Norwegian Wood, Smart Deco and the Tree of Knowledge

Helen & Hard's Vennesla Library – Photo Monika Pilkauskaite

In a series of striking projects, Stavanger's Helen & Hard push at the edges of the engineered timber envelope. Along with biology and ecology, their hybrid brew draws 21st century expressionism into a forested path towards a new sustainable architecture.

“Walking on the beach. That’s where we get many of our ideas.” Reinhard Kropf

You cannot travel in Norway and remain unaffected by landscape and geography. Its long, spiny, and multiple mountain range topography means that many of the country’s largest cities are coast-bound, nestled around deep, storm protected waters, under the yawning heights of hills and mountainscapes. Trondheim, Tromso, and Bergen are all shaped by the steep topographies surrounding them. Less dramatic is low-lying Stavanger, which requires a car journey to get up to higher land. A deep-water port, Stavanger is Norway’s oil city. Here money flows in even more freely than elsewhere, creating a regional economy following different rules from the rest of the country. Like the other Atlantic coast cities, though, getting to Stavanger from Oslo takes time, seven hours by car, around eight by train. It’s banal to say it, but here geography matters.

The landscape, at times overwhelming in its drama, has been understood by older generations of Nordic architects as primarily expressed within and through buildings. Throughout the last century this phenomenological and experiential path was the accepted orthodoxy, represented in Norway, by the late Sverre Fehn and Christian Norberg-Schulz, respectively the country’s late twentieth century practical and theoretical architectural high priests. Not entirely surprisingly, as new generations have gained influence in recent years, the situation has been changing. A provocative debate has opened up, and many aspects of the supposed architectural ground rules are now questioned and argued over. Muscle-flexing by the younger architects has found expression in a variety of different guises across several up-and-coming Nordic studios.

On the beach – Studies of
Metamorphosis in Intertidal
zones - from Helen & Hard's
Relational Design book
Beyond scenic: mountains and fjord on the Lofoten Islands,
Northern Norway – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Helen & Hard’s first timber project, 2008’s Pulpit Rock Mountain Lodge
- Photo Jiri Havran

Of these, the Norwegian practice, Helen & Hard, have staked out a terrain, which is amongst the most nuanced and interesting, at home and across the larger Nordic backdrop. Founded by couple Reinhard Kropf and Siv Helene Stangeland, Helen & Hard’s design aesthetic and overall sensibility is both intriguing and adventurous. It has also changed and evolved in the years since the practice started, in the 1990’s, exploring what was possible in Stangeland’s hometown, Stavanger.

Stavanger – Home to Norway's oil industry
And the country's largest traditional timber building district

By the time I first met the couple they were well established. I can remember the slightly down at heel feel of Helen & Hard’s studio amidst one of Norway’s largest old town timber houses, the evidence of material plenty surrounding their plot of land. Standing out amidst the immediate surroundings, all within spitting distance of the source of Norway’s recent wealth, and harbour side from which regular supplies are ferried to the offshore oil rigs.   On that visit, during the city’s 2008 Capital of Culture’s Norwegian Wood building spree, Kropf and I talked at one end of a long trestle table, while some of the studio’s young and friendly staff began to busy themselves preparing lunch.

Norwegian Wood – the Sandnes market hall from Stavanger's 2008
Capital of Culture Wood Town project
Lunch hour for some of Helen & Hard's team
outside their B-Camp micro-container city offices
Siv Helene Stangeland and Reinhard Kropf 

Kropf, thin, small and wiry, under a squall of dark hair, and who wouldn’t go amiss in a line up of Glasgow’s Indy rockers, Franz Ferdinand, is actually Austrian, while Stangeland is a tall, statuesque and classic Nordic beauty from Stavanger. They first met in Graz, Kropf’s hometown and alma mater, where both were post-grads. If their meeting hadn’t happened things might have been very different. “I’m really glad not to have become a crazy Austrian architect,” he reflects today, before recalling the individualism rife at the Graz Technical College, which had such an effect on him and Stangeland. (And others; Snoehetta’s Thorstein Kjetil was in the same drawing class as Kropf at an architecture school and generation which went on to reshape Austrian architecture.) Graz, as Kropf describes it, was, “an extreme experimental climate, re-defining what architecture is to be about, turning practice into praxis – a political tool.” After Graz the couple moved to Oslo, with dreams of “introducing this vitality to Norway” burning in their imaginations.  Instead it cooled them. At AHO, Oslo’s Architecture School, they studied with both Fehn and Norberg-Schulz, who introduced them to a way of apprehending the natural world, landscape, in a sophisticated, articulate, yet sensual way. “It was very clear, thinking about important things.” Still, the pair influenced by their Graz days, couldn’t help but want to push. “We wanted to include a more reflexive and critical sensibility and programme.” What was imparted was “a calm knowledge.” Today, decades later, these encounters are still playing themselves out.

Big Oil meets small play – Geo-Park – Photos Helen & Hard

Setting up in Stavanger, their first projects explored the town’s historic vernacular, though with a sizable conceptual element. “We were very intrigued by the city’s own dynamics and its own resources. A big breakthrough was to use Stavanger’s oil industry resources.” A big realisation was the spirit of place wasn’t so much the city’s historical vernacular, or the oil industry itself, but the dynamic relationship between the two. They looked at how to express this. A first iteration was Geo-Park, a shoreline children’s play area which upcycled the oil industry end-of-life materials. The emphasis on play and performativity was reprised at Basecamp, a funky outdoors tree-level adventure centre in the local countryside near to the famous preikestolen/pulpit rock.

By the time of Basecamp the studio had moved into a new phase. It was triggered by something like a conversion experience to timber, happening after a good decade of more mainstream materials’ orthodoxy.  Various factors contributed to this change along the road. One critical factor was meeting and collaborating with Alex de Rijke and London’s dRMM – see the in-depth feature on dRMM’s CLT journey here, when the two practices worked together on an Oslo exhibition, Industry. They were excited, and at first quite evangelical as potentially for using Norwegian timber grew in their minds, although initially when the timber proposal was outlined to business partners there was some scepticism, as, Stangeland told me in 2016. Wouldn’t it appear backward looking and rustic-crafty amongst the business backers they worried. To which Kropf and Stangeland showed them the palette of engineered timber materials, including CLT, which they could play with. Whether they liked it or not, Helen & Hard had made their decision. It was too late to stop now.

Hotel in the trees: Base Camp –– exterior photo Erieta Attali, interior photo Dag Knudson


Vennesla library – Photo Marion Calvete
Photo – Helen & Hard
Photo Ida Belland

 “Is this the most beautiful library ever?” the Huffington Post gushed provocatively. The online paper was only part of the viral stampede brought on by Helen & Hard’s Vennesla library, accompanied by a rush of, frankly, blissed out web-reportage. 30 minutes inland from Norway’s main southern centre, Kristiansand, the small town of Vennesla, though not the first of their post-timber conversion projects, defined and completed Helen & Hard’s transition to timber. A timber showcase, integrating CLT panels into walls, roof and floor, the library is one of the most compelling contemporary wood designs I‘ve visited in the Nordic world over the last few years.

Photo Emile Ashley/Helen & Hard
Mountain Lodge from Alex
Zelaya's terrific Resilient
Wood blog

Vennesla Library and Culture House on the town's shopping precinct
Photo Emile Ashley - Helen & Hard

At the time Vennesla opened in 2011, the library project was the most resolved example of HHA’s timber embrace, pushing the Nordic envelope regarding what can be done outside the obvious ‘build taller’ clichés. With Vennesla, a timber expressionism, which had begun with their first major wood project, the 2008 Mountain Lodge had come into its own.  If the language had been there in the Mountain Lodge, the - albeit softened – sharp rooflines replayed the earlier expressionist angularity, this time over the library’s entrance.

Designed around a buckled turn in the S shaped building within a high street infill space, Vennesla is Culture House as well as library, integrating a small cinema and cafe into a larger, mixed use, community brief, and doing so though separating, raising and making the library proper almost a theatrical stage area – the library becoming a permanent performance – and opening an integrated lower ground floor for further admin rooms. Expressing the roof’s structural system, 27 exo-skeletal ribs run the course of the building’s body and back in from the library walls, turning in on themselves, and ending as elegant, subtle and proportioned book shelving, reading benches, and private nooks for children, as well as functionally, for ventilation conduits. Smart Deco in the middle of the Norwegian wood. There is a more than a shade of Calatravan rib-cage to the intensely sculptural form; further emphasised by the ribs which hold the library’s main source of lighting, and provide the exquisite illusion of a permanent sunset and sunrise streaming in across each side of the hall. After nearly two hours in this performance space, I came away thinking that Vennesla was the most striking CLT project I’d come across, not only in the Nordic world but throughout Europe.

For Helen & Hard, Vennesla library expressed in physical form a singular crossover, symbolic of the Austrian-Norwegian partnership, the arrival of a twenty-first century timber expressionism.

Ribs, Spanish and Scandinavian style – Helen & Hard Photo Emily Ashley

The new decade saw other experiments. Midway between Mountain Lodge and Vennesla library, these included some wild tree structures for the Norwegian Pavilion at Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo, originally planned to be in ‘Glubam’ - glulaminated bamboo, even if this didn’t get off the ground. By then, Kropf and Stangeland had begun to talk up a much more naturalistic biomorphic and biomimetic sensibility, coining a cover-all descriptive, which spanned the ecological and social: ‘relational design’. The timber expressionism came with a new extra turn; biology.

The Norwegian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo Better City, Better Life

The biomimetic digital craft experiments surfaced in different ways. Aside from Vennesla, the diverse results included the 2010 Ratotask installation for the V&A’s 1:1 Small Spaces exhibition, which involved 3D scanning of near-by Stavanger ash trees in Norway, before reconstructing and reproducing the trees through CNC modelling. The resulting sculpture sat in the museum’s courtyard, providing half-authentic, half-artificial gnarled tree trunks, complete with rune inscribed quotes.

Ratotask processing – from the V&A's I:I Small Spaces exhibition
curator's Raphael Abraham blog

Play tree – Helen and Hard

Photo Matt Stuart















“The approach was always there, “said Kropf soon after the exhibition, “but I became really conscious of it at the V&A. It helped me to be really clear about it. What is so fascinating in children in play is that there is no distinction between the cognitive and the doing.” Those children who made it past the V&A’s security staff, and got to climb and play on the tree trunks, were taking after playful Helen & Hard’s side. Ratotask melded their idiosyncratic performative post-modernist side with the ecological and biomorphic and with CNC routers and sensor technology, another fusion: Kropf - “What we really learn from nature isn’t building from nature. It is designing, though also how everything is multi-functional. It’s about recycling, but also about different hierarchies, or the use of local resources, or embedded knowledge in structures, and how embedded knowledge can be used in an ecological way of re-use.”

Skadbergbakken housing, with its Play as Path project in the foreground -
Photo Emile Ashby

Rundeskogen by winter - Photo Sindre Ellingsen

There was also bread and butter work for the studio, ongoing housing projects, continuing a decade's worth of housing in and around Stavanger, though now, amidst the new post-timber paradigm, using CLT and other engineered timber. The first of these, Skadbergbakken, sounds like a compromised, if not doomed experiment. Designed around social as much as built sustainability, Skadbergbakken, on Stavanger’s outskirts included four CLT Passivhaus blocks, one of six storeys. It hit many difficulties, turning, according to Kropf, into a “very sad story.” Another frustrating project was their timber hi-rise before the fact, Rundeskogen, jointly designed with London’s dRMM, again not far from Stavanger. This project took many years to get off the ground, and then the critical element, the CLT structure applied to high rise was watered down into a concrete core building. Working with the Norwegian Institute of Wood Technology, Treteknisk, Kropf and de Rijke developed a design, which looked as though it would be accepted. But then, at a critical moment the client got cold feet, and backed away from timber. The result are buildings, Rundeskogen, handsome and strange in equal measure: a series of three 10 storey tower blocks, which contain much more concrete than any of the design partners wanted. Compared to many more recent timber towers these continue to look positively experimental, abstracted trees, sorties at expressing the material, even if the honeycomb modular CLT design relies as much on the core concrete – the designs of which come across as not completely dissimilar to the core base of an oil rig – as the glut of towers that provides so much of the current excitement around mainstream interest in CLT. The compromises of getting Rundeskogen built didn’t stop various awards going its way after it was finally completed in 2013. In the midst of the Vennesala project, the practice also worked on a steady stream of housing and other cultural projects, primarily reworking and expanding an existing cultural building, Flekkefjord Kultur Hus, and in Stavanger the foyer area of an industrial start up centre, I-Park.

Flekkefjord, Southern Norway – Photo Wikipedia

Flekkefjord, three hours south of Stavanger, is another small Norwegian town with deep pockets. Like Vennesla, the town’s culture-house plan was to integrate a library and cinema, but unlike its neighbour Flekkefjord Kultur Hus’s the centrepiece is a theatre hall, alongside additional functions, including a gallery and youth club. Sited in the middle of a historic town centre, surrounded and adjoining a sea of white clapperboard fronted timber buildings, project architect and long time Helen & Hard team member, Dag Strass, has inserted the redesign into this immediate urban grain. The all-white sides don’t prepare the first time visitor for the expansively glazed main face, looking out on uninterrupted views of the town’s fjord waterfront. A double breadth staircase dressed in red breaks the glazing, protected by a cantilevered roof deck jutting out, a variant on the art deco expressionist lines found at Vennesla and the Mountain Lodge The deck draws the culture house’s angled frontage together, and points toward the entrance doors at the foot of the stairway. CLT and glulam is used on the deck, as well as the open staircase and on a second staircase just inside the atrium café foyer, connecting to an open mezzanine level above. While the external walls are all white, the red deck underside is matched by blood red carpeting and seating, along with red neon strip lights. At night, when lit up these give the culture house a very different, almost lascivious, mood music atmosphere, in contrast to the daytime white, a reminder of this upright part of Norway generally referred to as the Bible Belt. The library sits to the side on the ground floor, quiet and reserved compared to Vennesla, a site set aside for the sealed black box theatre space separated off from the rest of the building. The glulam spanning the ceiling have been given an extra dramatic touch, CLT panels vertically matching the horizontal beams, as they fall to the halls edge beside the access steps on each side. Here, far from the metropolis, amidst the blood red, black, white and softwood browns, Fritz Lang’s Mitteleuropa expressionist drama can be found colliding with the endless Nordic forests at the edge of a watery fjord.

Day for night – Flekkefjord Culture House – Photos Jiri Havran - Helen & Hard

Long in gestation, and finally opened after many delays in September 2016, the Flekkefjord Culture House underlined Helen & Hard’s abilities at choreographing a performance from their high profile projects, design fused with the needs of theatre.

All photos Jiri Havran - Helen & Hard

There is drama of a different kind to the I-Park project. Using prefabricated timber elements, the design, staged in the foyer of a new media start-up centre in a Stavanger industrial estate, the studio have stacked a series of timber boards, twisting the elements until they formed two curved and complimentary cantilevering masses meeting over the building’s entrance and making an elegant foyer backdrop. The stacked elements continued to form the reception area and seating, Helen & Hard’s flare for the dramatic gesture is again in evidence amidst the brick. A small 2012 project, I-Park’s non-standard, experimental but efficient use of the engineered timber demonstrated to Kropf one of the limitations of CLT: the level of waste and redundancy - which can use up to six layers of boards - in the heavy panels systems. It’s a critique he’s continued to cultivate.

I-Park complete and under construction – Photos Helen & Hard

Mountain Lodge - Photo Erieta Attali/Helen & Hard

A sense of adventure is evident in these projects, from 2008’s Mountain Lodge up to 2016’s Flekkefjord cultural centre. Each project essays different elements in their CLT, Glulam, LVL experiments, an evolutionary curve encompassing the studio’s singular expressionist fusion - Norwegian Wood via Vienna - mixed with digital craft, which emerges with the V&A tree, Vennesla and I-Park. By this time, though, such 21st century timber futures are underwritten by Stangeland and Kropf’s absorption in biological philosophy – expressed both in biological systems and biomimetic thinking. By the time their first monograph book Relational Design appeared in 2014, Helen & Hard were framing their building within a broad, non-doctrinaire, but even so, ecological, naturalistic context.

This appeal to nature’s processes is most fully explored in Relational Design, itself a tactile piece of work. Its title, Relational Design, anticipates Helen & Hard’s turn to systems thinking, with texts framing their interpretation of the relational within the sciences of biology and ecology. The delicious, if bordering on the surreal, theoryhead collision; Austrian architectural anarchism meets sober Nordic phenomenology, Manuel de Landa and Christian Norberg-Schulz are sitting at the bar, and have welcomed another, this time, biological riff into their conversation; the cybernetics and autopoiesis of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to join the party.

Relational Design, book, lecture and artwork

and Latour's recent Facing
Gaia - two books from the
world of Post Modern Ecology
Maturana and Varela's
The Tree of Knowledge

Kropf’s Graz, and specifically his family background appears to have played a role. Explaining the biological impulse that Helen & Hard have embraced, the Austrian notes the influence of both his father - a psychologist - and his brother - a biologist. Kropf says he grew up with family conversations on the then cutting edge Chaos and Complexity sciences.

With its hints of a full integration of ecological thinking, Relational Design’s focus on biological systems, opens a path towards a new, and different post modern ecological architectural aesthetic to that of what, after the nineties architectural theory boom, was to become mainstream post-modernism. When I’ve spoken with him, Kropf quoted the influence of biological post modernism on his thinking, figures including Michel Serres, Francois Jacob and Bruno Latour, as well as Maturana & Varela. This is in vivid contrast to post-modern orthodoxy, whether Charles Jencks the rhizome logics of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari or the late Zaha Hadid’s theoretician in chief, Patrik Schumacher. What is so striking is how biological philosophy and post-modern ecological science, though roughly contemporary with the rise of influence of mainstream post-modernism, was comprehensively ignored at the time. Consider how two completely separate architectural communities, with almost nothing in common, but who could have found shared ground missed this emergence entirely. Neither, the emerging post-modernist celebrity elite, the likes of Peter Eisenmann, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, and in Britain, belatedly, Hadid, nor an entirely different emerging eighties/nineties constellation, the pan European proto-sustainable architecture scene, from Germany’s Thomas Herzog to Denmark’s Arkitema and FeildenClegg in Britain showed interest in the overlap between what has since been described as ‘post-modern ecology’. Neither opened up the resonant possibilities of an architecture embodying the processes of ecological systems, one which could encompass its leading lights animate, biological philosophies; James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory and Gregory Bateson’s Ecology of Mind as well as Maturana and Varela’s autopoesis. Instead, the post-modernists were swept up in the heady rush of globalisation, these early sustainable practices, hating post-modernism’s pretensions, talked up ‘authentic,’ ‘real’ architectural principles; the act of building, materiality and presence, their disdain for the wave of theory loosely aligned and identified with the continental phenomenologists, like Kenneth Frampton and Juhani Pallasmaa, heirs of Aalto, Nordic humanism, and Colin Sandy Wilson’s ‘other modernism’, already up in arms at the perceived collapse into relativist ‘anything goes’ Blobtecture.

In these metal days – Zaha Hadid's Evelyn Grace Academy (Photo ZHA)

So, oddly, each party missed the alternative current of an embodied architecture, expressing the relational world of Bateson, autopoiesis and of a softer, holistic, biological and ecological post modernism. Yet this could be found at the biological edges, from the organic architecture tradition to the organicist work of Frei Otto, and to an extent, in his student and interpreter, the Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban. As an architectural path it can accommodate a radical ecological sensibility, where ecological and biological design processes overlay and overlap the built form of natural materials. And it is this relationship - nature in process and nature in building practice – which can also be construed in Helen & Hard’s work, articulated through relational design. It is in distinctive contrast to the abstracted, cybernetic, and brutally high tech organicism of Hadid and their ilk, which is where post modernism and the biomorphic mainstream has gone.

Frei Otto's Institute of Lightweight Structures home at Stuttgart University,
and Shigeru Ban's considerably more recent Nine Bridges Golf Club, South Korea

Sverre Fehn's well-known Norwegian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Arne Naess poster

“I don’t know if Arne Naess and Sverre Fehn ever met,” says Kropf over the phone from Norway. The phone conversation comes after earlier visits to Stavanger and the Vennesla library, and I am wanting to talk about Helen & Hard’s relational design and the ecological ground it stands on. I had met Kropf and Stangeland’s main AHO tutor, Neven Fuchs-Mikac, a Croatian architect a few months earlier, who worked for several years in Fehn’s studio. Naess was Norway’s best-known 20th century environmentalist, and a key figure in the founding of the Deep Ecology. Asked something like the same question, Fuchs-Mikac had first spoken of Fehn stating that architecture needed to be violent like nature, before also seeming to corroborate Kropf’s suggestion that. Fehn and Naess, despite living through overlapping decades, didn’t meet.

Fuchs-Michac was one of the AHO tutors, Kropf and Stangeland found themselves taking issue with, phenomenology’s anthropomorphicism was one of several dividing lines. “He didn’t understand what we were saying,” Kropf notes after years of hindsight. Compared to Naess and Fehn, the couple’s dissenting slant on Fuchs-Michac, is perhaps minor, though also suggestive. How far does relational design, even if it sits on earlier substrates, embrace ecological thinking? They do not, after all, advance so explicit an environmental outlook, though biological systems thinking can provide the bedrock of an ecological aesthetic. In the Relational Design book sections are rhythmically interspersed with poetic, eerie, and beautiful photographs taken by the couple; studies of metamorphosis in tidal zones, on the coast of Tungenes , near to Stavanger. Something of the strangeness of nature is echoed in the expressive atmospherics of the Vennesla project, for instance, is conveyed in these works. They are one example of relational change in the world. So, arguably, this can also be extended to their architectural projects. Autopoiesis – living and non-living self-generating systems, which are capable of reproducing and maintaining themselves – is found in biology, in social science and also by Varela and colleagues, as part of a theory of embodied cognition and consciousness. Crudely speaking, timber buildings exist within an open relational system, that of the timber factory, engineered wood emerging out of wood based raw materials, and, in the next stage, the building made from glulam or CLT, contains autopoietic properties, iterations in the same self-generated processes. If one accepts the premise, by yoking an impressive portfolio in the still young field of CLT and other engineered timber to the biologically informed, post-modern ecology, Helen & Hard represent a singular and surprising turn in the emergence of an ecological, rather than solely, sustainable, architecture.


In the last five years the practice has grown exponentially, opening an Oslo office in 2015.  However, the growth hasn’t, been limited to Norway. Kropf has been commuting between his native Austria and their two Norwegian bases, probably weighing up the options for an Austrian outpost. There are housing projects in Vienna and Salzburg. In Vienna, the Aspern Baufeld Quarter, comprising six storey housing blocks, is part of a big sustainably promoted development, in Seestadt on the northern edge of Vienna. There have also been various more local student housing projects, in Bergen and Haugesand, north across the bay from Stavanger.

Spread geographically, the next tranche of higher profile cultural projects are moving towards completion. These include a boat building gallery extension to the Vest Agder Museum, in Oddoya, near Kristiansand, and, in the south, the Nor Ordal Library and bank, and, finally, Helen & Hard’s largest project yet, Finansen Park right in the heart of Stavanger. Each expands on Vennesla and Flekkefjord expressionist fusion and will likely crystallise further the vocabulary of this new timber language. Of the three currently on the studio drawing board the Finansen Park (or Finance Park), involves a raft of timber technology research, which isn’t just new to Norway, but Europe-wide.

Rib cage II

Rib cage - Nord Odal Library –
Helen & Hard's latest library in progress

In a competition open only to regional offices in 2014, Helen and Hard won the opportunity to build Finansen Park which is to be the new headquarters for SA Banken, Rogaland’s biggest financial institution. The initial two years have covered the competition and initial sketching. Comprised of seven storeys – with three underground levels – from ground up the building will be a four-floor timberbuild, while ground down is concrete. During the last visit to their Stavanger studio, I saw an intricate display model. Shigeru Ban’s Zurich Tamedia Centre immediately sprang to mind. So it comes as no surprise that their long-term collaborator, Swiss engineer, Hermann Blumer, is involved. Due for completion this year, the Finansen Park, seems likely to be the next step in the studio’s timber journey. Open, heavily glazed, the HQ sits on a Y road junction, its two wings running, V-like alongside both streets. The buildings’ forms extend and scale up considerably elements of Vennesla and Flekkefjord. One significant aspect is that the building isn’t primarily supported by CLT, but is a Blumer-based frame and post design, remodelling a steel rather than concrete structure. Like Tamedia chunky glulam seems to have become the order of the day.

Finance Park render, one of the Helen & Hard's main projects,
currently on site
Interior render of the Finance Park

Sited beside another Stavanger showcase, a new music hall, the 500 Norwegian Kroner (£40 million) Finansen Park will be the first timber project of scale since the wave of Norwegian Wood, the 2008 Capital of Culture timber building programme which rippled through the city. Early Life Cycle Analysis modelling demonstrated a 50% carbon reduction if timber was used, helping persuade the bank to commit. Various challenges, including a wood dowel equivalent to the steel knot, which Blumer first tried at Tamedia, have been part of the early design work. A second research theme is on the CLT slabs. Focused on engineering the load transfers to the concrete core, this work precipitated a 1:1 model for testing. Details have been tested early on - incorporating wood dowels – and using ‘classical’ pine glulam and beech veneer LVL – for strengthening the 15 metre cross span horizontal beams, in effect an experimental hybrid glulam-lvl to be manufactured by Moelven, the Norwegian glulam company. A new iteration of the I-Park foyer project’s stacking system is also being re-applied. Other technical elements include integrating electrical services into the floor slabs, and using natural breathing materials, which allow air movement and ventilation as part of the acoustics brief, the latter having taken on a research challenge dimension.

R&D I:2 scale glulam models prepared for testing in collaboration with Swiss
engineer, Hermann Blumer
Render like real – Another perspective on the Finance Park – Helen & Hard

From ground floor up, the four levels are open plan and of varying roof heights, with the top floor given over to the directors’ meeting room suite. Some of the renderings are reminiscent of Ban’s Zurich office block, particularly Blumer’s frame system, although its V shape in plan and the open ground floor atrium make for differences. When it’s opened one question will be whether Finansen Park is, if not Tamedia II, then a new hybrid direction for structural timber, marking another step-change in the return of glulam and frame systems into the body of buildings.         

If so, this will surely provide further evidence of Blumer’s engineering influence on current European timber architecture, though also underlining how Kropf, a semi-exiled Austrian has been able to take advantage of this background, developing a central European network. As project architect Peter Feltendal notes, “Helen & Hard’s work is difficult to imagine without the central European connection.”

Inside and out: Grimstad library
Photos Helen & Hard/Sindre Ellingsen or Helge Eek for BS Eurobib
Team Helen & Hard at their brand new Grimstad Library rebuild.

It will likely be a next stage in the studio’s expressionist vocabulary, complemented, when complete, by the next of the studio’s library culture house hybrids in Nord Odal. Here Vennesla’s skeletal ribs have returned, the renderings suggesting a yet more animalesque form, with the ribs running the entire course of the drum-domed library, which adjoins a longer block, and will include apartments and a bank to complete the project.

Meanwhile just opened at the end of 2017, is another new library in the town of Grimstad on Norway’s southern tip. Working with the existing library building, Helen & Hard have introduced a new timber framed second floor, to house the children’s library, above the main first floor library. The simple timber frame beams and posts, are partially exposed, though primarily remaining behind ceiling panels, and a glazed window lantern running the length of the roof. On the ground floor admin rooms alongside a familiar repertoire of café, auditorium and exhibition facilities, providing much of the requirements of the Nordic Kulturhus model.

Bird’s eye view of the envisaged Vindmøllebakken Co-Housing, Stavanger
If the biological elements play a part in Helen & Hard’s relational design, their experiments in social systems, not least in their participatory projects are arguably equal in influence. For Siv Helene Stangeland this is easily the most interesting of their current portfolio of work. In the democratic and consensual Nordic world social experiments aren’t unusual, and the timing of these two projects, chimes with the zeitgeist shift of an increasingly architectural agenda. The co-housing project also includes an element of the personal, and a personal investment, as the couple own one-third of the land, and was, until shortly before ground was broken, the home of their original container city studio. It’s also part of a broader strategic re-alignment focusing on master-planning, which has seen the studio become involved with a number of projects, not least Hurdal, north of Oslo, famous in the community eco-villages movement as Norway’s best known eco-community. Hurdal started with partners in the form of Gaia Arkitektur, and has been the test site for Gaia founder Rolf Jakobson’s Aktiv-Hus low-tech alternative to Passivhaus. In recent years Hurdal has increasingly expanded, developing ambitious plans for growing. Helen & Hard have been working on the side and in combination with Gaia to create a ‘collage identity’ in the eco-village.

Alongside Hurdal there is the project Stangeland is closest to, in her head and heart, and also literally. Vindmøllebakken is gradually emerging on their one-time studio site a few hundred yards from their new – significantly larger – Stavanger studio. A Norwegian variant on the wave of socially minded housing that has been happening all over Europe, its promotional slogan ‘Gaining by Sharing’ explicitly binds Vindmøllebakken to the sharing economy.  Split between 35 co-housing units and 50 terrace row housing apartments, Vindmøllebakken will also be a test bed for one of Rogaland’s largest builders, Kruse-Smith, personal friends of Stangelands’, who hopes the model can be adopted commercially.  

Before and after master-planning – Hurdal eco-village

Aktiv-Hus buildings at Hurdal – Photo Gaia Arkitektur

Swiss engineer Blumer is again involved, having developed a hybrid prefabricated timber-concrete floor-slab, to address noise, weight and wind issues. In the end it wasn’t used, however, but replaced by the more established Saurer-system, which both builds on the Blumer research principles and is also timber based, featuring exposed timber finished and hemp insulation. (In an email one of Helen & Hard’s team said noted that the Blumer system will be used in a future project.) The simple prefabricated units can be placed side by side or on top of each other, allowing adaptability in how those living in the apartments want to deck out the interiors.

Siv Helene Stangeland in front of the Vindmøllebakken prototype
Helen & Hard

It is the interaction and engagement of the community, the co-creating of the co-housing project, which animates Stangeland most though. During the last visit Stangeland was clearly enthused about Vindmøllebakken, using the participatory processes for further investigations, as part of a PhD she is completing at Aarhus University, Denmark.  Doubtless it has moved on considerably since my visit, though so far none of the units have been completed.

Mock-ups, renders and models of the Vindmøllebakken
housing system – Helen & Hard

Kropf meanwhile spends considerable time up in the air, commuting between offices and to Vienna, or other parts of Mitteleuropa, before bringing back what he’s uncovered to Stavanger, introducing and from time to time integrating new discoveries into their projects. Though slow in the making, the fruits of Stangeland and Kropf meeting in Graz all those years ago have brought about this unlikely fusion, Norwegian Wood and 21st century Art Deco. Through these connections, particularly Blumer, Kropf and Stangeland have created an individual timber path, which is greater than the sum of its parts. Kropf has in recent years become increasingly critical of CLT and the more obvious moves and dumbing down that have occurred as its, and other engineered timbers, have become increasingly popular. The recent pronouncements about regional and locally sourced materials from various other, edgier, Norwegian architects, such as  Sami Rintala and Børre Skodvin come to mind. You can’t help but wonder how much this way of thinking may be jockeying for position in a broader Nordic architectural conversation. However, what seems undeniable is the contribution Helen & Hard have made over the last decade, since their Mountain Lodge opened ten years ago. This includes the future of Nordic, as much as, a 21st century European sustainable architecture. Deepened and rounded, the fertile hybrid this young Norwegian practice have uncovered are onto something which speaks of the future. Whether persuasively part of an ecological postmodernism or not, it will surely play its part in influencing sustainable architecture’s evolution over the next decades. OL

Photo Erieta Attali/Helen & Hard