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Taking inspiration from nature – in conversation with the architects at Stein Halvorsen Arkitekter on sensitivity, Saami, and ARCHICAD

If Stein Halvorsen had had his way, the Munch museum would be located on Tøyen, and the Opera House in Bjørvika would look different. Quite different. And so it nearly was - his architecture firm came a close second place in the competition.

Sal Haaken, at the Henie Onstad Art Center, is constructed using cross-laminated timber (CLT). The project was completed in 2002. Photo: s-h arkitekter

About winning a parliament

But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about the Sami Parliament. The year is 1996; Stein Halvorsen hasn’t yet set up his own firm. The architecture competition hadn’t even been advertised when he decided that that building was his, he wanted - no, he had to have it. Ultimately, he did win, beating out the competition from dozens of architects from all over Europe, together with his colleague, Christian Sundby. They won with a building that showed respect for the Sami in its shape, its use of materials, in every minute detail.

The Sami Parliament in Karasjok was completed in the autumn of 2000. The building is cladded with Siberian larch arranged irregular – a material that will adjust over time. Photo: s-h arkitekter

Respect for all living things

Respect is what it’s all about for the 32 employees of Stein Halvorsen Arkitekter; it’s why they work there. Respect, aesthetics, and security - “humans and animals are both looking for security, the bears in Vassfaret prefer hills with a view, people in restaurants always sit with their backs to the wall”. That’s what Stein Halvorsen says. He is an observer, a man of nature. But he is also a voyager in projects and possibilities.

An open door to the world

His architecture firm has built training centres for pilots in Riga and Oslo, and an ambassador’s residence in Berlin.

An ambassador’s residence in Berlin. Photo: s-h arkitekter

They’ve also been involved in projects in Tanzania, Spain, and the wilderness of Alaska, and their door has always been open to projects for our Nordic neighbours. ”The building should be at home in the place where it’s built, it shouldn’t be possible to put it just anywhere. And people should feel at home inside. There have been studies showing the importance of wellbeing. People who feel good learn and do more.”

Adversity and heavy timber

Challenges are good, Stein Halvorsen likes adversity. He encounters it the most in Northern Norway. The light is something special, moving, alive, the weather conditions are wild, and people speak freely to the extent that you will never be left in doubt about anything. Currently, Stein’s architecture firm is building a 25,000 m2 care centre in Alta. The project will be constructed using cross laminated timber (CLT) which Stein Halvorsen has a close connection with - his firm was the first in the country to use it, starting the trend so to speak, when developing the Sal Haaken and the Henie Onstad Center.

Sal Haaken, at the Henie Onstad Art Center, is constructed using cross-laminated timber (CLT). The project was completed in 2002. Photo: s-h arkitekter

The Sami are knowledgeable, we have to learn

Nature and wood, Sami and environmental protection, the word Sami means “unrestrained”. Stein Halvorsen says that he has learnt such an incredible amount from the Sami - the Sami don’t care if borders are closed, they leave no traces behind in nature. You wouldn’t know they’d been there. Stein thinks we should be the same. “We are so lucky to have these people living amongst us. We don’t need any sort of new concept for taking care of the environment in our little corner of the world, the Sami know how to, we can learn from them”.

Stein Halvorsen Arkitekter is designing the new tropical greenhouses with deserts and rainforests in the Botanical Garden on Tøyen. The building alone has an area of vegetation covering about 2000m2. Photo: s-h arkitekter

Sensitivity and amazing people

Stein Halvorsen draws mostly by hand; it’s what he likes best. But he has nothing against computers, not at all. “These tools open up a world of possibilities, and give the architects inspiration and a way to draw complex shapes”. So he employs people who know computers. Amazing people like Nils Tore Nondal and Jonas Sommarset who are quite a bit more interested in and up-to-date with digital tools.

ARCHICAD and usefulness

Sommarset has been using ARCHICAD since the early 2000s. Together with Nondal, he has followed the developments every step of the way from Version 7 to today’s Version 22 with its slanting walls and doors that move in sync with updated drawings. The further into the project they progress, the more use they get out of ARCHICAD. Especially on detailed projects where the necessary documentation, such as drawings and quantities, is updated automatically giving them a complete overview.

Ever onwards

What do they want from future updates? Even more automation, certainly. They see Grasshopper as a very good start, and feel that the next revolution will be a meeting between human and artificial intelligence. Because, “you can model freely in ARCHICAD, but it would have been great to have a link with something intuitive, a temperature, a pulse”.

Man and machine hand in hand - the future is guaranteed to hold new tools and new surprises. And while we wait, learning about environmental protection from the Sami certainly isn’t the worst thing we could do, is it?

About Stein Halvorsen Arkitekter

Stein Halvorsen Arkitekter designs both individual and shared residential buildings, commercial and public buildings, in Norway and abroad. Really small houses and cabins, too, the most Norwegian thing of all, adapted to the geography, the terrain, to nature, and to the people who will live in them.

Stein Halvorsen

SSome of the bigger projects have included the Sami Parliament in Karasjok (2000), the Norwegian Ambassador’s residence in Berlin (2000), Sal Haaken at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter (2003), the parliament building in Tana, the parliament building in Eidsvoll (2004), Viken Psychiatric Center, at Bardu (2011),the parliament building in Follo (2006), and the main fire stations in Bergen (2007), Tromsø (2010), and Sandnes.Gledeshuset, a small theatre for revues, stand-up, concerts and different cultural events in Hønefoss. SBC in Sandvika (in progress), Viken Skog - the first multi-story office building made entirely of cross-laminated timber (CLT). Follo police station (2018), Follo parliament building (2005).

The architecture firm aims to achieve a balance between the human and the natural in its projects, and places a big emphasis on buildings fitting in with the space and character of their surroundings, the Nordic climate, and the distinctive light of the northern hemisphere. The firm has grown in recent years and now numbers more than 30 employees at its office at Rosenborggata 19, Oslo, with a further two working from the local office in Tønsberg.

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About Ingvild Wivel

Ingvild Wivel is a freelancer who writes everything from articles, portrait interviews and presentations to travel reportages, company blogs and advertising texts.
  • Norway