Though awarded the profession’s highest honor—the Pritzker Prize—in 1997, Sverre Fehn, who died in Oslo on February 23 at age 84, was hardly a household name in architecture. The Norwegian architect practiced a poetic modernism in the Scandinavian tradition that was more expressive and less formally driven than Alvar Aalto or Poul Kjaerholm, but powerful in its evocative simplicity. His built works are relatively few and almost all in Norway, but such buildings as the Glacier Museum (1991), the Hedmark Museum (1979), and the Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale (1962) have been recognized as true achievements by academics and practitioners alike, from John Hejduk to Craig Dykers. Here, architect Steven Holl and artist Dan Graham offer their impressions.
Steven Holl, Steven Holl Architects
Sverre Fehn’s architecture was tied deeply to roots, but always futuristic in spirit. His work expressed the power of the inventive, along with marvelous moments of experiential joy. Standing on the roof of his Glacier Museum in Fjaerland, Norway, I had the feeling he was raising man like a mountain, but then putting him in humble awe of the melting glacier in the distance. The inspirational space and light of his Nordic Pavilion in Venice merges thin, delicate concrete with undulating light shot through with the earth’s counterpoint in piercing trees. This space is full of rhythm, asymmetrically unpredictable. Like a forked musical staff of bars in which notes are the existing trees, the silence is broken by a blasting through to the light.
Fehn’s drawings had the continued on delicate power of a scribble that could shape a city. His concept drawing for the Glacier Museum, for instance, is only a few lines, but it carries the immensity of the mountains holding the glacier, while conveying the fragility of the little work of architecture, a scribble on the ground plane. In this sketch, the poetic power of a thought is later concretized in the realized work.
While the greatest lessons are experienced in his built work, he was also an inspirational teacher at the Oslo School of Architecture. In Scandinavian architecture, his realized buildings, though not many, stand as a smiling argument for the modern power of material structure and light in rare poetic balance with natural forces.
Dan Graham, Artist
What I love about Fehn’s work is that it doesn’t fight nature, but works with it. At the Glacier Museum, the lichen grows in and out of the concrete walls. I never met him, but everyone I know who did remarked on how kind and gentle and nurturing he was. Brian Halton of the English architecture group NATO once told me that when everyone else was attacking their work, Fehn defended them. Fehn never let form overpower his sense of the integrity of nature. I really like his writings, too, because they deal in a typically modest Norwegian way with architecture in its relationship to nature.