Sverre Fehn, Nordic Pavilion, Venice

Sverre Fehn, Nordic Pavilion, Venice: Voices from the Archives
Mari Lending and Erik Langdalen
Pax Forlag/Lars Müller Publishers, March 2021

Paperback | 7-1/2 x 10-1/4 inches | 296 pages | 367 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-3037786390 | 45€


Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion in Venice is a masterpiece of postwar architecture. The young Norwegian architect won the competition for its design in 1958 and the building was inaugurated in 1962. Through six decades, the beloved structure has been mired in phenomenology, poetry, and the personal memory of the select. Looking at the archives, a very different story emerges.

In minute detail, this book presents the history of the origins and making of the Nordic Pavilion; spanning from the geopolitical context in an increasingly tense Cold War atmosphere, to the aggregates in the concrete of the audacious roof construction, to the iconic trees, many of which had already died before the second exhibition in 1964.

Sverre Fehn, Nordic Pavilion, Venice. Voices from the Archives documents the extensive cast involved in the making of the Nordic Pavilion, spanning from kings, prime ministers, bureaucrats, ambassadors, museum directors, architects, and a myriad of artists’ associations, to Venetian dignitaries, engineers, gardeners, lawyers, and plumbers. The pavilion was conceived and built against the backdrop of friendships and animosities, power play and diplomacy. The detours and disappointments, the successes and failures of the Venice affair make a prism in miniature to understand the mindset and conflicting ambitions of the Nordic countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Richly illustrated with previously unpublished images, among them many photographs taken by Fehn himself, the archival evidence also sheds new light on one of the great Nordic architects of the recent past.

Mari Lending is a professor in architectural theory and history, and a founding member of OCCAS (the Oslo Centre for Critical Architectural Studies). Among her most recent books are Plaster Monuments. Architecture and the Power of Reproduction and, with Peter Zumthor, A Feeling of HistoryErik Fenstad Langdalen is a practicing architect, a professor of architecture, and the head of the Institute of Form, Theory and History at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO). His publications include Experimental Preservation (Lars Müller Publishers 2016) and Sverre Fehn, Nordic Pavilion, Venice.


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Sometime after my first Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012, the large tree at the corner of the Nordic Countries Pavilion was removed. The pavilion, designed by Sverre Fehn and completed in 1962, is famous for the way it responds to the existing trees in the Giardini, the building apparently built around them. A few trees are found in the middle of the footprint, but they are not as impressive as the plane tree at its cantilevered corner. A photo on ArchDaily's website shows that lone tree puncturing the roof between the splayed beams in 2012, while my own photo of the "In Therapy" exhibition in 2016 shows a sapling where the tree once stood. Page 153 of the remarkable new book Sverre Fehn, Nordic Pavilion, Venice reveals the exact day the tree was removed: March 19, 2013, after "the beloved tree finally succumbed to cancer" (it was one of many trees in the Giardini that died in that manner). 

The importance of the existing trees in the conception of the pavilion is evident when opening the book's front cover. The first eight pages present full-page photographs taken by Fehn on a site visit in September 1958. They give the impression of a nearly impenetrable section of the Giardini with a thick canopy of leaves overhead. The photos give way to drawings from Fehn's competition entry, which are presented on foldout pages and show how the plan relates to the neighboring USA and Danish pavilions, how the roof structure accommodates the tree trunks, and how Fehn envisioned the character of the area under the roof, among other things. Following them is a translated transcript of a December 1960 meeting with Fehn and the building committee for the pavilion, a meeting that anticipated "most of the issues that arose during construction," according to editors Mari Lending and Erik Langdalen.

The photos, drawings, and meeting transcript are a great start to an impressive book that is packed with an enormous amount of archival information on the building, one that many people consider a modern masterpiece and which I included in my book 100 Years, 100 Buildings. Following the above preface, the book is structured in five chapters: "The Historicity of a Concrete Object," "Trees," "Floor," "Roof," and "Observations." The most substantial chapter is the first of these, which tackles geopolitics (it is a pavilion for multiple countries, after all), presents other entries in the competition, and shows the building when it opened on June 12, 1962. This chapter puts the project clearly in its historical context, accompanied by archival documents and images on nearly every page.

Most architects will be drawn to the trio of chapters that discuss the main elements of the pavilion in detail. "Trees" deals with everything from the frustration of curators who had to deal with a gallery space bisected by a row of trees to the measures that have to be taken this century so the three surviving trees do not damage the slender concrete beams (first spread, below). "Floor" delves into the actual surface of the ground plane (now light marble, originally dark slate) as well as its foundation and the storeroom extension made in the 1980s. "Roof" discusses the main element of the pavilion's architecture: the overlapping grids of narrow concrete beams capped by fiberglass sheets that give the "interior" an even illumination. 

Following those three chapters are photos attributed to Ferruzzi that were taken in April 1962, not long before its opening; their presentation on glossy pages stands out from the matte pages that make up the bulk of the book. After them are "Observations": short essays by Adrian Forty, John Ochsendorf, and others on such things as the pavilion as "a Venetian landscape," how it compares with Fehn's Norwegian Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Exhibition, and a portrait of Fehn's collaborator Fredrik Fogh, a name found repeatedly in the book. Fans of the important and much-loved Nordic Countries Pavilion in Venice will gain an appreciation of, not just Fehn's design, but the many other people and parts involved in the project over the last sixty years.