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Monday, August 03, 2009

Book Review: Sverre Fehn

Sverre Fehn: The Pattern of Thoughts by Per Olaf Fjeld
Monacelli, 2009
Hardcover, 304 pages




Many architectural monographs feature an introduction or an essay by somebody of note, with the architect in particular providing the text for the bulk of the book. These descriptions of buildings and unbuilt projects may yield some insight, but many times they lack a critical voice or a view that only comes from a detachment from the work. Interpretation is an important aspect of any piece of architecture, be it in person or on a page. So it is refreshing to read Per Olaf Fjeld's second book on Pritzker Prize-winning architect Sverre Fehn. Having worked for and taught with Fehn for many years, Fjeld is in a good position to understand the architect and his buildings, while also illuminating the thinking and methods of the man who passed away earlier this year at the age of 84.

With Fjeld's close association with Fehn, the monograph reads like a biography but also an investigation of the architect's mind-set, hence the book's title. Each chapter approaches different themes within Fehn's working and teaching methods, all within a basically chronological ordering. The third chapter, for example, looks at his well-known pavilions in Brussels and Venice and the fame that accompanied these commissions, but during the "twenty-year pit stop" presented four chapters later we see how teaching occupied his life and influenced the designs that followed the dry spell in his office. The later chapter, and much of the book, includes numerous Fehn quotes are carefully woven within Fjeld's writing, both at the level of the text and the page layout.

The most consistent themes throughout the monograph deal with nature, (constructed) landscape and culture, as the architect attempts to reconcile the three within an architecture that is rooted in its Nordic context yet fits within the modernist canon. The careful balance of local and universal ideas with the natural and the manmade led to sometimes striking designs that fit remarkably well in their place, in many cases untouched landscapes far from urban situations. Fehn was a master in the way his buildings meet the earth and touch the sky. The power of this book is how the author's and architect's words illuminate this skill without abolishing the mystery or mystique of Fehn's buildings and personality.

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