Sonic Youth meets Massive Wood

Photo – Jereon Musch

Svartlamoen's alternative culture mid-2000's embrace of young architects Brendeland & Kristoffersen resulted in a genuine avant timber icon. Here the eco-district's student and affordable housing block is profiled, plus what came next for the Trondheim studio


It is a striking building. A carved, upright heft of matter, standing solitary amidst the rundown industrial landscape; the five-storey CLT affordable and student housing block, a small-time avant-timber icon in a small city high up on the Western edge of the Nordic world. 

Nyhuset, the timber building sits at the far end of Svartlamoen, Trondheim’s alternative experimental district, overlooking shunting yards and NyHavna, the disused dockland. With external stairways leading to the upper floors, only certain hardy types can or will live there – at least over the bitter Norwegian winter. But with large internal rooms and huge windows on the top floor, the building exudes real presence, as well as being considered in its time a model of low energy sustainable design.

Both sides now – side on views of the
Svartlamoen housing block
Photos David Grandorge

Inside views from Svartlamoen's timber
tower - Photo's Joroen Musch
The uncompromising timber facade rises vertically up the first two storeys, before pitching inward by around 15 degrees, up to the roof-line of the fifth floor loft apartments. From ground floor up, a series of rectangular porthole windows are cut deep into the facade, and more dramatically and scaled up proportionately from the portholes, a line of three sizable upper floor windows peer out from the top of the building. Divided in two, they provide big bay window views from the two upper storey floors.

At the back is a communal play area and, at least in the summer a garden; external steel staircases lead up to the higher floor flats. Large-ish windows look out on the tree and shrub lined back yard; while on the northern side, a smaller two-storey block, altogether less dramatic and commanding, provides additional apartments while at the same time acts as a protective shield for the interior yard-space. All the flats are rented and, as Geir Brendeland, one half of the young architectural partnership, Brendeland & Kristoffersen remarks, “no-one here can own an apartment, which is interesting in terms of gentrification.”

Inside views from Svartlamoen's timber tower - Photo's Joroen Musch
Back of House – the future of Bohemian casual – Photo -Geir Brendeland

On the opening day in 2005, the partnership had a stroke of luck. Peter Davey, a one-man institution in the British architectural press, happened to be in town for a university lecture and afterwards was whisked down to the launch party. He declared it an impressive building, writing it up in the Architectural Review. From there news spread fast, bringing attention, winning prizes and gaining new contracts for the young architects. All of a sudden the infant Norwegian massive wood community had a poster child.

Its influence rippled out in many ways. Stavanger’s 2009 Capital of Culture  extravaganza might not have happened but for Svartlamoen. “It completely inspired the people in Stavanger to do their Wood City,” says Brendeland. Lest you think that this could be a piece of self-promotion,  Jarle Aarstad - at that time head of CLT, (Massive Wood in Norway) at Oslo’s Wood Institute (these days the Norwegian Institute of Wood Technology) - echoes the point when asked, and makes a direct genealogical connection between Svartlamoen and the Stavanger programme three years later.

Meanwhile, Brendeland and Kristoffersen were off to a flying start with their housing block, continuing the project and, for a period becoming Svartlamoen’s in-house architects. At the same time, they were also developing a number of smaller projects in and around Trondheim; working on housing on the Norwegian island territory of Svarlbard high up in the Arctic Circle, and seemingly winning a significant experimental eco-housing project in Gystadmarker, near to Oslo’s main Gardemaen airport. They were in effect trying out ideas, while their focus and energies was being consumed by Svartlamoen.

Aarhus's Aart's Stavanger Waterfront showcase which
started life with ambitions to be a CLT exemplar, seemingly
taking a leaf out of BKArk's timber massing experiments but
ended up as concrete replica – Photo Aart
Svarlbard by day – BKArk’s housing for an Arctic island  - Photo BKArk

Photo - David Grandorge
Still it’s Svartlamoen, which gave the pair that first break, and even if it’s an old, old project, it’s still the one that triggers recognition in people’s memories about this small practice. Alongside the social experimentation and at five stories high, this housing block is also a CLT project of a significantly different order to anything that had come before. As Norway’s third CLT project, Svartlamoen generated a swathe of research and subsequent documentation on insulation, acoustics, and fire risk; all handled principally, according to Aarstad, by the Oslo Wood Institute as was, although Trondheim’s Wood Center at the time within the engineering department within NTNU also contributed. The building’s insulation is much thicker than had been normal previously: approximately 51 square centimetre’s added to the massively woody walls. Given the emphasis on insulation, it would be interesting to know how the acoustics have panned out, as these are usually one of the most challenging issues for Nordic massive wood buildings. Structurally, each floor carries load bearing concrete slabs, sitting under the cross-laminated boards, weight distributed across the slabs. The first time I visited, back in the summer of 2008, Brendeland mentioned that the exterior had never been completely finished, as the building is in part flexibly designed to allow students to introduce changes in the interiors. This brought the down the budget; and the external staircase also reduced costs, though this design – which precluded a lift, is unlikely to be repeated often in such a cold thoroughly Northern climate.

At the time states Brendeland, the cost - 2000 euros per sq metre, was average for any comparable urban building – adding that the building is also low maintenance and simple to run. However, he acknowledges that, with external staircases and other interior idiosyncrasies, the building as a low energy template, is probably too far beyond the comfort zone of the vast majority of Norway’s urban population.

Rocket to Mars (the building otherwise known as
Sutyagin House (Photo Wikipedia – Open Source)
As the tallest, indeed biggest, Norwegian application of CLT of its time, a building which resembles nothing else built previously from massive wood, the Svartlamoen housing block conjures up an appealing and youthful new identity for massive wood. The feel of Svartlamoen's Nyhuset is quasi-sculptural, as if carving tools had been brought to a seemingly, literal ‘massive’ chunk of sawn timber, which had then been cut at and hewn away. There is a heavy ‘groundedness’ to the building which echoes and yet is a fundamental contrast to concrete; with Svartlamoen’s main housing giving an impression of a graceful, sculptured yet geometrically compact form. And since their completion, a small string of massive wood buildings have begun emerging which present some of the same qualities; not least Helen and Hard’s Mountain Lodge. Some time after my first visit to BKArk’s housing block I came across the strange Sutyagin House in another more easterly northern city, Russian Arkangel. Long before talk of timber towers, this self-built home by Arkangel resident, Nikolai Sutyagin and his family, was – after it was begun in 1992, the tallest wooden building in the world.  At 144 metres and with 13 floors, it became something of a vernacular legend. Look at the main base of the building and its series of windows, and it is uncannily similar to the Svartlamoen housing. A benevolent reading is that Brendeland and Kristoffersen designed their block in homage to its distant Arkangel neighbour, the tallest timber building in Norway at the time. If it was a steal, it was intelligently deployed.

As the accompanying Svartlamon feature relates, the unusual context connects the ground-breaking use of CLT to the broader ecological experiment. For Brendeland, this was the first of three projects the practice would complete, eventually for and with the Svartlamoen community while a master-plan for the run-down district was developed. The next project was the conversion of a car sales showroom – literally a stones throw from the housing block, into a neighbourhood kindergarten. Another paean to massive wood, this refit was completed in 2008, and the kindergarten’s old car showrooms’ interior has been all decked out in a wonderfully strange medley of woody shapes. The second building, also a rebuild, is a community cultural and recreational centre for the Svartlamoen neighbourhood, the first phrase of which has been completed, the rest to be worked on further.

An empty Kindergarten – just like architects and architectural photographers
like it – Photos David Grandorge
The kindergarten is inside an anonymous one-floor building – once a car sales showroom, whose proprietor had been trying to develop it as part of Svartlamoen through the nineties. “The enemy,” says Brendeland of the car salesman, who eventually sold up to the municipality. For the kindergarten, inside the anonymous one-floor ‘low road’ showroom, the design was again arrived at through thorough community participation, including the children. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the architects began designing in as much adaptability as possible. Beyond the entrance, there are two main classrooms, the central piazza and further smaller micro-spaces within the classrooms. The prefabricated timber has produced some lovely shapes, so very different to much modern school design; slanted walls and a buoyant irregularity immediately reminding you of the natural anarchy of small children, as well as the immediate environment beyond the open windows and walls of the kindergarten.

Inside Outside – the Svartlamoen kindergarten looking out looking In.
Photo's David Grandorge

For the small children there are also nests, hiding cupboards, miniature and false corridors, and windows cut between the rooms; all adding to the sense of an indoor adventure playground contained within the ambit of wonderfully warm timber walls. Above and below the ceilings, air piping and other services have been left exposed. And at child level, other materials important for tactile learning also play their part, elements in the developmental approach that the kindergarten is committed to philosophically.

Outside, the play area – including a small urban farm – is bounded by a low timber wall. There is nothing in the way of security fencing, reinforcing a message of trust, so engagingly symbolised by the large open windows. Everybody inside can see and look at anybody outside.

DansiT's dance floor
Geir and Olav in Venice some years ago. Photo BKArK

The last and third in BKArk’s Svartlamoen trio, was reworking and refurbishment of some of Svartlamoen’s already existing space. This included the ReMida recycling workshop behind the kindergarten, and across the road, the district’s dedicated Cultural Centre. Here BKArk have refashioned a large workspace into, the regional DansiT dance studio and a concert venue, Verkstedhallen, which also incorporates recording studios and band rehearsal rooms. This is building re-use way before it began to rise up the mainstream priority list, back in 2009. It is also the last of BKArk Svartlamoen projects, and as architects to the anarchist experiment, there’s more than a touch of punk sensibility to the projects, even dare I say it, punk timber build.


GigaPhone – the second of BKArk's art installation projects – Photo BKArk
Since Svartlamoen, Brendeland and Kristoffersen haven’t landed a project that matches this trailblazing beginning. What’s followed has been inevitable downgrading of ambition. Through the Svartlamoen projects, and particularly with the Kindergarten’s irregular internal geometries, the pair were exploring the potential for pre-fabrication production techniques once again, as well as further investigating CNC technology capacity to work with complex geometries. CNC technologies were also employed for the timber components on their Svarlbard housing, where elementally basic housing sits amidst the elementally breath-taking mountain surroundings. Brendeland: “the Svarlbard project was very very clear, extremely systematic and complex. A very typical, everyday good house.” Another house project, which followed, is the Norwegian contribution to the Velux initiated Future Activehaus project, a counterpoint to the growth of Passivhaus in the Nordic world. Finished in 2012, the Activehaus is in Stjørdal, the small dormitory town just north of Trondheim airport. While interesting as an exercise in working through the new building control regulations which are now embedded in Norwegian law, Brendeland noted how much more difficult it is trying out experimental technical design, because of current and new legal constraints.

Other early opportunities have included – at least for a while – a place in a larger pan-European team working on London’s Olympic 2012 athlete housing - though this never got as far as a live project. Small showcase projects, including a Camera Obscura and the Gigaphone art installations, the former on one of Trondheim’s docksides, the latter in front of a 14th century church in the city centre. Both emerged from their teaching at NTNU, both involved students working on the builds, and both can be cited as relatively early examples of the Live Projects philosophy.

Water colour garden village – BKArk's Gystadmarka 'Green Grid' master-planning north of Oslo – Paintings and rendering BKArk

Probably the most ambitious of BKArk’s project’s that have yet to see the light of day, is their winning entry into Gystadmarka, a new housing plan in Ullensaker municipality, a short distance north of Oslo. Titled the Grønn Grid (the Green Grid), the project fed a fascination the two had developed for urban planning in the aftermath of Svartlamoen. Won originally in 2010, the competition called for 3000 residential units while dealing with particularly high groundwater level. The architects introduced a soft landscaping strategy, “a green garden” integrated into their organic grid plan, to create micro-climates, Had the project gone further, it would have likely taken lessons from both Svartlamoen and the Velux Future Active house; entering into the fray of what in recent years has been controversial hot water attending the Passivhaus lobby’s influence on building regulation law. The result, exploring passive heating and climate, could have been a timely further example of the sort that Gaia Arkitektur Aktivhus has introduced. It hasn’t happened though, and the sense that BKArk have stepped back from their practice work is palpable.

Aktivehouse (far right) in a white-out – Torben Eskerod
Brendeland & Kristoffersen art-architectural installation camera obscura - Photo Visit Norway

This is perhaps a result of geography, if they were working out of Oslo, the path might have been rather different. Brendeland and Kristoffersen hold down teaching posts within NTNU’s architecture department; and there’s been a certain level of collaboration over the years with the engineering department’s Institute of Wood Technology where possible. But you don’t have to pick away too much to uncover a sense of frustration about the limits of what actually is possible. Brendeland repeats the oft-made critique that, although the Norwegian timber sector is the country’s third largest industry, research and development is next to nothing. “There is no real innovation.” This may be so, but they can hold their heads high. With Svartlamoen, they helped trigger a phase-change rethink. Interest in CLT has taken off, and the realization that their home country’s ample on-the-doorstep building natural resource, is a twenty first century response to climate and other related challenges, is increasingly embraced. When I visited the Wood Institute in 2008, along with all the international publicity their CLT man Aarstad, pointed to how exciting, influential, and controversial the building was for the Norwegian architectural community. A decade on, massive wood allied to CNC technology and the wonders of pre-fabrication, have become an increasingly normal choice – and not only by architects, but across the design universe.

Look at it this way: a less exotic variant perhaps, than the butterfly wing in California leading to a hurricane in the bay of Bengal – but would Stavanger, Norwegian Wood, and the whole strain of massive wood etc, of Norwegian timber culture that’s been growing since, ever happened without that small group of neo-punk anarchists, squat-land hippy greens and students high on the likes of Sonic Youth, holding out in Svartlamoen? It’s Babel and who’s to say no?