POTENTIAL OF THE PERIPHERY

ACCEPTING THE BARENTS SPECTACLE - OR THE UNDICOVERED POTENTIAL OF A PERIPHERAL ENVIRONMENT
By Magnus Jørgensen.

The insistent presence of dramatic landscapes, vast plains and ruthless climate creates harsh yet vulnerable conditions for the settlements in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region. Most architects of the Nordic modernist tradition are likely to conceive of this environment as close to sacred ground as they can get without giving in to religious beliefs. An inherent history of tribal and nomadic lifestyles reinforces vital and present genius loci, which for the conscious architect ought to be approached with humility and sensibility. Almost every building with an intention to express local identity represents romantic or exotic kitsch, industrial installations or vernacular offspring born out of necessity. This local architecture constitutes a Barents paradox: what seems at the outset to be the situation of the architect’s wet dream - the ultimate opportunity to achieve true architecture - results in many cases in cultural caricatures loaded with symbolism.

With the exception of the bigger towns where the freedom of the existing building mass allows one to erect literally any known city typology, it seems problematic for architects to master the rural surroundings and actually build something site specific. Formal references to local phenomena like landscapes, wildlife or indigenous population attributes dominate the picture. Maybe this is the price to pay for being periphery, or maybe it’s just architectural exoticism. Whatever the case, there seem to be two types of projects representing identity: projects built by local enthusiasts and projects built by architects from the central areas of their respective countries. The formal answers do not seem to differ much, though. The variation is more about choice of materials and execution. The ones drawn by the centrally-based architects tend to have bigger budgets and thus look shinier and more prestigious.

The most spectacular project of the region in this context is a center for conferences and adventure tourism due to be completed in 2010. Still under progress, the enormous wooden moose Stoorn (“Biggy”) will be measuring 45 meters from hoofs to antlers and standing on the top of the Vithatten Mountain in northern Sweden. Stoorn will, according to the animated presentation on the project's homepage (www.stoorn.se), eventually be able to host and cater up to 350 persons simultaneously. It could, of course, be tempting to write this off as another shining example of mediocrity elevated to divine levels, but somehow a part of me cannot resist believing Thomas Brühl, CEO of Visit Sweden, when he promotes the project: “Destination Sweden needs distinct and exotic icons. This could well be one of them.”

The formal association of the lávvu, the Sámi conical tent, seems especially popular. The distribution of lávvu-like hotels, steakhouses and souvenir shops seems to have no end. Even the Sámi parliament by the well respected Norwegian architects Stein Halvorsen and Christian Sundby received the dubious honor of being imprisoned in a gigantic tent- like shape. Sámi architect Joar Nango discusses this further in his ongoing project about Sámi architecture, called Sámi Huksendáidda (The Sámi Art of Building). In search of a contemporary understanding of the Sámi culture through architecture, he has made interesting documentations of the use of the lávvu as formal ideal, even introducing the Giant Lávvu as an independent typology of the region. Nango’s fascination with these representations is nevertheless obvious. The Giant Lávvus are popular among the locals and therefore widespread, and also perceived as typically Sámi. He therefore acknowledges them to a certain extent as a popular formal answer to the Sámi heritage, but also calls for an urgent discourse about a contemporary Sámi architecture. An important part of this discussion constitutes a masters course on Sámi housing at the Faculty of Architecture and Fine Art at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. The course was initiated in 2007 by architect Sverre Sondresen and has over the last two years been conducted by associated professor Bjørn Otto Braaten. Nango has been involved in teaching the course since 2008.

Another important figure associated with the Sámi housing course in Trondheim is Finnish architect Sami Rintala. Today, as one of the few architectural players of the region, he manages to avoid the spectacle of symbolic identity. In his ongoing projects in both Kirkenes and Kåfjord he is chasing the sublime through a deliberated pursuit of nothingness. He follows this pursuit by designing subtle, almost imperceptible projects which appear to be floating, many of which have light foundations or none at all. By this I mean that there seem to be other dimensions to his designs which are more important than the actual built structures. Rintala tries to capture the quality of the surroundings and investigates the essence of the respective needs rather than simply transferring traditional forms onto contemporary functions. For that reason his formal language is often of minimalistic character, and the compensation for what exists of physical structure is delicate creation.

In a similar way in which Nango has an ambiguous fascination for the Giant Lávvo, Rintala also bears within him some kind of duality. In a lecture he held at Café Ni Muser in Trondheim last fall he was condemning the extreme sport of glossy skyscraper urbanism that leading starchitects of today compete in. Not that the criticism of this topic is particularly new or edgy, but his approach had an element of originality to it. Among his visual examples of doom was OMA’s striking CCTV-headquarters in Beijing. In my opinion, an architectural masterpiece, which, in addition to its extraordinary design and structure is a highly pragmatic, functional and efficient building. I did not exactly get a complete answer to what his personal opinion about the architecture of the CCTV-building was, because instead of pinpointing his critique he started embracing the incidental and passionate, exemplified by a picture of the Sutyagin House. The home of Nikolai Petrovich Sutyagin and his family was, according to Wikipedia, “…constructed by Mr. Sutyagin and his family over 15 years (starting in 1992), without formal plans or a building permit.” The thirteen-story wooden construction rises 40 meters into the air among the 19th century log houses in the Solombala-neighborhood of Arkhangelsk, northwestern Russia. A short image search on “Arkhangelsk” in Google reveals this particular building as, by far, the most frequently hit, and maybe therefore also the image that solely bears the biggest potential of attracting tourists to the city. The home that Mr. Suyagin built has become the Eiffel-tower of Arkhangelsk.

Fortunately I went to visit the building in December last year, because despite winning the internet user's pet award for the city's most spectacular building, it is due to be demolished by February 1st 2009. Situated among wooden houses of high antiquarian value, the building was eventually condemned by the city as a fire hazard, so by the time you’ve read this it might already be gone. In any case, having stated in the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv’s weekend supplement D2 last year that “I am a sort of resistance-architect”, Rintala suggests that he has a kind of anti-establishment mentality. That suits the picture well. In most senses very far from the delicate design of Rintala, the Sutyagin house is in all its aspects truly anti-establishment: it is anti-professional, entirely built and designed by laymen; it is anti-functional, as most of the building is just a shell of scrap wood materials, not suitable for living in, and it definitely does not look particularly safe. Adding to the fact that it is illegal, erected without any official papers, we can start talking about an aspect of punk in this piece of home-brewed architecture.

That might also be what Rintala finds attractive about this building, despite the fact that it so far away from his own design ideals. The genuine expression of individual creative force weighs more than the quality of the architecture in itself. The Sutyagin house is built on one man’s ground with nothing but bare hands fueled by pure willpower. This could well be an element he might feel is missing in the contemporary consensus. Hence the outburst with regards to the more pragmatic profit-driven example of global architecture mentioned above. But of course, he could just as easily be seduced by the rustic esthetics of this post-apocalyptic pirate’s fortress. Who would not be? Architecture is seductive. Even if it is a combination of the two, both Rintala and Nango are accepting certain vernacular expressions by deliberately ignoring their obvious shortcomings.

In a time when people all over the world are emigrating from the rural districts to the city, the real problem does not really concern the city at all, but rather the places people are moving from. When everybody is focusing on the issues of the ever increasing urban metropolis, there is a need for a countermovement focusing on the rural areas and shrinking settlements in the periphery. Rintala has understood this, and by starting to act in the periphery he has probably also discovered the same thing that struck me traveling in the region: the biggest undiscovered potential of being in the periphery is the liberation from the established consensus. The physical distance to the center itself opens a room for acting differently, but it has to happen on local terms. It is important to understand that what is not necessarily accepted by the central consensus still can hold local meaning, and maybe even solely for that particular reason. Still, the challenge for the periphery is to redefine its role in an age of increasing centralization and globalization. This can be done by taking advantage of the peripheral. As we are experiencing economic recession and increased focus on environmental issues, the trend points towards a revival of typically rural features: locality, modesty, sustainability and closeness to nature. People will start wanting something different. We already see the tendency to seek the rural among Dutch hipsters fashionably tired of urbanity. I therefore believe the periphery in general will become more attractive in the coming years. The winners, however, will be the places that are able to actively adapt to the changes, not the ones dreaming of a by-gone yesterday or hoping to be the next Klondike. Therefore the need of a redefined contemporary, local understanding of the Euro-Arctic Barents Region is urgent. Within the field of architecture, actors like Rintala and Nango (there are more) deliver fruitful contributions in close dialogue with the local communities. I hope and believe the Barents Urban Survey has the potential to become a correspondingly important platform for discussing urban development in the region in the coming years.

Magnus Jørgensen is an architect and an assistant professor at NTNU. He has a master degree in architecture from NTNU,Trondheim. He has also studied at the Hafen City University and HfbK in
Hamburg, Germany. He is currently teaching at the Department of Urban Design and Planning at NTNU, Trondheim.