Architects Helen & Hard challenge simplistic readings with this cultural centre, a project beyond the gaze of mere architecture tourism.
Imagine an architecture where you experience a symbiosis of structure, technical infrastructure, and interior in one architectonic endeavour which creates a challenging spatial experience. This is a description of the new Vennesla Cultural Center in the south of Norway, conceptualized by the not any longer so young, but still energic, architecture firm Helen and Hard. Established in 1996, by now a firm with architects of eight nationalities, Helen and Hard are known for their experimental work, at the core of which stands the continuity between ideas of meeting places and structure.
This approach of intertwining of program and space introduces a peculiar and challenging architecture for the cultural center of the small town of Vennesla. Here, the woodwork encompasses complex and advanced manufacture as well as simple and easy joints. The project includes a library, a café, meeting places and an administrative area, bringing together the existing community house and learning center. This is made possible by establishing one continuous space, a small cultural cathedral – an important overall echo for the architecture.
The gradually shifting shape of the wood ribs is generated through adapting to the adjacent buildings, as well as the functional demands of the program. Each construction rib consists of a glue laminated timber beam and column, acoustic absorbents which contain the air conditioning ducts, bent panes serving as lighting covers and signs, and integrated niches for reading and bookshelves. A passage from the square to the street below opens for the flow of city life through the building. Façades at each end have been shaped according to the specific requirements of the program but also matching the characters of the surroundings: an extrovert character at the main street entrance, and a more introvert but still striking entrance facing the street below.
"The modern age, with its growing world-alienation, has led to a situation where man, wherever he goes, encounters only himself."1
To quote Hanna Arendt's claim that modern man produces facts to prove his own view of the world is more than relevant for discussion of contemporary architecture. Keeping in mind such discussions about architecture, that we read about daily, where it is argued that an important building is one or the other, or does one or the other, and where such rhetoric is often used to confirm a certain position that manifests itself. These are discussions more often than not caught in the polarities of being for or against particular buildings, regarded as a sign, which form and meaning you like or not. As if we were supposed to be for buildings or against them, as if they themselves possess objective truth that can be read from a distance.
Such rhetoric often only expresses and confirms the position of the writer, or the client, who projects the meaning onto a building or perspective renderings which then are proposed as a proof that manifests a singular idea. The clients, from big corporations to local authorities, seem to be in love with so-called "signal buildings", which often reduce architecture to a singular form of advertising. In such cases, the work of architecture is sold as a cultural PR or a postcard creation, preventing us from taking further responsibility for our experience of the man-made environment, and undermining the importance of experience over time which encircles architecture with culture.
But with Arendt in mind, there is the need to go deeper – to the questions brought up by use over time, where architecture as well as the city really start to take place. And that's were the work of Helen and Hard brings about an interesting challenge.
"At Vennesla, the architects Helen & Hard have managed to keep several perspectives in play, and this simultaneity of experience and understanding gives the project a rare depth."
At Vennesla, the architects Helen & Hard have managed to keep several perspectives in play, and this simultaneity of experience and understanding gives the project a rare depth. It is an architecture beyond the gaze of architecture tourism, challenging simplistic and reductive readings, and reminding us of the challenge of cultural time. From its intriguing structure and technical detailing to the opportunities for physical exploration and intimate reading experiences offered by the surprising built-in seating nooks, the library's architecture oscillates masterfully between what and whom its made for and the sophistication and simplicity – even banality – of the building solutions.
Throughout Helen & Hard's building, opposing categories of experience are made to coexist, and rather than confirming the obvious, this space is free, open to cultural occupation and interaction. It is not an architecture you have to be for or against: You just have to be there.
Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, Penguin, 2006 ↩