Context is not Given, but Self-Generated

architects Helen&Hard / Siv Helene Stangeland, Reinhard Kropf
interviewed by ARCHIsquad / Ana Dana Beroš

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Interviewed in Stavanger, 16 December 2011.


Amazingly, the influential school of Sverre Fehn and his ‘sensitive’ regional modernism, dominating the Scandinavian architectural scene for almost a century, have not ideologically burdened the Norwegian architectural office of Helen&Hard. In their work the notion of the genius loci by Christian Norberg-Schultz acquires new meanings. Unlike the learned reading of spatial features as static physical characteristics, Siv Helene Stangeland and Reinhard Kropf observe locations as fields of open possibilities. Their office is situated in the rich Norwegian town of Stavanger and was at first influenced by advanced oil industry technology, as well as the freedom of experimenting and recycling its existing elements. Recently, Helen&Hard opened an office in Oslo as well, where self-initiated projects are the backbone of their practice, for example, their latest project Ardent Souls about social innovators and their entrepreneurial initiatives all over Norway.


ORIS: Let’s begin with an introductory explanation of the Norwegian contemporary architectural scene and your choice of the western town of Stavanger to be your base. How did the fact that Stavanger is the oil capital of Norway affect your work?


Reinhard Kropf: We both studied at the Oslo School of Architecture, AHO, and the tradition has been quite dominated by the school of Professor Sverre Fehn, very contextual and sensitive modern. Somehow we learned to develop architecture and spaces out of contextual circumstances and possibilities. When we started our office, we really wanted to change the way context and landscape were defined, and how this relation to landscape and context was taught and practised at the time. In that aspect we have a strong relationship to landscape, to climate, to culture.


Siv Helene Stangeland: Stavanger at the time we started our office had most of its dynamic in the offshore-oil industry, and we wished to plug into, and grasp the density of innovation, of experimentation with the very sophisticated building methods of the industry. The building industry employed on-shore was rather boring and uninteresting, so for us it was a much more interesting context to relate to. Also, it is a very much changing context. I believe we just said that context is something you find, redefine and invent. It’s not given. It is something defined in relation to what you make. That is how we started to work on projects that pretty much define the context as the starting point.


ORIS: So your reading of the context is interpreted in a new way, not just in the qualities of place read as static physi­cal attributes?


Siv Helene Stangeland: Yes, for example, we are interested in the dynamics in the city, what people are working with, where the money circulation is, what is produced, etc.


ORIS: What we have found inherent in your work is this openness to all fields of the architectural discipline and be­yond. Was it a conscious choice from the beginning?


Siv Helene Stangeland: That was a rather conscious idea, I would say, that architecture is not about reducing or simplifying; instead it’s about embracing life which is extremely rich in different properties and contrasts. And there was this tendency at the school of Sverre Fehn and the point in modernism to reduce qualities of architecture, a specific style or cleanness which we were opposed to very early on, while still at school.


ORIS: Also, a certain playfulness is evident in your projects and working methods. For instance, in early projects like the Danubian Dreams. How do you sustain such a practice with parallel work on commercial projects on the one hand and non-profit projects, art commission projects, on the other?


Reinhard Kropf: This is an ongoing negotiation with the whole team. It is quite interesting because people tell us we cannot do all these art projects. It’s quite a nice discussion we have, but on the other hand we also want to cross-fertilize. We don’t want a practice where we say these are the commercial projects and these are, kind of, the artistic projects. We want every project to include our philosophy and have bottom-up participation. Of course, that is more difficult in commercial housing projects where you have to use more strategic tools to really achieve this. The important thing is not to split the office into different models of working.


Siv Helene Stangeland: And what is always important is the feedback to the commercial projects, where there is no space, time and money for experiments, so by having this parallel work we can cross-fertilize and that’s very good.


ORIS: Re-use of existing elements from the local oil industry and the use of local human resources are common to many of your projects. What drew you to designing experimental urban spaces which test new ways of recycling?


Reinhard Kropf: We confronted ourselves with the local oil industry. On the one hand there was an extreme knowledge pool and a high density of interesting human resources involved in Stavanger. On the other hand it is, of course, an industry that doesn’t have any future in the long term and is not sustainable. So our interest was how this knowledge could be transferred from the oil industry to architecture and other segments of society, and also how we could recycle not only the knowledge and the technology but also the waste in an interesting way. We have done several recycling projects like using containers just like outside our office, we have built structures related to the oil industry and used parts of platforms or technology in the Geopark project. So the oil industry has been a big inspiration to think more about this relation and the way it could work. And that was an entry, at the beginning when we started all this, to find a way to conceptualize it and use it in architecture.


ORIS: A monograph on your work entitled Relational Design is to be published in a couple of months. What does relational design mean to you in everyday practice? Does it follow the same line of thought as in your definition of the context?


Reinhard Kropf: What we try to achieve is to create a certain awareness and sensibility towards the possibilities and potential in a given situation around a project. And that can be the general qualities that encompass not only the know-how, the knowledge and the technology, it can also include human resources, human behaviour, people who are enthusiastic about something or it can also be material qualities or energetic qualities. But the interesting thing is how this can in several situations, in several experiments, be utilized and included in the design process from the very beginning. That is something within which we see an extreme spatial potential.


Siv Helene Stangeland: We think of spatial potential as a way to a more sustainable way of practising architecture. Because, by leaving this notion behind of the architect having a great idea that he or she projects onto the environment, we believe much more in something that grows from a very dense relationship. We also take it as far as saying: ‘We want to find partnerships.’ We are going into partnerships with the context, with the materials we use, with the production system or the people, of course. But also given the physical elements and aspects that we work with, because we experienced that this generates much more authentic and site-specific, interesting architecture. And also getting necessary feedback in the process to adjust and adapt and be more sustainable. Just like nature, always having this feedback system.


ORIS: We could say that you are turning the notion of archi­tect as author into new meanings of architect as negotiator. In many of your projects you chose to be more curators than architects and let the local community and artists contribute to the entire design process. What have you learned from these collaborations?


Siv Helene Stangeland: A lot. I think we have learned how to find the balance between what we open up to, allowing bottom-up design and emergence to happen, and what we kind of make as rules for the game, that’s the trick. But it is research and it’s an experiment each time to find that balance.


ORIS: And how successful are you in commercial housing projects, in negotiations with private developers, when advocating public areas, community spaces, etc.? In Croatia it is extremely difficult to achieve added social value in such projects. Is it a struggle in Norway as well?


Siv Helene Stangeland: It’s nearly impossible. We have to have very strategic arguments going. That’s the most difficult thing, of course.


Reinhard Kropf: We learn the hard way, and what we learned is that projects have to include what developers want. There are some ways to act that we learned, we did a lot of housing projects and we failed sometimes – by that I mean that these spaces were just taken out to save a lot of costs. So it is crucial to learn to have a robust concept that can’t be reduced or demolished.


ORIS: Is there room for experiment within the typology of social housing?


Siv Helene Stangeland: We are doing a very interesting research project now which is about new collective housing, a new co-housing model. In fact, it looks at the whole spectrum from where you define what you are going to have for your own, what you could share with your neighbourhood. Then it is trying to work on a parallel, alternative way to reach out to users so that it does not go through the normal production system of real-estate com­panies which always have their own way of finding a flat, and finding a family. How well you are going to live and what your values are, even. So we are trying to work the other way around it and see if we can define it differently from the bottom. That is very interesting.


ORIS: The challenge is how to persuade inhabitants to choose to live in dense urban environments in Norway, rather than in their single family houses with large lawns and views over the sea. What are the advantages that you are implementing in such high density housing projects?


Siv Helene Stangeland: It is a very interesting question, because I think the situation here is nearly the opposite of what you find elsewhere. The scarcity of people makes it, kind of, a necessity to densify, to even have a social life. You don’t have an urban kind of environment, so people are getting more and more interested in urban life. I think that’s made the shift that makes it work. Of course, then you get all the sustainable arguments for it. And also, people are getting more into using buses and trams and not only private cars. So there is, kind of, a different influence which is working in the right direction.


ORIS: Clearly, sustainability and re-use are very important issues in your work. In certain projects you were boldly suggesting to clients to keep the existing structures, even if the project was about converting a chapel into a home. We suspect this wasn’t a standard, expected approach to architectural heritage in Norway?


Siv Helene Stangeland: When we started to do it, it was not at all something in focus, in ’96. I would say it was more like a provocation from our side. Because Stavanger is so rich you don’t need really to reuse or recycle. We wanted to provoke this discussion on how you go along with resources and what is valuable and how you can gain quality by adding something interesting instead of making everything upbeat. So it was both, I think, a philosophy or attitude we had, and then in the context of Stavanger it was very much needed.


Reinhard Kropf: And also by doing that we could avoid typical pro­duction. Like in the Mosvangen student dwellings project, or the Bedehuset chapel, you have general contractors who have to leave their way of work, their routines by improvising within existing structures. You could suddenly invent a new place to work with, and also have spatial qualities and materials, generosity that you never could achieve in new buildings. So there was a discovery we made with this kind of magic of the materials. You can find so many interesting things which then enrich the project. Also there came other aspects, cultural aspects, how we relate to history. This was altogether really important to transfer to new projects, so that the knowledge is not merely limited to recycling or conversion projects. This was very important for us in the beginning. To learn this keeps you a priori different.


ORIS: Your projects in the world-listed Stavanger heritage centre display a balanced tension between contemporary and traditional vernacular architecture. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in such a strictly defined context of Stavanger?


Reinhard Kropf: I think the advantages are that you are forced to have empathy towards the context, to the way vernacular buildings are made, how they are used and how they emerged over time. That was the extreme knowledge we learned. The danger is that you become too enclosed. First it was also very important to leave Stavanger, to try to become international, because the danger with working locally is that without even knowing it you can get provincial. And then you get limited by this, kind of, locality. You lose the global aspect of architecture, and you lose global knowledge. So we were really aware of not limiting our activity to Stavanger. We don’t want to be Stavanger architects, it is not interesting in itself at all. That is not how we see ourselves.


Siv Helene Stangeland: We learned a lot by being forced to relate to these very local perimeters and to be able to relate very closely to a reality without imposing something on it, which you can do in a bigger city because you have support from a kind of avant-garde. You have an academic milieu which gives you the arguments. But here there is only this ‘one-to-one’ relation, there is no one helping you to implement something. So it’s very direct work with the reality around and it’s very good, basically, because it’s the same thing we can work out in any context. We relate to what is there, very specifically, and find clues in that relation.


ORIS: As mentioned before in your practice of ‘cross-fertilization’, you create room for experiments by inventing projects yourselves. For instance, Tou Scene was a self-initiated project which you worked on with a group of artists. What is the background story of the design process of self-organized spaces?


Reinhard Kropf: The project lasted at least six years and had different phases. It was a long learning of how to develop not only a place but also a whole enterprise. It started that we used the factory together with artists at the weekends for parties, clubbing and so on. And after three years the local government gave a little money to restore basic things, and then we invited people to take care of the factory buildings. People had an engagement with the place, could participate in the design of certain areas. All of that was like choreography, I guess.


Siv Helene Stangeland: It was made under necessity, because the money only covered the new infrastructure, there was no money for the interior design.


Reinhard Kropf: The interesting thing is how this identification took place, so it became more and more like an institution. Now it is a very established cultural institution, and it becomes more professional but also loses the self-organization aspect. In the middle of the process there was a big crisis. We really found huge difficulties in organizing proposals where money is involved with this self-organization. So we learned a lot about the design process of self-organized places and how you can weave it all together. And we often failed.


ORIS: And was this knowledge gained in the Tou Scene project, not just your personal or professional knowledge, but community knowledge of self-organization, transferred elsewhere after the project turned itself into an institution? Is there now a new similar project in Stavanger or its vicinity?


Siv Helene Stangeland: That is a very good question. Maybe in Sandnes, a small town near Stavanger, where there is collaboration with the young, the kids, with young generations where they could work on projects. But I think what is kept as a vision is that it can only survive by embracing a very wide aspect of culture. If you cannot specialize, it cannot be too focused on sophisticated levels of art or architecture, etc. It has to include. And this was also our project because it was specialized too a milieu and in that aspect it cannot survive, so it has to be really inclusive. Maybe then it will survive as some kind of ethics.


ORIS: Furthermore, what we also found peculiar to your practice is a synthesis of art and architecture. We are referring to projects like Ratatosk for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The result, a wooden sculpture, seems more like an art piece than a spatial installation. What preceded this commission and how did you chose this particular organic design?


Reinhard Kropf: We were invited by the Victoria and Albert Museum. There was a competition, where they invited 16 architects and then chose seven, I think, to build, of which two were Norwegian offices. The theme was play and we really wanted to refer to our playing as children in the forest, in the trees where we played. The interesting part is not the nostalgic idea about it, but how you as a child produce play spaces, and how the play spaces and the play are the same thing. There is no differentiation between them. That is what we would like to translate in our work; the process of making is not divided from the notion, the idea of space. That is what led us to having this kind of different parallel experiments which kind of feed into the space. Each of these experiments has a special input. So it was finding the trees, and getting to digitalize the trees, having digitalized experiments with these models but then also working with physical models, finding out what trees really are like, their anatomy, the branches, the fibres, how you can combine the trees to make a space and then finding how you can assemble different parts of the trees together, how the roots become foundations or how a branch becomes a roof. So there was a kind of parallel extremely good learning for us, to weave together different modes, different ways to operate which I think is the most inspiring part of architecture, this weaving together of very different knowledge, fields, but also of different modes to do things, different practices.


ORIS: Ratatosk has a meaning in Norwegian mythology. Is it a character or a person?


Siv Helene Stangeland: Yes, it’s a character from Norse mythology. It is the name of a squirrel living in the castle in the tree Yggdrasil. It communicates between the gods and the underworld, it gossips.


ORIS: Wood has been a recurring material in most of your projects. Especially interesting is the fact that you use wood as a structural material in more complex public buildings. How common is this quality of your practice in con­tempo­rary Norwegian wood construction?


Siv Helene Stangeland: There is both a tradition, a way to build hou­ses in a log structure and with wood cladding, and then the­re is also the whole production of single family houses or low-rise also in timber frame. So it’s normal to build small-scale buildings in wood and timber. But what we try to do is to implement it in bigger projects. That is, of course, not common.


Reinhard Kropf: What we think is interesting about wood is the environmental aspect, of course. This is why it is our favourite material. The other thing, it is an organic material, it is a heterogeneous material, it has properties, it has its own qualities which you have to take into consideration when designing timber constructions. It can also give you information and can participate in the design process. The opposite is concrete which is completely obedient; you can cast it into any form you want. And it was the V&A project that was kind of a discovery how extremely rich timber is. Instead of using industrialized timber cut and then glued together, we were using the entwining possibilities of timber.


Siv Helene Stangeland: Our interest is to use new digital tools software to be able to work with wood in new ways, to be able to also go into more organic expressions.


ORIS: There is another kind of project we would like to address, located beside the Pulpit Rock Mountain Lodge, as an opposition to the very robust timber structure. The project seems almost like temporary ‘natural’ structure, a remnant of a camp in a national park. What kind of an approach does designing in pure nature ask for?


Reinhard Kropf: First it was interesting that the tracking association wanted places for children in nature. So besides the established Pulpit Rock Mountain Lodge, they wanted simple structures in the surrounding nature, where kids can escape from their parents and have their own life in nature. And then the learning was how to make a shelter from a kid’s perspective. So we went out trekking finding perfect places for the cabins and it was nice how you could use as much of nature as possible as the construction. One, for example, hangs, as lightly as possible and uses the trees as structure. So then again it’s this kind of encounter with nature that gives you ideas how to use it. And the whole idea was about how kids should learn to live in nature and make food themselves.


Siv Helene Stangeland: They are very simple structures, just a cover to sleep in.


ORIS: We talked quite a lot about your own learning as architects during the design process through different collaborations, but what is your experience in teaching at schools of architecture?


Siv Helene Stangeland: I think it’s inspiring when we can come in and define the premises. So that’s my experience. I don’t so much like to come into a school and be a critic, because then I don’t have the possibility to inform the students what we are interested in. But we have done some courses where we define the task and then I think it is really interesting and inspiring to work with students.


ORIS: After fifteen years of work filled with versatile projects and experiments, what are your future prospects as an inventive architectural practice?


Siv Helene Stangeland: At least we are going to define alternative housing, both as a form of living and a form of producing. A big ambition but that’s really from the top of our mind.


Reinhard Kropf: And self-generated projects, because there the whole richness of an architectural context is included in the design. Also in finding the programme, finding the uses, finding the financing for the project. Everything has an incredible potential to be explored for space and it’s not in connection with the commission’s value. And of special importance is to include the production, ways how to build. The building market is quite limited when it comes to sustainable solutions, at least in Norway and that puts a limit not on the intentions of the architect or the knowledge of the architect, it’s just the possibility the market gives.


Siv Helene Stangeland: I think it is to be able to both define and to inform and help the production of a more sustainable architecture, which means we might have to take on other roles as architects. Because it’s not about us producing something, it’s about the whole of society producing something which is more sustainable. So we have to be involved much more in the processes where the basic conditions and premises for architecture are defined.


Reinhard Kropf: So right now we are working on a project, it is called Ild Sjeler. Ild is fire and Sjel is soul. Ardent Souls is about people who are real enthusiasts. It’s a competition we won for the National Gallery exhibition. The premise is about the challenges Norway has endured to keep the rich life, the culture and the nature and avoid people moving to the cities, as is happening now, and to find activities after the oil, that is what we really want. Norway has quite a high opinion of bureaucracy, so it really should be done like they tell you, but what you will see is really going on in Norway, it’s the individual initiatives which are mad, which are interesting. So we have done some research about a lot of initiatives, but we picked out forty Ild Sjeler in Norway. These amazing people, amazing ideas, amazing concepts and amazing beautiful universes along the coast we want to exhibit. We also picked out a group to make a project together, close to Trondheim. It is with a farmer who invented a certain biogas. He researched it for 20 years. It is at the same time a fertilizer and a pesticide. He has now collected 60 farmers in this region and they together want to build a plant and he has also included the whole society of the region. It is just amazing. This is the kind of stuff we think is interesting about Norway, that you have this kind of strange person doing strange things individually somewhere.


Siv Helene Stangeland: It’s the same everywhere, but it’s good to put a spotlight on it, because it is not regarded as a way to develop, but is in fact how things do develop.


Reinhard Kropf: Hopefully, this exhibition is not just about making an exhibition, but about using the exhibition as a way to a kick-start this project, to mark it and get attention around the project. That is the hope. I do not know if we will succeed, anyway the exhibition will be quite great, I think. It will take place at the National Museum in Oslo. It is together with an exhibition about Dutch architecture which is called ‘Architecture of Consequence’, about sustainable architecture. And in another large space there will be a Norwegian contribution to the theme, and that was the competition about. So we came up with this Ild Sjeler, Ardent Souls.