Steven Holl’s brooding tower abstracts episodes and motifs from Hamsun’s texts to create a monument to Norway’s most famous, and infamous, author. Photography by Åke E:Son Lindman
‘There was a tower in front of me… a black octagonal tower,’ so begins the compelling fairytale narrated by Nagel, the central character of the novel Mysteries (1892), an outsider whose sudden arrival excites an isolated, North Norwegian community. The book was an early triumph for Norway’s most famous, and infamous, author Knut Hamsun. The Nobel Laureate is now commemorated by a similarly mysterious, dark tower rising above the beautiful island of Hamarøy in Norway’s Nordland County, 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle.
The completed Hamsun Centre must seem something of a fairytale for Steven Holl Architects, given that it was awarded the commission in 1994. Dressed for the inaugural ceremony in a yellow suit, as Nagel does in Mysteries, Steven Holl recalls the saga of the project’s development.
His initial ideas were sketched on the first visit to the original site, Hamsun’s farm in nearby Hamsund. Despite the resulting design winning the 1996 Progressive Architecture Award, the project stalled, mired in controversy. Concerns that the proposal might upset the delicate ensemble of existing farm buildings caused the site to be moved to Hamsun’s childhood home, the neighbouring village of Presteid in 1998. However, the controversy relating to Hamsun himself was much more significant.
Through a suite of books written in the 1890s - Hunger (1890), Mysteries and Pan (1894)- Polish laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer suggests Hamsun instigated ‘the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century.’ He inspired many literary heavyweights, from Kafka to Hemingway and, for Norwegians, became synonymous with the myth of the great poet.
That myth was shattered when the elderly Hamsun announced his support for Nazi Germany, which culminated in him writing Hitler’s obituary in Aftenposten, the leading Norwegian newspaper at the time. For many this struck a blow at the heart of Norway’s cultural identity, placing Hamsun alongside wartime leader Quisling, who gave his name to traitors worldwide.
The sense of betrayal remains, but in 2007 the project received government funding. Ground was finally broken in May 2008, allowing the building to be almost ready for the 150th anniversary of Hamsun’s birth on 4 August this year.
Holl is open about the dilemmas inherent in constructing a monument to such a figure. While happy that such discussions are expressed through the centre’s exhibitions, he is clear that the building is primarily concerned with materialising themes from the trio of early books. The main focus is on the novels’ concerns with the intricacies of the individual mind and their evolving attitude to context - a journey from the ‘culture’ of the city, through the intimacies of rural life to the unity of Nature and human nature.
The idea of the ‘tower’ appears across many of Hamsun’s novels as a metaphorical device. For Holl, the tower becomes literal, understood both as body and landscape fragment, embodying fundamental qualities of prose and place.
The building’s situation is defined by juxtaposing two principal components. The six-storey tower, a parallelogram in plan, houses the centre itself while an associated horizontal element contains an auditorium. This was added when the building was re-sited to offer a balancing, barn-like form that grounds and scales the centre within the village and community.
Both volumes are clad in dark stained timber, referencing traditional Norwegian stave churches. The auditorium has a turf roof, again alluding to vernacular archetypes, but is otherwise mute. In contrast, the tower has an expressive, geometrically nuanced form, which Holl suggests is responsive to the chiselled quality of the mountains that dominate the landscape. As you move around it, the tower’s character shifts constantly - light creeps across its subtly angled and folded surfaces while its proportions swell and stretch.
Hamsun’s rejection of notions of universality, embodied within collective understandings, is echoed in Holl’s decision to animate the building through the abstraction of particular episodes and motifs selected from the texts. Noted on an original sketch, a key ‘equation’: ‘Building = body - battleground of invisible forces’, refers directly to a line from Robert Bly’s 1967 translation of Hunger.
Holl visualises this critical narrative moment through elements he describes as ‘hidden impulses, which pierce the surface.’ The seemingly arbitrary observation of ‘a servant maid leaning out of a window, her sleeves rolled up, cleaning the panes from the outside’ becomes translated into an angled balcony of yellow glass, piercing a corner. Elsewhere, a partially covered timber balcony (in reference to Nagel’s empty violin case) creates an aural passage from interior to landscape.
Each intervention forms an intuitive, experiential counterpoint to the larger expression of the building. Collectively, Holl suggests, these invoke the ‘concretisation of a Hamsun character’. Whether you can literally read such detail into these curious projections, or whether that is even a desirable aspiration, is open to question. What is clear, as you watch the balcony’s yellow-stained reflection slide across the timber, is that Holl’s lyrical phenomenology is singularly descriptive of the visual qualities within Hamsun’s prose, exemplified by the suggestion in Hunger that ‘an intense, peculiar exhalation of colour emanates from these fantasies of mine.’
The smooth, dark, timber skin of the exterior is unexpectedly counterpointed by the raw precision of a white, board-marked concrete interior, cast in-situ. If the building is a body then this is its robust skeleton, a structural concrete tube with post tensioned beams and a rigid, spinal brass-clad lift. From the ubiquitous entry-level café and bookshop, four inter-related levels, connected by concrete stairs, climb upwards through a continuous sectional space. At one point, they pass through to the exterior, behind a perforated brass screen, before arriving at a roof terrace, with views back to panoramic horizons. This journey is materialised through the continuity of an apparently seamless, exquisitely cast surface of black concrete, ground back to reveal its aggregate.
As with the exterior, floors subtly fold and walls inflect at shallow angles. It is as if the whole building has been subject to the kinds of geological forces that, at another scale, formed the breathtaking landscape beyond.
Openings are placed in relation to the larger figure, sequentially framing ground, water, sky or horizon as you move obliquely against them.
As might be expected from Holl, they are also precisely positioned to allow shafts of light to pierce the space, in direct correlation to movement. Hamsun, who wrote to a colleague that he ‘took to loving light’, would undoubtedly approve of these dramatic and orchestrated moments of illumination.
In his essay The Art of Hunger (Menard Press, 1982), Paul Auster concludes that Hamsun’s protagonist ‘walks into the twentieth century’. Here it is the visitor, rather than some fictional character, who transforms into a Hamsun-esque ‘wanderer’, exemplifying modernism’s roving and unstable relationship to space.
A similar sentiment relates to the building itself, which responds to place but remains an outsider. In this season of midnight sun, sporting the summer plumage of bamboo canes on its roof, it has a jovial, almost comic, physiognomy. But in the long dark winter to follow, you can imagine it hunkering down to become an appropriately brooding figure.
Architect Steven Holl Architects, New York
Project team Steven Holl, Noah Yaffe, Francesco Bartolozzi, Ebbie Wisecarver, Erik Fenstad Langdalen, Gabriela Barman-Kraemer, Yoh Hanaoka, Justin Korhammer, Anna Müller, Audra Tuskes
Associate architect LY Arkitekter
Structural engineers Guy Nordenson and Associates, Rambøll Norge
Mechanical engineers Arup, Rambøll Norge
Landscape architect Landskapsfabikken