Some time in Røros – a small Norwegian town's super cool celebration

Andrew Freear, Rural Studio's present day main man during his Røros talk, probably
answering questions

The Røros Seminar in the old mining town is a cult Norwegian institution. Started by a small band of young Trondheim architects, many outstanding architects  from all corners of the planet have passed this way. Here one of its co-founders, Hans Skotte, retells the story of how the seminar got going and where it's at these days

This is a short presentation of a unique event taking place every second year. The Trondheim chapter of the Norwegian Architecture Association invites international practitioners to meet with Norwegian brethren, to celebrate architecture. It is not like any other ‘architectural conference’. No networking time, no changing-the-world ambitions. It is simply a social gathering of professionals, where outstanding representatives of the profession present projects close to their hearts. It's like an 'architects' night out' where informal sharing and discussing projects, problems and practice is the order of the day – and night. We have been celebrating since 1988.

The initial idea was merely to lump a number of lecturers together and go to Røros, rather than individually invite them to Trondheim to lecture throughout a semester. The first event was so successful and so much fun – like a celebration - that we decided to do it again – and again – and again. Every second spring in Røros. Also because Røros is such a beautiful and friendly place. A unique testimony to the social impact of the built environment. Hopefully the reason for its UNESCO World Heritage status.

Looking east across the old mine museum towards the centre of Røros
One of the early conferences in 1994, Amir Pasic from Bosnia to the left

The ensuing celebrations were to run along three ‘ideological’ tracks. The first dealing with location (the periphery), the second the architecture (socially relevant) and the third with the invited architects (nice to be with.)

Celebrating sunrise Roros seminar 2010
The drinking begins early

Rifat Chidirji and Michael (John) Lloyd

– Glenn Murcutt and Simon Velaz

Architecture from the Global Periphery

The lecturers were to be from countries and communities in the global periphery, like Norway was at the time. Having worked in Africa for a couple of years, I knew that out there were architects struggling like we do. They did work equal to ours, yet their buildings did not get the professional attention they deserved. That is why we for our second celebration invited, José Forjaz from Mozambique and Hjörleifur Stefansson from Iceland. They had never been presented in leading architectural journals. Because when back then our magazines and books covered architecture, say, from the Middle East, it was a presentation of works done by European and American firms in the region, not what was done by the region’s own architects. Consequently, we invited Rasem Badran of Jordan, Farhad Ahmadi from Iran and later also Rifat Chadirji from Iraq, the premier modernist of the region, and whose buildings were the first victims of the devastation of Baghdad following the Bush-Blair invasion.

Finding these hidden gems was not easy. We were depending on word of mouth from the likes of Michael (John) Lloyd and his vast network of friends and colleagues, but mostly they were identified through Mimar, a glossy periodical (now defunct) funded by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. This institution and its director, Suha Ozkan, became some sort of godfather for the event. Many of our guests were in fact invited with Suha as a go-between. That is why Glenn Murcutt flew around half the world to be with us for three days, just weeks after he was awarded the Pritzker Prize. (Some years later Suha offered to talk to Zaha Hadid, a personal friend of his, “but you probably don’t want her...”, he added. Right).

Ralph Erskine and Lars Fasting, 'who
started it all' in 1988
Rafael Iglesia and Røros organiser Siri Rørholt

Brian McKay-Lyons, Anne Myklebust,
and Francis Kere in the snow

We also had a link-up to Ralph Erskine and his Ralph Erskine Award.  Many of the recipients of his award have been our guests. Ralph Erskine himself was at Røros in 1994. He literarily came skiing from Sweden. He was 80 at the time. He was so fascinated by the event that he delegated to us to present the Erskine Award Diploma to Eco Prawoto, representing the following year’s laurate, Yosef Mangunwijaya of Indonesia.

Dinner in the hall 2015
Kengo Kuma holding court over dinner
The periphery the way we initially defined it is meaningless now. The ‘periphery’ is elsewhere. In a different dimension. Opening any international journal of architecture these days, you are bound to bump into some projects located in what we initially defined as ‘the periphery’. And the architects we initially meant to honor – are now perfectly able to run on their own. Even the jury of the Pritzker Prize are now looking beyond the West and Japan. The ultimate recognition of the ‘architects of the periphery’ was naming Alejandro Aravena the curator of 2016 Venice Biennale. I hasten to add that out of the 85 offices he invited to Venice, we have already celebrated with 12 of them at Røros.

The Røros Celebration has thus been a ‘longitudinal barometer’ on the globalisation of architecture, not in a business sense, but in a substantive sense. Given our mandate we have seen how the architectural discourse has changed and how our initial point of departure has been mainstreamed. We have been on that track all along!

Architecture of Social Relevance

The periphery is now within architecture itself. We are looking at the fringe, at the periphery of the profession. That’s the realm of innovation and of values. Mainstream architecture is today – more than ever – bland, mass produced and cheap, all in the hands of developers and contractor. The fringe

Wang Shu and Ingerid Helsing
(editor of Arkitektur N)
The eating and drinking goes on

contains the works of starchitects, commissioned by the 0,1%, - and the likes of those invited to the front at the 2016 Venice biennale. At the latter end we find the likes of Francis Keré, Marina Tabassum, Wang Shu, Kengu Kuma, all Røros veterans, at the other the starchitects, big firms filled with extraordinary talented architects, but doing architecture of no, or doubtful social relevance. That’s why Suha Özkan was right when he assumed that we were not interested in having Zaha Hadid lecture (I doubt that she would have come). Because design is not where architecture starts, or ends. It is but one of its constituting parts, all of which serves a purpose. To quote Urban Think Tank (the 2010 recipients of the Ralph Erskine Award) “Everyone wants to design. Doesn’t anyone want to think?”

We have for reasons already given, not invited architects from ‘the West’ – until 2014. Then we invited from the US, Andrew Freear, the director of Rural Studio (no-one doubts the social relevance of his work), and Billie Tsien & Tod Williams. When they present themselves as holding ‘signature values’ rather ‘signature design’ (we have already spoken of Zaha Hadid…..) – then we know they are ‘our kind’. Andrew Freear so much that he has accepted being a Visiting Professor at NTNU.

The Røros event is a social gathering of practitioners, not a seminar where lecturers teach and the audience is there to learn from the high priests of the profession. It is an informal, horizontal celebration of what we do in life. That is why we try to find if potential lecturers are ‘nice to be with’. Given the format, this is crucial. Potential candidates that are known to demand an unacceptable fee, be stuck-up, or respond arrogantly, are simply not invited. The world if full of good architects that are ‘nice to be with’. It’s a matter of finding them. Notwithstanding, the atmosphere of the celebration seems to melt most of the arrogance of the ill-invited lecturers. I have seen this time and again. The loosening-up effect of event is amazing to behold. And it affects us all. I fully believe that this (alcohol-free) loosening-up effects made Billie Tsien venture into some inspired swearing in her informal speech, inspired as she was by Andrew Freear.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien in 2015
A modest venue, home to the
The 2013 conference with antipodean’s Peter Stutchbury and
Lindsey Johnson

The reason behind this amazing horizontal phenomenon, I claim, lies in the ambience generated by the audience. It does not call for the lecturers ‘to perform’. The venue, a hundred years old ‘community hall’ with a capacity of about 150, adds to that. 

Whenever I run into our ‘alumnae’ I ask why they still remember Røros, as they do. These are architects that have participated in dozens of events and conferences worldwide. They all come back to the informality of our event, both socially and environmentally. Røros is after all an exceptional place with an ambience that seems to facilitate low shoulders. Up until now we have had the good fortune of opening the event in a large 18th century private house in central Røros.

Until the next good-bye - Anapuma Kundoo,
Tod Williams, Anne Myklebust (Hans Skotte’s
wife) Hans Skotte, and Billie Tsien line up
for the photo op before going their separate
ways in 2015
Ingerid Helsing gets to Value in
her deliberations the morning
after the night before in 2015
Peter Stutchbury and Lindsey Johnson have, upon their experience from Røros, established their Deerubbin Architecture Seminar Down Under. When the architectural press in Australia reported from the event they started out by giving credit to the Røros Celebration being the direct inspiration.

At every event we bring in young Norwegian practices, often also good or especially interesting student work. Throughout all these years we have always closed off the event by first having Michael Lloyd sum up. The last ten years or so the editor of Arkitektur.N, Ingerid Helsing Almaas,has spent the last night of the celebration – until morning, preparing for what has become a tour-de-force closing, a high point of the event. “She seems to understand my work more profoundly than I do”, the Turkish architect, Han Tümertekin, uttered in awe.

The Røros International Celebration of Architecture is supported by a set of sponsors who are also part of the pack, and seems to be eternal members. Furthermore, the National Architects Association have throughout given us a well-heeled grant, so has now The Faculty of Architecture and Design at NTNU. The event is fully organized, run and administered by practicing architects, members of the Trondheim Chapter of the National Association of Architects, working for free.

2017’s Roros Seminar is on the 28-29-30 April 2017. Speakers include Fieldoffice Architects,Taiwan, Rahul Merothra, India, Assemble, Britannia, Avanto, Finland, Frida Escoban, Mexico, Nathan Romero Spain/Denmark, Lars Fasting, Norway, Vardø Restored, Norway – and Ingerid Helsing Almaas.

Further info here