Time for place and people - Rallar Arkitekur

Rallar at work on the boathouse in the midnight hour Photo – Maya Laitenen

Rallar Arkitekter's student journey has been an experience in learning, neither defined nor determined by their NTNU course studies. Still, they're a good example of what happens when the Live Studio's cultivation of independence takes off within a group of young, ambitious and confident self-starters. Rallar's Elliv Andreas Myren Ribe recounts the journey so far.

Rallar Arkitekter is a group of young Norwegian architects. We started out while still studying at NTNU, Trondheim. Since completing our degrees, the practice has been reshaping as Rallar 2.0 – Or maybe just getting out of beta, reaching 1.0? This article will reflect on our core values, and on how those have been shaped by working in full scale, interacting with real people – whilst still being in architecture school.

The key to our approach is proximity. When close to a material you get to know it; its strengths and fears so to speak. Wood is no longer just wood, a nail is no longer just a nail. There is always a vast range of types. Within those, every single unit is slightly different, while all still belonging to the same term and idea. To mount a piece of, let’s say, pine cladding onto a spruce framework, every part has to agree and trust each other; head to hand, hand to hammer, hammer to nail, nail to fibre, in both pieces of wood. That is proximity.

The same can be said for people and place. If we are to respond to the needs and wishes of people, we have to spend time with them, getting close and taking part in their lives. The place needs our time. Photos can reveal things after leaving a place and help us return in our minds, but simply spending time there, enough to experience a little bit of the continuous change, is a lot more revealing when looking for clues to helps us understand the place, how local society works, and how nature works in that specific place.

First experiences – The boathouse in Haddal

Boathouse build – Photo: Rallar Arkitektur

It all started with a boathouse. An uncle and aunt had a beautiful site and a plan to build a generic garage of some sort, down by the fjord. Their nephew happened to be one of us, and saw the chance to make a difference. It was 2012 and we had recently begun our second year of architecture studies and had barely started to decipher what our field could be about, but building a boathouse couldn’t be that hard, could it? We decided to take on the challenge regardless.

Fire and the midnight sun – St Johns Eve celebrations in Norway
Photo Olav Hjertaker/Flickr (flickr.com/photos/adversphoto)

At our faculty there was already a workshop culture, and we wanted to realise the project as one. We found supportive help in Steffen Wellinger, a teacher at the faculty. He headed us in the right direction by asking important questions and giving us the confidence needed. We brought along fellow students. And throughout the course of two summer weeks we built the boathouse. We organised it to be a social event as much as for construction – the local nature was our playground whenever there was time off. Happiness makes for a better flow at the building site. Calculating how much time a certain task demands isn’t easy, and less so when you perform the task for the first time. Arranging the workshop taught us that things do take time – especially a slate roof (but maybe an all-nighter in fresh Norwegian summer air and light isn’t all that bad after all!). Miraculously, we more or less finished on time. The opening date was strategically set for the traditional midsummer night when we came together with relatives and locals between the boathouse and bonfire on the shore. Changing the date would have been out of question.

As we look back, the first thing we did was maybe the most important. We spent several days close to the site and client family. We were on site every day, and we had meetings with the clients, talking about their wishes and needs. The time in between we used to make sketches to bring to each meeting. It was a flying start. The continuous and focused development during those few days brought us and the clients closer, which later led to a project of which we all could be proud. The family now even have celebrations and dinner in the boathouse, when the boats are out, during the summer. We all felt a certainownership.

The boathouse taught probably both us and the workshop participants much about architecture in the form of built environment. Seeing lines on paper become real components with their own weight was a paradigm, and even more so was entering the building for the first time; almost like fitting ourselves into the scale model, and hearing the sound of the space. For the first time we had a multisensory experience of what had formerly just been an idea.

Rjukan Pavilion, Design and Built – Photo's Rallar

Proximity as a process – Rjukan Town Cabin

The following year we found our way into the public domain. Rjukan, home to important events in both Norwegian industrial and war history, was in its entirety presented to us as a potential site. The task was very open. To establish a program and even choose a site, much time was spent to get to know the place and its surroundings. We even decided to write our architecture history papers on the place. The municipality was more abstract as a client than the family we had worked with the previous year. Spending time brought us closer to the place and key figures, and processes in the local community. We found the public through new channels, such as Facebook-groups formed by locals, brief mentions on local radio and discussions in the local newspaper.

We kept the format. The project was designed by Rallar ourselves, but construction was made possible by arranging a workshop, and probably couldn’t have happened in any other way. The main construction principle was designed with twenty builders in mind. More than with the boathouse the construction process was and had to be pre-designed to manage the task on time. The workshop format gives resources and time to investigate in full scale, experimenting with unconventional construction methods that perhaps never would have been tried in any other way.

Rjukan Pavilion, Design and Built – Photo's Per Berntsen

As we look back we often talk about our naivety, not as a problem, but rather a resource. Chances are we would have given up if we had known more about the many obstacles a public project was bound to bring us. The bureaucracy, with its complicated structure was one obvious element. It was dependant on many instances, not just the ones we were talking to, but also a number of politicians, and decision makers both locally, and on a regional level. Not knowing how much money the project had at its disposal was a rather complicated one. Up until a few weeks in front of construction start we still weren’t told. We had several moments of: ’Will this actually ever happen?’

Connecting with the audience wasn’t exactly a bed of roses either. We didn’t have the chance to talk to every single individual who felt affected by our potential project. Naysayers expressed themselves through social media. Still being just students and not having experienced such before, we needed some time to handle it. When other locals responded to the naysayers with a more positive view it was what we needed to hold on and pull it through. We learnt a lot about the importance and difficulties of participating in and with the public. These are opportunities to effect many, hopefully for the better, but it’s difficult and unlikely to satisfy everyone. To have been able to create a debate on local development where many participated feels highly valuable.

Tacloban before and after Typhoo Haiyan November 8th 2013

II – A change of context

Proximity to people – Waiting shed and village mapping in Tacloban

Rallar's completed Tacloban waiting shed – photo Kristin Solhaug Naess

Thanks to the architecture school’s Live Studio model there are the opportunities if architecture students want to shape their own courses at NTNU, even for whole semesters. The precedent’s set by TYIN Architects, former NTNU students, and the encouragement found in our professor, Hans Skotte, pushed us to explore the role of architecture in the Global South. Tacloban, in the Philippines had been subject to one of the most devastating typhoons ever recorded, when some of us went there in 2014.

Like Rjukan there wasn’t a clear task to begin with. Two months were spent immersing ourselves into the complexities of Tacloban. Together with our mentor, WRKSHP’s Alexander Furunes we joined Streetlight Philippines, a Norwegian funded orphanage based in Tacloban. Streetlight were, and still are, in a relocation process moving from the city to a neighbouring village named Tagpuro. There they set us in contact with the community leaders. The dialogue led to a project consisting of two radically different tasks.

The local community needed a waiting shed and a tanod outpost – an office for the local neighbourhood watch. The two programs were combined into one building and the design process happened through a series of sessions with local people within a short timeframe. Once again the project was realized as a workshop. This time we teamed up with the local people, some of whom knew quite a lot about the local construction traditions. It was a fruitful collaboration.

Construction time - Tacloban waiting and information shed
Photo's Rallar Arkitekt

Construction time - Tacloban waiting and information shed
Photo Rallar Arkitekt

An equally important side to the project was mapping the village. This was a somewhat new application of our skills as architects, with the outcome being simply graphically represented information. By collaborating with key individuals within the community we were able to produce a rich and inclusive map to later be integrated into the waiting shed. The goal was to help spread information about the changes brought about by the relocation of the various affected communities. The map showed in detail the plans for the village. It included the relocation of hundreds of displaced families, and the family names of all the village inhabitants were there. This would hopefully give the project more meaning to the wider community, rather than just the key individuals with whom the project had been developed. We hoped that creating a project with focus on people and process would allow for the right people to take ownership of the project – the community. And after we had left, locals proved their ownership by adapting the building to their likes, as they painted the raw concrete.

In a project like this it’s very clear that our relationship to the community is at the very core of our profession. An architect shall not design for oneself, or for other architects. A project’s life begins when we as architects leave. For this reason it is obvious to make projects that can sustain themselves, but then we need to have the interests of the people at heart. If the project is felt as their own, they might dare to adapt it to their likes and needs and take the necessary ownership needed for it to have a lasting effect.

Proximity to material – Trøndertegl

Brick building – Anders and Sebastian's brick making project
Photo's Rallar Arkitektur

Trøndertegl was an investigative project that seeked to peel back the skin of pretended knowledge that we often have in relation to materials. To make a building material oneself, is a revealing practice of reflection. It gives profound understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the specific material and a more intuitive relation to it. Given the recent closure of the last brick factory in Norway, Trøndertegl (trønder refers to the region of Trøndelag, and tegl means brick) searched to discuss which materials define the urban spaces today and which materials will do so in the future; which materials we use, and where they’re from.

Along with parts of the remaining stocks of the last factory in Norway, we used bricks of our own produce to build up the installation in downtown Trondheim. It was placed strategically between two brick buildings, next to the National Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, built in the 60’s, on one side and the historic Cathedral School on the other, just across the street.

The last in a long line – Tronder Tegl

Today, globalisation and economic forces have resulted in natural stone being imported from China, glass from France and wood and brick from all our European neighbours. Price has become the defining parameter, often leading to long distance transport, in particular in the case of a ’high-cost country’ like Norway. By producing bricks ourselves we literally had to get our hands dirty. Working with local clay, digging in the field lets you know a place on a whole new level. Locality is essential to the expression of a material. The clay from Trøndelag is different from that found in other parts of Norway, and even more so from that used in Denmark or Belgium. We experienced with our eyes and touch we how the significant amount of iron in the clay gave colour and strength to the final pieces as they were burnt. We experienced how the way we stacked the bricks while burning them, and how we used our hands in the process all affected the end product.

The installation consists of four elements forming an interior space. Three of the elements were made from remaining stocks of brick from the Bratsberg company in Lunde, the last brickworks in Norway before it was decommissioned in 2014. The final element consists of bricks we have made with local clay from Melhus, just outside of Trondheim.

Learning to know how the whole process, step by step, affect the end result – in the case of a single brick as much as the installation as a whole –  informs future design processes. With more knowledge, our ability to influence and control the expression of the end product is increased. A brick isn’t simply a brick. It’s made of a particular clay, coming from a particular place with its own particular composition. The clay says something about the context in which we’re working.

Proximity to tools – The Trondheim gridshell

Under pressure and in complete tension -
the Trondheim gridshell– Photo's Rallar Arkitektur
On site in Trondheim
Photo Rallar Arkitektur

Why are digital tools needed when we are to shape our physical environment? For us, digital tools should simulate the real world, making it easier to shape and develop a project. It gives room to efficiently make changes as the project is being formed. For us, digital tools are just like any other tool, once you get to know them, you can make them facilitate the creation, development and realisation of ideas – just like a pencil or hammer. A diverse toolkit enables us to solve a variety of tasks with more ease as each tool can be used for what it does the best.

Puzzling the deadload – John Mork Haddal on site in Trondheim
Photo’s Rallar Arkitektur

While developing the modular gridshell principle, we had to rapidly switch between an analog and a digital approach. Analog, because gridshell structures are highly dependant on material properties and detailing to perform well. Those properties are not efficient to digitally simulate. People at the local sawing mill informed us that the Norwegian spruce’s sideboards are hard, but still suitable for bending. As follows we made physical prototypes in various scales. They were exposed to visual tests, detailing tests and of course the bending and strength capability was tested. As the sawing mill produced sideboards in suitable lath dimensions, this became a natural choice.

To be able to find a well functioning shell shape, we had to use digital tools. More precisely, parametric modelling with Grasshopper for Rhino. Without a proper curved shape, the gridshell can collapse only by it’s dead-load. By digitally simulating physical forces like gravity bending resistance, we were able to find a shape that both suited it’s function and loads.

Part of the beauty of the gridshell is the complex shape, yet primitive detailing. However, the well known solution using continuous laths were not suitable when using Norwegian spruce. The spruce has too many knots, which weakens the structure. With that in mind we developed a modular system using only 900 mm long overlapping knot-free laths. The laths were easily produced in a conventional CNC-machine, and what we’ve titled the Trondheim gridshell was completed in 2015 on the harbourside, led by Rallar member Jon Mork Haddal, as part of his post-graduate research.

In the end, we came to the understand that it was the combination of high-end digital simulations and the hands-on prototyping that made the project buildable.

And now, what?

Having found meaning in being close to materials, tools and people – to trust them and let us trust them – has been the very essence of what we’ve learnt through our practice so far. We aim to have this at the core of our future projects just as much or even more than it’s been in the work we’ve done up till today. We’ve been fortunate to develop our values while not being under the burden of thinking about income, as we’ve lived off of our student loans. This has given the freedom to spend the extra hours on our work, experimenting and getting to know things we otherwise maybe never would.

As we’re currently in our transition from beta to version 1.0, questions come to the surface. How do we scale up? Can we continue to follow processes from first drawn line to last nail in the wall? How do we reach out to people and awaken their feeling of ownership in our future work?

We hope to be able to ensure quality in all parts, but have to accept that we might not be able to construct every project ourselves any more. To find ambitious contractors and craftsmen sharing our values in regards to detail, material, tools and last but not least people, seems like a good answer. Technology, like CNC-machines enable us to design complete production lines and is another route. We find the combination  powerful. We’re searching the will to spend extra effort to always move a step forward, towards something valuable and meaningful. Ownership is maybe to be considered the biggest challenge. How do we work close enough with the future users of what we bring to the world? One thing is for sure, we have to be present, and still give time to place and people.

The Rallar Arkitekter team comprise Andres Gunleiksrud, Jon Mork Haddal, Kristin Solhaug Naess Sebastian Ostlie, and Eiliv Andreas Myren Ribe

Contact through rallararkitektur@gmail.com or www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=rallar%20arkitekter