”Wir sind Pflanzen, die—wir mögen’s uns gerne gestehen oder nicht—mit den Wurzeln aus der Erde steigen müssen, und im Äther blühen und Früchte tragen zu können.”
”We are like plants which—whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not—must grow out of the earth from our roots in order to bloom in the ether and to bear fruit.” 1
I recalled these words from the German poet Johann Peter Hebel when, for the first time, I stepped into Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion. The three plane trees inside the 446-squaremetre unsupported space are almost the only vertical elements. The trees intensify, as do the large walls of glass, the impression of being both inside and outside at the same time. In both realms, nature and culture face each other. At a certain distance the beams seem both to collide with and evade the trees. Outside, to the left of the entrance, Fehn has kept the big old plane tree where the enormous main beam divides into a Y. It is the strongest gesture imaginable. The old trees 2 rise out of the earth, stretching through the roof, up into the sky. Upon the earth and under the sky we humans dwell—who Heidegger calls “the mortal ones.” Heidegger often quotes Hölderlin’s words that man “dwells poetically upon the earth.” 3
We dwell, not only by the writing of poetry, but equally well by the constructions of buildings. “Poetry, Heidegger says, is what first brings man onto the earth, allows him to belong, and thus embodies his dwelling.” 4 Heidegger calls the space between the earth and sky (or heaven) the “dimension.” All forms of art and architecture are a means to measure this Between, the dimension. To dwell poetically, to create art, is to take measure. “Is there a measure on earth?” Hölderlin asks. To which he answers: “There is None.” 5 Maybe there was a measure in the pre-modern world, before what Fehn called “the fall of the horizon.” But we moderns do not take our measure from the earth, rather from the sky. It is not something that can be pre-determined. Heidegger is far from associating our measure to the familiar and safe, to what we can control. To measure the dimension is then to dwell in the open, in what Hölderlin calls “the Unknown.”
Sverre Fehn’s pavilion is an example of such an art of measurement. Fehn himself often used the expression “poetic.” By “poetic” in this broad sense, Fehn, I assume, was hinting at what he once formulated thus: “The architect is a poet who thinks and speaks in the language of construction” 6 Or, as he said about his pavilion, that he was searching for simplicity and expressivity: “To say much with a few artistic effects—as in a poem.” 7 The Norwegian “dikte,” as the German “dichten” (to write poetry)—for which there is no equivalent in English—etymologically derives from a word meaning inventing or creating, bringing forth, embodying in a piece of work. With his 1962 pavilion, Fehn has created a work that is both simple and complex.
To make a poem, to take a measure in this way, to scale the dimension, still means designing a building that is essentially “right.” Alberti defined beauty in that way: that the harmony of all parts in relation to one another, and the parts in relation to each other and the whole, must be so that nothing can either be added or taken away, without ruining the whole. It has to be right. In other words, the building must cry out: “It could not be otherwise.” In this way, Fehn’s pavilion is surely classical. But what is right in his pavilion is not the harmony between parts or the proportions alone: What Fehn did was to scale the materials, the space, the light, and the shadow to each other. What we have called right, he also called perfection. For him, the perfect was not an ideal, Platonic model. Rather, it is what Baudelaire hinted at when he said that art is about extracting the timeless from the fleeting, from our own historicity. The classical in Fehn’s building is just as unexpected as it is inventive.
Fehn’s architecture is often described as “poetic modernism.” That the pavilion is modernistic means, above all, that it is autonomous. But it does not stand there in splendid isolation. It unites with the adjacent Danish and American Pavilions. A simple device allows the pavilion shell to interact with the Danish and the American neo-classical neighbours. Thus Fehn’s pavilion also manifests the art of the location, conversing with the trees and interrelating with nearby structures.
But the pavilion also speaks with its own voice, within and without, in contrast to the chattering of much of postmodern architecture. How does it speak? By combining the elements to form something that goes beyond them all, by the force of expression of such a robust structure. This is a modernistic imperative for all the arts: that expression and construction must hold each other at bay. The French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez’s words about Paul Klee fit Fehn’s architecture very well: “[His] genius consists in taking, as a starting point, very basic problematics and arriving at a remarkably strong poetics, in which the problematics seem to have entirely disappeared”. 8 For Klee and Boulez—as for Fehn—the tree was the model for this process, both in a literary and a metaphorical way: It starts with the trunk (not to mention the root) and then ramifies—a ramification that can take on an infinity of forms but nevertheless has to be strictly deduced without compromises.
Fehn believed of architecture that it “works in a timeless space.” The utterance stems from a journey he made in Morocco in 1952. 9 The mural architecture of the region reminded Fehn of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. It was not a question of repeating the past or breaking away from it. “Only by manifesting the Now can we get the Past to speak.” 10 This modernistic insight implies that architecture is committed to its own time. Why? Because it is only by accepting responsibility, being on terms with the present, that aspects of the past can be actualized, allowing us to become alive to what went before. This does not mean that what is being created should be timely. On the contrary, it can be untimely in the Nietzschean sense, by opposing whatever is dominant in the present, and instead doing whatever the Now demands must be done. In this way Fehn spoke of architecture as returning “the earth back to itself.” 11 This sounds Heideggerian: The work of architecture (and art in general) is to let the earth be earth, not to violate it, but to allow the earth’s materials to stand forth, to glitter, to be heavy, to be earthen. For Fehn the world of architecture is our lifeworld, in the phenomenological sense. A world where the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
In this sense, Fehn’s relation to history is not “monumental,” as is the case with many modernists: The great architects stand so tall that they call out to each other over the eons of time. Fehn’s attitude to history is far from being “antiquarian” (like parts of the Cultural Heritage movement). It has more in common with the third attitude to history that Nietzsche 12 describes, calling it “critical”; it considers both the specific features of the location and the cultural tradition in which it resides. Fehn’s architecture cannot be understood “by tourists staring at monuments” (Walter Benjamin). Rather, it has to be walked in, on, around, and through, not just once, but many times, with all our senses alert. “You converse with the material,” Fehn says, “through the pores of your skin, your ears, and your eyes. … Through the sense of touch, you exchange heat, and the material gives an immediate response.” 13
Talking about the pavilion, Fehn recalls that “the aim was to capture the light of Italy and the Mediterranean in a Nordic atmosphere.” 14 He was fascinated by light and shade, holding that each material had its own special shadow. Outside the pavilion, the shadows are classical, allowing the building to assert a bodily presence. But Fehn describes Nordic architecture as “shadowless.” So, the light entering through the bold yet simple roof construction is indirect and diffuse, ever-changing during the day, but always caressing the works on show and artefacts on display. The two levels of concrete roof beams, running in two different directions, form a reference grid, just 6 cm thick and 1 m tall, which matches the angle of sunlight falling on Venice in midsummer (64 degrees). The concrete itself projects a subtle shine from filtered sunlight, appearing delicate, almost like marble. The classical, uncluttered exhibition space beautifully sets off the exhibits in an atmosphere that is reminiscent of Nordic light. Indeed, what better way to display Nordic works of art, than under a Nordic light? In a final gesture, Fehn has designed the wavy translucent roof panels to collect the rain, to refresh and give nourishment to the plants inside and outside the building.
Fehn continuously talked and wrote about his projects and about architecture in general. He kept diary notes, sketch books, wrote dialogues, including his “Dialogues With Palladio,” gave speeches, commented on his own works, and made his views known to colleagues. His thoughts connected with his sketches and drawings and with the progress of his projects allow us to see something more or something different, other than what we first thought of. Conversely, by seeing, we can also find new things that the words did not reveal. Because what we see, sense, feel, hear, and what we say do not overlap each other completely. Thus something new and different can appear. This is the more that architecture-as-art supplies, which represents more than can be said by words alone. It is an “increase in being,” to use Hans-Georg Gadamer’s term. It cannot simply be reduced to knowing by what and by whom Fehn was influenced, or to what kind of -ism, movement, style, or era his early works belongs to. As art, Fehn’s work is more than a historical object.
It has been said of Fehn that he often gave his projects a name, a nickname. Such a proper name cannot be grasped by identifying concepts. A nickname takes care of the nonidentical of the object.
Fehn’s pavilion demands a lot of the exhibition’s curator. But when the exhibition succeeds, by which I mean that the exhibits attract admiration and attention, then Fehn’s space is pure perfection. For it is a large, open space, uncluttered by clichés, an undecorated stage, a huge dance floor on which exhibits may perform their dance. It is not so much a room for communication, but of critique and allegory. In the same sense as the gardens themselves, I Giardini, the room is not a topos, neither a utopia, but a heterotopia: another place for other things. Fehn’s heterotopia is a part of our common ground.
1 M. Heidegger: Discourse on Thinking, J.M. Anderson & E.H. Freund trad., New York 1975, p 47. Translation slightly modified by A.B.-R.
2 The fact that the trees are plane trees (platans) has added significance histroically: Socrates talking with a youngster under a plane tree, and for the ancient Persians the plane was a holy tree (cf. Händel’s opera Xerxes where the king in the opening scene declares his love to a plane tree).
3 M. Heidegger: Poetry, Language, Thought, Albert Hofstadter trans., New York etc. 1975, p 216. Translations from this edition are slightly modified by A. B-R.
4 Op.cit. p 218.
5 Op.cit. p 220.
6 Reported by Juhani Pallasmma, in the Norwegian Arkitektur N, 07/09, p. 100, a special number dedicated to the projects and reflexions by Sverre Fehn.
7 Sverre Fehn interviewed by Morten Ryen, in Åpent rom. Et blad fra Statsbygg, December 2002.
8 Pierre Boulez: Le pays fertile. Paul Klee, Paris 1998, p. 146.
9 Byggekunst 5/1952.
10 Byggekunst 2/1992.
11 See ”Has a Doll Life?” Sverre Fehn in dialogue with Per Olaf Fjeld, Perspecta 24 (1988), p. 48.
12 Friedrich Nietzsche: Untimely Meditations II, § 3, Cambridge 1997.
13 Perspecta 24 (1988), p. 47.
14 In Christian Norberg-Schulz and Gennaro Postiglione ed.: Sverre Fehn. Samlede arbeider, Oslo 1997, p 266.