The Stavanger based office Helen & Hard, founded by Siv Helene Stangeland and Reinhard Kropf, has a lot of experience combining playfulness with responsibility, and they have mastered the balance between the conscious and the apparently unrestrained.

“Evocative and sensual” is how the duo Helen & Hard describe the structure they have created for the World Exposition in Shanghai 2010. Helle Benedicte Berg spoke to Reinhard Kropf about the challenges of creating innovative and at the same time sustainable architecture - for such a super-scale commercial event as the Expo.

Reinhard Kropf and Siv Helene Stangeland. Photo: Erik Brekke.

Reinhard Kropf: Originally we weren’t interested in competing for the Norwegian Expo pavilion. That is, until we heard that the theme would be “Better City. Better Life”, and that it revolved around sustainable urban development and urbanisation. It was a creative challenge to explore how such a contribution, where enormous resources are spent just to be thrown away afterwards, also has the possibility to be sustainable and meaningful for a longer period of time.

“It was a creative challenge to explore how such a contribution, where enormous resources are spent just to be thrown away afterwards, also has the possibility to be sustainable and meaningful for a longer period of time.”

Helle Benedicte Berg: Which would seem to be a contradiction?

RK: It was clear to us from the outset that the life of the pavilion after the Expo was the most important form-generating force in this project. Or more precisely: How the reuse may mirror what Norway would like to convey in such a setting; and simultaneously express a concrete spatial and structural idea. In short, this structural idea consists of fifteen “trees” built of Norwegian laminated wood and Chinese bamboo, which together form the spatial arena of the pavilion. Each tree can easily be flat-packed into a container and reerected elsewehere after the Expo. The “roots” of the trees make up the exhibition, which are woven together to make an organic experience landscape. The treetops are made with a membrane ceiling, which is divided into fifteen four-point sails.

HBB: What possibilities did the context provide? The site and the area along the Huang-pu River in the centre of Shanghai? We have heard how traditional homesteads were demolished and people relocated for the benefit of the Expo constructions?

RK: From the outset, we were interested in understanding the history of the Expo site. We did some preliminary investigations into the relocation projects where tens of thousands of families were relocated to new housing areas outside Shanghai. China’s relocation policy is complex and in our view radical, and it is difficult to understand it from a European point of view, which is more protective of the individual. Cultural differences aside, it appears that many people find that these new housing projects lack common areas, areas for play and recreation. So this need became the conceptual starting point for our development of the pavilion. Our original idea was that it would be relocated and reused as park installations and playgrounds in the new housing areas. In hindsight we see that this, in its original form, was naïve, and not possible to realise in such a short time frame. But the idea created a meaningful driving force that was essential for the development of the project. The result of this early contextual study is still embodied in the pavilion – in the abundance of “trees” in a park landscape that can be easily deconstructed, moved, reconstructed and adjusted to fit new places and activities.

HBB: Your practice has previously expressed that you aim to explore the potential for sustainability and resource management in each of your projects. How has that been realised here?

RK: Apart from our conscious use of resources as a consequence of the short-lived Expo event, we asked some more general questions in the competition phase, related to how Norway could contribute to the theme “Better City. Better Life”. We recruited a resource group of people with a knowledge of and grounding in Chinese society. After a few workshops at Tou Scene in Stavanger, we concluded that Norway’s contribution should be to emphasise recreation areas, parks and meeting points in the city through open and democratic processes. The exhibition in the pavilion is based on these ideas. Moreover, the use of wood in the pavilion is environmentally friendly. We believe that there is potential for a transfer of knowledge to China in this area of technology.

HBB: To what degree have you employed local people and resources?

RK: Various organisations, groups and individuals have become involved in the work on the reuse of the structures. We have held workshops with students from GAFA in Guangzhou and from the Tongji University of Shanghai on how the trees may be reused. The results were presented in Guangzhou and Shanghai in November, and we are hoping that the collaboration with these institutions will continue. Another early intention was to build the trees using a new product called Glue-bam, i.e. glue laminated bamboo. We started a collaboration with the product patent-owner. But this part of the project unfortunately failed, as glue-bam has yet to become an approved building material in China. We still used bamboo as the building material for all the secondary parts of the trees, though; in the roots that make up the exhibition and the “landscape of perception” and in the lining of the branches that conceal all the technical installations. We have also collaborated closely with the Chinese practice SHZF, especially in the detailed design and follow-up phase. And with the exception of the main structure for the trees, the entire pavilion is produced in China.

HBB: This is a commercial project – Shanghai Expo is being compared to the Olympic games in Beijing. How has this influenced your architectural expression?

RK: Yes, it is a commercial project, but the development process has mainly been driven by bureaucratic forces. This has been a great challenge and frustrating at times; especially in view of the short deadlines we have had. But it is exactly this impossible situation – with various partners involved, cultural differences, the commercial spectacle on the one hand and Expo theme on the other – that has also been like an inspiring beehive. From the outset we were aware that we were skating on thin ice and that we needed a robust and flexible concept that could endure all the troubles along the way. With this in mind, we developed these fifteen trees that contain “everything”, a visible and entertaining pavilion which still clearly conveys an important message.

HBB: You are ambitious. In the context of your architecture, what is the intention behind the Expo-pavilion?

RK: We have wanted to weave different elements together into a new evocative and perceptible landscape. In the office we called it “the Expo garden”. Each “tree” combines construction, skin, infrastructure, technology, exhibition and interior. The trees are grouped together in an interpretation of four characteristic Norwegian landscapes: Coast, forest, fjord and the Arctic. These are also thematically emphasised in films etc. Through this interweaving we want to express some of the multifaceted relationships between nature, culture and commercial activities in Norwegian society. The intention is that these aspects inspire different behaviour and perceptions; from sensuous play, social life and intellectual stimuli to pure entertainment without it becoming a cacophony of impressions, or too obvious or predictable.

HBB: You say you want the architecture to counteract boredom. How has Shanghai and China been an inspiration in that regard?

RK: A playful expression in itself is not important to us. Some of our projects have a playful expression because they mirror playful processes and experiments, and because they invite people to different forms of play. These are projects like “Base Camp”, the adventure facilities for children and youngsters by the Preikestolen Mountain Lodge, the Geopark in Stavanger, where the main theme is the re-use of material from the oil industry, or the Expo pavilion.

“The forest has been our inspiration at a superior level in this project because it is a fantastic playground for physical activity, exploration, social and associative play. It was exactly this performative freedom that we wanted in the pavilion”.

In case of the pavilion, the forest has been our inspiration at a basic level in the project, because the forest is a fantastic playground for physical activity, exploration, social and associative play. It was exactly this performative freedom that we wanted in the pavilion. During the process we realised that with 15 000 visitors per day, the interaction between the visitors and the pavilion needed to be controlled. At the same time the intention was that the associations that the pavilion inspires would move freely: from a forest to a Chinese dragon to a landscape of snow, to a covered market, and so on.

From Preikestolen Mountain Lodge, treetop sleepout retreats for children and youngsters, 2009. Photo: Helen & Hard, Emile AshleyRestaurant Stim, Stavanger, 2004. Decorations by Hildegard Håheim (ceiling), Randy Naylor (bar). Photo: Helen & Hard, Emile Ashley

HBB: Helen & Hard are known for working closely with their clients and for making use of different media in their work processes. You shoot films, write stories, do interviews. What has your approach been here, in that you have had to relate to a different language, a different culture, other social norms and conventions?

RK: The cultural differences became a serious challenge that we had not foreseen from the outset. Luckily, we have a Chinese employee in our practice who helped out a lot. Innovation Norway also recruited a Chinese resource group who evaluated the pavilion and the exhibition throughout the process, which proved to be useful and informative. Due to the many participants and variables in the design process, we fixed conditions at the micro- and meso levels which allow for a certain degree of self-organisation within a clearly established language. The entire exhibition landscape, for instance, is made of prefabricated bamboo boards that are cut and put together according to various principles within each landscape. Regardless of whether the landscape needs to be changed, we have established an overall unity in the expression.

HBB: In the World Expo in Brussels in 1958, Sverre Fehn represented Norway with a pavilion in Norwegian laminated wood. You have called architects like Sverre Fehn and Christian Norberg-Schulz the “Norwegian purists of modernism”. Do you think such “Norwegianness” helps or hinders the understanding of your work?

RK: That quote is from a conversation about Sverre Fehn’s and Christian Norberg-Schulz’ perception of a predefined and pure relation between the architecture and a cultural, geographic and landscape context. This relation partly has categorical and essentialist traits that are not very suitable for the development of projects in changing and culturally complex environments. We perceived Sverre Fehn’s and Norberg-Schulz’ teaching as focusing on an increased sensibility towards what is significant and essential in a situation, articulated in a poetic language that may be moulded into clear structures, material authenticity and meaningful architectonic motives. In such work, context is understood in more purist norms, categories and essences rather than as a relational creation, an interwoven topology of situational circumstances.

HBB: I suppose you needed a more open approach for the project in Shanghai. What does Norway and China have to offer each other, in the current architectural situation?

RK: I am sure there is potential for exchange. However, the political conditions and the scale of Norwegian and Chinese architectural projects are so different that it is difficult to point out concrete possibilities for transfer of knowledge and professional exchange. We have experienced that the precondition for collaboration lies in a clear and specialized competence needed in the Chinese market. Of course they also shop for European stars.

HBB: Can you imagine doing any more projects in China?

RK: We would like to do an environmentally friendly housing project or a restoration project. It would be interesting to transform many of the old villages that are being demolished in Shanghai into new neighbourhoods. And we still hope to be able to work on the reuse of the fifteen trees.

See Helen & Hard's Vennesla Library and Cultural Centre here.
See Helen & Hard's Preikestolen Mountain Lodge here.
See Helen & Hard's 2010 Expo pavilion here.
See Helen & Hard's Geopark here.

Helen & Hard were awarded the prestigious Timber Award 2013 for their architectural constructions in timber.

Scan this story for the road