Of Light, Water And Rock: A Cabin On The Fjord
In this remote corner of Norway, nature is an untameable force made of light, water and rock, endless sunsets and infinite skies. We are in the fjord of Langesund, on a small island that can only be reached by boat. There are no traditional houses here, just small wooden cabins nestled among the rocks and sea. Located two hours from Oslo, today these dwellings have been turned into summer cottages for weekend getaways, or whenever the Nordic climate offers milder spells. “We came to this island many years ago and fell in love with it. We renovated an old cabin, which seemed like a kind of spaceship among the very anonymous local buildings,” says Sølve Sundsbø, one of the best-known photographers of our time, born near Oslo and based in London since 1995 (Vogue Italia is dedicating a one-man show to him at Palazzo Reale in Milan from 15 November to 16 December, curated by Alessia Glaviano and Michael Van Horne). Experimental and versatile in his photography, Sundsbø has also carried out a complex project here in Langesund, overcoming many restrictions to build a work of “Savage Beauty”, like the photos he shot for the exhibition of the same name dedicated to Alexander McQueen at the MET in New York.
Limitations can reveal unexplored potential, whether it’s in a face, a dress or a piece of architecture. And the result is always a surprise. This is the case on the Norwegian coast, where strict planning laws only permit the restoration of pre-existing buildings by the sea. “We bought this old house that was falling to pieces, but we left it empty for a long time as we couldn’t work out what to do with it. In the end we asked an architect friend for some help. May- be you’ve heard of him. He works for the Snøhetta studio.” Surprise, surprise! It’s the world’s most famous Norwegian design practice, which started as a collaborative workshop integrating architecture and landscape. Snøhetta (which is also a mountain in central Norway) are the architects behind the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, the redesign of Times Square in New York, and the new building for the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, to mention just a few of their works. “We met years ago when I was an architecture student and Sølve was an assistant photographer. We used to joke that I’d design him a summer house,” says Andreas J. Nygaard, the studio’s senior architect. “Then I graduated, joined the Snøhetta team in 2000, and nine years later I renovated his house, which clings to the rocks following their curved contours. So yes, in a certain sense we can say it’s a project by the Snøhetta studio, as we’re always seeking a strong connection between architecture and landscape.”
Measuring just 75 square metres, the house is small because its footprint could not be enlarged. But it is multifunctional, and above all it blends into the surrounding nature from “inside out and outside in”, opening up boundless and spectacular views of the sea. However, with another limitation posed by the particularly high tides in springtime, the only thing the house could do was hug the rocks. “Over time the house has adapted to our changing lifestyle,” continues Sundsbø. “At first my wife Mary Anne and I didn’t have any children, but now we have four! Everything is very cosy, intense and conceived for living outdoors.” In other words it’s all about simplicity. The same approach also emerges in the way the house fits into the surrounding landscape by becoming a complementary part of it. “The three bedrooms are detached from the central body of the house, turned 90 degrees from the main axis and given a slight twist, which is emphasised by the skylight at the entrance,” explains Nygaard. With no corridors, lots of glazed surfaces and no waste, everything is sparingly built to measure in birch wood, “like the cottages of the 1970s”, adds Sundsbø. There are no TVs, computers or Wi-Fi either, freeing up time for back-to-basics activities such as fishing for crabs or swimming – ideal for Sundsbø’s children Max, August, Felix and Klara, aged between 6 and 15. “The photos I’ve taken portray our holidays. They’re just holiday snaps, so I never thought of doing anything with them. But it’s also true that I don’t collect stamps, magazines, artworks or things in general. I just collect the snapshots that I’m taking all the time. I don’t think there’s space for much else in my life.”
Photography was Sundsbø’s destiny. During his education he considered ignoring this vocation, but then he decided to nurture it by enrolling at the London College of Printing. “I realised I had to be what I wanted to be – a photographer – and that anything is possible. It really is a big world. I like whatever allows me to explore and experience new things. For me this is the best source of inspiration.” Over the years he has immortalised his summers, his children growing up, waves crashing against rocks, diving games, fishing trips, shadows and jagged coastlines, cold sea on skin, feelings of budding freedom. All in a snapshot. I remind him of Le Corbusier, who used to swim naked by the rocks of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, where he built his Cabanon. The SwissFrench architect wrote: “On 30 December 1951, on the corner of a table in a small restaurant on the Côte d’Azur, I sketched the design for a cabin as a present for my wife’s birthday, and the following year I had it built on a rock battered by the waves.” The skies of the North Sea are not like the Mediterranean. The temperature of the light is different, too, and the northern sun never scolds. But there is something special about Norway’s summers. You can live in a spaceship and spend the whole day perched on a rock. And like Le Corbusier, Sundsbø chose this archetypal house to be one with nature. (Trad. Antony Bowden). ¥