Pic: Ina Niehoff
Snøhetta’s Senior Director Greger Ulf Nilson and founding partner Kjetil Trædal Thorsen

Since 1992, the Zumtobel Group has commissioned renowned designers to give artistic expression to its annual reports. The 2013/14 report by Snøhetta was recently the subject of an exhibition at Aedes Architecture Berlin. Henrietta Lynch caught up with the Norwegian architects to explain the concept and their fascination with natural light.

Living the Northern Light was the title of an inspiring and magical exhibition hosted by Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin from 08 August – 01 October 2015. The exhibition documented the 2013/14 Zumtobel Annual Report and featured four 3m x 4.5m stunning, high resolution, black and white portrait photographs of people over 100 years in age who were born and live (or lived at the time of the report) within the Arctic Circle.

The portrait photographs acted as banners for the exhibition and a psychological link appealing to visitors; enticing them to explore further. Beate Engelhorn the Aedes curator of the exhibition was amazed at how well they worked to attract people, commenting that “…when we were constructing the exhibition, people working around the Aedes complex were immediately drawn to the portraits and wanted to know what they were all about.”

The 23rd and 2013/14 Zumtobel Artistic Annual Report was produced by Norwegian architects and designers Snøhetta, an international architecture, landscape architecture, interior architecture and graphic design firm founded in 1989 – named after one of Norway’s highest mountain peaks and are based in Oslo and New York.

The theme of the report is described by Zumtobel Group CEO Ulrich Schumacher as being “a very special take on the fascination of natural light” in which the readers are invited to “discover the phenomenon of light in the arctic circle; with its never ending summer days and long winter nights, all the way to the mysterious northern lights.”

The report features interviews with four main protagonists who were the subjects of the portraits; two being Swedish nationals and the other two Norwegians. The geographical co-ordinates used under the photographs are the geographic co-ordinates for the home locations of the four; Olaug Bastholm (70˚51’28’’N,29˚5’5’’E), born 06 February 1914 in Berlevåg, Finnmark Norway, Marie Gulbrandsen, (69˚8’48’’N,18˚9’22’’E) born 30 September 1912 in Sørreisa in Troms, Norway (sadly now deceased), Apmut-Ivar Knolijok, (66˚37’0’’N, 19˚50’0’’E) born 22 March 1928 in Nautijaur, Sweden and Helny Zingmark , (65˚50’0’’N, 21˚43’ 0’’E), born 28 July 1913 in Boden, Sweden.

Using the subject’s stories combined with additional artwork including portrait busts made of the characters, the documentation of three of Snøhetta’s architectural projects; Lofoten Opera Hotell, Norwegian Wild Reindeer Pavilion and Bjellandsbu; and results of scientific research, the report examines the special experiences of living above the Arctic Circle. With all this taking the extreme natural lighting conditions and the vast social-political changes that have occurred there over the last hundred years into consideration.

The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line of latitude at 66˚33’. Approximately four million people live above the Arctic Circle in climatic conditions that include 24 hour daylight during the summer months and almost complete darkness, known in Norway as ‘Mørkertid’, between the end of November and the end of January every year. These conditions also include very low levels of solar irradiation in comparison to most other global locations, extreme cold and harsh weather, meaning that no full sized trees can grow there but beautiful and ethereal events such as the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights occur.

The report tries to gain an understanding of what makes people who live in the far north and in such extreme conditions different from other people, if at all. It is also an exploration of the actual lighting conditions using established research and data gathered from in-situ light sensors. Most intriguingly it is an insight into the psyche and behaviour of residents of this polar region.

Due to the natural bias of Norwegian architects Snøhetta, boundaries to the report were drawn with a focus on the residents of the Arctic Circle from Norway and Sweden. Of the people who live within the Arctic Circle, approximately 10% are Norwegians. This in turn makes up about 10% of the Norwegian population. More Norwegians live in this region than Swedes due to different government demographic polices over the last century. Many members of this population are originally from ethnic Sammi communities who worked, and still, to an extent work as nomadic reindeer herders. In previous times, this indigenous population experienced various forms of racial discrimination from the different Scandinavian governments. All the residents lived subsistence level lifestyles until the mid-twentieth century with few possessions and little money and had to work closely with the natural environment to survive.

One of the most interesting facts about the four featured protagonists from this extreme environment is that they were all born, and initially grew up, without electric lighting and grid supplied power. Instead they were reliant on kerosene lamps and heating provided with fuel from local sources. During their lifetimes, they saw the introduction of electrical supply and the development of various types of new infrastructure, including for water and communications, and the provision of food and new types of commodities.

Snøhetta founding member Kjetil Trædal Thorsen saw these people’s experiences as a valuable record of social development over the last century, and key to the report and exhibition content as a whole.

“People born in the beginning of the last century are the last living generation to have experienced changes that have had a tremendous physical impact on the humanity in the Western world.”

Snøhetta as architects and designers are fascinated by the way that people live, work and evolve over time, and within their environments and surrounding landscapes. This fascination has helped to shape their design projects over the years and was an inspiration for their work with Zumtobel. Within this context, Thorsen sees the human ageing process as the development of expertise and particularly inspirational. “Our inspiration is the fact that age has become a kind of expertise,” he says.

Thorsen also sees the processes of time and human experience working to help sculpt space and form design.

“Time is an integral part of any human light/space/landscape experience. Lived time is the manifestation of continuous relationships between sequential events and the fluctuating conditions of the physical surroundings influencing those events.”

Thorsen worked together with Senior Director Greger Ulf Nilson and the Snøhetta team to develop the concept for the Zumtobel report and later the exhibition in Berlin with Aedes.

The architects also chose to work with a team of writers and artists including Åsne Seierstad and Po Tidholm who carried out the interviews with the centenarians; and the Norwegian, but London based, photographer Sølve Sundsbø to produce the portraits.

The portraits are so detailed that they show every line on the character’s faces. The lines and contours work like landscapes and seem to document the life experiences and inner emotional space of the sitters. Thorsen refers to the portraits as being like frozen light.

“The visual expression of each individual was captured in daylight, freezing their faces in a daylit timeframe.”

The portraits work individually or as a series, but their psychological content means that they directly complement the written interviews and architectural design work presented.

The four characters have quite different personalities. This becomes evident when reading the interview texts. They do however share some common experiences and some anxieties about the changes that have taken place over the last century.

Olaug Bastholm, who is still physically very fit and enjoys daily walks, explained that when she grew up, everybody played outside all the time no matter the weather, and that children created their own games and handmade toys. Now she is worried that “the kids don’t go out and play anymore. They’re inside. They’re not able to come up with games on their own. They sit and stare at a screen or push a few buttons. It’s an abomination. What will become of them?”

Whereas Apmut-Ivar Knolijok, who has Sammi origins and is concerned that indigenous Sammi knowledge is now being lost, describes how life used to be different without modern telecommunications.

“Nowadays nobody can manage without a telephone or radio, but in my day you tried to keep track of other families’ migration routes. Sometimes you had to wait for each other for days. It was a little impractical.”

Marie Gulbrandsen, who lived without running water and electricity until 1959, remembers the magical experience of watching the dancing northern lights from her window. She also describes hunger between the wars and the luxurious childhood experience of eating kohlrabi for the first time. She also explained that oil and wicks for lamps and lighting were expensive and to be used carefully.

Helny Zingmark also talks about the previous scarce resources of power and light and how the scarcity worked to bring people together and re-inforce community. “But when the electricity came, we grew apart. The circle of candles disappeared. We could go our own way. The house got bigger.”

The Zumtobel Annual Report 2013/14 is truly a work of reflective genius and definitely worth reading. It is especially poignant when considering how, over the last century, we have sadly learned to need so many things, and take the provision of expensive commodities and power supply for granted. It is also a reflection of the value and wisdom that can come with age and experience, a concept that also often seems to be forgotten, but which is particularly relevant for today’s ageing European and Western populations.

Pic: Ina Niehoff