In Sverre Fehn's acceptance speech for his 1997 Pritzker Architecture Prize, he said, "If you try to run after [the past], you will never reach it." The Norwegian architect, who died February 23 at age 84, spent his entire professional life inventing new ways of viewing the relationship between architecture and the landscape. In so doing, he not only set an example for designers all over the world, but also forged a link to ancient remnants of history—both manmade and natural—in his own country.
Fehn was born in 1924 in Kongsberg, Norway, and graduated from the Oslo School of Architecture. As a young man he spent time in Morocco and Paris, where he worked for Jean Prouvé and socialized with Le Corbusier. Then he settled down in Oslo, where he would live and work for the rest of his life.
"He wanted to stay close to his roots," says Seattle architect Nils C. Finne, AIA, a friend. Finne recalls happy times spent with Fehn and his late wife, Ingrid, a concert pianist, at their Oslo home. Fehn's teacher and mentor, Arne Korsmo, had designed the house himself.
Among Fehn's many notable buildings are the landmark Glacier Museum in Fjaerland, Norway, and the Hedmark Museum in Hamar, Norway, which is intertwined with a grouping of medieval ruins. Several private houses, including Villa Busk in Bamble, Norway, and the Eco House in Norrkoping, Sweden, also rank among his most acclaimed projects.
"He had a very direct and authentic relationship with materials," says Stefan Hastrup, AIA, LEED AP, a principal at Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects in San Francisco and an admirer of Fehn's work. "We've looked at his wood structures, because they often are deceptively simple. They've been finessed and lightened."
Finne, too, has been strongly influenced by Fehn's approach to materials. "He believed very firmly that the tactile, the concrete, the materiality of buildings, and the way those are used and juxtaposed and combined was the heart of the poetry of the building ... Those types of oppositions are something I think about every day."
Both architects point out his extraordinary talent for reaching out to the natural environment through his buildings. "They are integral with the landscape, but simultaneously give you a completely new perception of the landscape that had not occurred to you before the building was in place," Finne adds.
Just as important as Fehn's built work was his modest but intense approach to practicing architecture. He usually had just one or two employees, and tended to design a project or two at a time. "It's an inspiration to all of us out there who are trying to maintain very small, design-focused practices," Finne notes. "Here's a man who did that his whole life and was regarded as one of the best architects in the world."
While filled with honors and accolades, the Norwegian's career wasn't entirely free of frustration. His design for a planned expansion of the Royal Danish Theater in Copenhagen, Denmark, was never built, disappointing him greatly. And he never received the widespread public recognition many of his peers enjoyed.
Finne attributes this partially to the fact that many of Fehn's buildings were remotely located and physically difficult to reach. In her 1997 Pritzker essay "The Paradox of Sverre Fehn," Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that "...like [Alvar] Aalto, Fehn's buildings must be visited to understand their conceptual brilliance and aesthetic pleasures, and the particular and universal way they belong to the land."
Over the past few years, Fehn continued to consistently create beautiful, user-friendly architecture. His last building, the restoration and expansion of the National Museum of Art, Architecture & Design in Oslo, opened last year. Writing in the February 2009 issue of The Architectural Review, critic Peter Davey called it "a remarkably stimulating little museum."
Fehn is survived by his son, Guy, and four grandchildren.
View more of Fehn's work on the 1997 Pritzker Prize Laureate page.