They’re not Snøhetta, Norway’s architects-of-the-moment—and they want you to know it. They’re Jarmund/Vigsnæs, and they fancy themselves an architectural anachronism. They like to make small houses with small budgets. They may not have the profile of Snøhetta, but with a battery of projects all over Norway, including a renovation of the Ministry of Defense and a nice little abode for the crown prince and princess, they’re getting there.
Jarmund/Vigsnæs’s office is on the seventh floor of a gritty 1970s building in one of Oslo’s less lovely corners, replete with standing water on the concrete floors and elevators that more readily summon thoughts of Ceauşescu than King Olaf. The sign on the door is small, the paint is peeling, and on my way over the cabbie double-checked that I knew where I was going. I step inside expecting a respite from the grim aesthetics of the ride up. Instead I walk into the model shop, an impressive morass of cardboard and balsa wood that is more like the unkempt garage of a serial putterer than the foyer of a gang of successful arch-itects. There is no front desk and no one greets me; a couple people look up from their drawings or pause their conversations to inquire who I am and how they might help me. I’m convinced I’ve wandered in by way of the side entrance, somehow bypassed the smiling receptionist, and am now obtrusively milling around outside the bathrooms wondering where the low throb of distant chill-out music is coming from.
Esinar Jarmund, tall, dressed in black, and with a shaved head, catches sight of me and shows me around the cluttered open-plan office. In a refrain that he will echo throughout our hours together, he tells me, “It’s important to show what we are actually doing. We don’t want to show the polished face of architecture. Though we have some big clients, we don’t want to be corporate architects. We practice an architecture that has rough edges.”
The edges may be rough, though it might be more fitting to say that Jarmund/Vigsnæs practice a restless architecture. They do accept big commissions—–take the Svalbard Science Center, located in the Arctic archipelago of the same name, whose copper cladding is a kind of planed, geometric mimicry of the craggy mountains. They are perpetually seeking new challenges, new solutions, new forms in which to invest. Woody Allen they’re not.
The firm grew out of the childhood friendship of Jarmund and Håkon Vigsnæs. They both attended the Oslo School of Architecture, and after Jarmund did a stint in the U.S. at the University of Washington, the two joined forces and opened their practice in 1995. Their first big commission came just a couple years later: a renovation of their old haunt, the Oslo School of Architecture. The project, according to Jarmund, “had us quadruple-checking and quintuple-checking everything.”
As Jarmund and I wander the halls of his old school, he describes how the designers who had been his teachers just a few years before were suddenly his very free-with-advice clients, and it became clear to him that the renovation of the raw, industrial-feeling space had to be more about the students than the faculty. “The goal was to find a really relaxed solution for this school. We didn’t really want to add more building,” he says. “I mean, these kids are going to be here studying for six years. The building they come to everyday shouldn’t be competing with them and their work. The truth is, we tried to do as little as possible.”
The exterior metal stairs that overbrim with vegetation and lead to the green roof are a nice touch, as are the shipping containers tacked onto the roof to house the ventilation systems. “The budget was really small,” Jarmund tells me. “In fact, the only way we got any money to design with was to make the technical upgrades really efficient and use the money allotted for those.”
The result is at once functional and clever, as the school feels less like
a haven for high architectural theory than like a giant workshop, one where the spit outshines the polish, where industry meets the academy, and in which, one presumes, lies the spiritual provenance for the firm’s cache of messy models.
“I always knew that I wanted to make things—–boats or airplanes, something. And Håkon always loved to draw,” Jarmund says by way of explaining their fertile partnership. Because they don’t swing the hammers themselves, working through models suffice as that “something” they physically make. “We tend to think of ourselves as the last generation of architects before the digital world took over,” says Jarmund, sounding rather more atavistic than his 40-some years suggest. “We’ve never been able to fully capture the possibilities of 3-D design on the computer, but it’s bullshit to call them 3-D mod-els because they’re printed out on 2-D paper.”
Further decrying an architecture more and more reliant on the superficial slickness computers can offer, he continues: “We like to make rough models that aren’t that nice. They are tools. The result of our work should be polished, not the tools that we use along the way.”
Those results, particularly the dozen houses the firm has done, are clearly what most excites Jarmund, where his firm is at its best, and the lever by which they’ve raised their standing.
“I love small projects on difficult sites. With all of those limitations, and I love limitations, you have to invest intelligence.” We visited the recently completed Edge House a half-hour’s drive outside Oslo and it demands just that. The house is situated at the very edge of a modest terrace carved into a steep hillside; Jarmund/Vigsnæs opted against setting it on the flat space in favor of pushing it as far into the air as it would go. The sharp geometry and perilous perch belie the sense of peace within, achieved through an open plan, plenty of blond wood, and walls of glass.
The Triangle House is another triumph in textured geometry. Vertical and horizontal blocks of wooden slats compete with large windows oriented toward the sea. The Villa by the Ocean near Stavanger, Norway, feels more Californian than Nordic, with its long, low profile, green roof, and seaside concrete construction. “Doing a small house is like doing a portrait of your client,” Jarmund muses. “In one case it’s an old abandoned farmhouse for a pair of historians. In another, a guy wants a house out of James Bond.”
The leitmotif running through the canon of Jarmund/Vigsnæs’s houses, each one closer to a tone poem than a symphony, is size. Rarely larger than 3,000 square feet, the majority are more often closer to 2,000; Jarmund
is loath to take on big residential commissions. “We thrive with the challenges limitations bring. Clients with limitations know what’s important. Wealthy clients don’t know what’s important because for them, everything is equal. If they want eight fireplaces, they can have them.”
Despite the scrappy, we’re-makers-not-marketers facade Jarmund presents, his firm’s stature is on the rise—–the Devil Rays to Snøhetta’s Yankees, maybe. They’re in the process of designing a new hotel and tentatively have their sights set on the proposed Oslo Library, slated to sit next to Snøhetta’s celebrated new opera house on the fjord, an act that might give Jarmund more than a little competitive satisfaction. Nonetheless, houses remain the firm’s bread and butter and the milieu in which they’ve done, and continue to do, their best work. “We’re architects for the middle class, and the middle class has limitations,” he asserts. “It’s wrong to say that good architecture is without compromise. It’s full of compromises. What good architecture has is a connection to necessity.”
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.