Until his death in 1707, the parson poet Petter Dass wrote prolifically from the medieval church of the small shoreline farming community of Alstahaug—hard by the western slopes of Norway’s dramatic Seven Sisters mountain range. Celebrating the sacred virtues of what inhabitants refer to as “the kingdom of the thousand isles,” Dass paid reverent homage to the people and landscape of northern Norway in his most famous work, Nordlands Trompet (The Trumpet of Nordland):
It seems that, far out on the edge of the earth
Old nature has found its good way to give birth
To rare and splendid abundance.
Three hundred years later, Dass’s life and work are themselves dramatically celebrated and exhibited in Snøhetta’s Petter Dass Museum in Alstahaug. Addressing the growing tourist and visitor needs of the existing church—now one of only seven such preserved medieval churches in Norway—and an adjacent 18th-century parsonage, the new building’s linear volume is boldly set within an excavated cleft of the site’s dominant granite ridge; its curving, winglike roof form projects out from the ridge to overlook the fjord waters beyond.
Contemporary Norway is a nation still acutely conscious of its natural beauty, and of the relationships between the natural environment and its cultural identity. The strong topography of the near and distant landscape, the presence of the historic church, as well as the animating character of the museum program, posed challenging, intriguing questions of siting, construction, and representation.
An exceptional poet and considered Norway’s greatest writer of his time, Dass has also become the subject of folklore, remembered now as a person who outwitted the devil. “Certainly the history and character of Petter Dass led the initial discussions of how to approach the project,” says Snøhetta partner Craig Dykers, AIA. “The choice of connecting the building to the sea through the nearby ridge was in part a means of releasing the site to the unrestrained character of the waters beyond. The integration of the building with the land allows the site of the past—the historic church—to merge with the undefined nature of the future as found in the sea.” Snøhetta reveals the spiritual and religious aspect of this Christian priest in the building’s geometry. The vertical spire of the medieval church, in combination with the horizontal axiality of the museum, implies a cruciform geometry when perceived together.
The crux of that cross-shaped geometry is in fact the forecourt of the new, 14,500-square-foot building, so that museum visitors are immediately confronted with the complementary forms upon arrival. Yet the boldness of the design’s singular siting gesture unbalances the relationship; the contained volume is set between an artificial cleft created by 230-foot-long, wire-cut rock walls 50 feet apart (the excavation technique is a common one in Norwegian construction, owing to the rugged character of the country’s terrain). The building itself is 37 feet wide within the clearance, providing for 6 ½-foot-wide passages on either side—a walkway through the ridge, and a stairway to its summit, where a monument to Petter Dass is erected.
The granite walls frame the glass-enclosed ground floor, which is level with that of the medieval church. There is no disputing the hovering, dynamic quality of the museum’s curving form; its zinc-sheathed, steel-framed upper level cantilevers out 23 feet at front and back, arching upward to a height of 32 feet above grade, in resonance with the curvature of ridge terrain, but clearly rising above it.
Inside, the museum program is transparently organized and presented in both plan and section. A simple three-tier staircase indicates circulation and services organized against the southern wall, leaving the bulk of the rectangular volume for public spaces. A reception and gift-shop area just past the entry doors leads to a glass-enclosed, red-seated auditorium, and through to the café (and outdoor terrace beyond). A polished-and-coated concrete floor throughout further reinforces spatial continuity. The permanent exhibitions of Petter Dass’s life, writing, and times, also designed by Snøhetta, occupy the entirety of the oak-floored second level, with a partial third level of glazed office and library spaces stacked above, just under the curvature of the roof. The massing of the program toward the center of the plan balances the cantilever at both ends of the building. Detailing throughout is spare and minimal, although much attention has been paid to the necessities of exterior wall construction, owing to the harshness of the northern climate.
Snøhetta’s designs always possess a strong formal, even gestural quality, at any scale—as seen in Oslo, at the new National Opera House [record, August 2008, page 84]—and here in Alstahaug. Yet, each of the firm’s designs contains a hidden, “telltale” moment of experience. The positioning of the museum volume in the cleft granite ridge has produced two compressed passages of movement, between the museum’s reflective outer walls and the grained, mossed granite surfaces. These are visceral places, highly tactile, and compelling in their focus through to the shoreline or churchyard and spire, or ascending to the ridgeline and its views over the fjord. On repeated visits over time, Dykers has experienced further subtleties in relation to larger environmental effects: “The building has taken on many more nuances with respect to its reaction to climate. I have been surprised at how differently the building feels when it is wet, covered with snow, or set under direct sunlight. While we imagined some of this, the intensity of these changes was unexpected.” In Petter Dass’s words, a “rare and splendid abundance” indeed.