Pir II is the city’s older younger practice Trondheim architects love to like. The twenty something Pir II are a midsize practice in this midsize city. This is just right, according to Alice Lødemel Sandberg, as Pir II are also leading practitioners in a mid-Norwegian regional architecture

The architecture office Pir II was established in Trondheim in 1994. Since then they have expanded, and they now have studios in both Trondheim and Oslo. With 40 employees today Pir II aim at creating playful, sustainable and good architecture. The practice wants to contribute to the development of Nordic architecture, and by establishing themselves in Trondheim they have managed to work with their version of Nordic architecture outside Oslo's architectural hub. Not only does this give them a different point of departure in their development, but it also puts them in a strong position in Norway's third largest city. As one of the most successful offices in the city, Pir II have, with their architecture, made their mark, having been commissioned to design and develop several important buildings and sites in Trondheim's cityscape. And yet, it's hard to grasp their essence, which, while not producing unusual architecture, dominates the city's architectural scene. So why is this? What makes Pir II run? And how is one to characterise their architecture?


Trondheim is located just where the north and south of Norway meet. In this narrow part of the country, the Trondheimfjord draws inland. Where the fjord meets the river Nidelva you find Trondheim. The city is perfectly located for settlement, which is known to have been present from 400 bc. King Olav Tryggvason founded the city under the Viking Age in 997. The city became an important trading city, and later a city of pilgrimage. The region’s land is agriculturally fertile and farmers have always worked the once marine soil. The river has been used for transporting timber from surrounding forests. The clay in the earth burnt to brick. It doesn’t seem out of the ordinary that Trondheim was founded because of the resources and location nor special that the people have used their local resources the best they can. However, Norway’s history relates a poor country with a hostile climate for food production and survival. The Norwegian people have survived on being clever with the little they had. Around the country, we see farms located high up on steep hillsides or settlements in the midst of the roaring sea. The landscape of Norway is magnificent, but also cruel. Trondheim’s location, situated between the warm southern and cold northern air, in addition to its closeness to the coast, gives an ever-changing weather.

Pir II's Rockheim sits close to Trondheim's open seafront, a centrepiece of the Brattora old docks redevelopment
Photo Rockheim
Upstairs at Rockheim - Photo Mathias Herzog

Outside of Trondheim, the city is known for its small-scale architecture, as represented by the architects; TYIN tegnestue, Brendeland & Kristoffersen and numerous live student projects. These offices and projects present an idealistic profile, bringing another voice into the Nordic architecture debate. They speak about durability and frugality reflecting how, in recent years, local resources and craftsmanship have been back in fashion. This can be interpreted as a natural consequence of both meeting sustainability needs and as a reaction to the industrial area. More widely Norwegian modern architecture is wooden and clean. This is something of the context that Pir II, Trondheim’s most visible office, are working in. It’s highlighted by Rockheim, the new rock music museum completed in 2010 in the city’s harbour area. The building is an old granary warehouse from 1920, which has been transformed into a modern museum by establishing a sculptural staircase through the building, filling in floors where needed and adding a pink glowing and decorated floating box-like extra floor on its roof-top. Other important city projects include NINA’s (The Norwegian Institute for Natural Research) new offices, and the new public waterside promenade along the fjord. Additionally, Pir II is well represented in less monumental projects like nurseries, schools and housing. As a result, Pir II’s architecture is increasingly infiltrating into many parts of the city.


Every city should have one – Rockheim's light-box lit up – Photo Harald Oeren

Ogmund Sørli is a partner in Pir II and one of five founders of the office. Sørli outlines how the office came into existence in 1993 through a Trondheim focused competition called ‘The city seeks the water’. At that time, Pir II’s founders worked in another architecture office, which was reducing its architects. When they won the open competition, the new office started up at the harbour in Trondheim. Sørli thinks there are coincidences that ensured that Pir II became a well-known office in Trondheim. When starting their office, compared to the city’s other main architecture practices, which were well established and had been around for a while, Pir II was a fresh young face. From the beginning, they relied on competitions to get commissions. Twenty years later, this is still an important part of how they win work. Katy Chada, CEO, emphasises that they still follow this approach. “Competitions is investment, it costs, but when you win, it’s very satisfying. Many of Pir II’s projects are 1st prizes competitions. Competition for us means professional development.” But the success hardly happened overnight. It took many years for the office to become such a formidable voice in Trondheim. “When we started, we believed it would take three or four years. In reality, it took maybe ten to fifteen years before we were an office it was natural to approach for bigger projects,” Sørli says. Today, Pir II are designing several of the larger building projects in Trondheim, but Sørli would like even more to influence on the city with their architecture. Chada emphasises how working with competitions gives them freedom in approaching the subjects, or even bring debate into it.  “Pir II has always been concerned with urban planning, making the city work better,” Sørli adds. They see that the process of planning is where decisions are made concerning the structure of the city.

Chada tells how the office focuses on the city when they are working with a project, “What we are concerned with as an office is that every time we are doing a project, we are contributing to the development of the city, our focus is on the design of human habitat. For example, by implementing an active ground floor or adding a mix to achieve urban life, the city and the citizens will hopefully profit from the project. We are not thinking about ‘objects’ so much when working, even though we strive to make good architecture, we are always concerned with contributing to the city.” “We always design our projects from the context.” Sørli explains, “we think there might not be any typical Pir II architecture, since the situation is so important for how each project evolves.”

The office has benefited in different ways from basing themselves in Trondheim, as an alternative to Oslo. Sørli says, “There is a market for commissioning new and fresh offices in Oslo, but that also makes the competition harder. In Trondheim we competed with the larger established offices, who knew all the clients, so we had to make our own projects, be inventive, and of course to win competitions.” “In Trondheim you have to make your own tasks in a way, be proactive.” Chada notes. However, in Trondheim there are many resources within the university. As Sørli says, “We have worked a lot with the research environment at the university, and used the resources that exists there in relation to the different specialisms that touch architecture. And the architecture students of course, they are a breath of fresh air.”

On the waterfront: Brattora – Photo Johannes Sunde
Brattora sea front from the south – Photo Johannes Sunde


Just as their architects point out themselves, it is difficult to speak of a Pir II type of architecture. One can, however identify some repetitive elements when addressing their projects. Their most successful projects feature some simple design elements that level the projects. At Rockheim, the glowing box is one such clear example. The fjord promenade that was finished in 2014, and was a collaboration between Pir II and the Danish landscape architects SLA, uses colour for design, for which they received the cities architectural award in 2015. The fjord waterfront has been refurbished as a concrete promenade with different elements reaching down to the water, encouraging play and relaxation. One repetitive design element is a strong orange colour that is used in contrast with the grey concrete. These designative elements Pir II use in combination with a down to earth and rough visual language.

The wavy wood façade helped NINA timber credentials, winning various wards
Photo - Hanna Geving
NINA - Pir II's main recent hometown sustainability
showcase - Mattias Herzog

Their projects are, in general, neither landmark buildings nor mainstream. Neither exciting, nor boring. They do not design ostentatious landmark buildings like their architectural peers. We have seen many examples of significant buildings, with important programs, as unique design objects, as sculptural and individual as pieces of art in our contemporary architecture. This is not the case for Pir II. In 2013, NINA’s new head offices in Trondheim were finished. A large freestanding building which houses the Norwegian Institute for Natural Research close by the main university campus in Trondheim. In this case, the office has used nature metaphors widely. The wooden building stands on a ground floor in white concrete illustrating a glacier. However, the materiality and form is in this case subtle, only playing with a waving west facade that breaks the rectangular shape. The combination between the bold and the subtle is interesting when discussing Pir II.

Kvernhuset School, woven into the
forest was influential when first opened
Photo Jarl Morten Anderson
Painted windows at Kvernhuset
Photo Jarl Morten Anderson

Pir II design buildings that do not interfere with the common individual’s perception of how a building should look. They keep the design modest in several ways, often by copying the low, broad and frugal architecture already present in Trondheim. Their modest design is also a consequence of an overall focus on the functional aspect of their buildings. However, they make it contemporary by designing in the Nordic modern context, giving citizens a new and box-fresh architecture. Even though they do not design objects, they assure, in many of their projects that their buildings have some overall feature of a playful nature. This could be a twist in the form, a strong colour or a surprise element. Nothing that will make the citizens furious, only this extra touch that makes their architecture fun and unique, giving the citizens of Trondheim a building to be proud of, to show off when taking guests around in the city. This is true both for the glowing hat of Rockheim and with NINA’s waving facade.

These are their bolder projects. In many ways, the architecture of Pir II conforms. “We try to be innovative within certain conventions.” Sørli says, Chada elaborates on the innovative aspect. “We try to be innovative as a consequence of seeing the situation differently. Innovation is not something we are seeking directly, but we do have that freshness to push beyond the expected. We try to ask the right questions and turn things upside-down.” When working with architecture inside a framework, Sørli thinks it is essential to try to find the opportunities to challenge what architecture should be. “It is important to find the possibilities that lie in the task and the context.” “And we also work a lot in teams, where dynamics exist; we like to disagree, to have some friction,” Chada reflects.

It is the freshness in many of their projects that underpins their success. One of their better known projects abroad is the secondary school in Fredrikstad, Kvernhuset Ungdomsskole. The school is situated between pine trees in close proximity to the forest and the agricultural landscape. In the project, there is a richness in materials and building techniques, using and integrating nature, trees and bedrock, into the schools interior. A split form, the low building height and rough wood and stone in the facade gives the impression of a smaller building peeking out between the trees. Coloured glass gives a further extra touch.

As the office emphasise, Pir II is not locked into conforming; they experiment in form, colour and design. They have placed themselves on the edge between the commercial and the idealistic offices. They have accepted the commercial aspect of architecture, the sellable aspect, and are working on combining the commercial with architectural qualities that sometimes get lost in mainstream architecture. “We are commissioned to solve some tasks for the client; the client commissions you to make a project they can sell. You also have other important actors in the development of housing projects, such as estate agents, their focus is on selling.” Chada explains. Sørli emphasises the role they have as architects in this situation. “It’s maybe for us about adding something more, which makes it more interesting and makes it stand out, and then it could become even more sellable because of that extra touch.”


Photo Marte Kittang

Makeover station - Trondheim's rail station now includes Trappeshuset,
commercial offices and a gateway pedestrian bridge, into the southern
Brattoya regeneration district – Marta Kittang

If Pir II have come up with some tricks that make their architecture especially appreciated by the citizens of Trondheim, it is interesting to ask if Pir II’s architectural style represents a Mid-Norwegian regional architecture. But, first, does such a regional style even exist and if so, what is it? Since it’s beginnings the city of Trondheim has been a trade city, it started out as the nation’s capital at the end of the Viking age. It has had a strong agricultural tradition, and later industrial development. When small-farmers outside the city borders decided to move to the city during industrialisation, they dismantled their log houses and brought them with them to the city, where they put the houses back together again. There is something firm and determined about this way of acting. Trondheim’s citizens are a result of evolving from a strong Viking society to hard working farmers and fishermen, before the beginnings of a strong industrial sector. Today, the city identifies itself with the technical university, working towards becoming a centre of innovation.

The other view – Trondheim's old town from the station's pedestrian bridge
Photo Pir II
John Inge Vikan

At each stage of the city’s history, we see a people that are rational and hard working. There is no overwhelming wealth in the region, and no extraordinary landscape. However, the region has had natural resources and a society that has known how to benefit from them. When extending their houses, they just made them longer, adding another room. The climate also affects how they have to build and use their resources to survive. Since the beginning of the technological age, the city has been one of the best in the field. It seems that rational thinking has been engrained in the city’s development. It could be that the combination of the rational workforce and the tempered Vikings is also visible in the architecture as well. Although ‘silly’ architecture is not welcome, there is still room for something with an edge.

Pir II themselves nod when questioned about whether the regional has a particular type of architecture. “A bit like ‘Trønder-rock’ ? Yes, I am sure it does. We have the perception that there exists an Oslo architecture. We sometimes say that something “looks a bit Oslo-pretty”. Their architecture is perhaps more sophisticated in the detailing; at the same time, what they make is a bit similar, standardized. For some time you could see how all the architects in Oslo had had Sverre Fehn as their tutor. Here things are a bit more rural, a bit rougher,” Sørli believes. Chada adds that it might also have something to do with the different economic situations. “In Oslo people are willing to pay for a level of detailing that you would expect in a fine building. Here you stop a bit earlier, so you have to use your resources differently.” “That is maybe typical for this region, and further north too, the attitude that ‘we are just building a house’. It is not often we get enough time to be completely satisfied.” The office is also encouraged to be creative with architecture within limited budgets and limited resources. “Manage the resources and say, okay; you have this and this much, and then you can achieve this.” In general, with the rising wealth from the findings of oil in 1967 and beyond, it has been possible to invest larger sums in building projects in Norway, allowing the nation to spend money on their architecture all over the country, however, some differences exist economically between the central and regional situations.  

Island summer holiday homes - Spillebrettet Photo - Pasi Aalto
Photo – Pasi Aalto

Sørli acknowledges that they think of themselves as a part of the Mid-Norwegian regional architecture. “Thoughtful architecture that fits into the context. In addition, we are a part of the Mid-Norwegian lushness. There is a very luxuriant building practice in the region. You find a large variety, funny things, similar to what you can find further north. The colouring is also very fresh. This regional practice is rough and lush. It is not as conservative as in the east and south of Norway. Even though we have strong building traditions here too. Frugality is also very important here.” The frugality is central in specifying the context Pir II works in, as an office in Trondheim. The smaller idealistic offices in the city are also close to this specific way of thinking. This is very clear through the work of Nøysom Arkitekter, which practice frugality as their main concern when designing. The lushness and richness you find in Trondheim is another aspect that allows for designing outside of conventions. The twist we find in Pir II’s projects can be a response to the lushness in the region. This has mostly been realised though for the larger projects and several of Pir II’s projects are not that edgy or lush. The appropriate, but fun architecture, Pir II develops can sometimes be either too conventional, giving us container boxes with some funny placement of windows, or merely too funny, presenting a project that suffers from too many metaphors.

Pir II seek to achieve something more in their projects than just producing ‘that housing project’. “We want to show a difference between buildings and architecture, to make architecture with a capital ‘A’. I’d like it, that if when people think about Pir II they’re thinking; ‘but this is architecture’. We do not design the buildings with the nicest details, but we manage to make quality and something extra, without it being that much more expensive.” “We are proud of almost everything we have made, 99 percent.” Sørli states. “Yes, we don’t hide any of our projects. We try to always give the project a lift, to cultivate the unique in each project and make it liveable. All of our projects are interesting, that is maybe where the twist is, I think,” Chada concludes.


Photo Pasi Aalto

Pir II does not brag about their architecture. They do not make bragging architecture. They are sympathetic and humble when they explain their work and the circumstances surrounding it. Restrictions are changed to become positive influences, a fun exercise uncovering where the rules can be bent. Low budgets and lack of resources challenge them to be even more innovative in their solutions. It might be that this office has been welcoming of restrictions, that they restrict themselves. To some extent, the comment ‘we are just building a house’ might also be applicable to Pir II, for example, a grey container hotel. Twenty years ago they started building this office from the bottom up, winning competitions and slowly becoming established and accepted. Even though they strive to make playful architecture, the playfulness in their work is arguably be overshadowed by the burden of having a reputation that could be easily damaged. They try to be innovative and yet also conform to accepted practice. It is maybe time to let such conformism play a smaller role for an office with the influence and opportunities to make Trondheim really beautiful. It would be interesting to see how this office solves tasks where beauty were given a more important role, not letting the functional focus dominate the expression. All this said, Pir II deserve their good reputation. They do make good architecture and they do enrich the architectural bouquet in Trondheim. The number of commissions they get by winning competitions is in itself an impressive feat. This means that they do not survive on reputation alone, but manage to convince with their suggestions, repeatedly. It is something that Trondheim genuinely benefits from.

Alice Lødemel Sandberg alice@oslo.online.no is a fourth year architecture student at NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, and former editor of the student magazineTidsskriftet A.