Fehn often emphasized tectonic form as a motif encompassing the entire building as in his brilliant Nordic Pavilion built for the Venice Biennale in 1962. He was also as much attached to the articulation of the joint as Carlo Scarpa, as is evident in his exhibition designs for the Oslo Ethnographic Museum (1980). That construction would be a phenomenological presence in all of Fehn’s architecture is suggested by the theoretical position advanced in his book The Thought of Construction, written with Per Fjeld and published in 1983. For him, construction had the capacity to reveal the inherent nature of the material form. “The use of a given should never happen by choice or calculation, but only through intuition and desire. The construction accords the material in its opening towards light, a means of expressing its inherent color. However, a material is never a color without a construction. While stone has form, as a material it is defined by its shape, just as the keystone is defined by its precision. When stone is placed upon stone, its form resides in the joint.”
Later he added: “For the young architect each material is a measurement of strength. To apply the material to its ultimate capacity is natural for youth. The expression of this inherent force complements a natural vitality. The material’s sensation carries its conviction and the energy of youth attains a structural perfection. With time certain architects will accept age as a tiredness which has a beauty of its own, allowing raw material a dimension of life and wisdom. The acquiescence of age is a recognition of maturity, a sign of personal growth. It is a generosity transcended through simplicity.” This penetrating reflection arose out of his Venice pavilion, realized as a tour de force in long-span concrete construction, when he was only 28. The structural Gestalt of this work consists of a single mega-beam, spanning 25 meters, that splits into two as it cantilevers out over a V-shaped column in order to accommodate a large tree. This dynamic gesture is complemented by a double-layered concrete latticework roof, with a fiberglass ‘corrugated’ roof suspended within the concrete purlins. Spanning in one direction, this corrugated roof is a translucent membrane that in section recalls the roof that Jørn Utzon proposed for his Sydney Bayview house at virtually the same time. Profoundly influenced by Scarpa’s reading of Venice, this pavilion alludes to the lagoon on which the city depends for life.
“The pavilion carries the ingredients of Venice. The city belongs to the water from which came its inspiration. The areas of green contrast with the water. The park with its landscape of grass and trees is very precious and scarce. Every existing tree grows unhindered inside the building, finding a total freedom through the roof. The main tree honored, as the dominant structure gives room for its participation; this is the place where the unity between nature and building is at its maximum. The transparent channels covering the roof pay homage to the rain. It is directed much like the water of the city and thereby provides sustenance for the plants both inside and out, linking the pavilion with the cycle of the park. The leaves turn towards the sun and inflect the building according to the seasons. This honoring of the sun and rain, framed in a place of the non-rational, is the beginning of a search for a higher order of architecture.”
One cannot peruse Christian Norberg-Schulz and Gennaro Postiglione’s monograph on Sverre Fehn (Electa 1997) without being moved by the wit, beauty and psycho-phenomenological depth of Fehn’s sketches, which certainly transcend any reductively functionalist preoccupation with structure and construction. Nevertheless, the tectonic would play a particularly striking role in almost every piece that he designed, above all in one of his earliest works we have from his hand, the brilliant 1949 competition entry for a craft museum in Lillehammer, designed with Geer Grung, where the tectonic and the topographic are symbiotically fused together on a gently sloping site. Fehn would slip imperceptibly into a Nordic/Japanese vein in his rigorously modular brick and timber Schreiner Villa, built in Oslo in 1963. In many respects we may see this as a ‘prototype’ for his decidedly more Nordic Underland and Wessel houses, with brick coming expressively to the fore in these works so as to culminate in the brilliant resolution of the Norrkoping House completed in Sweden in 1964. It is amazing how this house synthesizes in one consummate work traditions as far apart as Palladio, Rietveld, Brutalism and the tight brick vernacular of The Netherlands, not to mention the timber architecture of Japan. Perhaps the most compelling and intriguing aspect about Fehn’s work was his capacity to synthesize the long trajectories of european rationalism and organicism in buildings as seemingly removed from one another as the Boler Community Center, Oslo of 1972 and the masterly Hamar Museum completed seven years later. In the 70’s and the 80’s his archive includes one brilliant competition entry after another; civic works which were neither premiated nor built. Somewhat regrettably, at the same time, we have large, private houses by him on highly topographic sites which despite their structural articulation border on the fancifully exotic. The Glacier Museum, Fjareland (1991) and Aukrunst Museum, Alvdal (1996), both designed for the spectacular alpine sites, with which his career veers to a close. However, they do not, in my view, attain the same level of synthesis displayed in the earlier work. Prophets in their own countries are invariably slighted, particularly in this field. When Fehn shifted his attention to Denmark, things were not much better. How could the danes not build the superb galleria that he designed for to the Royal theatre in Copenhagen in 1996? All of these losses are irredeemable even if we may comfort ourselves with the superb pavilion he added to the Museum of Architecture in Oslo shortly before his death.
Kenneth Frampton. Architect, critic, historian and Ware Professor of Architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University in New York. Co-founding editor of its magazine Oppositions, Frampton is well known for his writing on twentieth-century architecture. His books include Modern Architecture: A Critical History and Studies in Tectonic Culture. In 2002 a collection of Frampton's writings over a period of 35 years was collated and published under the title Labour, Work and Architecture. In 2006, he wrote the introduction to the book of Flemish architect Georges Baines.