White | Green : Ten projects in the great outdoors

Author by Mark Isitt (Lawrence King Publishing, 2011)

Seafoam, cilantro, avocado, mint….no wait pistachio green like the pudding, that is the colour on the cover of White Arkitekter’s latest monograph entitled White | Green : Ten projects in the great outdoors by White arkitekter, by Mark Isitt. A cover, which I am compelled to mention contains separate slip and fold out leaflets that are a bit unruly when reading on the train. That aside, quickly flipping through the book it’s hard to not think, wow these folks are awfully fortunate to have been awarded projects in such spectacular settings. Surely building anything there would be brilliant. Luckily, closer scrutiny reveals projects with far more depth than mere flirting with nature—and flirt they do, but with consideration.

The first few pages of the book Foreground each project with pre-building site photographs: a wise move as it conveys an attitude of respect for places that ultimately host architecture. The Introduction follows, supplanting the work within two predicaments—the evolution of Sweden’s relationship to the countryside and the fragility of architecture and its reputation when subject to political and economic pressure. Both of which are terribly loaded and difficult to describe in what is a short introduction.

Each project is then tidily laid out with gauzy idyllic photographs and renderings that justly describe the character of the projects without needing an excess of fluffy text, which the author is no doubt guilty of. Isitt does, however, fold in a certain degree of depth by describing the cultural and political context of the projects and the squabbling that ensues between government, environmental agencies, locals and the architect, for projects that are by and large set in National Parks. But I’m getting ahead of myself, lets pause a moment and return to the Introduction and get to know White.

White grew its legs from a country that, in the mid 1960’s, was desperate to urbanize and catch up with its European counterparts. The socialist Prime Minister at the time made it his imperative to build a million homes in 10 years to house a population that he viewed as a monoculture. So off White (and many others) went designing fairly banal and homogenous housing projects all over Sweden that eventually served to erode the formerly high perception of architects and architecture among the greater public.

The heady days of Gunnar Asplund gave way to what Isitt terms as an “auditor’s aesthetics – financial calculations in physical form.” The problem created by the Million Homes project was two-fold: not only did it diminish the profession of architecture, but it also encroached on a once revered countryside. It wasn’t until the mid 1980’s, when approached fortuitously by Sweden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that the firm began to redeem itself.

This is where the ten projects begin.

Although White does a great deal of work all over the world at various scales, the book narrows in on a small group of public projects, most of which were commissioned by the EPA for sites in National Parks. The Environmental Protection Agency, at that time, was operating within a country whose populous no longer seemed to value its natural landscape—becoming so preoccupied with suburban and urban living, that it seldom ventured out into the wild. Charged with the mandate “Protect, Care, Show”, the Agency sought to foster both environmental protectionism and public participation by building so called Naturum’s, or interpretive centers.

White took these commissions as an opportunity to crystallize their own modus operandi and surmised that to build in the wild is a task not to be taken lightly. The rules which govern these projects are as follows – “The building should be a springboard into unspoilt nature, it should be designed to fit the site, it should present ecology rather than be ecology, and it should be contemporary.” Suspending judgement temporarily, lets assume White has acted in accordance with their self-imposed decree and dive right into the pistachio pudding.

All of the projects, intentionally or not, raise a few fundamental questions about how to appropriately position architecture in the wild. First, there is an assumption that in order to preserve nature you must truck people to it so that they can experience for themselves that which they are to save. This is an irony not likely to be lost on anyone, for unleashing the public on the countryside will inevitably impose some degree of harm. At what point does that cost become negligible when compared to the alternative?  Already we contribute to nature’s destruction through the habits of our daily urban living. Habits that White would argue, would begin to change if people experienced the value of the countryside first hand. The task then is to abate the severity of building in the wilderness by building as lightly as possible.

Naturum Store Mosse

The Naturum Store Mosse does just that. The structure, a modest wooden barn built in a manner akin to local tradition, rests on only four granite blocks, each wedged into what is already a terribly resilient bog. The building poses little threat to the ground. As a visitor, you approach the Naturum by way of a wooden footbridge that rests on the bog equally as lightly. The evidence of this, the author claims, can be felt as the planks shift and creek with your passage. A quality in service of the attitude that building here is a dubious proposition.

The Naturum is meant to house a display of the 14,000 year history of the bog, which is set within an informal interior of rough knotty pine walls, floors and roof trusses. The building is not apologetic about its presence in the bog, as it’s a sizable 36 metre long mass, it is simply not at odds with it.

But perhaps prior to conceding that building lightly is the answer, the projects question whether we should even build at all or whether every project is even in need of architecture. A statement that no doubt defies the profession, but is nonetheless an important question to pose. Architects are spatial opportunists, to both our credit and detriment, at times applying fantasies of built form upon spaces that might actually require very little or nothing at all.

The King’s Meadow Barn is a project that runs in the vein of that sentiment, where the result was to do as little as possible. The barn, a pre-existing structure solidly built of pine, has little embellishments for comfort beyond a rough plank floor raised on boulders to keep the space dry. Issit describes the barn as “a truly Swedish utilitarian building, rustic and divested of any national romantic cuteness.”

The purpose of the project was to create an exhibition that traces the migration of the Fritillary, a rare flower that now grows in abundance in the meadow. While others might have been tempted to scathe the noble barn with a glassy protrusion, White restrained itself to very minimal gestures. Milled slits in the wooden plank facade illuminate transparent screens of intaglio illustrations, held in place by heavy wooden posts. Those same planks have also been whittled at the seams on all sides of the building allowing more light to penetrate a once dark space. Aside from a few modest wooden benches and a small opening for a telescope in the loft, that is the extent of the project. It would seem that White’s roots in utilitarian housing has served them well. There is no architecture for the sake of architecture.

Last is the notion of architecture as landmark, as if the wilderness isn’t enough of an attraction in and of itself. Often buildings armed with the task of educating and inspiring for the forgotten landscape in which they are built are at risk of becoming the primary attraction. The architecture outshines the subtle mysteries of the wild – the very thing that birthed its existence. Perhaps that is irrelevant? If the objective is simply to get people out there, then who cares what prompted the journey? The bond between visitor and wilderness in an inevitability that will surface soon enough.

White’s Naturum Vattenriket.

It would seem White has adopted a similar attitude tailoring the journey similar to that of a department store. Few could mistake the main floor of The Bay as anything but a gauntlet of cosmetics and perfumery, cleverly devised to throw one off course. White’s Naturum Vattenriket differs only in what they have chosen to throw at you, which to the delight of the visitor is not lipstick but nature.

Housing an exhibition space and lecture theatre, the Naturum hovers above the river Helge. It is accessed only from a simple 325 metre long wooden bridge charting a solemn path through the reeds and bird calls of the surrounding wetlands. Snaking its way around a cavity in the deck—intended to invite the water and subsequent water life to engage the edges of the building—the path eventually ends at a stair leading to a roof observatory.  Here the visceral experience of nature foregrounds that of the architecture as the visitor need not enter the building at any point to engage the wild.

Of the ten projects I would say the majority of them live up to their self-regulating principles. The more successful ones prove that architecture and nature can co-exist in a way that doesn’t cheapen the qualities of either one – you can have your pudding and eat it too! To that end, the book is without question, a beautiful and charming testament of that struggle. Its greater purpose, however, might well be as a provocation tool—a document that promotes questioning when visiting and constructing the wild.

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For more information on White|Green, visit the Laurence King website, or White site.

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Larraine Henning has Masters of Architecture from UBC and a Bachelors of Environmental Design from UofM. She has worked in both the Netherlands and Canada for a variety of architectural offices, and also works within the mediums of photography and web design.