Fantastic Norway Gets It Right in Nuuk
The ghost of Charles Moore must be with us. Last week, I noted the continued power of vernacular forms, and in particular of the simple, wooden structures that combined the industry of agriculture with the sheltering forms of homes. I found that reminder in one exotic location, Puerto Rico, and this week I want to point to another example of the endurance of such forms in an even more remote place, namely Nuuk, Greenland. There, one of the most inventive architecture studios I know, Fantastic Norway, has proposed a complex intended as a place where disadvantage women can find both a home and the building blocks for a better society.
Fantastic Norway is not your standard architecture office. Founded in 2004 by Erlend Blaktstad Haffner and Hakon Matre Aasarod, it has for a long time operated out of a bright red caravan the partners drag from community to community, looking for opportunities, creating installations, and helping locals with advice.
Fantastic Norway. Photo courtesy the firm.
These days, they are making real buildings as well, in addition to exploring new media: they have just announced their first television series. In the first episode, which is about to air on Norwegian television, they blow up the country’s prettiest town (or so they claim), Bergen, and then show how it could be reconstructed.
It would therefore seem to be surprising to see such tasteful and modest proposal as the one for Nuuk, but part of Fantastic Norway’s trick is to pursue aims that to some might seem radical with simple and straightforward means. In this case, they had to make a place where individual women and their children could find shelter, but that would also bind them together. Called the House of Families, the complex consists of a dozen sheds, each with the kind of steeply sloping roof the Greenland climate demands, loosely grouped around a central courtyard. Several of the sheds huddle together, their ground floors connected by communal spaces such as kitchens and areas to play or just rest.
House of Families rendering. Image courtesy Fantastic Norway.
The House is thus one big house for an extended family, in which some of the in-laws live in separate structures that are still part of the compound. It has a coherence, but also expresses individual parts and thus spaces. The plan, which takes into account the need for a certain amount of modularity (the idea is that the women will only stay here for a defined period, before moving on into the world beyond), is varied through what I call the “dancing block” technique: simple, rectangular volumes set at angles to each other and connected by circulation spaces. Moore used it, but so did Louis Kahn, James Stirling, and Frank Gehry. It creates a sense of discovery, surprise, and difference among elements that have a singularity, and yet belong together.
House of Families "dancing block." Image courtesy Fantastic Norway.
It is also not unlike how villages or farm compounds grow up and group together, whether as individual structures (such as the “telescoping” farms of New England) or in villages that grow up around shared spaces and paths. It works to create community, so why not use it as a principle? The forms that result do not need to mimic historic forms, but they can use the logic out of which those traditions came and integrate them with current technology and ways of appearing.
Fantastic Norway has used both the forms and the planning principle they are proposing for Nuuk before, in various cabins and even a small headquarters building in Afjord. That does not make them seem less right for this project. It also does not mean that they can only be used for this program or site. There is a universality about the lessons and responses embedded in this design. I hope these exotic architects can come to the U.S. and show some of those hidebound by either rigid classicism or reactive modernism that there is a better way to make architecture.