The Return of the Trondheim Wharf warehouses

The inner city's waterside warehouses have been one of the most distinctive historical vernacular building types in Trondheim. One of the oldest, Kjøpmannsgata 27 has been the subject of a research and preservation project led by Eileen Garmann Johnsen. Here Johnsen writes about her experience.

The wharf buildings along the river Nidelven, the river defining the inner city of Trondheim, played an important part in the development of the town from the middle ages onwards. Later, further warehouses would also be built, on the north side of the city. These faced the fjord before becoming part of the canal created by the artificial land that formed the basis for the modern railway station and a new harbour in the early 1900s.

The wharfs were the most important active connection between the water and land, with boat traffic and trade. This now happens in similar ways to other buildings in another part of the city. However, this shift started to happen quite early on because of a landslide further upriver in 1816, which brought a lot of sand to the mouth of the river and effectively made the Nidelven shallow and impassable for larger vessels. What we today see as a reduced activity in the wharf buildings started some two centuries ago.

Trondheim’s waterside warehouses line the beginning of the river Nidelven
oxbow bend which encircles the city centre
Kjøpmannsgata 27

It is interesting to see how the wharfs, particularly the oldest ones, provide a strong visual record of the border to the river. They form one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the city. They appear as mute and inarticulate, sizeable structures. They relate not to man or human activity, but to storage and the essential goods that were kept there. It was these goods, which were crucial to the existence and development of the city. Goods storage and the development of trade, demanded wharf buildings as large as possible - becoming larger each time fire swept through Trondheim burning many buildings down to the ground. They primarily provided large open spaces that could be easily filled up with the many things the city inhabitants needed, from hides to fish, grains, sugar and salt.

Today, the wharfs that face the river are strictly regulated, which until recently has prevented them being used as domestic dwellings. Since the 1970s the municipal council has granted permission for both the Bakklandet shore wharfs, on the far side of the river from the city centre, and those on the canal, to be used as dwellings. The wharfs in these conversions have been fitted out with many more windows than the original facades. This makes for bright glow along the river at night during the winter.

I find myself wondering whether the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the wharfs is challenging to people nowadays, and what might encourage people today to fill these buildings with new and unknown activities? Some of the passion that some architecture students have recently shown towards these old buildings might suggest this to be the case.

Historical map of the river Nidelva circling Trondheim's old city centre.
The wharf warehouses line both sides of the river's channel on the right hand side.
They stand on the border of the old town with both the river and the sea, developing with time and the changing conditions. These buildings tell an on-going story that inspires and stimulates through its many visible traces.

What is this story?

I cannot help wondering if the reason is deeply connected to how craftsmanship communicates with us? This is a question which I have reflected over repeatedly and which I have tried to investigate through my own craft-based practice. Talking to and observing professional craftsmen I meet through working with existing buildings has also given me a lot of input to this.

In architectural education the interest in crafts has been disconnected and distant for a very long time. Architects have developed an almost romantic understanding of craftsmanship, arguably a legacy the modernist era. The reality is that craftsmanship has been rapidly disappearing - replaced by industrialised production of buildings. In the last ten years, we have witnessed a re-emergence of an interest in crafts and tectonics, and many of our students and architects have been seeking inspiration in traditional building techniques and joinery as solutions to inevitable challenges of our time.

In Norway, it is naturally the wooden architecture that offers many insights to such solutions. Knowledge about wood is something that, if not common, is at least still alive here.

Yet, at the same time, we have these old wharf buildings, idly resting in the city centre. When the doors are opened, we’re offered a surprising experience that you’d only otherwise get in museums. Exposed timber walls and traditional post and beam constructions can be seen in dedicated heritage buildings, but in contrast to the wharf buildings, they are outside of the city centre.

So how is craftsmanship communicated? What is this communication?

From my experience, this is physical – a bodily experience. I believe this something of a lost communication between hand and brain?

I was reminded of this in a course I have been running, where architecture students are asked to present the surroundings and objects from their childhood memories, as a way to inspire them in the their studio work, designing for children. My fellow colleague, Jon Nordsteien, presented a tree he had climbed as a young child, a challenging experience, which, importantly, they would mentally repeat when lying in bed at night, remembering all the movements and grips they took to get to the top.

There is a distinct connection between the actions of the hands and the body, and what has been learned through visual training, particularly when our hands seem to almost sense what they need to do, as if on their own. There is an almost dangerous thrill that connected to this experience, which, according to Frank Wilson, is what Wilson calls “the hidden physical roots of the unique capacity for passionate and creative work.” This is what we call ‘tacit knowledge’, a deeply integrated knowledge, which the hands know automatically when needed. For children, this is an unconscious yet integral part of learning.

It is this type of complex knowledge that enables us to do things the right way, after both instruction and training. In more recent investigations of the brain, the hands are again coming into focus. My hope that this might bring to the fore the work done by hand, so as to allow it to be seen as equally important as the work of the brain and to look at the relationship between them, rather then study them separately. A tendency to regard these things as separate lead to both a neglect of our cultural heritage, and the opportunities to engage in stimulating and satisfying work that can, simply put, lead to a good life.

The complicated task of exchanging fundaments
I have been working as an architect with one of the wharf buildings, Kjøpmannsgata 27, for almost fourteen years. It is one of three particularly interesting and well-preserved warehouse buildings. In 2015, with funding from both Trondheim municipality and the county, we started renewing the rotten foundations and ill-treated pillars on land and in the river. Through this work I have seen how this very challenging and time-enduring work inspires the craftsmen, and their appreciation of working with difficult wooden joinery, compared to the more standard work that a conventional building demands from them.

Observing their work, and its impact on people observing it, made me realise that there is a bodily understanding of the joinery that, unlike the important technical knowledge of wood, truly has the ability to talk to people, in an almost profound way. Of course some basic understanding and knowledge of crafts is needed to understand the language, but it is amazing to watch how complicated joinery and what we call ‘knots’, are quite easily understood and realised – as often by young apprentices as the experienced craftsmen.

There are limitations of course. If you don’t have any knowledge at all of how these structures work, the posts and beams and their connections, or the timbered-walls, and complex joinery, I do wonder if they can be understood in greater depth than that of visual experience? People love this imagery too - the buildings and associated artefacts are used as interior decoration in much appreciated restaurants. However, the knowledge and understanding of what they see will remain hidden.

Hakeskjøt- a sketch of the pairing of wood technique
I believe this explains why significant structural wounds were uncovered at Kjøpmannsgata 27 during the 1970s. These wounds are the traces of the irreparable damage that was done, due to lack of knowledge while attempting to introduce new functions into the old wooden structures. Lack of professional knowledge and experience meant the structures could be easily damaged, because the wood, if put under certain levels of stress, becomes permanently deformed. The mistakes here were rooted in a modern understanding of building, with each component part viewed and treated separately. In these complex timbered structures the system is a totality, and when parts are changed without consideration, a lot of unexpected things can happen. The interconnectedness of these building may well also be what is so inspiring for people when they first experience them.

I like to call the deep communication with buildings for ‘thick’ communication. By this I mean that, given some basic knowledge, the people who observe the physical act of construction, get an integrated feeling in relation the hand and body, about how these buildings are made. This awakes a curiosity and interest in the small tool marks visible in the wood, the tools, ideas, and history and development of the techniques. The interest for everything otherwise unseen is stimulated. Perhaps another craftsman will have an even ‘thicker’ connection to this experience. But the interesting thing is, as soon as you have some knowledge, you observe more, and the experience is magnified. This happens with a lot of our students at NTNU. By being introduced to the practical aspects building early in their studies, more and more students become devoted to building.

“When personal desire prompts anyone to learn to do something well with the hand, an extremely complicated process is initiated - that endows the work with a powerful emotional charge” (Wilson, 1998, p.5).

It is as if this is happening when we’re almost at the edge of losing these skills. This leads to an important issue - what’s at stake here? Fewer and fewer children are even introduced to crafts through their childhood in this country, and as we see from our students, it takes more time to engage them in the craftsmanship, even if it is introduced very early on in the studies.

If I’m right that the ‘thick’ communication of these buildings is dependant on some knowledge of how they are constructed, then this knowledge has to be created and understood as an essential part of childhood education. Otherwise the future of architectural heritage is deeply threatened.

What is the structure of these wharf buildings, and why is it so challenging?

The 1674 Maschiusstikket Illustration by Jacob Maschius – (Trondhjem - Urbs Norrigiæ Celeberrima Nidrosia)
A well-known drawing, ”Maschiusstikket” from 1674, depicts the structure alongside the river, and even though almost everything burnt down in 1681, much is as it is today. However, there are some distinct changes. In more recent times the wharf gables face exclusively towards the waterfront. Most of them are larger, taller that is, than they were originally. Some of them are built together, combining two or three under the same roof, but the interior keeps traces of the old structures. Later, fires have led to many wharf buildings being replaced by newer, more modern types that use similar principles.

In the more recent examples, like Kjøpmannsgata 27 (built between 1858 and 1876), the building structure is still clearly visible. It is essentially not a new structure, even if the size and height of the building increased in comparison to the earlier one on the site. The way it is built is, of course, based on the traditional techniques. Logs interlocked with notches form cushion on the sand, creating a flexible yet strong base for the posts - and making a quite useful cellar with additional access to open space directly by the river. These buildings would sometimes have a space in front one of the long sides making a useful gap in the row of buildings, intended to minimise the risk of fire spreading.

The columns under
Kjøpmannsgata 27
The ground floor of these timbered wharf buildings consisted of two rows of notched log timber rooms, with a corridor in the middle. This was connected to the river via a gallery, where all the goods were brought on shore. Whether from other countries or farms in the region, goods seen in the streets of Trondheim always came in via the wharf buildings. The log ‘boxes’ of the ground floor underpin the stable foundations for the rest of the building as well as creating a more protected area against intruders. The storeys above (1-3) are in principle much more modern, with robust columns, in a surprisingly regular order, creating open space (in more than one sense). The three original buildings would have had walls with log construction throughout, but the combining of three into one meant a post and beam construction could be used to create more open spaces – a successful combination of principles from different periods. 

This openness is what strikes everybody when visiting the building, not only in the upper floors, but also in the wide corridor on the ground floor. When the doors are opened and light floods the full length of the space, offering all kind of possible modern day uses, from weddings to exhibitions. The simple, but efficient construction, with each and every component made of wood, is visually very powerful.

The diameter of the columns decreases the further up the building you go, as does the thickness of the floor. Naturally, this is not uncommon today either, but the honesty and bareness of the materials and construction means every component is observed as part of the whole construction. The construction is almost holistic, with each handcrafted column having its place, linking together with all the other parts to tell the story of how the forces in the building are and have been handled.

A conference in the restored wharf building
The staircase, one of the last remaining ones in all the wharf buildings, which ascends through the building in a single run, from the ground floor to the loft, and offers a very interesting experience when in the building.  It may not meet modern standards, but it still shows itself to be useful for many of the experimental uses that have been tried out in the building over the last few years. In building’s original use, the staircase, together with the wide doorways to both the river and the street, allowed men to move quickly up and down and in and out for transportation of good with the help of a hoist, first run by hands, and later by motors. The width and inclination of the stairs and the lack of a lift for disabled access presents a significant challenge for any new use. The introduction of these elements will inevitably ruin the openness in the building.

The building’s experimental uses has led to considerable discussion with the fire authorities resulting in some creative solutions. However, the situation remains open regarding how this could be accomplished in any future use.

Thinking pragmatically about the buildings as cultural heritage can help establish a framework for new and maybe unknown use. Perhaps it would be fair to consider all log timber walls and constructions as store CO2, allowing us to be flexible in the use of energy in when heating the building in its current state. I do wonder if this language of crafts, materiality and construction, which speaks so clearly to those who know the language through their own hands, makes it possible to hear from those who do not themselves perform these crafts. The simplicity and clarity speaks to everyone, but perhaps in just a quieter and softer voice?

Is it this double act, or just the bare simplicity that makes these buildings so enchanting? As they stand there, with their abundant unused square metres, they offer new (or old) solutions to new and inevitable questions of real importance to our times and future. In the presence of the wharf building you also realise that what you are experiencing is something slow, something that has to take the time it takes, that offers a pause to the mind, which can be important when faced with all the speed and haste that surrounds us.

What does cultural heritage, and specifically these rough open structures offer us? They have a link to nature. The wood is so close to its origin in its present shape. Its bareness and roughness offers possibilities to add to both the structure and design that contrasts and supports the original, a freedom that feels even better than beginning over.

It is so much easier to mechanically produce a perfect copy. However, the imperfect, the traces of manual labour, combined with a closeness to the natural origin of materials, seems to offer some sort of reality that can be more reliable than the smoothness of modernity. The buildings were also witness to being used by people when life was simpler and less ruled by technology, than we are in today’s world. This reminder is experienced visually and bodily. Craftsmanship contains its own repetitive rhythm, which is appealing to the stresses people live with in our times. When all the burdens of struggle are taken out of the craft, one is able to see what has been lost to the demand for time-saving activities.

The task provides both challenge and meditation, like the old saying, “to rest in the work”, and seems to have refound new meaning for today’s youth. It was the harsh struggle that gave craft a bad reputation. In our time, with our completely different standards of living, we really ought to reconsider craft.

4. Hands  by John Napier
5. Prehension- the hand and the Emergence of Humanity by Colin McGinn
6. Trä gav form ( studier over byggnadskonst vars former framgått ur trematerial og träkonstruktion)
(The text to the drawings is even in English) Erik Lundberg

Wilson, F. (1998). The Hand: How Its Use Shapes The Brain, Language And Human Culture. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, Print.

Sennett, R (2009) The Craftsman Penguin Books, London.

Haarsaker, N K & Brenk, G W (2015). An Inclusive Aesthetic Approach to Full-Scale Building. In: Structures and Architecture: Beyond their Limits. 1st ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press LLC.

Napier, J R (1993) Hands Princeton University Press, Princeton.

McGinn C (2015) Prehension- the Hand and the Emergence of Humanity MIT Press, Cambridge, Boston.

Lundberg, E (1971) Trä gav form: studier over byggnadskonst vars former framgått ur trematerial og träkonstruktion Norstedt, Norway. (Text accompanying the drawings are in English)