Experiment 1

Critique: A House Made for Walking by the Norwegian architecture critic Mari Hvattum./ Form: Three Attempts at Giving Form to a House Made for Walking by the Danish practicing architect Jonathan Houser.

A House Made for Walking / Mari Hvattum

This house is not really meant to be seen, but to be walked. Needless to say, perhaps, for the house is almost invisible, wedged into a corner at the bottom of a cul-de-sac. When you stroll down this small appendix of a street, surrounded by ordinary two-storey townhouses of indeterminate age, there is nothing to suggest that you’ll find a new building. But then, just before you decide that this is a mistake and that you’ll have to turn back, a small courtyard opens up in the left-hand corner. As the space is by no means conspicuous, it takes a little while before you realize that it is new. I’m not even sure that you would notice the transition if it weren’t for the crisp sound of footsteps on old oil gravel that suddenly acquires a hollower, deeper ring, as if the ground is no longer a street but some kind of cover.

And that’s exactly what it is. The house is partly buried; dug d into the slope that runs along the back of the houses and down to the railway tracks to the northwest. The railway line was built in 1872 and put an end to the street, or at least an end to its heyday, forthe bourgeoisie who had their gardens cut off by the railway moved to other neighbourhoods with larger gardens, leaving the street to its gradual decay. New buildings have been added from time to time, without much architectural ambition. In this run-down part of town we find the house in question: a combination of family home and greenhouse for hydroponic production of purslane.

At first glance, the house does not in any way break with the sleepy ordinariness of the street. Rather the opposite in fact. It doesn’t even have what you’d call a street elevation, and its small projection in the corner doesn’t stand out. Only those who come here often and who might therefore notice how the sun, especially on summer evenings, penetrates right through the building from northwest and lightens up the corner window, will realize that this is in fact a brand-new and rather unusual house. Entering the house from the street, you pass through the small courtyard, under a raised mezzanine carried by slender steel columns before reaching the living room: a bright, double-height space with large windows facing north. The mezzanine cuts into the living room, giving access to the bedrooms in the northern part of the house. Its sleek steel structure has a kind of busy, vibrant quality that makes it appear as an airy piece of infrastructure up there in the light. One’s footsteps sound different up there, a slight vibration underfoot indicating that one is walking on metal. Here and there, the mezzanine becomes a balcony facing the yard and the street, but otherwise the house looks towards the northwest, down the weedy, overgrown slope towards the railway tracks.

The purslane production takes place on the lower floors, partly buried in the hill. Although ‘floor’ is perhaps the wrong word; it’s more a case of different levels, or planes, that cascade their way down the steep slope. The growing of plants is confined to the upper levels, with packaging facilities below and a garage at the bottom. The bottom floor is reached via a side road from the northeast, to ensure that the purslane traffic doesn’t disturb the residents along the narrow access road. The deep section gives the house a mysterious and complex inner life, not unlike Adolf Loos’s Müller Haus in Prague, whose careful interweaving of different levels never fails to surprise you. But while Loos’s plan is strictly orthogonal, this partly buried complex is full of curves and bends. A better comparison may be Caruso St John’s Brick House in London, a house the architects have described as ‘incomprehensible from within … Like a baroque chapel in Rome buried deep within the city’s close pattern of narrow streets.’

Though in theory relegated to the basement, the purslane department is far from dark, as the steep slope allows for generous apertures to the north and west. The materials in this part of the house are unpolished concrete and brick, the latter used mainly for the floors. The plant shelves, made from coated metal and arranged in rows on different levels, possess some of the same cool elegance as the upper floor, with the rows of common purslane – a low, succulent plant with a slightly citrus-like taste and scent – forming what looks like fleecy carpets, lit by hanging fluorescent tubes. It’s fascinating to be standing down here when the trains come rushing past, especially in winter when the glare from the strip lights is reflected in the drifting snow. It reminds me of the spaces one can sometimes find behind waterfalls; secret caves hidden behind a bright, shimmering curtain – only in this case, the curtain is not made of water but of urban movement.

Goethe once wrote that he dreamt of being led blindfolded through a well-built house. The purslane house would perhaps not have met the old neoclassicist’s requirements for a well-built house, but it does lend itself to being  experienced in motion and with one’s eyes shut. The building is difficult to capture on camera (another parallel to Loos who used to boast about how un-photogenic his buildings were) and would hardly make a hit on Instagram. But when you stroll down the brick ramp, the scent of purslane in your nostrils, you encounter an architecture that is rich in both smell and taste, and with a certain vibration underfoot.

Tre forsøg på at give form til et hus å vandre i / Jonathan Houser

Experiment 2

Critique: Parlour by the Danish architecture critic Martin Søberg./ Form: Sections and Fractions by the Norwegian architecture studio Element.

Parlour / Martin Søberg

How do you like the house? you ask … Eh, well, I only just arrived. Which is true in a way. No knee-jerk reaction. No ready-made opinion, though the building has already made some kind of impression on me. Now we sit together on a sofa, overlooking the street. Do you know what was here before? Nobody ever remembers. The houses are just there, while you yourself are scurrying along with enough on your plate trying to swerve plastic bags carried by shoppers, an inattentive cyclist, other bodies moving at different speeds. Have you thought about it? A slight hesitation, then I clear my throat. Yes … or no – perhaps we might… Sure, that’s why I wanted to meet you here. Okay then.

Come to think of it, I haven’t been to this neighbourhood before – if you don’t count the times I’ve passed through the main street, scanning the place from the windows of a bus. Everything nice and even: red brick – three storeys, four storeys, two storeys – then a gap, a square, bus shelter and curb. The house itself is an infill that echoes the roofline of the adjoining house. Fair enough, but a crack has opened up, allowing the sunlight to reach the back wall of the neighbouring house. Milk glass from top to bottom screens against prying eyes. This particular Wednesday, the glass seems to mirror the grey of the sky, overlaid with reflections of things moving past. Downpipes stream down the facade like tears. The pleated profile of the roof can only be seen from a distance.

Inside the house, the ground floor is surprisingly open and field-like, disrupted only by slender, cast-in-situ pillars, the cloakroom, a staircase that descends from above and a ramp that winds its way up through all three storeys to the top. Now, a cup of coffee would have been nice – but that doesn’t appear to be on offer. The floors, made of rubber and cork, form a kind of depression in the middle of the room: a small amphitheatre intended for group discussions. In fact, the entire house is built for conversation. On the upper floors are interview rooms which can be screened off entirely. Well, it’s not that we don’t talk, it just always seems to be the same things we talk about. And then there are people who never really say a word to us. Exchanges taking place in echo chambers where nobody seems to listen. I wonder who came up with the idea of creating a whole house in response?

The concept is not without precedents. There’s the English ‘parlour’: a reception room, from the French verb parler = to speak; a precursor of the drawing room, the middle classes’ grandest, most public room where you received your guests, as opposed to the more private living quarters, bedrooms and kitchens tucked away at the back. Also, something about the house reminds me of a lobby: those sound-muffling textiles, that cork flooring and the way you’re received on arrival: please put your phone there, then you can have it back afterwards. Right-o. We haven’t booked a guide, which you can if you want, someone to help kickstart the conversation. Imagine. The cloakroom reminds me of a vault in a bank with its stainless-steel interior, its lockers with their small keys and the mirrors that prevent me from letting go of the tension in my shoulders. Well, that’ll come later, I suppose.

The atmosphere changes when we reach the first floor. One recess after another, some of them reaching right up to the ceiling like oversized Chinese screens lined with marble or covered in meander patterns. Small groups, each consisting of two or three people or sometimes more, nestle between cushions on padded benches or perch on stools with turned wooden legs. There are things we need to discuss. The sounds are subdued, which makes it difficult to listen in on other people’s conversations. A large window is divided into sections, some of which are openable, while others can be screened off with metal shutters and drawn aside or folded into the room in pairs and locked in position perpendicular to the walls. Similar windows, though smaller, can be found elsewhere in the building. At the back is a kind of conservatory; here the floor is made of hard-burned bricks, and the ceiling rises to a height of seven metres or so. Ferns interlace with fan palms, the smell of moist soil tickling my nose. Sunlight filters down through foliage, creating bright patches on the faces of the interlocutors.

All the materials – or most of them anyway – were donated to the cause. Concrete and wood from people who make concrete and wood. Insulation, water pipes, lavatories and mirrors from those who make that kind of stuff. Etc. etc. The rest is recycled. I recognize some doors lined with oak veneer from a property I once visited, but only because I know what to look for. I wonder where the handrail comes from. A spiral staircase made of wrought iron points the way upstairs – that is, if you don’t want to follow the ramp. Now we’ve arrived in the space just below the roof, which buckles down and then seems to disintegrate into fragments, transforming the space into a maze of interlacing lines delimited by panelled walls and fabrics. Behind an orange felt curtain, I find a sofa. Rubber floors again, pink Pirelli.

Are you okay? Squinting a little and clutching the armrest, I let myself fall back into the depth of the sofa.

We stay silent for a while. Look at each other, then away. Through the window, across the treetop outside. The hum of voices ricochet between the sloping walls before being devoured by the fabrics. Why don’t we find someone to talk to? Right then, let’s go.

Sections and Fractions / Element

Experiment 3

Critique: Cathedral for a New Era by the Swedish architecture critic Ylva Frid./ Form: SAK NR 20200814/1200/ Investigation of Cathedral for a New Era by the Norwegian architecture studio Kaleidoscope.

Cathedral for a New Era / Ylva Frid

A small wrought-iron gate marks the entrance from the street, behind which a gateway leads to a long, tall room. Inside the room, people are working and moving about. Doors are slamming. Two women, each carrying a small brush, are busy removing the stumps of candles that have burnt down. A man dressed in a long, white tunic opens a door, an empty soda bottle in his hand. The room is bustling with activity, people walking about, coming and going, all intent on performing their different tasks. The only light in the room comes from the thin candles burning here and there and the waning daylight that filters down from windows high up on the eastern and western walls. The dim light makes the etchings on the floor gleam in the dark. There is no furniture, no pews to indicate a direction or prompt you to keep quiet, no hymn books and no bibles.

Lined up against each side wall are the small baths, where, having first deposited your clothes on one of the brass pegs, you lower yourself into the hot water. The water is mixed with magnesium oxide and sea salts, a sign informs you; this will relieve you of any tension and help balance your mind. Simple as that. Salts, minerals – and then a soothing calmness will descend. So here you are then, naked, submerged, idly watching other people pass in and out of the room wearing their large overcoats and furs. Taking a bath in the same room where people pass freely in and out might have felt wrong, exposed and uncomfortable, but somehow it doesn’t. The spaces themselves are so powerful, so positive in their way of framing the purpose that you instinctively go along with it and embrace the concept, with the result that everything feels natural and uninhibited.

A door in the north wall leads to a courtyard. If the weather allows, you can continue from there down to the reservoirs. These are used for ceremonies and festive events during dry spells. At other times, you can wade about, knee-deep in water, and listen to the singers when they come down from the cathedral. Then, when the reservoirs fill up, the entire courtyard becomes a sheet of water that hugs the facades, gradually rising or receding with the fluctuating water levels.

The reservoirs also extend under the building itself. Thanks to an ingenious device, parts of the floor can be raised, revealing a large expanse of water. When this happens, the whole room seems to open up, exposing the dark waters underneath. The darkness becomes a mirror that reflects the high, vaulted ceilings, so the dark water not only reminds us of the mental abyss inside us all but also emphasizes the loftiness of the soaring sky. Indeed, there is a lightness in every dark, and the building is not afraid of letting both of these aspects of life be represented.

The inner courtyard is bounded by a high wall, behind which the water treatment reservoirs spread across the former schoolyard and right down to the adjoining cross street. All this can be overlooked from above, but the public is barred from entering the area due to the sensitivity of the processes.

Parts of the building have something eternal and timeless about them. Maybe it’s the smell, the pervasive scent of minerals, salts and vapours. Or maybe it’s the fact that the entire building is off-grid, with no electricity and no internet access – an eccentric but fascinating fact that is also reflected in the design of the building. Both the space and its components must follow this principle, adapt themselves to it and be arranged so as to function exclusively by means of the natural elements fire, water and air. Other parts reflect the particular circumstances of our present time. While the columns and walls are made of some sort of cheap composite material, the floors are cast in situ. The floor pattern has a pragmatic function: its grooves, which are drilled on site according to a programmed algorithm, prevent the sometimes-wet floor from being slippery. However, the thin golden threads that gleam in the dim light makes this into something more than just a precautionary measure.

The building site is a narrow strip, sandwiched between two post office buildings from the 1920s. Their long courtyard used to form a passage between two streets where the mail vans passed in and out. However, with no mail left to sort and deliver, this space was no longer needed and could therefore be developed for other purposes. Mail vans, mailboxes and envelopes – all these obsolete devices used to be a natural part of daily life and so obvious that no one dreamt of questioning them. But then suddenly one day, they were all gone. The thought of the vanished mail vans makes me think of how everything is in a constant state of flux, and how brief and transient a human life is.

‘Since time is all we have, we must measure its preciousness in units of freedom,’ as the philosopher Martin Hägglund reflected in his book This Life; an observation that made him question the very role of capitalism. ‘Our own lives – our only lives – are taken away from us when our time is taken from us’, he wrote, indicating that as human beings we owe it to ourselves to get rid of all the things that consume our precious time on earth. In spite of his status as a declared atheist, Hägglund inspired thoughts we normally associate with more spiritual thinkers. Including the first modest efforts at envisaging the present situation, where moving in and out of multiple dimensions has become a natural way of life. It was this development – a turn of events that none of us could have anticipated – that prompted the project. With its cross between a cathedral, a public bath and a reservoir, it provides a necessary anchor point in a world that might otherwise disintegrate into a flickering mess of parallel, half-digital lives. The steady counterweight we need to balance our existence as human beings. But as sacral as it is, it is also an active workshop that never sleeps. There is always something going on in there – someone busy sweeping, taking a bath, praying, lighting candles, drinking soft drinks, talking a little too loud or having a snooze.

SAK NR 20200814/1200/ Etterforskning av Katedral för en ny tid / Kaleidoscope

Experiment 4

Critique: Stripped Down, Dressed Up by the Norwegian architecture critic Gaute Brochmann./ Form: Tectonic Objects by the Swedish architecture studio Tham & Videgård.

Strippet ned, kledd opp / Gaute Brochmann

An infill project claims its place; not in defiance but with a shameless appeal: ‘love me more than you do the rest!’

Sandwiched between three buildings in a dense inner city lies a house. Or sandwiched is perhaps the wrong word. Rather as if the house was dropped by an airship from a height of 2,000 metres above the hill, jamming it in between the existing structures. Parts of the house were also squeezed in the process; other parts envelop the surrounding houses or ruthlessly gnaw their way into them.

So, you see, this is not a building that has tired of the existing. It just doesn’t care that much. Or at least, that’s how it appears. All it wants is to go about its business with a natural confidence and an approach that bridges an apparent paradox. Because minimalism doesn’t have to be stripped down. Things can be simple and dressed up at the same time.

It’s as if the architects had a particular thing in mind when they conceived the building: the music video for ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber, danced and choreographed by ReQuest. It involves a lot of colours, powerful dynamics, spontaneity and humour – at the same time as the house oozes precision and quiet elegance. And just like Bieber himself chose not to figure in his own video, you might ask: where are the architects in all this? Did they simply dish out a beat and a rhythm and then leave it to others to take it the next step into the real world?

An ordinary townhouse, and yet … The first floor seems to be the most interesting in terms of space and programme: a ramp leads up to an intermediate storey that provides contact outwards, upwards and downwards, linking three storeys and connecting with the busy street outside.

Letting the public functions take place upstairs and downstairs and the dwellings be served from the level where the ramp enters the building creates a strange dynamic. To reach your home, you need to pass through, or at least next to, both a bar and a shop but without entering into direct contact with any of these.

The internal colour scheme is radical too, as is the curious indifference when it comes to honest or natural building materials. On the other hand, there is nothing of the postmodern extravaganza about it, no bizarre forms or theatrical effects. If we stick with the idea of the house having fallen from the sky, then it’s more as if the entire house skewed a little when it landed between the other buildings. Not very much, not enough to make it come apart, but enough to offset everything a bit.

It’s not outré in any way or full of oblique angles or pasted-on elements. It’s not as if the apertures, skylights or fixtures, such as benches or tables, were deliberately disproportioned or asymmetrically arranged, or made from materials that contradict the structural logic of the house – like Skinrock or similar products that make you wonder if this is in fact stone or rather some composite material mixed with colour pigment.

What about beauty, then? True, I could have asked myself why the house looks like this. But then again, I won’t. Because I sincerely hope that the architects will answer: huh, whatever do you mean? Caught in the crossfire between conventional ideals, commercial demands for salability and a horizon where the architect’s energy is by definition earmarked for sustainability battles, this has become a profession where no aesthetic risks are taken.

So, not this time. With its seven storeys, which is one or two more than its neighbours, the at once arrogant and inconsistent approach to the context and, not least, an interior that doesn’t try hard to be different (so much for deliberately skewing things), this is not a house that one likes for what it is or what it does. But it will be loved for just being there. It’s a house that just woke up one morning and realized that things like spontaneity and precision are not mutually exclusive. Just like dynamics and deeper meaning aren’t.

Algorithms, I suppose – or wait a second: does it actually make sense to speak of honesty in a world where any alternative reality is just another algorithm? Because, surely, a house like that must be the brainchild of a computer, right? If Justin Bieber is the architect, then the roles of dancers and choreographers are perhaps played by designers and their sophisticated software? A digital generation 2.0, long after Frank Gehry and Guggenheim.

Or that would have been the obvious conclusion, were it not for the fact that its lines and shapes are so curiously inorganic. As if everything has been cut with a ruler and built in foam board before being realized in full scale. This house is as doubly curved as the worktop back in my own kitchen. As though it says: who cares if things are analogue and free-styled or digital and slick?

So there it is: a perfectly decent spatial programme with a pub in the basement, shops half a story up and an array of dwellings wedged in between the two and on the upper floors; and with most of it – apart from a few bits here and there – contained within the same structural shell.

Hehe? Maybe the random passer-by will think that this is all a big joke. But then again – is it really that funny? Or is it more a case of indifference? The notion that one thing is as good as the next and that anything goes? No, I don’t think it’s that either. There seems to be a genuine urge there to strive for beauty.

This is not a house you’re supposed to like, it’s more a matter of feeling the attraction. In which case it’s mission accomplished.

Tectonic Objects / Tham & Videgård

Experiment 5

Critique: On the Fringes by the Danish architecture critic Sara Ettrup./ Form: The Plot by the Swedish architecture studio Krupinski / Krupinska Arkitekter

On the Fringes / Sara Ettrup

It wasn’t really my intention to enter the development from the back – if that’s the right word for it, seeing that this is the original entrance. The combination of the massive infrastructure and my own vulnerability as a cyclist makes me turn down the small alley at the rear.

I recognize the gate. It creaks at the hinges as I push my way through, instead of just yielding to the touch as it used to. Apart from that, the place seems more or less unchanged: a random mixture of pragmatism, common sense and creativity. An old, tarred shed houses the white plastic chairs of summer; I can see them waiting patiently behind the windowpane. The DIY-culture has produced what looks like a compact catalogue of all the windows and doors of former times. Here the activist’s ‘Casa Valhalla’ appears side by side with the architect’s simple version of a slender, two-storey home, complete with facade and roof in the same metal sheeting. All the houses are facing what used to be a view. As they stand there close together holding hands, this uneven bunch of two-storey homes present a striking united front with all their lopsided patchiness and wealth of detail.

What used to be a precise boundary against the wildness of the green common is now a frayed edge with cracks opening up, offering scattered glimpses of the rest of the development with its more or less orchestrated randomness. A new kind of spatiality emerges between the controlled and the uncontrolled. To my surprise, there’s a pleasant atmosphere in the narrow street at the back. The facades are not completely aligned but meander in and out down the length of the street, intersected by passages and the occasional glimpse of a back garden. One displacement makes room for a bench, another frames the entrance of a house – simple measures that provide visual variation and divide the immediate environment into smaller spaces with room for everyday life and potted greenery such as sage and fig trees. The displacements seem to mirror the proportions and uneven rhythm of the opposite houses. Tiny bends and angles create spaces where you can meet your neighbours and opposite neighbours, thus adding a familiar Mediterranean touch to the scene. Underneath it all is the paving: a coherent carpet that flows in through cracks and recesses, connecting residents across and along the length of the space.

One building in particular catches my eye. Opposite the architect and the activist rises a slender wooden structure in four and a half storeys. In spite of its height, which is more than double that of its neighbours, the new building doesn’t appear oversized. It is roughly as wide as the duo across the street, but while they stand close together forming a line, this one is divided by vertical shifts that mirror the opposite facades. These shifts continue upwards across the entire facade – rather as if the existing houses have left their imprint on the newcomer. The dwellings – between seven and nine in total – appear as separate houses stacked on top of each other and combined into one overall form. The effects are simple: small, subtle shifts provide variation and help downplaying the scale of the building. Some flats are two storeys high and span the entire width of the facade. Others are smaller units that recede like empty shelves, revealing an almost invisible glass facade at the back. A few have balconies that look like pulled-out drawers overgrown with vegetation – a far cry from the slapped-on boxes you see everywhere else in the city. Windows and doors are simple and often framed by shutters that add depth and a sense of scale to the facade. By harnessing the many potentials of wood, the architects have achieved great variation and, despite playing with different expressions, have managed to create a coherent and well-proportioned structure. The design is capped off by paraphrasing the distinctive gables found all around the existing development. The architects even seem to master this much-tried architectural device, using it as a way of referencing and acknowledging the existing without resorting to commonplace imitation.

I’ve been invited to see one of the dwellings: an unoccupied flat on the second floor. Rather to my surprise, everything in the stairwell – floors, walls and ceilings – is made of concrete. The stairs themselves, with their irregular design, cut diagonally into the heavy walls forming a sort of orthogonal snail shell. Soft light filters down through the space, creating uneven reflections on the slanting walls. This heavy core supports the rest of the house, which is designed as a large bookcase made of wood. On the second floor, I am met by a door in plywood – the only thing that seems to break the consistency of the space. I step into a low-ceilinged entrance hall and am rewarded with a framed view into the rest of the flat, promising other, more generous, spaces beyond. The hall is like a box made entirely of plywood. Grooves in the material show the walls to be crammed with cupboards and drawers in a variety of sizes. One of the cupboard doors opens into a bathroom whose floor and walls in polished concrete seem inspired by the heavy stairwell outside.

A further inspection reveals the entire flat to be lined with wood. A narrow but double-high room opens up inside. Here, a simple kitchen counter is tucked up against the wall of the hall, below the bed loft’s navigation bridge with stairs leading up to the platform. The west-facing view is framed by a large window section, whose shape seems to mirror the activist’s windows across the road. It also reminds me of Louis Kahn’s Fischer House. This is the heart of the dwelling. Two alcoves – one facing the street and one facing the courtyard – open into the double-high main space; small cubicles with built-in cabinets and a bed, which is all you need, really. However, there’s something puzzling about the uniform materiality that makes me feel at home but also slightly claustrophobic. I guess time will show if the residents will feel tempted to paint the walls or they’ll be content with living in this wooden box with its catalogue of ceiling heights and storage options.

Moments later I’m back in the street again, feeling elevated. This whole development has a human scale; a scale that the rest of the new city seems to have forgotten about. There’s a kinship and correlation between what is designed and what is not. Which just goes to show how a careful reading of the context and its qualities can inform a project, enhance it and anchor it to a place by engaging with what is already there and adding new layers to the city.

The Plot / Krupinski / Krupinska Arkitekter

Experiment 6

Critique: A School to Grow Up In by the Swedish architecture critic Rasmus Wærn./ Form: The Dual High School by the Danish architecture studio LETH & GORI.

En skola att bli stor i / Rasmus Wærn

It’s not often that a public building proves as memorable as we were hoping for. However, the new Dual High School claims its place with the same cheeky confidence as Humphrey Bogart, with Dalai Lama’s death-defying humbleness, with Maria Callas’s mad pride and the same relentless sincerity as Greta Thunberg. So, you see, this school, in which many generations will be growing up, is a building with high pretensions. Not just physically – although its tower clearly reflects a desire to make a splash – but intellectually as well. It’s the kind of architecture that points with the whole hand, saying: ‘look! This is what it’s like to be a human being.’

For those of us who grew up with the provisions’ frigid architecture or the lukewarm naivety offered by the ‘playful’ schools of the new century, the Dual High School’s carefully tailored building stock must seem like the only grown-up in the party. Part of its appeal stems from the fact that the high school reuses the property’s existing factory buildings. These now house the school’s practical training, with the new building reserved for the more theoretical classes; hence the name: Dual High School.

This building will help young people grow up. We all progress from the categorical convictions of childhood to the critical mindset of youth, where nothing seems to be good enough. For most of us, this too is just a phase, but way too few reach the state of maturity where even the imperfect is embraced with curious respect. It’s true that most of us appreciate the wintry charm of a frost pattern on a windowpane or the beauty of an overgrown garden. But few have the guts to commission a building where the qualities of old age play a part. When this happens in a building that will see many generations grow up, this kindles a hope for the future: here stands a built lesson in how to tackle the problems of life.

If this resonance between old and new is responsible for the building’s chronological depth, the feat of humanizing the essentially stupid building materials is what gives it its artistic depth. That the hand-crafted ceramics, cast metals and perfect carpentry must have cost a bit goes without saying, but more remarkable is perhaps the architect’s insistence that the generous budget should not lead to excesses. Indeed, it never really looks ostentatious. The main quality, and the one that impresses the most, is not the expensiveness of it all but the obvious care and commitment that has gone into it. This is what job satisfaction looks like.

The generous spaces and the sophisticated lighting scheme similarly impress with their ingenuity rather than their exclusivity. Any tendencies to school fatigue are countered by means of a varied environment where almost every room offers a new experience. And while there is order and sense in the building’s basically rational structure, it will take the pupils months, if not years, to fully understand the logic behind some of the layout’s unexpected subtleties. Meeting young people with this kind of challenge is to meet them with trust: we grown-ups offer you something that you might not understand here and now but will learn to appreciate with time. Just like the knowledge this institution is here to provide.

The best things in life are often hard to grasp. What do birds sing about? Why is the twilight hour so poetic? And just where does the old house end and the new take over? This is a mystery that doesn’t need to be solved. It gives the building a mythical dimension that is better met with an open mind than with categorical claims. Inside and outside each tell their own story, and even if I don’t always understand these contrasting signals, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them.

Of course, there are compromises too: the large slabs in the southern wall provide a pleasant degree of shade, but they also block most of the view; the narrow outdoor passages will be nuisance to more than the janitor on those days when snow needs to be cleared; and the whole concept of reusing the old structure on the hill pose problems in terms of accessibility – problems that could only be solved by adding those extremely long access ramps. But then again, it’s precisely by juggling all these different demands that the building is able to make such a lasting impression on the minds of thousands upon thousands of pupils who will treasure the memory of its idiosyncrasies all their life. This way the building becomes the eccentric but empathic teacher that every parent would want for their children.

That any innovation necessarily involves a break with conventions goes without saying. But unlike the kind of architecture where breaching the rules has itself become convention, the Dual High School bases its cautious use of forms on proven principles. The abundant variation comes from combining simple elements to form different constellations. Just like a Moroccan souk, a timbered Swedish farmstead, a whitewashed Greek village or, for that matter, a large forest where every new tree adds more complexity, these repetitions just give us more and more to explore.

This is an additive architecture. The kind that adds rather than subtracts. And the fact that everything remains so clear and easy to read despite the many combinations is due to the underlying modularity that provides a necessary foundation: beneath it all runs this safe and stable bass line. It may not be the first thing you notice, but after a while you realize that this is what renders the variation possible, both indoors and outdoors.

However, we don’t build just to make houses, but because we need spaces. Architecture is, after all, a social enterprise. These spaces are here to promote learning and, if possible, make it enjoyable. Or at least not disagreeable. That is why the quirky layout has no murky corners where bullying can raise its ugly head. The school’s outdoor spaces – the many schoolyards – similarly offer venues for both playing and studying. Which is all very well, but architecture can’t do it alone. Now it’s up to you: teachers, principals, school boards and politicians. Even the best of opportunities must be taken. So please make an effort and live up to what the house promises!

Dubbelgymnasiet / Leth & Gori

Damn Critics!

Experiment setup 1-6: Architecture critics from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark write critiques of fictional works of architecture. The critical reflection departures in the critics’ own dreams and imagination. The written critiques are handed over to six designers from the three countries who generate form through model and drawing based on the critique. The written critique and the graphic and spatial design representations are presented together in a traveling exhibition. You can read and listen to the critiques below: