Hana Grohová
Respect to living nature as bedrock for urban development. The architect of Norweigian micro cabins about sustainable care for our landscape

Are we killing our natural landscapes with tourism? Are extensive cottage developments changing mountains into slums? Those are the key topics of the architecture studio of Reiulf Ramstad. He was kind of accidentally led to designing in the countryside – at the beginning he would mostly get such commissions. However, he discovered that it might me even more difficult than creating projects in the city. Ramstad built his name with sensitive approach to landscapes, using local materials and the effort to take care about nature. In an interview for CAMP Magazine, he described how he sees architecture in the mountains, but also why he enjoys designing in the city.

From stone making to architecture

Where are you staying here in Prague? Do you have an experience from Prague you would like to share?

I have a hotel in the historical center. Yesterday and the day after, I saw a stone maker. I talked to him and watched him make the pavement. I saw how he, with two colours of stone – one light stone and one grey stone – made patterns. He had a little hammer, the stones, the sun in the sky and all the geometry in his head.

What are the factors that inspired you to focus on sustainability and the environment? Does it somehow relate to construction professions such as the stone maker’s?

Yeah, it's going back to what the man is doing. He is using his body and time and to make a construction that is very simple, but it gives a good surface to walk on. And it's a simple piece, one that can be changed. You can modify it. This kind of a of basic geometric pattern he makes will outlive all of us. In hundred years, that pattern will still be there.

Are you focusing on livability of the buildings then? That they last as long as they can?

I think that today there's a lot of talk about sustainability. For example, the first time I was at a conference and heard many people said [that some building was the most sustainable one. And then I went to see it and it was so ugly and had a bad karma. I think that if we took the word quality more seriously, then we wouldn’t have to reinvent our methods. I believe that the life cycle of a building has a quite significant position in this discussion. Not only the choice of materials and technical solutions.

Romsdal Folk Museum – one of the most significant designs of Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter – is special because of the use of local material. When built, it was the largest single massive timber construction in development in Norway.

Source: Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter

In an interview I also heard you mentioned multiple uses the building can have.

I think that it's very important when a building can fill many purposes. On the one hand, a building can often be made for one purpose, on the other hand, if it’s well done, it can serve other kinds of activities. For example, our office is more than 160 years old and first, it has been a residence, then it became too big for a residence, so they also added commercial activities to the building. Then it became an embassy. [00:05:30]. Then a theatre, a school and in the end, we took over. The way we live and occupy buildings is a very important part of the discussion about sustainability. For me, quality and social consciousness should play a more important role in architecture.

The culture of cottages ruins the landscape

You talk about the quality, atmosphere, or karma of the building. What is your relationship to places where you design? Is it better to make a good building when you have a relationship with the place?

I never have a prefixed solution. I don't have a style or a signature. I'm not striving [for that. In fact, I think that every project is a kind of a voyage. It's an interesting how you’re making a project together with other people. In the team that we have a client, local authorities, contractors, and we don’t succeed every time. It’s nice to have a democracy where there's space for everyone. I believe then that in this kind of a play, the role of architecture is to be the pilot with big responsibility. I do think that the role of an architect can also be social. We give the building not only an aesthetic meaning, but we also define the balance between aesthetics and ethics.

How do you perceive the relationship between buildings and nature? A lot of your projects are built outside of the city, in the countryside. I also heard you mention that the culture of cabins turns the landscape into slums. What is your strategy in designing a building in such places?

I have been criticising a lot of the local and regional development in Norway. It's like the culture of having a little cabin or a cottage has been something very basic, like you should leave every Thursday night, go off to your pre-warmed cottage and have all the kinds of domestic qualities that normal house has. I understand that people want comfort, but there are issues connected to that. It’s the same problem with Venice, for example. If you love it, why do you kill it? Big natural landscapes have been transformed to some sort of periphery or suburb out in the mountains. That has degraded a lot of nature, I believe.

Reiulf Ramstad designed several cottages in the mountains. He wanted to adapt them to local terrain, use natural materials and achieve the biggest possible harmony with landscape.

Source: Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter
Source: Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter

How do you project this philosophy into your architecture?

I stayed in Italy for 10 years and when I went up to the mountains like Cortina, they have the little tight villages that are not so spread out. We have been working with some of our clients to invent a similar type of a village – it would give a possibility for people to come but it would not expand so much.

Balance between nature and tourism

I believe there is a similar problem here in the Czech Republic with cabins, cottages and tourism are ruining the landscapes. But it's also, it's in our blood to go into the countryside. How should we balance those two opposites?

Thanks to all kinds of new clothing and equipment you can go into more extreme terrains. There are reindeer groups who have been living up in some of these parts of Norway and in consequence, the tourists disturb them. So even the biggest nature lovers can be a significant threat to nature. Maybe it’s just better to stay in Prague. However, there's another side to it – there's a large part of the European territory, the countryside, which is abandoned. People leave small villages. There is no new generation that would want to live there. Therefore, there's a meaning in people inhabiting remote places. I have been collaborating for 15, 20 years with many small communities and I have met a lot of clever and talented people. I think that takes us into an interesting discussion, not only about building in the countryside, but also about revitalising remote places. Tourism can be less damaging and more participating in the process. If we manage to merge this all together, maybe we can create something very good. Maybe we can obtain a meaningful development of Europe.

Trollstingen Visitor Center in Norway helps tourism. But according to Ramstad, they strived to cultiate the place and design a building, that would enhance the experience of the plateau’s nature.

Source: Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter

I believe it is such a trend to go and to live in the city to seek all the opportunities the cities have. But all of us can’t live in a city. However, you personally live in Oslo, right?

I do. I was born in Oslo and and I always have been living in cities. But my mother came from an island out on the ocean. I remember every summer we went out there. We slept in a shed, all five of us. For protection, we trusted our large dog. It was very simple, but it connected me to something I found truly nice. Through this very close relationship to nature, I learned how to be on the ocean or how to fish.

You speak about the relationship to nature. Do you still enjoy working on projects in the city?

Yes. I love cities.

Do you approach it differently than when you build outside of the city?

No. When we did our first project out in the countryside, I thought this was going to be really easy. But I found out that otherwise and I wanted to study the solutions closely – with a special attention and respect for those living in nature. I believe this attention should also be a bedrock when we develop our cities. Therefore, I think we should be trying to approach both the urban and nature context with great respect and try to do our best. And that’s why we need architecture.

Watch Reiulf Ramstad’s talk in CAMP. It took place in the collaboration with Salon dřevostaveb:


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