Saturday, August 8, 2009

Reindeer Games

How to go about explaining this... I just got done with 10 days on the road criss-crossing the highways of Norway. And when I say "on the road" I mean just that. The furthest I ever got away from the great asphalt dragon was maybe a quarter of a mile. Sleeping on the side of the road in either my rented car {nicknamed "Gonzo", I was reading a biography of Hunter Thompson at the time...} or one of the small dollhouse looking cabins that dot the countryside. My goal, to see as many of the rest stops and national tourist roads as my stamina and our current world's reserve of oil would allow. I got pretty close I'll tell you, but it was a whirlwind adventure of blurred forms, slow moving sheep, and twisty paths. To quickly sum up, here are my "stats":

-10 days/9 nights
-5200+ km driven
-1 broken side mirror
-5 nights snoring in the passenger seat
-2 hot meals {and one lousy burger}
-25+ stall outs {all the first two days}
-10 National Tourist Roads
-3 construction site visits
-1 hard hat
-50+ reindeer
-god knows how many sheep
-17 projects

There is a great website called that provides tons of great information and pictures on the projects, both those already done and what is planned. By the year 2015 there will be upwards of 200 architectural interventions scattered along the roads, with the hopes of encouraging tourism to the more remote locations in Norway. For the most part, the roads tend to be either right along the rocky coast or in the heights of the mountains, from one extreme of sea level to the next. Just to give you one indication of how remote some of these places are, for one project I had to drive past a cemetery, through wind farm, and turn onto a gravel path in order to get to a restaurant overlooking the arctic ocean...

I was interested to see how the various architects associated with the projects were going to approach the construction. Many of the projects are at the top of mountains where you have to wind your way up one lane turned 2 car roads in order to access the site, much less getting heavy equipment in place. But where there is a will there is a way and I must say I was astounded by the differences among roads and interventions of materials and methods used. From wood, to concrete, to steel, to glass, rocks, you name it, it shows up in one form or the other. Some successfully, others in my opinion end up being preconceived sleek forms plopped down in the nether reaches of the country. But I would say the vast majority take a definite standpoint on designing the project from the end to the start, and by that I mean thinking about how it will be built/transported to the site from the get go and letting the design develop towards that goal.

Many projects were broken down to a minimal amount of materials. Concrete and metal in the case of the lookout at Rondane, wood and metal at Lillefjord. Though the forms are incredibly sculptural and seemingly complex, when you study them for a while you actually find out that they are quite simple structurally. By that I mean many times they use an incredibly "dumb" structural base, and use another more malleable material to make the jagged shapes and cants.

A perfect case is the rest stop in Senja. From initially looking at its wonky path and skewed bathroom core, you would assume it was a feat of both physics and structural gymnastics. But on closer observation you can uncover that the steel structure that it rests on is extremely simple and rigid. The metal columns resting on the rock below are in an unwavering grid and work their way down the landscape in a straight line with the rhythm of one, two, gap, three, gap, one, two, gap, three, etc... A simple bolt connection holds them in place eliminating the need for extensive and expensive on site welding. The the easier to manipulate wooden members are allowed to slide and shift along the already established steel path, creating a path that is seemingly as organic as the rock formation it rests on. Even the concrete core that is used to form the restrooms is really a quite simple skewed concrete cube that has inserts for wood left out. The core is simple and achieves its visual complexity through wooden slats going in different directions.

Another one of my favorite projects from the lens of maximum impact with minimal materials is the lookout in Rondane by Carl Viggo Holmebakk. Most rest stops are latent in the sense that they do not actively engage the landscape, content to hang back and offer someone somewhere to pee or sit if need be. The concrete lookout actually amplifies its surroundings in the sense that you would normally just pass through this stretch of highway, barely noticing the countless trees as they are everywhere you look. By their repetition they become just another blur of the landscape to be whizzed by. Holmebakk shows the importance of a seemingly random grove of trees by establishing a raised concrete platform that winds and weaves its way through the existing trees. Casting off their shackles of obscurity, the flora is given a sense of nobility. Redwood royalty in the making. The platform is made entirely of concrete except for the openings in the floor, which are covered in a steel mesh to allow light to filter down to the underside. Not at the base of the trees anymore, since the ground continues to fall away, the further out you walk the higher you become in the surrounding canopy. The whole project if relatively small, maybe 80 feet or so from the entrance to the tip, but so well executed you view the landscape in a completely different way than you would have before.

I've been thinking a lot about rest stops actually {see picture above of me thinking as proof}. And as the thesis cloud begins to loom overhead my thoughts are starting to converge before the inevitable downpour in January and beyond. What a loaded word. "Rest Stop". A place to stop and rest, but what does one truly need to rest? It can't be as simple as alleviation of bodily fluids and a stiff board for a back rest. How can you design an architectural intervention that allows for both resting of the body and mind? One that becomes an active participant in the landscape, not content to sit idly by on the bench but transforming and enhancing the existing condition. Presenting it in a way that you never would have thought of before. Rest stops by their nature are only necessary as the stitching that holds fabric of urban areas together. By their definition they are remote, needed only where you don't have access to amenities usually found in even low-density civilization. In other times they would be a well to draw up water for your thirst, or as Mark Twain describes in Roughing It, a place to change out horses as you roll non-stop westwards in the bumping, jostling carriage. They are ingrained in the American psyche as well, with our glorious big laned highway system. Open road with the top down. Isn't that the American Dream? Or is that a house and 2.5 kids? I can't remember, but regardless it is a necessary part of the yearning that many Americans who have ever set out in a wood grained station wagon can attest to.

Well its late and the unification of the members of BOOM CLAP! {aka the other Branners} is coming up starting tomorrow! So I have to get some sleep in anticipation of what is to come. We're meeting in the Netherlands and I can't wait to catch up in person and not blog/email form.

Thoughts on Traveling #23 :

I've been to Hell. It has a pretty crappy hotel and relatively cheap gas. See photographic evidence.

Also this is just hilarious and where I got the post title from. Not the Ben Affleck movie. I do have to say though, in my defence "I love College" was only playing on the radio b/c it was the first time I have ever heard it and couldn't tell if the guy was being serious or not. I've heard it many times since, don't get me started on Nordic Pop Radio.