State of the art

The University of Bergen’s departments of art and design have been brought together as a new landmark in the Norwegian city’s emerging artistic hub. Jack Wooler spoke to architects Snøhetta to hear how the design displays the building’s true character, as well as students’ artworks

The new Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design (Kunst Musikk Design – KMD) has been opened in the city of Bergen, Norway, a new building to house two creative disciplines. Covering 14,800 m2, the faculty offers a variety of creative BA, MA and PhD programs, educating students from across the world. Only the nearby Grieg Concert Hall outranks it in terms of size among cultural buildings in Bergen. Sitting on Norway’s rugged coastline of myriad islands, fjords and waterways, Bergen rests on one of the many rivers that lead from the North Sea. Sheltered from the ocean by the islands of Askøy, Holsnøy and Sotra, the municipality covers 465 square kilometres, making it the second largest city in Norway. The new faculty is located on the innermost quay of Bergen’s embankments. Comprising both a public and private educational sphere, visitors to the site can view artwork on display, use the library, or enjoy the school’s cafe, while students benefit from state of the art workshops for wood, ceramic, metal, paper, 3D modelling, graphics, and a diverse range of other art and design based skills. The new facility has been designed by Snøhetta, a leading Norwegian architecture practice responsible for numerous prestigious projects, including its debut commission to re-conceive the Alexandria Library in Egypt. Snøhetta has since become an internationally renowned brand, with more than 200 employees from over 30 different nations. The company trades heavily on its collaborative approach to work, combining both structural, interior and landscape design.

Layout

The new faculty takes the form of a bold rectilinear construction with a sloped roof, clad in fluctuating oxidisable metal panels. Snøhetta’s design manifests the building’s function as an art hub, while simultaneously instilling the aesthetic of the coastal city’s industrious past. The ‘city of seven mountains’ provides a striking backdrop to the project, and the building’s complex facade, which is composed of 900 aluminium elements of varying size, does a good job of emulating the spectacular scenery. Each aluminium element differs slightly from the last, protruding out from the walls to varying degrees, adding depth and tactility to the facade. A huge window, its glazing bars reflecting the grid style of the facade panels – though more uniform – greets visitors to the facility, and provides controlled daylighting to the building’s western face. Underneath the large glass panels, the building’s entrance leads to the first of two ‘project halls’, wide, open spaces for displaying art, as well as public functions and interconnectivity between the adjoining rooms. A second larger hall is at first floor level overlooking the one on the ground floor via a balcony. Together they form a large atrium, 23 metres at its highest point, with sunlight filtering in from the rooflights above. As the sun rises, the light falls diagonally over the second hall from the back of the building to the floor of the first at the building’s western frontage. A large auditorium is situated to the left of the first project hall, a reception to the right, and a number of doors around the room lead to the various ground floor workspaces, technical rooms and student spaces. The ceiling of the first project hall is unbroken by the first floor of the structure, and can be viewed over the balustrades of the larger hall above it. Illuminated vividly through the glass roof, the second project hall benefits from copious natural light in the day and a variety of light fittings hanging from the roof trusses, in the darker hours. On the rest of the first floor, surrounding the second project hall, are a library and cafe to the south, student workspaces to the north, and further project rooms and walkways inbetween. The second and third floors have been designed to deftly overlap the lower two, with the resulting large gaps between the floorplates allowing for sunlight to travel all the way from the roof to the ground floor, as the sun rises over the eastern portion of the building. Organised around this ‘chasm of light’ from the roof, the second and third floors are home to various dedicated university functions, including administration, graphics, textile, video, photography and sound.

A sense of industry

The faculty’s interior design puts the emphasis on neutral tones, with chalky white and contrasting crude steel panels spread across the walls. These panels follow the rectilinear shape of much of the building’s structure, and are a major contributor to the significant sense of design integrity. As well as the subdued colour palette, another of the building’s motifs is a distinctly industrial quality. This is exemplified in the exposed concrete floor and walls of the staircases, and the strong combination of industrial steel railings, crude steel balustrades, bright lighting, and displayed artwork. This theme is continued in the other interior elements of the new building. Roof trusses are left exposed in plain view, lighting is left uncovered, wires and all, and vents are displayed proudly. The industrial character is reflective of the area’s rich history, with Bergen being an international centre for shipping, offshore petroleum and a number of ocean-related technologies. It is also the key to producing a distinctly permeable building, its inner workings revealed to visitors. The exposed nature of the design carries through the building’s many rooms, although a balance between seclusion and permeability has been struck where needed. In some of the workspaces, separate booths are formed, similar to those found in office blocks, with the open spaces described as “malleable” by the architects. As opposed to more formal commercial counterparts however, here the client encouraged expression, with each space given an individual character, decorated with an array of colours, materials and imagery on the dividing walls. Each block provides a semi-private space to meet and work, while remaining largely open. This is chiefly achieved through the high ceilings, as well as booth dividers at around chest height, which are able to conceal occupants while seated, but without obstructing the surrounding space at head height. The open characteristics are a vital part of Snøhetta’s take on the project. Astrid Renata Van Veen, senior architect and project manager at Snøhetta, explains: “Fixed walls are generally very restrictive, therefore we created many open spaces including the project hall and student ateliers . “The objective was to free students and staff from limitations by physical barriers, surfaces and materials,” continues Astrid. “This means that we created an open space with few closed offices or workshops.” These open areas allow staff and students to “design and redesign their own internal spaces,” she adds.

Materials

The industrial style of the faculty, and the materials chosen to achieve it, carry a further function beyond aesthetics which make it ideal in this context – durability. According to Astrid, the architects used simple, clean and robust materials, “able to withstand the wear and tear of everyday life in an art school, such as student exhibitions and workshops.” She continues: “It was important to use materials that could withstand harsh treatment, such as crude steel railings and concrete flooring. “At the same time, certain materials can be changed when needed, such as the birch veneer-boards of the project hall.” A mix of pine wood blocks and vinyl provide most of the rest of the faculty’s robust flooring, with the notable exception of slab concrete on the ground floor. As to the building’s facade, 900 seawater-durable raw aluminium elements, differing in size, cover the faculty’s exterior. “The prefabricated aluminium elements compose a puzzle of depth, breadth and length,” says Astrid. “These crude surfaces will gradually age and naturally oxidise, heightening the variations in colour and texture.” The metal cassettes on the faculty’s exterior will thus change over time according to the weather conditions of Norway’s west coast, which will see the facade subtly changing colour. “Over time, the cassettes will experience a certain degree of ageing, which will give the building new aesthetic qualities over time.” The facade is broken only by large cantilevered box-shaped windows punctuating the rhythm of the aluminium surface. These windows, along with those flush with the panels, are all set at different heights, in order to maximise usable wall space and integrate further daylighting. Another significant source of daylighting, the glazed roof brings light into the heart of the building, augmenting the light “streaming through the glass wall” says Astrid.

Outdoor space

Just a short walk from the nearby quayside, the new faculty has added another public space to this key city centre location. Of the 11.45-acre lot, a total of 9 acres are dedicated to outdoor spaces, including green areas, open plazas and parking. Large parts of these external areas are accessible to the public, with the Kunstallmenningen plaza and the cafe terrace as natural meeting points. Astrid says the project is a way of “giving back to the local community,” with the intention being to make the site into an ‘art hub’ for Bergen. The plaza is framed by two green wetland areas fed by roof and surface water, planted with wetland vegetation of Norwegian flora. “Here,” details Astrid, “one will find a rich variety of plants, such as sea buckthorn, willow, blackthorn, blackberry, ferns, globeflower, cat tail and meadowsweet.” The wetland planting is designed to recycle rainwater collected from the roof of the faculty, and is intended to avoid strain from rainfall and flood on the surrounding environment. Underneath the cafe terrace, a huge tank stores excess water from the 4,100 m2 roof, at a rate of 90 litres per second. The water is then channelled into a 500 m3 infiltration pool situated next to the plaza. Behind the building there are courtyards for outdoor work and a delivery zone. Off these yards are workshops, which have been equipped with outdoor workstations on the roof. “These terraced workstations lead out into the surrounding terrain, with its scattered, rugged vegetation,” adds Astrid.

A new district

The development is part of an important new district in the city. The University of Bergen is set to construct a new faculty adjacent to the Snøhetta’s new building which will house the Grieg Academy (the Department of Music), with the intention of merging all relevant faculties on one site. It is hoped Snøhetta’s design will be the focus of this new district, with the new faculty representing a cultural landmark in scale, form and function. According to Astrid, it complements rather than competes with the existing cultural facilities: “KMD’s intention is to be a key contributor, not a competitor, for the internationally oriented cultural city of Bergen.” The Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design further consolidates the city’s cultural prowess. Snøhetta’s design, providing both architectural spectacle and a functional, hard-wearing design, is a showpiece of industrial style, and one which is sure to inspire students and visitors alike.