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Building on the Horizon: The Architecture of Sverre Fehn

Part 1 Dissertation 2007
Ranald Lawrence
University of Cambridge Cambridge UK
There are many ways to describe the architecture of Sverre Fehn: a confrontation, a layering, an order, a composition on the horizon. But what shines through all of this is his concern for the needs of people. His work lives up to the ambition to humanise architecture as argued for by Giedion, fulfilling the promise of unadulterated modernism whilst being susceptible to an analysis that is entirely contemporary. Today, however, we live in an age of decomposition, wrapping and image-making that ignores the primary role architecture has to play of continuing the age-old art or poetics of construction. It is as if architecture had entered a twilight where craft is threatened by the mass production of components and the quality of space by the developer’s over-riding desire for ever more rentable room.

It is within this context that my dissertation seeks to explore Fehn’s work, and his handling or reaction to the breakdown of architecture from an ordered and progressive art to that pervading confusion which we can see all around us today. Fehn’s handling of oppositions in nature disguises a deeper commentary on the dichotomy of the present human condition (with a clear delineation between the thought of science and of spirit), demonstrating a depth that it seems many of our present day heroes of architecture will never achieve.

Of course this dissertation does not seek to address the whole problem, and Fehn is perhaps only an example, but it does seek to re-evaluate this particular architect and demonstrate what it is about his building that addresses these issues that shadow the practice of architecture now more than ever.

Ranald Lawrence

There’s a balance to be struck, in writing a short piece on contemporary architects, between the specifics of the work and the general questions that their practice raises. Much of the agreeable time spent supervising this essay on Sverre Fehn oscillated between a consideration of structural detail, and a discussion of what this might mean in relation to debates about imagery, tectonics and problems of authenticity in a digital age. The strength of this splendid and subtle dissertation is how it negotiates specific and general – keyed to particular observations and personal experience, but raising issues of perennial significance.

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