Visitors centre, Lillehammer
LILLEHAMMER (NO) - Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk designed a simple and clear entrance building for the estate of Sigrid Undset.
Nobel Prize-winning author Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is known for her powerful historical novels, her seriousness and high quality writing. The name of her house, Bjerkebaek, means 'birch brook' in Norwegian and the name tells the story of half the site: it has a garden with birches and a brook running through it. The rest of the Bjerkebaek estate consists of a complex of large log houses on the slopes overlooking the town of Lillehammer and Lake Mjøsa. Undset, who had a great fascination for nature, created an impressive botanical garden in front of her home, a garden that will be an important part of the guided tours starting from the elevated ramp of the new centre.
The new building runs along the northern edge of the estate, forming a protective wall between it and a rather dull road, whilst leaving the old buildings unaffected. This clear disposition is also legible in the building itself: two walls in solid concrete and concrete bricks form an elongated core containing the entrance, rest rooms, kitchen and other service rooms; technical services are hidden above the suspended concrete ceiling. The straight concrete core is the backdrop for the exhibition area, a taller and lighter space organized by an undulating glass wall which creates separate zones for lectures, exhibitions, a shop and a café. Outside, the shimmering glass facade weaves around the birch trees, creating intimate situations in the forest and an interesting contrast to the heavy log walls adjacent to it.
One hardly notices the slim steel columns inside the curving curtain, because of their resemblance to the tree trunks outside. It is as if the concrete roof and floor are cantilevered out from the spine-like core, forming a base for observing the forest and Undset's home. The floor level is elevated above the sloping ground to allow the brook to flow underneath. The concrete ramp leading out into the forest splits in two before touching the forest bed, in order to separate tour groups starting out from those returning. To the west and the east of the volume, visitors can sit out on covered terraces among the trees and columns, listening to an outdoor lecture or just enjoying a coffee.
The detailing of the building matches the simplicity and clarity of the overall layout. The walls, floors and ceilings are of roughcast concrete, with acoustic fibre panels scattered across the ceiling to the extent necessary. In contrast, the concrete benches, with removable leather cushions, and the floors are smoothly polished. All window frames and furniture are constructed of solid wood in large dimensions. Where the toilet walls are exposed to water, the concrete bricks are white-glazed and in some places laid in decorative patterns.
Architect Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk belongs to the generation of Norwegian architects that matured in the 1980s in an environment nurtured by Pritzker winner Sverre Fehn's authentic-poetic Nordic modernism. Hølmebakk, whose architectural production is modest in both size and number, is his generation's master craftsman, approaching every aspect of the design with an almost impossible thoroughness. His projects often surprise with a curious twist, like the undulating facade in Lillehammer.
Some may argue that the beauty of solid materials and meticulous detailing is vulnerable to the blue plastic postcard shelving and flowery lunchroom curtains that are bound to pop up sooner or later. And despite the apparent robustness of the raw concrete, there is some uncertainty whether this impression will prevail when the exhibition designers enter the arena. The architects' original idea of pivoting exhibition panels attached to the facade columns was abandoned by the client. That is a shame, as it would have put the finishing touch to a building that is solid and consistent in all its parts, and as such worthy of Sigrid Undset.
July | 2007 | Norway | Sissil Morseth Gromholt