The Architecture of the Ivar Aasen Centre

“Architecture must be filled with a dream.” Sverre Fehn (1924-2009)

Sverre Fehn designed the main building and the out-door amphitheatre of the Ivar Aasen Centre, with assistance from fellow architects Henrik Hille and Ervin Strandskogen. With his concept for the centre, Fehn created a merger of the authentic and the innovative.

A token of honour

“Now and then, we need to set ourselves extraordinary ambitions, and allow purely cultural political considerations to guide our choices as a client of new architecture.” These were the words of Minister of Culture Åse Kleveland when she announced that Sverre Fehn had received the commission as architect of the Ivar Aasen Centre, 8 February 1996.

There was no architectural competition to settle the design for the Ivar Aasen Centre. Sverre Fehn was directly selected for the commission as a token of honour, and he arrived at the site as early as 20 March in the same year with a completely blank sketch pad. He told the local newspaper Møre : “I see Ivar Aasen as a product of his surroundings. My problem will now be how to link the building and his life work. Language, after all, is inherently abstract and thus not something which can be displayed. Nevertheless, it will soon be language alone that distinguishes us from other nations.”

Even the very first lines on Fehn’s sketch pad were thus closely linked to the content of the exhibition. Fehn wanted to create a building that could encompass the contrasts in Ivar Aasen’s life: a life shifting between long periods of travels and equally long periods of stationary, desk-bound work. “The building must be a place in which the visitor can find peace and have access to a wide outwards view, while at the same time entering an intellectual environment,” Fehn said after receiving his first impressions of the location.

“Shifting between calm and motion is a good notion.” Ivar Aasen

The interaction between the new and the old

It was important to Sverre Fehn that the older buildings should be left undisturbed. The old farmstead was to act as a vestibule to the new museum building. When you stand before the entrance to the present museum, you can see all the way through the building, and out into the landscape on the other side. This was Fehn’s concept: to create a line from the old farmstead, through the exhibits, and out into the world on the other side: a symbol of Ivar Aasen’s journeys through the Norwegian language. This concept grows even more potent when you go through the main museum building and arrive at the western door: you then look down on the Volda fjord, across which Aasen was rowed at the start of his first great journey of linguistic discovery, on 29 September 1842.

In dialogue with nature

“Architecture is the writing in the landscape” (Sverre Fehn in Dag og Tid 1996)

Like few other Norwegian architects, Sverre Fehn was able to preserve landscape details. He did not insert a lawn in a woodland plot, and he did not deny the presence of hills and slopes. The long line is a characteristic of most Fehn-buildings. His 79-metre long Ivar Aasen Centre, built by proud craftsmen, juts out of the hillside like a window. Large glass planes open the building to the landscape and provide all the rooms with an ever-shifting light. Exposed structural details and building materials in natural colours are typical of Fehn’s work. The use of natural colours he explains as an inspiration from Japanese architecture, which does not use paint. Some characteristics of his style are:

• White Danish concrete gives the building less visual weight than normal concrete

• The concrete walls reflect the ancient Norwegian traditions of wooden houses, since the structure of the wooden formwork is left visible in the finished concrete

• The tension between darker and lighter shades of wood: solid oak floors contrast with pine walls in the auditorium and the offices

• Glue laminated beams used for multiple purposes: the use of laminated wood in the main structure is something of a Fehn- specialty. He was the first architect to use bent glue laminated beams.

• Sod-cover on the vaulted section of the roof, which makes it blend into the forest floor on the hill above

“Once more, Fehn has succeded in composing a poem which is meaningful in the landscape.” (Svava Riesto on the Ivar Aasen Centre in Arkitekten 22/2000).

A written culture in solid concrete

“The reinforcement in this building is truly lovely.” (Sverre Fehn in his Aasen memorial lecture 23.06.2000)

Sverre Fehn has been called ‘the poet of the line’. This epithet is based on his verbal descriptions of buildings in beautiful, intimate terms, with elements of poetic language, but no less on his buildings’ tender yet strong form.

Fehn created buildings which open up to the visitor and invite the audience to read meaning into them on their own. Many visitors in the Aasen Centre try to read the building as they wander through it: they wonder what he has meant with this or that angle and line, and often provide their own interpretations.

As we can see throughout the house, he has again and again transformed linguistic expressions into building elements:

• The long, central passage is to Fehn the road through the language

• Sloping walls in the exhibition rooms reflect the shape of open books, which we can enter

• You enter a library to immerse yourself in books. In the Aasen Centre library, a staircase descends into the depths of the library.

• Windows sloping outwards gives a down-to-earth perspective. In this way, Fehn directs our attention towards the landscape through which Aasen wandered and in which the Nynorsk language was formed.

In the Aasen centre, all details build towards a whole. The exterior lines of the auditorium are reflected in the shape of the lectern inside it.

The philosophy of the museum architect

“A traditional museum works to make what has been abandoned seen. Today we feel the need for museums to make the invisible seen.” (Sverre Fehn in Byggekunst 1992)

When Sverre Fehn designed an exhibition, he staged the objects and let them tell the story. The central passage which the architect called the way through the language, marks a borderline through the exhibition. To the left, we find the exhibits which focus on the individual. Here is the presentation of Ivar Aasen’s life and achievements, as well as presentations of modern and older authors. To the right, the exhibit displays the collective aspects of language and the whole Nynorsk project.

The exhibition was created in close cooperation with exhibition designer John Åge Gjestrum. Together, they shaped an exhibition which is flexible, and which activates and awakens a lively interest in the visitors. But then the Ivar Aasen Centre is focused on something which deeply personal to every visitor: one’s own language.

The artist

“The desire for a life after death is an abstract and constructive thought which manifests itself in a tremendously powerful architecture. This is a central theme in my thinking.” (Sverre Fehn in Dagsavisen 12.08.2000)

Sverre Fehn was a major figure in both Norwegian and international architecture when he received the commission for the Ivar Aasen Centre from minister of culture Åse Kleveland in 1996. He is an even greater name now.

The turning point came in 1997, when he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize: one of the most prestigious international architecture prizes, founded in 1979. Every year, the jury must choose among up to 500 candidates from across the world.

Sverre Fehn has won Norwegian architectural awards for outstanding use of wood (once) and concrete (twice). The latter prize was awarded for the Glacier Museum in Fjærland in 1991, and for the Ivar Aasen Centre in 2000.

In the winter of 2001, Sverre Fehn became the first recipient of the Grosch Medal, instituted in commemoration of the important 19th century Norwegian architect Chr. H. Grosch.

“Sverre Fehn represents the artistic dimension in Norwegian architecture.” (Rune Slagstad, 2001)





Translated by Kjetil Myskja