Norway, a Paradise for Architects Too

Ahead of a visit to Israel to speak on sustainable building, an interview with Oslo-based, Israeli-born architect Dan Zohar.

Jason Havneraas

In the entryway of the Oslo offices of Haugen/Zohar Arkitekter, in a model of a snow-covered Norwegian landscape, is a stuffed white rabbit, its front paws covering its eyes. The rabbit, which was displayed in the Nordic pavilion of the 2012 International Architecture Exhibition, the architecture section of the Venice Biennale, serves as a reminder of the mass slaughter of rabbits on the island of Gressholmen in Oslo in 2007, after their population exploded, in order to preserve the island’s vegetation. For Dan Zohar and Marit Justine Haugen, the firm’s principals, it was an allegory for “the way we architects hide out in our comfort zone” as well as their defiant response to the curator’s instructions to stick to a theme of light, shadow and mass rather than addressing more acute problems.

“Our profession is changing,” Zohar says. “Many other professions are taking a bite out of ours. More and more buildings are being designed by drafters, and at the end the ‘artist,’ Philippe Starck for example, comes and signs off on the plans and sells the apartments at a high price. We must make ourselves more relevant, so we must become fluent in more tools and start looking for others’ pies we can start taking bites from.” Seeing the rabbit each morning, Zohar says, reminds them “not to hide. We can do everything if we connect to our hearts and our emotions.”

The Israeli-born Zohar, 42, received his professional education in Norway, where eight years ago he and his life partner, the artist and architect Marit Justine Haugen, founded their firm. “We never saw ourselves as architects, but rather as an active link in the society, and we want to use the tools we have to contribute to society, just as a soccer player, teacher or broadcaster does. For us, that tool is architecture,” he says. Their office has won recognition and awards, including the Norwegian Form Award for young architects (in 2007) and Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Awards (in 2009 and 2011), and represented Norway at the Architecture Biennale in both 2010 and 2012.

Zohar and Haugen hope to demonstrate their worldview, which they say is driven by empathy, in their submissions to the annual conference of the Israel Green Building Council, which will be held on September 9 in Tel Aviv. “We are asked many times whether we are artists or architects, mostly in Norway, where it seems that the definition is important to people. I can’t say which category each project fits into, and that also doesn’t interest us all that much,” Zohar says. Accordingly, the firm works in a variety of scales, from small works of art to homes to regional planning and landscape architecture, integrating social engagement and environmental responsibility.

The Trafo, an electricity substation converted into a community center. Photo by Katherine Nordli

The first project they initiated was the transformation of the Trafo, an electricity substation in the heart of the 1920s tenement complex where they live that had been closed for 85 years, into a communal center with facilities for overnight guests. The idea was sparked by a conversation with a neighbor of the couple who was nervous about the approaching 10-day visit of his mother-in-law to his family’s tiny, 50-square-meter apartment. (All of the complex’s 180 apartments are the same size). “The city can be a very lonely place, especially in a place like this,” Zohar says. “People tend to leave their apartments when they have children because there’s nowhere to have parties or guests.”

The entire project — which took two years of preparations and three more for the work itself — was carried out on a volunteer basis. The organization of all the neighbors was more meaningful to the community than the building itself would be had the project had been conceived by people outside the community. The preparations included building of a website where everyone could share their ideas for the project, recruiting plumbers, engineers and lawyers and the like who lived in the neighborhood and finding funding sources, such as real-estate agents who could gain from the potential increase in home values the Trafo could (and did) bring.

“Our point of departure in a project like this is that we have zero budget. That’s a place we like to be, since no one can make any demands. In every project one can ask who decides, who develops, who pays and on whose account. In this project, all these questions had the same answer: the community,” Zohar says.

House for Sister and Brother, Oslo. Photo by Ivan Brody

The result was a 75-sqare-meter space that residents use 80 percent of the time for birthday parties, lectures, film screenings and overnight guests, signing up on a shared online calendar.

The cooperative nature of the work, together with the search for discounts on labor and materials, become to a large extent a general blueprint for Zohar and Haugen’s next projects, such as the Fireplace for Children storytelling space they designed for a kindergarten in Trondheim. One percent of the construction budget of every public building in Norway is set aside for artwork. Zohar and Haugen were commissioned as artists for the kindergarten and chose to build what they call the Fireplace for Children — a structure, inspired by traditional Norwegian thatched huts and made from free leftover wood from a nearby construction site — with a fire pit in the center and meant for playing and telling stories. For a different kindergarten in Trondheim they built a Cave for Children, a giant cube made of clean pre-industrial waste — in this case, open-cell XP foam — with cavelike spaces inside in which the children can play, climb and rest.

Like the Trafo, the cave was built by its intended users, the children. “The most complex thing is to make it simple enough so the children can build it themselves, creating a stronger sense of belonging,” Zohar says. The relative freedom afforded by the Norwegian authorities is surprising when compared to Israel’s rigid building codes, which mandate enclosure with a fence, insulation and concreting, as protection against any nonstandard detail, especially when it comes to children.

Fireplace For Children. Photo by Unni Skoglund

“I think they trust people more [in Norway]. Children are given more responsibility from a young age, and this is evident at later stages — in the way architecture is taught, and later on when it comes to working with clients.

“A fascinating situation is created in Norway because it is a European oil principality, so the Norwegians are in a different place economically than the rest of Europe. Still, this is a nation that was very poor 30 years ago, and that austerity remained. They don’t build in order to display their wealth. Clients tell me: I want to do it well. It doesn’t really matter to me how much it costs — I want it to last.”

That was the case when Zohar designed two private homes for a brother and sister on the same lot — houses made exclusively of wood (of which Norway has a surplus), without glue or nails. The wooden beams were precut and assembled onsite in four days and eight hours.

Most of the firm’s opportunities originate in architectural competitions. “About 80 percent of the projects we’re working on today are competitions we won. There are many competitions, and many kinds of competitions, doubtless in an effort to create opportunities for new architects. There is a very strong architects’ association, which is also capable of fighting back if a competition is unfair and recommending not to send submissions — a recommendation that is mostly accepted.”

Cave For Kids . Photo by Grethe Fredriksen

After winning a competition held by Norway’s Norwegian Public Roads Administration, Haugen/Zohar is designing four different visitors centers for scenic sites around the country. The agency’s judges tracked down all the architects in the country under the age of 40 and invited them to an “audition,” held in a number of cities, at which each participant gave an eight-minute presentation. Fifteen teams were then chosen to enter separate competitions for each site. “This is a way to get young architects involved, to brand contemporary architecture and create footprints from our time period,” Zohar says.

In his lecture at the Tel Aviv conference, Zohar will speak about U31, the government competition the firm won to build 36 of 50 pilot projects over the next decade for the sustainable construction of the future, called FutureBuilt. Starting in 2015, Norway will be the first country in the world to require every new home to be a “passive house” — that is, to provide all or nearly all of its own energy needs, with very low carbon emissions. Zohar/Haugen were awarded a contract to build 36 housing units for low-income tenants, means, most of them refugees.

Although the project is in a neighborhood far from central Oslo, only nine parking spaces were set aside for the residents. Two of the parking spaces will be rented permanently to Carpool, a ride-share company. There will be abundant bicycle parking as well as a bicycle-repair shed for residents, and common spaces on the ground floor. “If we were to show the project to the people in the surrounding neighborhood and tell them we’re building rental apartments for low-income people, they’d refuse. But if we show them the ground floor, that will be for them as well, for groups and for courses, that’s something else,” he says.

Although Zohar occasionally teaches in Israel, at Tel Aviv University and at Tel Aviv’s College of Management, and visits often, his office is not involved in local projects. “Maybe in the future,” he says. “Right now there is a lot of work. In a certain sense, Norway is an architects’ paradise. It’s still a place where architects are expected to get up and say something wise. This means that there are many excellent architects and competition is very tough, but the people are very practical. If you hand in a good product, it will be built.”

Zahi Mahler