Living and working on the High Norwegian Coast Line

Studio (left), dining/ kitchen (right)

On Fleinvær, between the Lofoten Islands and mainland Bodø, a music and performance retreat centre has been taking shape over the last two years. The fruit of musician, Håvard Lund, meeting Sami Rintala and Trondheim's TYIN Architects, it's drawn many to journey north and work on it through the seasons, including Australian architect-carpenter, Andrew Devine. Now Fleinvær is complete, Devine writes about the experience

Strong forces have been playing out in the skies over the past week as solar storms have met the Earth’s magnetic fields, exploding in unprecedented streams of light. The Aurora Borealis comes out to dance and the occasional star shoots across the sky. The excessive November mud has hardened. Everything is now frozen, which is a blessing in disguise. You can hear the familiar winter crunch under foot. A peachy wash in the sky has been growing stronger throughout the week and today we witness the return of the light. For a short period the sun broke above the rugged glacial carved mountains that characterise this remote Norwegian coastline. The combination of sun deprivation and disorienting periods of day and night have amplified our emotional and psychological state, making this a fascinating place to work and live. One quickly learns to work within the variable conditions and challenging landscape, falling deeper into the rhythm of this truly remarkable place. It is here that my journey began on the Fordypningsrommet Fleinvær project in the Summer of 2014. I arrived at the commencement of the build, designing and constructing from the foundations up, a blend between architecture and carpentry into what has been coined 'Carpitecture'. My observations are taken from living and working on the island over the past two years where I have observed the growth of the project throughout the seasons.

Left, Sami Rintala with TYIN architects, middle, Håvard L Sami Rintala with TYIN architects und with celestial Russian cow, and right, Sami Rintala with Arnt, our steel expert
kitchen/dining room (left), njalla (centre), studio (right)
Håvard Lund and and the author - in disguise as Michelin Man

Norwegian composer and musician, Håvard Lund came with a vision, and together with TYIN Architects and our highly praised mentor Sami Rintala of Rintala Eggertsson Architects we embark on the journey we now know as 'Fordypningsrommet Fleinvær'. This project seeks to provide a context for artists, musicians and other creative folk to delve deeper into their creative pursuits. To offer the mental and physical space to explore new territories within a highly stimulating natural setting. A landscape that, although foreign to many, will always connect to various people in unique and surprising ways. The landscape simultaneously affecting the artist, whilst the artist engages the landscape. In this way, the project is about creating new connections between 'people' and 'places', forming new bonds and opening space for new creative undertakings.

Island Phenomena

Situated an hour by ferry off the coast from Bodø, the project is nestled on an isolated group of islands called Fleinvær, providing a sense of remoteness while remaining just within reach of the city. As the hum of the engine of the departing ferry fades away taking with it the stresses and woes of the city, the constructs of modern-day life fall away. As the mind begins to align with the seemingly suspended timescale of the islands, the exploration of 'place' and 'self' at Fleinvær begins. The schedule here is determined by the oscillation of light and dark, the tides and the weather. The project consists of nine mono-functional buildings that meander up the site from the water's edge. Like the strata of stone, one can find differing spatial tiers at different heights above sea level, each building forming a unique synergy with its micro environment.

Long days night up north
Stoking the sauna

A sauna hovers over the water on an old concrete pier, a possibility that presented itself after a new floating pier was built. An invigorating swim is highly recommended in the brisk arctic waters to cool off and if you are lucky enough you can swim underneath the northern lights! Wading through the water activates phosphorescent plankton causing a curious mirroring of the swirling glow in the sky above. The old waiting room for the ferry has been injected with new life, now functioning as a bathroom and amenities building. The extrusion of the building across the boardwalk has allowed it to monopolise on the space in between, the new covered walkway creating a strong dialogue with the sauna building and offering a moment of calmness and contemplation. Occupying these spaces close to the sea, you can hear the sound of the lapping water beneath and smell the salt in the air. You become aware of the intensity of the ocean winds during heavy weather as it vibrates through the walls and glass. On the calm days you may hear the resident sea otters hunting in the seaweed below or the geese and eider ducks forage around the pier.

Early proposal
Local sheep living on the island year round
Individual shingles cut from cladding offcuts

On the next tier you can find four sleeping modules that hug the terrain of the site, their proportions being based around a single or double sleeping bed and their direction helping minimise the effects of the heavy westerly winds. The spaces are intimate and cosy, their internal materials and individual ceiling finishes cacoon the inhabitants, offering an unforgettable night’s sleep.

Materializing spaces
Snow storm. Time for a cup of tea
Steel and aspin wood table by Odin

Decking area with natural amphitheater behind
Many thousands of hand cut shingles
Air dryed torfisk

Climbing a little way further up the site, twin forms sit adjacent to one another, the kitchen/dining room, and the studio space. These buildings are characterised by their warm, textured shingle walls, which passers-by frequently associate with old stave churches, a flicker of joy or perhaps longing in their eye as they reminisce on an old hand crafted building they saw when they were younger near their home towns. The two buildings are perched above the undulating island tundra, where columns are angled at 15 degrees to their steel plates, allowing flexibility where they meet the ground. The result is a hovering platform with feet that carefully map the contours of the terrain below, pinning the volumes down and bracing against rock facets to counter prevailing winds. These two forms, slightly offset in plan, create a decked corridor that guides you to an open-air performance space at the back. Here visitors can occupy the natural amphitheatre, sitting amongst the juniper shrubs and arctic tundra, whilst a music performance takes place on the decking. One might be lucky enough to experience a piece by Håvard Lund himself, or be touched by some northern Norwegian folk music by the highly acclaimed violinist Susanne Lundeng as she draws inspiration from her deep connection with the islands of Fleinvær.

thoughtful moments
View from the 'njalla'

At the summit of the site rests a tower for contemplation, the Njalla. Perched upon a four-meter column, this structure was inspired by the traditional storage hut used by the Sami people to elevate their food above fury opportunists below.  This Njalla however, is a place to gaze out across the Fleinvær archipelago and the jagged Lofoten islands on the distant horizon. From here one can admire passing weather fronts, trace the movement of giant sea eagles and refresh the mind. The Njalla acts as a lighthouse for the project, a beacon that signals its presence to the eye of the passer by. Like a giant sea caterpillar, the Fjordprinsessen docks briefly each day, en route through the neighbouring islands. Inquisitive people on board the ferry are left with a sense of wonder and intrigue at this unlikely cluster of structures at sea.. A few will disembark, the Fordepeningstromet Fleinvær project being their destination.

Traditional Sami njalla

Talented minds have come from local and foreign architects, individuals from the boat industry with highly detailed understanding of steelwork, whilst others have come with unparalleled carpentry skills. A young industrial designer entered the scene with an uncanny knack for tinkering and creating beautiful products out of seemingly mundane materials. Many keen architecture students from NTNU have ventured to the north to expand their horizons. As they shift into workshop mode their fresh creative minds ramp up into overdrive. The remoteness of the islands combined with a close working proximity and tight tie constraints create a pressure cooker creativity and productivity. The students through designing and building on site, a partnership which becomes the cornerstone of the experience. By making pivotal decisions on the ground, their strengths and weaknesses are tested and physical and mental limits are challenged.

The evolution of this project has come about through the relationships we have forged, both new and old, with the people around us and the tools and systems we have at hand. Some pivotal characters have entered the scene, with an incredible range of skills and   foresight. The local residence have opened their doors to assist offering some generous support during the beginning of the project, people such as the printmaking artist Are Andreason. At first when the local fishermen were throwing halibut at us from their boats we thought this may be an angry gesture, but it turned out to be a northern Norwegian warm welcome.

These personalities contribute to the dynamism of the team, providing an engaging social environment within the stunning natural setting. The experience of the workshop extends far beyond the working hours on the site as we dive, fish, hunt and collect our food, learning from the locals and each other. No GPS is needed here as the local fisherman triangulates our position, aligning various landmarks, assessing tides and water conditions, looking at the behaviour of the birds on the surface, noting the whales that passed through days prior. All their senses are at work as they tap into knowledge handed down through a lineage of constant engagement with the sea.   

The unique energy of the group influences the physical form of the architecture, their eagerness and willingness to fully embrace and engage with this isolated place helps to propel the project forward. The complex logistics of navigating materials and people within this landscape makes for some challenging but exciting moments in architecture projects in the north of Norway. A helicopter lifted the structural components of the njalla into place, while ferries and sea vessels play a crucial role in the delivery of windows, doors and material and supplies, and even allies in the music industry involved with concert logistics provide opportunities to transport prefabricated components to the north from workshops in Trondheim. These people have been crucial in the materialisation of this project, and are fundamental for cultural projects to manifest north of the Arctic Circle.

Northward vista across the archipelago of Fleinvær

The processes that have seen the emergence of this project are thoughtful, an understanding of the site born from a constant engagement with the landscape over time. The spirit of the place has emerged. It will be forever present in the built fabric and will continue to be forged and layered through the events, conversations and activity it will witness and the people who visit. In a similar nature, we can contemplate the strong tradition of the Norwegian hand-crafted boats. Whether it's a boat or the environments we live in, the presence of the 'hand' in constructing becomes an essential part of the work. At the core of humanity, we look to create meaning in our lives and seek a deeper understanding and connections with the people and places we inhabit. In the larger picture, our built environments are rapidly getting replaced by mechanical processes, which are often hurried, unconsidered and and corrode the skills and knowledge that have developed over many generations. With these mechanised changes we see a parallel depletion of culture, a loss of skills, and the fading ability to relate to the world around us. The values instilled in the Fordypningsrommet Fleinvær project are slow and contemplative. It is living and evolving and its stories and adventures will continue to grow and change as newcomers build their own connections to the place. Through constructing environments built on strong principals we hope to foster these intrinsic values and allow creative prosperity for generations to come.

It is evident that there are many transformations occurring to the islands in the north as more and more people move to the cities. With the changing times comes a decline in the local small-scale fishing industry, and with this, a new need to reconnect with the seascape and islands. More transient populations are replacing settlements that used to occupy the islands all year round. The strong history of fishing, trade and worldly exploration combined with geographical isolation have founded some amazing settlements along the coastline. These island communities can be seen as simultaneously connected and isolated from the rest of the world and each other. The historic lines present in this landscape are ones that I cannot fully understand, but ones that I am increasingly fascinated by. For example, the need for food preservation has resulted in some highly unusual, tasty but often-challenging local food cuisine, the fermented Lutefisk springs to mind. The numerous language dialects and the pride of the locals shows the robustness of these communities and their ability to engage with, but not be altered by exterior influences. However, the large homogenising systems that are gradually dominating the world are nevertheless underway here.

On my way to dinner with the local crab fishermen on the neighbouring island I pass some triangular-prism shaped wooden shelters. The dwellings are nesting grounds for eider ducks. This all-but-extinct industry saw a symbiotic relationship between the locals and the birds, where precious down feathers providing natural warmth were exchanged for a safe haven for the migratory birds to raise their chicks. All of us need shelter on these islands. During the evening we eat a local dish of Klippfisk, dried and naturally salted on the cliffs at the sea's edge. We reminisce about the beautiful A-frame structures of Lofoten where the local Torfisk is dried. These drying frameworks have an inherent architectural presence, through their scale, rhythm, material quality and strategic placement for optimal drying conditions. This language weaves into other projects of the north such as the repetition of A-frame wooden structure found in the Steilneset Memorial by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois, and Salt by Rintala Eggertsson, an open air pavilion providing space for artist exhibitions. Similarly, the A-framed corten steel building at the entry to Salt   is reminiscent of eider duck houses found on the islands. Over tea we discuss the stories of the sea, the tales that surround the shaping of the mountains and the nomadic history of the native Sami people. As we listen to the fisherman's Arctic Ambient music, which he composes during the darker months we delve into stories about the old gods, spirits and mythical creatures that occupy the seas and forests. The fisherman is due to set off tomorrow on the annual fishing expedition towards the sheer, snow-capped mountains of Lofoten in search of torsk (cod) to continue the story of survival in the landscape of the Nordic north. My head reels with these interweaving dialogues, and with the myriad ways they will evolve in the future. In particular, how architecture can act as a platform for engaging and connecting people with this beautiful place, referencing its past whilst opening possibilities for its future.

Across the strait early into the project
View back to mainland, midday winter

Andrew Devine is an Australian architect with a passion for carpentry, and one time student of Sami Rintala, who spent two years living and working on Fleinvær to complete the Fordypningsrommet Fleinvær building project, before returning to his home town, Melbourne. Contact Andrew through his email here

Photography: Kathrine Sørgård, Martin Losvik, Nina Benjaminsen, Fredrik Asplin and Andrew Devine