A place of retreat on the southern Norwegian coast is born out of a harsh landscape
The shores of southern Norway are strewn with outcrops of granite, smoothed down by long departed glaciers. It is a rugged environment into which the summerhouse or guesthouse typology doesn’t easily fit – often literally. And yet architectural practice Lund Hagem has become almost synonymous with the area having built a series of robust yet stunning summerhouses and villas from Oslo down to Lillesand, including one for the Norwegian Royal Family in 1993.
Yet while the winter is harsh, the summer is soft. The Skagerrak may sound like a sea of unspeakable, Tolkien-esque evil but it is warmed by the Gulf Stream which splits around the British Isles and meets again on this coast, a process which conveniently cancels out the strong tides we experience in the UK but ensures that the temperature is mild. Just behind the rocky coast there is good farmland. Svein Lund’s father farmed apple orchards near to the prosperous town of Sandefjord. One of the senior partners at Lund Hagem, he has designed and built a new guesthouse at Knapphullet (meaning ‘buttonhole’) adjacent to his own summerhouse built in 1932 by a local builder for a doctor, half an hour’s drive from the town. The main summerhouse stands impressively close to the waterline, square on to the prevailing south-westerly wind.
Knaphullet site plan
The new building – only 30m2 – is one of the smallest that the practice has produced but as a sculptural intervention in the landscape and an expression of character, it is an utterly engaging piece of architecture. The guesthouse, on a 20,000m2 plot and reached by a path that runs down from the road for about 150m, stands next to a dwelling built by an artist in the 1960s in the hippy vernacular. Lund, despite being the architect of luxurious, although robust, Modernist buildings, clearly has a sneaking admiration for it and the artist who lived there throughout the year. He has replaced a roof patchworked from different sheets of wood and metal with a sedum one, and dotted it with sea plants. He has retained the washing-machine door portal.
Across the gully, the new guesthouse is also read as a piece of landscape but in its sculptural form a human reaction to it. Its size derives from the fact that it replaced a flea-ridden shack and, in planning law, is constrained by that former property’s size. Architecturally though, the project derives from an attempt to both maximise a naturally sheltered area between dense vegetation and a small cliff: a vertical that the strong horizontal line of the roof both complements and reacts to. The roof form is a cranked slab of 270mm thick concrete that forms at first a stepped ramp then a viewing platform. It is anchored at one end by 8m long steel rods that are embedded half into the concrete and half into the granite rock. At the other end three splayed rods anchor it into the ground. It could also be read as a lean-to shelter in concrete.
‘Its size derives from the fact that it replaced a flea-ridden shack’
It is a minimal intervention but not Minimalist. Inside, the bed sits on a raised oak platform that cantilevers out from a wooden dividing wall that runs parallel to the cliff face, the path and the exterior frosted glazed facade. Thus the wooden wall creates a narrow lavatory and shower area and is attached by a horizontal trellis to a wardrobe form, embracing the guest. The bed has been raised to allow access to a basement where the services for the whole property are kept as well as a sink and cupboard space for storage. The planners insisted that the building should not be considered as a residence, so the small kitchen unit on the ground floor is mobile, at least in theory. The stove allows the guesthouse to operate as an autonomous building during the winter when the lower summerhouse is pummelled by waves and wind.
It is more than a pavilion and feels very homely, partly because of the ceiling. Lund covered the acoustic panels with a weave of oak strips when the original lining buckled, giving it a rustic warmth. On the exterior to the landward-side, the concrete intervention creates a sheltered atrium in concert with the cliff. Seating is provided by a concrete bench that extends from the interior. Extra seating is provided by the smooth surfaces of the rocky outcrops above and, of course, the roof, making it an amazing spot for a party. One of the most interesting and revealing decisions made by Lund is to leave a pathway under the roof on the rock-side. This creates a route from a fissure in the rock above, through the building, down to the summerhouse below.
Certainly what makes Lund Hagem’s work so fascinating, and the Knapphullet guesthouse particularly so, is the relationship to landscape. However, landscape is not simply a picturesque quality to be enjoyed from a dwelling. Landscape is also to be experienced through a building. For example, the roof structure tapers as it descends to the ground, a decision that allows a windswept apple tree that runs almost horizontal to the ground to be retained. Sitting at the concrete bench within, it is inches from one’s head, a beautiful textured presence. ‘Why should I take things away just for the sake of it? It would take years to grow something that fascinating, with that character,’ says Lund.
‘The relationship to the landscape is not simply about gazing at a lighthouse on a far peninsula, it is something close at hand’
The architect and owner describes half in horror and half in relief, how he picked up the 20,000m2 of land (half outright purchase, half in the form of a tenancy) when the prospective purchaser pulled out because planners wouldn’t let him bring a driveway down through the tangle of windblasted beech and birch trees instead of the pathway. Lund shakes his head at the idea. ‘I like the idea that the path is rather magical and when you come through it you are leaving society behind you,’ says Lund. The relationship to the landscape is not simply about gazing at a lighthouse on a far peninsula, it is something close at hand.
The path brings the body into the landscape rather than allowing it to remain at a distance. It is perhaps serendipitous that the plot contained a series of structures and planning law insisted that this situation continued, as it encourages this idea of moving through an environment. When it is completed, a secondary path will begin at the top of the highest point on the land, travel under the cliff side of the guesthouse and join the main path from the road at the old summerhouse. The path bifurcates; one way leads down to the shoreline through boulders to the jetty from which the family swim and another way travels along the shoreline to the rear of the summerhouse where it opens up to create a generous open terrace featuring an outdoor shower and kitchen.
This delight in being close to the physical action of the sea, its spray and its salts, calls to mind Snøhetta’s competition-winning proposal for the Turner Contemporary in Margate which would have located the gallery on a jetty into the sea: to bring the museum-goer into landscapes of spray and mist that Turner created in order to experience it. Lund Hagem’s other work has an astonishingly intimate relationship with the landscape. It is not simply an attitude to the sea. Lund also designed his own home, the Furulund villa in Oslo, which is a disaggregated structure; a series of volumes that have been threaded through 20 different existing trees. One can’t help but see something distinctly Norwegian in this.
Norway has become an affluent country in quite a short period. The area around Sandefjord was relatively prosperous thanks to the good growing conditions and the whaling industry that persisted until the ’60s. Still, it was a rugged kind of wealth. After the war, the Norwegian economy grew at a steady rate, so that when petroleum reserves were discovered in 1969 at the Ekofisk field, Norway could run a countercyclical financial policy during the period of stagflation that dogged other Western economies in the ’70s. Economic growth was higher and unemployment lower than nearly everywhere else in the world.
‘Here in south Norway, a landscape that was only recently seen as harsh now has potential as a place of retreat’
Here in south Norway, a landscape that was only recently seen as harsh now has potential as a place of retreat. Knut Hamsun, in his book On Overgrown Paths, described his time in prison for treason: ‘There is less to say about my surroundings. Nothing but barren hills […] the weather is harsh.’ However, Professor of Scandinavian Literature, Henning Howlid Wærp points out that: ‘others would possibly have written no more after such a statement, and abandoned their strolls in this type of environment’. But Hamsun continues, directing his attention elsewhere: ‘Oh, the world is beautiful here as well […] There is an abundance of colour even in the rocks and the heath.’
Like Hamsun’s gaze, Lund Hagem’s buildings are such a fascinating proposition because they find value in the heart of a difficult landscape. Like Neutra in California, the work creates a platform for a lifestyle of leisure by blurring the thresholds between inside and out. And like Neutra’s efforts, it is much more than that. It is also a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between structure and landscape that is compelling.
Architect: Lund Hagem (Svein Lund, Kjetil Lønning Olsen)
Structural engineer: Estatikk AS
Photographs: Luke Hayes