Joar Nango, Sápmi 2009

Sápmi stretches throughout a landscape of diverse topography and climate. The differences in the Saami building traditions follow these variations, being formed by both the landscape and the local resources. This fact makes it difficult to speak about a unified Saami building tradition as a whole. In a Saami-Norwegian context, there is an over-emphasis placed on the reindeer herders from “indre Finnmark” and their building methods. The reason for this is that the Saami settlements have been (and still are) in the majority in these regions. It is easier to detect the traces of continuation of both building traditions and way of life in the Saami settlements. Buildings that are directly connected to the reindeer herders' way of life, especially the Lávvu, the Luovvi and the Áiti, are left standing as frequently used symbols of the true and genuine Saami way of building. The problem is that this often overshadows the differentiations that exist within the Saami building tradition, and therefore, the differences between north and south, the coast and the mainland are easily neglected and forgotten. Last but not least, this singular focus also disregards the fact that our building tradition has, along with the other regional building traditions of northern Europe, been changed and influenced from the outside throughout the ages.

The development of “Sápmi” as a modern society and nation has been rapidly accelerating during the past thirty years. Undoubtedly architecture has developed as a natural part of this process and also by the factors mentioned above. This development is a formal expression of a culture’s collective identity, both in a historical and contemporary sense. It defines people, cultures and nations, and plays an important part in a society’s definition of itself and its identity, not only from a contemporary perspective, but also in terms of their future development and what they want to become. If contemporary architecture found in Sápmi today can be said to be a “collective-identity-indicator”, one that truly expresses our modern Sámi culture to the outside world, then I feel as though it is fragmented and failing to fully address the complexity, diversity, and multiple perspectives of the saami building tradition. The majority of the architecture attempting to incorporate a saami identity into its architectural design commonly relies on methods referring to visual and formal elements, models and patterns found in traditional Sámi architecture. A good example of this method and the use of strong visual metaphor would be the Reindeer herder’s nomadic tent, the Lávvu, and how it is presented as an enlarged conical shape embedded in an otherwise quite conventional type of construction. A number of different variations in both the use and purpose of this type of building can be found throughout the whole region. Some variations function within the realm of tourism, where the Lávvu-shape underlines the Saami/Laplandish exoticism that is sold to visitors, while others function as important cultural institutions self-governed by the Saami community. The method has been so widely used that it has resulted in the birth of what one could call the Giant Lávvu typology of the North. It is a typology that is purely symbolic, describing a difference between neighboring cultures instead of searching for an architectural potential that might be embedded within it. It is the shape, the visual symbols, the position and outward symbolic effect of these buildings, rather than the creators or their use, that qualify them to be seen as contemporary Saami architecture. They all too often come off looking like desperate attempts to position themselves as strictly Saami, and therefore, as something distinctively different from the Norwegian/Russian/ Swedish/ Finnish architecture that we are surrounded by. And it is here where many of the problems lie. Often times when a ”Norwegian” architect attempts to incorporate a specific Saami expression into their architectural design, the emphasis is placed on elements that differ between the two cultures. The visual elements that the two cultures share are automatically referred to as “Norwegian” rather than “Saami”, which then unfortunately forces the idea of “Saami-ness” to become limited and transforms it into something static and exotic. This unfortunate aspect of contemporary Saami architecture makes it tempting to describe these giant Lávvus as more of a syndrome that portrays a simplified picture of our culture and runs the risk of hindering the natural growth of our inclusive modern tradition.

In order to improve the tendencies found in current-day Saami architecture, it is important that a discussion about the future of Saami architecture is initiated. And, in order to make room for an architecture that is able to present a more genuine and multi-faceted image of our culture, it is essential that this discussion be directed by the Saami community itself. In the end a discussion such as this might uncover the need for an alternative and more inclusive model for architectural design, in which there is a closer dialogue between the designers and the community that the model is designed for. The time of the giant Lávvu is over. What we need is an architecture that is able to see beyond the formal and visual representations of our culture.

A fruitful way of approaching this might be to understand the Saami building tradition as a way of thinking. It is easy to spot a tradition of “Saami attitude”, one that brings forth a pragmatic, composite and complex vernacular architecture often bearing the quintessential elements of recycling and spontaneous use of materials such as local wood, plastic and fiber cloths, folded-out oil barrels, cardboard, isolation-foam, etc. and whatever else might be available on site. This demonstrates a specific Saami ability to adapt and improvise according to context, surroundings and landscape. From an architectural point of view it might therefore be just as interesting to focus on the Saami art of building from a more regional perspective. Instead of letting an ethnical viewpoint simplify the picture and define the Saami building tradition as a whole, it is more useful to focus on the Saami way of thinking, where the unified Saami building tradition is recognized by a sensitive relation to the landscape and the specific ecological, spiritual and historical criterias provided by the site itself.

Joar Nango
is an architect with a Norwegian-Saami background. At the moment he is working at NTNU in Trondheim. Since 2007 Nango has been writing, editing and publishing "Sami Huksendaidda:the FANzine" as a part of his ongoing research on contemporary Saami