Steven Holl Architects reports: Norwegian Council votes to build Knut Hamsun Center

In 1994 Steven Holl Architects was commissioned to design a center for Knut Hamsun, Norway’s most inventive twentieth-century writer. The building mired in years of controversy, but it recently came back alive. It has been approved, the funding is almost complete, and in order to open the building at Hamsun’s 150th birthday in August 2009 the project will break ground in spring 2008.

The Knut Hamsun Center will be located above the Arctic Circle near the village of Presteid of Hamarøy close to the farm where the writer grew up. The center includes exhibition areas, a library and reading room, a café, and an auditorium. The Knut Hamsun Center will tell many contrasting tales and will constantly revitalize Hamsun’s writing. Steven Holl hopes to create place of focus for the writer’s work: “The problem today is that there’s so much information, there’s so much thrown at you, that it’s very hard to connect things that have plausible likenesses and tenuous connections. You need a certain solitude and silence and coalescence. It can happen in the authentic place, on the unique site on earth.”

Knut Hamsun, fabricated new forms of expression in his first novel Hunger, and founded a truly modern school of fiction with his works Pan, Mysteries, and Growth of the Soil. In 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. During World War II, he was naively sympathetic to some of Hitler’s activities, which created a considerable blemish on a long career of creative writing. When commissioned for the Knut Hamsun Center Steven Holl carefully considered all of this and stated: “I think that all those things, good and bad, can be shown in a museum dedicated to the life of one person. You can include that stain in the exhibitions. Life isn’t all clean. It has some messy corners”.

The building is conceived as an archetypal and intensified compression of spirit in space and light, concretizing a Hamsun character in architectonic terms. The concept for the museum, “Building as a Body: Battleground of Invisible Forces,” is realized from inside and out. On the green roof a garden with long grass refers to traditional Norwegian sod roofs in a modern way and the tarred black wood facade is characteristic of the great wooden stave Norse churches. This skin is punctuated by ‘hidden impulses’ as an ‘empty violin case’-balcony with phenomenal sound properties, or a ‘girl with sleeves rolled up polishing yellow panes’-balcony. The rough white-painted concrete interiors are characterized by diagonal rays of light changing throughout the year. These strange, surprising, and phenomenal experiences in space, perspective, and light provide an inspiring frame for exhibitions. The design won the 1996 Progressive Architecture Award and a model of the building was purchased by Museum of Modern Art.

Steven Holl Architects is currently working on several competition winning projects in Scandinavia. Besides the Knut Hamsun Center the office is working on the Herning Center of the Arts (Herning, Denmark), and Meander (Helsinki, Finland). In 1998 The Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (Helsinki, Finland) opened its door to the public. This museum, considered as one of Steven Holl Architect’s major works, received the National AIA Design Award in 1999