geometry developed with the designs of
the houses for Arne Bodtker (1965) and his brother Carl (1967, extension 1985).
The masterpiece of his work in the late 1960s and 1970s, however, is the
Archbishopric Museum (1979) in Hamar. The site is a ruined medieval
fort over which a 19th-century U-shaped barn was built. Space, light, time,
and the programmatic requirements of the museum are brought together
by a series of concrete ramps and walkways that pass through the barn
structure, hover over the medieval excavations, and lead into the
courtyard. Parallels with this project can be made to the Castelvecchio
Museum by Carlo Scarpa, whom Fehn met while working on the Pavilion
of the Nordic Nations in Venice. Fehn’s ability to develop a clear dialogue among client, site, structure, and form is further
exemplified by the Villa Busk (1990) in Bamble. A rocky outcrop chosen by Fehn
dictates the physical dimensions and orientation of the house, the linear form of which is
broken by a cross axis from the entrance of the main house to a timber tower that in turn
provides visual and physical links to the fjord. As with the Hamar museum, a modulated
timber structure distinguishes between roof and wall and allows for views out and light
in. Fehn’s approach set out in Villa Busk is continued in different contexts with the
Glacier Museum (1991) in Fjærland and the Aukrust Museum (1996) in Alvdal.
Much of Fehn’s work has been in suburban or rural locations, some inaccessible for
long periods because of the harsh winter climate. Certain competition projects, notably
his design for the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen in Denmark, confirm his capability for
both large and urban projects.

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