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The architect behind Nordic modernism

The architecture of Sverre Fehn (1924–2009) is a dialogue between the country and the landscape as he saw it, and his buildings are instilled with both natural and human qualities. He believed that a building should enhance the beauty of its setting.

"His life is over but his life’s work lives on," said the Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre at the funeral of this architect who was internationally renowned for the brilliance of his designs and the significance of his philosophy of architecture.

Norway's most prominent architect of his time, Sverre Fehn, died on 23 February. Photo: Anne Plau Hoel / Arkitektnytt

A dialogue with nature
Fehn was particularly concerned with the relationship between the built and the natural environment.

Fehn himself said: "When I build on a site in a completely unspoilt natural landscape, it's a fight, an attack on nature perpetrated by our culture. In this confrontation I try to create a building that will make people more aware of the beauty of the setting, and I hope that seeing the building in its setting will give rise to a new consciousness of the beauty of the place."

Sverre Fehn designed the Norwegian Glacier Museum in Fjærland in 1991–93. The aim of the museum is to collect, create and disseminate knowledge about glaciers and climate. Photo: Arkivfoto.no

Architectonic masterpieces
At the age of only 34, Fehn designed the Norwegian Pavilion at the Brussels World Exposition of 1958. The 1960s saw two of his greatest achievements:

  • The Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
  • The Hedmark Museum in Hamar

The Nordic Pavilion, Brussels Expo, 1958. Photo: Haine, Sverre Fehn's Archives

The Hedmark Museum, which is built around the ruins of Hamar Cathedral, marked his move away from pure modernism and towards a personal architectural universe. The museum has an international reputation and is visited every year by architects from all over the world. Fehn’s Norwegian Glacier Museum is also considered a major landmark in contemporary architecture.

A walk through nature
Fehn also designed a number of private houses. Villa Busk (1990), in Bamble, was designated a listed building soon after its completion because of its visual qualities and the interplay between the building and its setting. His use of space gives the illusion of walking through nature.

Villa Busk was made a listed building soon after its completion.Photo: Sverre Fehn's archives / National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design

Fehn continued to practice as an architect right up to his death. The new headquarters of the Gyldendal publishing house was completed only two years ago, and the Museum of Architecture in Bankplassen, Oslo, was inaugurated last year.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize
Fehn received a great number of international prizes for his work, and in 1977 he was awarded the greatest of them all, the Pritzker Architecture Prize. This prestigious prize is the highest honour an architect can receive.

According to the jury, “Sverre Fehn represents the best of twentieth-century modernism ... this is a unique life's work of extraordinary richness, perception and quality.”

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