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Uncomplicated Beauty

Norway’s coastal architecture is a product of intelligent frugality, says one of the country’s leading architects.

WORDS TIM McGLONE

The dramatic beauty of the coastal landscapes in Norway is such that it would seem difficult to make them any more attractive than they already are.

Yet around the world, it seems an easy trap to fall into. Money and the coast often go hand in hand and there are countless examples of expensive, garish and resource-heavy constructions that change the complexion of the natural environment. In Norway, on the other hand, there is an understated style to its architecture, especially along the country’s mighty coast. Historical ties to the sea have lent a more practical approach to designing both homes and buildings. Much of the time, the architecture not only flatters but actually improves these areas. The beautiful simplicity of the colourful and centuries-old harbour boathouses makes them a must-see for any visitor to cities such as Bergen, Tromsø, and Nyksund. And it is here where the secret lies, according to one of the country’s leading architects.

Norway's boathouses are some of Jan Olav Jensen's favourites.

A Norwegian port.

“Some of my favourite buildings are actually the old boathouses, like the ones in a place like Bergen,” says Jan Olav Jensen, Professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and founding partner of Jensen and Skodvin, a leading architectural firm. “The boathouses are service buildings that are next to the harbour. It’s a very practical design to get the fish in and then store the boats, and generally [people] live upstairs. “Mainly, these are buildings made of necessity. And it’s a very beautiful part of our architectural history because it has been developing slowly over many hundreds of years. “It is very frugal architecture. The people that built these didn’t have a lot of money and so they had to make smart choices. They had to build in a safe place so it wasn’t destroyed by the waves and the winds, and also where the rocks were suitable. It’s a very intelligent set of choices. “It is also beautiful and it belongs to the landscape. I think it’s a typical example of super-nice vernacular architecture, and very honest also.”

Bryggen: A bastion of Norway's 'honest' architecture, as described by Jensen. Photo: Jean-Michel Richard.

While Norway’s economy has developed into one of the strongest in Europe, it has maintained a connection to its roots. Simple designs of exquisite beauty are frequent along the coast of the mainland and the numerous islands that make up the country’s complex archipelago. Eggum in the Lofoten Islands is a rest area shaped like a classic amphitheater. It’s a perfect spot for checking out the midnight sun, with the natural stone structure only a very gentle intrusion into the otherwise untouched environment.

The Eggum rest area, located on the northwest side of Vestvågøy in Lofoten. Photo: Visit Norway

Naust V is another example of an old boathouse transformed tastefully into a gorgeous modern summer house in Vikebygd, a village along the southwest coast. At the other end of the country, Jensen and his firm designed the Summer House Storfjord. Here, a part of the large rock that makes up the mountainous wall behind the house actually forms part of the living room. This seems to take the meaning of sustainability and using the natural resources at hand to a whole new level, but Jensen says sustainability shouldn’t always be seen like this.

Summer House, designed by Jensen and Skovdin.

Rock that is part of the mountainous wall behind the house, forms part of the living room.

“The concept of sustainability is not always about materials and solar panels,” he says. “Nowadays most people want to live in the cities as they can make a living, which is different to 100 years ago. “It’s about social construction, and creating a sustainable society. We can create a project that makes it possible for people to live there. “It comes from nothing, but it’s a very important aspect of what we do.” International visitors are one of the greatest beneficiaries of Norway’s beautiful designs. Exploring the best in coastal architecture alone could make up a trip to the country.

The coast is very important to us. It’s a mentality. Even as far back as the Vikings, it is the place where everything happens.

— Jan Olav Jensen

The Arctic Hideaway, Bodø, Northern Norway.

Shelters built on Øksfjord Mountain. Photo: Tormod Amundsen

Norwegian Wild Reindeer Centre Pavilion , also called Viewpoint Snøhetta, at Tverrfjellhytta.

The Hurtigruten Museum in Storkmaknes.

“The coast is very important to us,” Jensen says. “It’s a mentality. Even as far back as the Vikings, it is the place where everything happens. “It can be very easy to forget our history, but that we are still doing this and for me it is the best way, to not have unlimited resources, to have a certain amount and to use them in an intelligent way. “Am I proud of our architecture? I don’t think about this much! But of course I am. “It’s great that we are still as honest in our designs as we were back then.”

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