Hamsunsenteret – Steven Holl

What kind of person will drive 3 hours + a car ferry each way for a stunning building designed by one of his favorite architects and dedicated to one of his favorite authors? This guy, that’s who (sorry ladies, I plan vacations around architecture).

Out of the two Steven Holl buildings I’ve visited this year (Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City being the other), the Hamsunsenteret is by far my favorite. It’s the perfect confluence of Holl, Hamsun, phenomenology, modernist writing, and connection to landscape.

In preparation for visiting Holl’s “battleground of invisible forces”, I re-read one of Hamsun’s most well known books, Hunger (everyone should read it, it’s awesome). Walking around the hill from the parking area was one of those holy crap I’m actually here moments as I had been wanting to visit the Hamsunsenteret since it opened in 2009. On my last trip to Norway I did not go very far north – but did get to see a sectional model at Sverre Fehn’s Norwegian Architecture Museum. This along with reading a myriad of Hamsun’s novels (Hunger, Pan, Mysteries, Victoria, The Ring is Closed, Wanderers, Growth of the Soil, On Overgrown Paths, and Dreamers so far…) really stoked my interest in seeing the building. So when I decided to go to Norway and Iceland in September 2016 – this was naturally on my list.

Hamsun grew up not far from the Hamsunsenteret – and the landscape of Nordland inspired him in his later works (the Nordland novels including Growth of the Soil, one of the only times an author has won the Nobel Prize for solely one novel). At the time of the visit, I had been overwhelmed for three days straight by the beauty of the Lofoten Islands, seen the Snøhetta building at Eggum (will blog about later), and was starting to come to terms with some questions that had been running through my mind about embracing my past. A possible answer was standing before me – Hamsun embraced the past in his novels and Holl’s building captures the tension created in the wanderer’s psyche. So after entering doors with door handles of “fine Mexican silver” – alluding to a dog collar noticed by the main character in Hunger – you go straight to the top of the building to immerse yourself in the landscape.

After the overview of Hamarøy, a descent into the depths occurs, much like the unnamed narrator’s decent into madness and hunger. Views become framed, single focal points in an otherwise blank box. You are very much meant to be inspired by Hamsun yet bring your own story and thoughts into the building, creating an inner dialogue. Strong materials play throughout – concrete walls become body, interior becomes mind. This duality is always in play.

Sometimes mind slips out of body – a yellow balcony recalling “the girl with sleeves rolled up polishing yellow panes” jutting into the Nordland landscape. Another balcony – “of the two violins” doing the same in the opposite direction – igniting a dynamic interplay between inner thoughts and exterior world. Framed views abound – Holl was meticulous, the balcony of two violins jutting out and framing the view with the staircase above. You are meant to reflect here, at least it spurred a great deal of reflection and introspection in me.

Light columns pierce the body of the building on certain days – I happened to be there on the equinox, mirroring Holl’s watercolor sketch of the building. Sunlight leads the way around a golden central core. Painted concrete walls allow for focus on exhibit, materiality, phenomena and thought. The Hamsunsenteret has great sectional qualities. One path, circuitously making its way through the mind – a procession that somehow still allows one’s mind to wander.

Exterior materiality plays into the Norwegian landscape. The same golden core cladding is used on the exterior stair (sadly, kept locked and only used for emergencies). Blackened wood cladding recalling stave churches. The interplay of disparate parts works here.

Phenomena – much like the spectacle of thoughts in the mind (well, my mind can think of some crazy things anyway) – abounds. Light plays off concrete, plays off perforated metal, making a slow dance throughout the day. Like all our minds, the interior of the building is constantly shifting.

The Hamsunsenteret very clearly contrasts with the landscape, yet so many moves connect building and nature. Tree trunks play off the blackened wood. Windows capture views. Balconies jut out into air. Mind and Body come together, with tension.

The wanderer – in many ways I feel like a wanderer. A bit outside typical society, causing a little trouble here and there, not fully capable of being understood. Hamsun wrote about them, he knew it well. He left Nordland and eventually came back. I tried to keep my past buried, it caused agony and I wandered further. Hamsun embraced his homeland eventually, unlike Thomas Glahn and the unnamed narrator in Hunger. They loved the dream the most.

So in Pan’s landscape, in Hamsun’s home, I got closer to my own. I visited one of my favorite buildings, by one of my favorite architects, dedicated to one of my favorite authors. The Hamsunsenteret created tension between mind and body, allowing me to explore my psyche and thoughts further as I made my way through my escape from it all. It was well worth the combined 6 hr drive and 2 car ferries to visit, and has further inspired me creatively. When you create a building as a body, a battleground of invisible forces – you stoke these forces in others. That’s what architecture is about.

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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.

2 thoughts on “Hamsunsenteret – Steven Holl”

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