Feature: "Norwegian Nonpareil"

[original article from Architizer.com]

With projects that have made the cut as finalists in the Architizer A+Awards for three years running, Reiulf Ramstad Architects has consistently impressed us with excellent work that is at once distinctive and unmistakable while also continuing to surprise and delight anyone who sees so much as a photo of any given project. And, although the firm is not a household name by any means, we are proud to recognize RRA as Firm of the Year with two winning projects to its name — the National Tourist Route Trollstigen and Community Church Knarvik (more on both below) — and certainly more to come.

Principal and founder Reiulf Ramstad speaks about the project that launched his studio, the advantages of a decade-long design process, the relationship between architecture and music, and much more.

Reiulf Ramstad with Kristin Stokke Ramstad at the 2015 Architizer A+Awards Gala. Photo by Samantha Nandez/BFA.com

Reiulf Ramstad with Kristin Stokke Ramstad at the 2015 Architizer A+Awards Gala. Photo by Samantha Nandez/BFA.com

Architizer: First of all, congratulations on your A+Awards, both for the Community Church Knarvik and for your firm as a whole.

Reiulf Ramstad: For us, it’s a great honor and we’re humbled to have this recognition. During the last few years, people all around the globe have been really nice to us. We have actually not had a specific business strategy; like musicians, we’re just so passionate with our work. But I understand, of course, it has a professional value and a cultural value for us.

I think what’s interesting is that Architizer is promoting good architecture in a new way, not like the traditional magazines. When I was a student — I remember it growing up — architects in magazines were kind of untouchable, very [distanced] from everyday practice. What I really enjoy about today’s global culture, and also modern technology, is that it is a much more democratic place — and it also gives much greater opportunity for young people to be involved.

I see my own children, they are moving abroad, one to England, one to Denmark, and I think it’s really good because modern technology kind of moves the authorities. Once, authority told you the truth. Today, if you are a smart and curious person, you can actually educate yourself; you can search in fields that were not accessible before. So, this is a period where a lot of people can make great projects, and they are coming forward. It’s an interesting time for ideas, and Architizer is a great place for exchanging ideas.

We’re really proud of the Firm of the Year prize and also for our church — of course, what I’m most proud of is the people I’m working with every day, who are really great people. The enjoyment I get from working with them is where the real value of this practice lies.

Can you elaborate on a project you are most proud of, perhaps one that you feel was a seminal moment for the firm?

I’ve been thinking about it, let me put it this way: if you are a composer of music, you can make a symphony or you can make a solo. They can be so very different; it’s very hard to compare projects in this respect. However, having thought about this, I have two clear buildings that changed our office. One was the University College that we finished in 2006, and that was quite a large-scale project for us — 30,000 square meters [322,900 square feet]. It was part of a big international competition we won, and the project has been published so much that it made it very significant for us.

It was the first time we had built [a] project of that size, which brought enormous pressure. We had to research different kinds of architecture, in terms of space, function, dynamic, and materials. But we also got very good fees, which gave us the possibility to go deep into the process. I think that was very useful because then you build much deeper relations between different parameters in architecture. That was an important moment for us.

Before that, we had always been working with orthogonal geometry. I was educated in Venice, and at the time, it was very much focused on rational thinking. Aldo Rossi was there; he was a very important figure for a lot of personalities, such as Herzog and De Meuron, who referred to him a lot. Rational thinking was the basis of my education. So, this project was the most important to be carried out that kind of space, the culmination of our architectural research at the time. That project was also a kind of tough battle, involving lawyers and so forth — it had all the ingredients, both good and bad … it was like “Game of Thrones” at times!

That project was very important for us, for the publicity but also the fee — it allowed us to buy our architectural studio, so we owned our own space — we no longer needed to worry about someone kicking us out after a year or so.

The second project, which is probably our most published and has expanded our view on how you can involve art within architecture, was the landscape project called Trollstigen. It’s a very big area up in the mountains, which we worked on for almost 10 years. The landscape and the climate were really challenging; we could not [use] any standard solutions, we had to reinvent everything from the bottom up. For example, one year, we erected a mockup of a handrail in the autumn, and we came back in the spring to find an avalanche had destroyed everything, there was nothing left! We had to really think about the question of how architecture meets nature, and how the built environment challenges the natural environment.

There are huge spaces up there to work in, so I thought it was going to be easy, but actually what happened was the opposite — you became extremely aware of everything. The more we learned about the place, the more precise we became in terms of how everything should be designed. For this project, we also collaborated with specialists in biodiversity; we learned to share knowledge and develop solutions together, using different people’s expertise. That is very important, I think, for making good architecture — we should involve experts in other fields; it could be technical, it could be artistic, it could be cultural. It’s important to use other people’s talents and other people’s knowledge and co-involve them in projects, and that was so interesting.

In Trollstigen, we also undertook a lot of experiments with different materials because of the climate. For example, we started out with wood, but there was up to 26 feet (eight meters) of snowfall, which would make most wooden structures collapse. So, instead, we experimented with the use of Corten steel and concrete. What was extremely interesting was how you could use concrete — it can be a very brutal material, but it can also be the most poetic of all materials, and we developed many different ways to elaborate the surface. For example, for areas you don’t want people to go, you create a really rough surface; if you want people to sit and touch, you polish it up so it almost becomes like human skin.

This project was really surprising because, at the beginning, I thought the steel and concrete we used would be the key materials, but in the end, we realized that the most important material of the project was water and how we would deal with the water as an element of the design. It’s fascinating because water is very unstable in its condition; it can be in gas, liquid, or solid depending on the climate. So, working with that for a long time also made us think about how, today, we consume things so fast; in architecture, we create images so quickly, we use them so fast. To spend 10 years on a project, it allowed us to use the right amount of time to develop and make what is necessary, intelligent, and sustainable.

How does the architectural heritage of Norway and Scandinavia tend to influence your work?

I lived in Italy for nine years, and coming back to Norway was interesting because the density is so different. We have just five million people living here while there are 60 million people living in Italy, but we have a much bigger territory. I appreciate it coming back because there are so many unspoiled places; people are spread out everywhere. The scale and multiplicity of landscape is special: if you turned Norway the other way, it would reach farther south than Rome — it’s larger than the whole of the rest of the continent. If you go to the easternmost city, it is in line with Istanbul.

So, more than the architectural heritage, I am inspired by the landscapes, the variation between closed and open spaces, how you can walk along a small passage and then suddenly look out on an enormous fjord that is so big you cannot comprehend it — you see a huge cruise ship, but it is an extremely small element within the space. In New York, you can find the same kind of relationship between big and small spaces, but it’s built like a “second nature.” In Norway, you have this relationship between the mountains and valleys.

What I also like about coming back to Scandinavia is that everything is more informal; there is a domestic style everywhere. You see that quality everywhere — working life is really hardcore, with emails, meetings, telephone calls and so on, so we need that human touch and domestic feeling in our daily environment. I think that is part of the success of new Nordic architecture, it has this humanistic, artistic quality without being pompous.

It’s personal, informal, and comfy — and also very tactile, especially working with wood. Wood is a very interesting material; it’s very sustainable here because it is so cheap to produce. To exploit the forest in a sustainable way, we will not chop down thousands of trees, we take out trees here and there. It’s a nice way to build. All of these issues are specific to Scandinavia and make it an interesting place to work.

Which sector — i.e. cultural, educational, or commercial — do you believe holds the greatest challenges for architects?

Most offices today are specializing; for example, many are focusing on healthcare or housing. We have discussed this, and our strategy is kind of the opposite: instead of specializing, we want to be really good generally, trying to combine humanistic, artistic, and technical skills. I think that specialized firms are too often making the same thing over and over again — they run into the danger of making replicas of replicas of replicas … Of course, sometimes it helps to have specialists. So, if we need specialists, we collaborate with them, we are very open-minded in that respect.

I suppose it is the way in which the book is written that is important, not what it is about. You can write a beautiful story about nothing, if you like — or you can write a tremendously bad story about the most exciting events in history! I think, in general, architecture can provide us with good solutions in all fields — the best architecture will always be created with some surprise, with fresh thought and new ideas.

So, for me, it’s important to develop a practice that is familiar working with different scales — for example, yesterday I was up one of the great mountains in Norway designing a very small house — even though it is small, you can still strive for great architecture. Often, the small projects are interesting because you have more freedom than with a formal client or organization, so, in that sense, it is easier to experiment with materials, with new solutions. If you are working with big public clients, they have their routines and you must follow a pipeline of a big company or organization. I like to work on big projects, but I think it’s important to have small projects to develop the experimental field.

Economically, some projects will not be popular because of markets. In 2008, there was a really big economic crisis — usually what happens in many countries when there is such a crisis affecting the private sector, to prevent complete collapse, is that public activity increases. We were involved in many projects in the public sphere during 2008, so the worst economic year was actually our best in terms of activity and finances! This is another reason why it has helped to be flexible and [to] work across many sectors.

What does the future hold for the firm? Do you see yourself designing more projects overseas in the coming years?

I think it will be interesting to have more projects overseas — we have had some requests from here and there, but sometimes the requests are so speculative that you really have to make up your mind if you really want to involve yourself in it or not. Time is so short in life now! But, yes, we would very much like to work overseas, particularly in big cities; we have not had the opportunity yet to make architecture in really big cities such as Seoul, Mexico City, New York, or London. They are fascinating, very complex places, but also have a lot of opportunities. They’re thrilling and unpredictable.

We have been working out in nature and in smaller cityscapes; it would also be interesting to work in small villages. We have one such project in France, which is actually in a very small village, with a really fantastic client who is curious to develop something new. Whether it is in Norway or elsewhere, we enjoy meeting with people who have a mission, strong ideas, and interesting strategies; ultimately, I think that is more important than the place.

As a practice, we don’t actually have a mission to grow enormously. I can see a lot of offices growing a lot, increasing their business with huge projects, but it can be difficult to concentrate in such situations. Rather than focusing on such a big scale, I like the idea of having a very varied practice, working with different scales. We stay conscious about what we are doing, which projects we are choosing, and every project has some kind of field that we want to explore.

We also like to take on projects that utilize the intellectual capital coming from sources other than ourselves — the idea of sharing knowledge is interesting. We learn a lot from other people; making projects with other architects in different places, so you have these kinds of collaborations, can be a great way of working. As with musicians, two can get together and make a third kind of music. I see many opportunities for new kinds of architectural collaborations moving forward.

Transcript has been edited for clarity. Excerpts of this interview were previously published in a feature story on the Community Church Knarvik.