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Living in the true sense of the word

Community architecture – rebellion!
Forfatter: Gro Lauvland
Forlag: Abstrakt Forlag (Norge)
ARCHITECTURE / Christian Norberg-Schultz's emphasis on local art has helped shape generations of architects. Can we build better than we do today?


In the book Community architecture – rebellion! the dust is brushed off by the legacy of Norway's most famous architectural theorist Christian Norberg Schulz (1926–2000). The foreword written by editor Gro Lauvland calls for a revolt against "a mindset that characterizes much of today's construction production, which makes cities and places around the world increasingly similar – and which also leads to homelessness, both in a concrete and transferred sense".

The quote could have been presented by a parliamentary representative Stefan Heggelund (H), which raised the following in Aftenposten (October 4): "Why does all new architecture have to look the same?" New apartment blocks in Norwegian cities are reviewed: they are monotonous, gray and sad. Heggelund calls for more variety and elements of traditional style, and he believes that we must again "dare to talk about ugly and nice".

Architecture as a work of art "must be able to accommodate and convey meaning".

The debate in the wake of Heggelund's statement continued in newspapers, radio and TV – with constructive clarifications from among others Erling Dokk Holm (Aftenposten 7 October) and Camilla Dale's Monet, head of the Norwegian Association of Architects (VG 16 October). Because even though Heggelund was apparently in on it one theme, there are actually several themes he addresses: why we build so similarly everywhere; what historical style preferences one has; what is emphasized subjectively as ugly or pretty; or what quality differences exist in what is being built. Moreover: What tools does society have to ensure that what is built provides a good and meaningful environment for both the individual and the community?

Quality differences and Louis Kahn

Has Norberg-Schulz 'theories and the book Community architecture – rebellion! anything to contribute here? Certainly, not least – in my eyes – because discussion of architectural quality takes place without a less interesting, detached discussion of style preferences.

Although Norberg-Schulz was appalled by the loss of historic buildings and connections as a result of World War II, the reconstruction and post-war modernism, he did not cut modernist architecture into one comb. He emphasized differences in quality and was, among other things, very enthusiastic about the work of the American architect Louis Khan (1901–1974, see also photo). Especially Kahn's work with local daylight and emphasis on "non-measurable" qualities in architecture.

Louis Kahn. Phillips Exeter Academy Library (1967-1972), Exeter, New Hampshire. Photographer: Arne Maasik, 2016

Nor did Norberg-Schulz dwell on nostalgic studies of a bygone era as a goal in itself, but more as a means. As one of the book's contributors, Raf de Saeger, points out, Norberg-Schulz sought "to make structural principles visible and to uncover tactical areas […] when it comes to giving shape to good houses, suitable as a framework for life and work". This with reference to the book Stick and laft (1969), in which Norberg-Schulz brought building customs into the international architectural debate.

Community architecture – rebellion! is an anthology: a collection of nine texts written by architects, philosophers and a political scientist – partly in biographical form. Together, the texts seek to elaborate on central themes in Nordberg-Schulz's authorship in order, according to the book's preface, to "contribute to a new public exchange of words about a place affiliation that is philosophically-anthropologically based".

Local art and Heidegger

In Morgenbladet's review on 6 November writes Gaute Brochmann that Norberg-Schulz 'thinking is an expression of a "romantic myopia" with broad appeal within his own subject. The significance of Norberg-Schulz 'thinking outwardly should not be rejected, however. His theories and concepts such as place affiliation, place understanding, place loss and building customs contributed to putting aesthetic quality on the political agenda in the 1990s, with Åse Kleveland as Minister of Culture and pioneer.

Much of what is built today is of summer quality, characterized by cut and paste and standardization.

The Ministry of Culture established Norsk Form, which opened in 1993, and the same year the Ministry of the Environment published a guide to "site analysis" as an aid in site development. The site analysis has a partly phenomenological approach and distinguishes Norberg-Schulz's concept of place.

As an author, lecturer and teacher, Norberg-Schultz 'came with his emphasis on place art to help shape generations of architects. This is probably most clearly traced in the magnificent investment in the 18 national tourist routes, which has garnered recognition and interest both nationally and internationally.

Louis Kahn. Phillips Exeter Academy Library (1967-1972), Exeter, New Hampshire. Photographer: Arne Maasik, 2016

Norberg-Schulz generally encouraged the construction of environments that harmonize with local history and natural conditions – especially daylight. It does not hold that buildings and homes only meet technical requirements, they must also satisfy emotional needs. As Gro Lauvland points out in his text, Norberg-Schulz emphasized that "one of man's basic needs is to experience his own life situation as meaningful", and that the purpose of architecture as a work of art is that "it should be able to accommodate and convey meaning". With reference to Martin Heidegger's understanding of what it means to "live", Norberg-Schulz further equated "living" with "local foothold". Or for example: "Man lives when he can orient himself within and identify with his surroundings, that is, when he experiences the surroundings as meaningful."

Christian Norberg-Schultz

Physician and professor of social medicine Per Fugelli shared Norberg-Schulz's belief that architecture can give us an experience of meaning. “Architects can give people natural medicine, happiness pills for the spirit, social medicine. Architecture can create powerlessness, and it can create equality ", said Per Fugelli in his speech at the Architecture Day in 2016.

So where do we stand today, 20 years after Christian Norberg-Schulz's death?

Cities are growing at a rapid pace. Of what is built, something is good, but much is of summer quality, characterized by cut and paste and standardization. Through regulations such as Building Technical Regulations (TEK 17), the state has largely transferred responsibility for architectural quality to the private sector. The regulations ensure a minimum when it comes to technical benefits such as insulation in the outer wall and ventilation, but far from the environment for "living".

Vi can build better than we do today, and in a socio-economic, interpersonal and climate sustainability perspective should we also build far better. Norberg-Schulz 'contribution as an architectural theorist points to both why og how.

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