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Let's start from your last work: Tham & Videgård was invited to exhibit in the Nordic Pavilion at the 13th International architecture exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Can you describe in detail what the project is about and the reason why it was selected?
Martin Videgård: We were asked to discuss a possible Nordic approach to architecture, and our Tree Hotel project holds and addresses many of these thoughts. In short: the relationship between nature and architecture. Starting from our interest in multiple contexts this is an investigation we pursue in our practice and in every project. It has resulted in a contextual approach where the analysis of a site and the interpretation of a functional program can lead to an architecture that is mixed, intertwined and integrated with nature.
Bolle Tham: The Mirrorcube designed for the Tree Hotel in Harads is a minimal structure that makes it possible to rest in the midst of a deep and wild forest in the far north of Sweden, close to the Arctic Circle. The reduced architecture we proposed is a very small space that depends entirely on the quality of its surroundings, the light conditions and the strong material presence of the forest. The tall pines constitute its surroundings and also carry the room itself.
Martin Videgård: The construction also alludes to man’s relationship to nature; how we equip ourselves with sophisticated technology to deal with harsh climates but also have the desire to explore nature at its most wild and fundamental level. As the exterior reflects the surroundings and the sky, creating a camouflaged refuge, the Mirrorcube becomes the physical expression of these ideas, a dream of a secluded hide-out away from civilization.
Bolle Tham: Our light-house presented at the Nordic pavilion is a distilled version of the observations that inspired the Tree Hotel; a simultaneously direct and conceptual relation to nature, the Nordic light, the trees and the sky.
Tham & Videgård Arkitekter practice involves many different aspects of architecture, from large scale urban planning to buildings, interiors and objects. What is your common ground? Can we say that your personal approach always concerns the context?
Martin Videgård: Yes, one factor that makes architectural work constantly interesting and inspiring is context. If you look close enough at a project's context; its physical and ideological environment; there is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for new solutions and precise responses to any program. To be successful the architectural design concept has to be based on a number of observations about its context. In fact, one could argue that it is primarily the context that determines whether an architectural project works for its location and for its own time.
Bolle Tham: Then again, Architecture, in its essence, is about creating and organizing space. Originally responding to a need to provide man with protection from nature. Through a history of thousands of years, architecture evolved from being a primitive shelter to an art form that encompasses multiple cultural layers, a complex and varied building culture. Expediency and adaptation to site-specific conditions has generated different solutions to the same need, from the Eskimo Igloo to the North American Tipi. So the physical contextual conditions have been an obvious starting point in the shaping of buildings. Parallel to this, each region developed its own identity in which philosophy, religion and the law created a framework for society. This has generated distinct cultural contexts which, together with the physical context, today constitute the basis for any architecture.
Martin Videgård: We also live in a time when, through real and virtual travel, the world is getting smaller. Globalization provides people around the world with common references, presenting new opportunities - a more open attitude toward different ideas - and challenges - the risk of neglecting context and of meaningless uniformity - to architecture. However, we believe that through an understanding of its context, good architecture can celebrate both the international and the local, using climate, cultural history, and endemic know-how as a filter to globalization. Our way of working combines pragmatism and intuition aiming for strong architectural expression and clarity. The best architecture is clear enough to offer multiple readings depending on whom, when, and where you are.
Competitions, lectures and exhibitions represent an important part of Tham & Videgård Arkitekter's activity: Which role do they have in your work?
Bolle Tham: It gives us the opportunity to discuss and develop our ideas together with colleagues in an international context. Both lectures and exhibitions are more often abroad than in Sweden, and competitions create time for research within the office, a way to explore and learn more about different places and cultures around the world. These activities naturally inspire and influence the daily practice in the office.
In 2007 Tham & Videgård Arkitekter won the competition of the new School of Architecture and campus entrance for the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Can you describe in detail what the project is about?
Martin Videgård: The site on the KTH campus, a very tangible cultural and historical context involving physical limitations, could be described as the opposite of a blank slate (Tabula Rasa) situation. The new school is inserted into an existing courtyard space next to the university’s main entrance, with its original and quite monumental brick buildings from the early twentieth century.
One point of departure was a study of possible circulation patterns on the KTH campus and through the courtyard with the goal of siting the building without reducing the number of pathways. This resulted in the idea of including and encouraging circulation all around and through the building as a way of thoroughly integrating and anchoring the new school with the site. We also proposed that the building’s entire section - not just the ground level – could be made accessible to everyone, whether teachers, students, researchers, or visitors. This openness is reinforced in plan by the continuous, rounded forms of the floor plan, in which different program spaces or functions can adjoin one another almost without walls. Views and paths are extended through a structure with spatial conditions more akin to a landscape than a traditional institutional building.
Bolle Tham: Another opportunity offered by the deep building was that it made possible the use of extensive glass surfaces in the facades, giving the building a high degree of generality, as well as introducing generous light and transparency, and yet the building as a whole will still be energy and climate efficient.
Recently Tham & Videgård Arkitekter won the 1st prize in the 2012 ECOLA-Award with the Atrium house. Would you tell us a bit of what is in general your idea of housing and sustainability?
Martin Videgård: We believe there is a great potential to create a contemporary sustainable architecture that draws upon new building technology and materials. Sustainability is a very broad umbrella term encompassing environmental, social and economical concerns. Increasing environmental awareness at architect, construction and user ends will inspire technological innovation and invite the construction business to develop long-term sustainable solutions. From the search for more sustainable design, production and living, a new architecture will emerge with its own unique expression.
Bolle Tham: With housing, simple and straight forward ways of construction often prove to be the best strategy to achieve sustainability. It generates buildings that are easier to build, to maintain, and eventually to recycle. This is also how the best structural engineers we collaborate with think, and when the construction technique is sufficiently refined, it also contributes to create space to develop a more sustainable architecture.
The Atrium House is conceived in this line of thinking. It is inspired by the strong materiality of Gotland’s vernacular agricultural architecture, and can be described as an austere architectural structure in which the elements required for everyday functions have been reduced to a minimum. In relation to the open and expansive landscape, the building seems more like a low wall than a house. It is built around a completely enclosed atrium courtyard that is designed to serve as a fixed point, a sheltered outdoor room, while the rest of the property is left undisturbed as a meadow where grazing sheep prevent the land from returning to forest.