He is based in the fast-changing city of Oslo but Jon Danielsen Aarhus is not your average urban-dwelling Norwegian architect. As his home town undergoes what has been described as the “biggest and most controversial makeover” in Norway since the 17th Century, Aarhus is more likely to be found some thousand-odd metres above sea level, pouring over plans of a mountain cabin in deepest rural Norway.
Over the past two years the 35-year-old architect has gained a reputation for designing traditional rural buildings in stunning countryside locations. His first project, Cabin Ustaoset, was completed in 2016 and earned him a place in the 2017 Wallpaper Architects´ Directory for “hotly tipped talents”. Situated at the foot of the Hardangervidda – northern Europe’s largest mountain plateau – materials for the remote pine-clad cabin had to be flown in by helicopter.
His second project was a gabled timber shed designed to accommodate the hobbies of a newly retired couple in the southern ski resort of Lillehammer. It replaced a ramshackle outbuilding in the grounds of the couple’s listed house while retaining the old building’s location and proportions.
Both projects are strongly influenced by Norway’s Nordic architectural traditions, with an emphasis on wooden-based materials and the way buildings interact with the natural landscape.
“There is a lot to be learnt from vernacular architecture in terms of how to place a building in the landscape,” says Aarhus. “We have a lot of bad weather here, so learning how to deal with wind and rain and how the snow distributes around buildings has become very important when you are dealing with architecture in rural areas.”
While following certain traditions, Aarhus says he was keen to “dig deeper” and avoid designing a pastiche of rural Norwegian architecture. He offers the example of painting a barn in the characteristic red found throughout the countryside.
“I could have made a red building but I wanted to look at how barns are actually built and organised,” he says. “So I made a central bridge that enters the gable wall and goes into a symmetrical room. This is how a barn is organised if you look at traditional plans. When it came to construction I also used the post-and-beam method.
“All of this makes it more of a barn than just painting it red. While designing a building that sits well in its context I was also trying to make something that is aesthetically original and challenges certain views about what well-adapted architecture can be.”
Building methods have also moved on substantially over the past few decades, Aarhus adds. While vernacular architecture in Norway and elsewhere was previously based on hand craftsmanship, the production of materials and components is now much more industrialised.
“Before the joining of the wood was done by hand: you had to make it yourself and turn it into shapes so it could fit together,” Aarhus says. “But now that is too expensive.”
The transformation of Oslo
In contemporary Oslo vernacular architecture is increasingly difficult to find. Over the past decade the city has undergone a dramatic transformation, perhaps best symbolised by the “Barcode” – a row of stripy high-rise skyscrapers, designed by practises such as Snøhetta, MVRDV and Dark Arkitekter.
“The Barcode is the perfect expression of Norway at the moment,” says Aarhus. “Oil money, extreme growth and a hyper-active urban development.”
While critics say the Barcode and other projects such as Snøhetta’s white marble Opera House have given Oslo’s urban landscape a random, almost schizophrenic feel, Aarhus argues the city has a more electric architectural history than many are aware off.
“Historically Oslo is probably one of the most unregulated capitals in Europe,” he says. “The Barcode and other tall buildings might look very different from anything that has been built before, but that is actually how much of Oslo has been built over the course of its history: one random development after another. In some ways, it is an important part of the identity of Oslo.”
But even if the Barcode is part of a historical continuum, it is also symptomatic of a newer, less noble trend: gentrification. Much of the capital’s current redevelopment is taking place in Bjørvika, a former industrial site in eastern Oslo, where the city’s working class has traditionally lived.
“Now the residents are being pushed out and it doesn’t seem like anybody is trying to do much about it,” Aarhus says.
Searching further afield
While Aarhus says he would like to build projects in Oslo that would not contribute to this trend, it can be hard for early career architects to get commissions in the city.
“Building in urban settings is difficult for newly established architects,” he says. “It is impossible to build a large housing development project, for example. For me it is therefore more natural to work on smaller-scale projects and those are usually found in suburban and rural areas.”
Designing and building in rural settings may make it difficult to have a positive impact on issues such as housing and gentrification, but for Aarhus it still has its advantages over working in big cities likes Oslo.
“The practical aspect of developing a rural project is just so much easier,” he says. “You don’t have all the red tape, you don’t have so many neighbours and you don’t face the same logistical problems. It is a lot less hassle.”