Architecture in the Faroe Islands could be experiencing an upturn in tandem with trends in other areas, notably music and food, where respecting one’s own cultural heritage and geographical identity is fast becoming a major factor—an interview with Ósbjørn Jacobsen of Henning Larsen Architects.
In 2013, Faroese architect Ósbjørn Jacobsen returned to his native Gøta to set up his architectural firm in partnership with his former employer, Henning Larsen Architects. His office has been busy from day one, having had five to six architects in place at any time since opening, including a total 15-20 interns, from every corner of the world.
Jacobsen had a leading role on behalf of Henning Larsen Architects as architectural manager of Iceland’s milestone project a few years ago—Harpa Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre—and at the same time he had a supervising role on the Reykjavík University. Both projects have earned international acclaim, the Harpa winning, for example, the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture—Mies van der Rohe Award 2013. Five years on, in February 2018, the Architectural Digest magazine ranked it first of the ‘10 Best Designed Buildings in the World From Top Architects’.
Henning Larsen Architects have offices in Copenhagen, Munich, New York, Riyadh, Oslo, Hong Kong and, yes, the Faroe Islands.
Jacobsen has no plans of slowing down, regardless of what some would consider the odd location of his base. He views it in a slightly different light.
“I think one of the essential strengths of Nordic architecture is its inclination toward what you may call a blend of localism and internationalism,” he said.
“It’s about placing context at center stage, and this is something that works extremely well, everywhere around the world. The idea is really about respecting what is local—history, culture, environment, everything—and building on that.”
And yet great works of architecture are frequently met with equally great residence—in the period prior to a wider recognition of their greatness, that is. Harpa and Reykjavík University, both building projects ongoing in the midst of Iceland’s economic meltdown in 2008, were no exceptions to the rule.
“We see time and again that people consider architectural landmarks an excess, especially during economically challenging periods,” Jacobsen said. “It’s as if architecture tends to get framed as an opposite to ‘soft values’ such as health care or education, perhaps like some controversial contrasting point to anything that is perceived as generally underfunded. Depending on the particular circumstances—and we’re not going into that at this point—there are of course cases where such misgivings are justified. In reality, the value of great architecture doesn’t become real to people immediately; it needs time to work its way into hearts and minds. In hindsight, I think most people would agree that the Harpa became a symbol of Iceland’s defiance in the face of hardship, of recovery, and of national pride. It’s a vivid illustration of the cultural impact of architecture.”
‘An excellent move’
What about architecture in the Faroe Islands? For any observer, the country—regardless its tiny population—appears to be spending considerable resources on relatively large construction projects, more so than ever.
Jacobsen: “We may or may not have more trained architects and engineers now compared to what we had, say, 20 years ago; but overall when it comes to construction, I think the Faroes has grown both commercially and professionally. That is certainly true judging from the scope and scale of buildings and construction works.”
While J. P. ‘Palli’ Gregoriussen remains a towering figure in Faroese architecture and a pioneer in the business by all accounts and the first one to open a modern architectural firm in the islands, how much has really happened since his heyday, despite all the investments of late in public works, road infrastructure, commercial buildings—aside from the Nordic House, which came in 1983?
“That’s a good question. The Nordic House is a marvellous piece of architecture, designed by Norwegian architect Ola Steen and Icelandic architect Kollbrún Ragnarsdóttir; it’s a great source of inspiration still today.
“I would say the Faroe Islands is an exciting place inasmuch as it’s architecturally young, which in itself presents an opportunity to contribute to the definition of Faroese architecture.”
One such opportunity for Jacobsen was the new seat of the Municipal Council of Eysturkommuna in Norðragøta—representing the communities of Gøta and neighboring Leirvík.
Completed in late 2017, the building has a remarkable look and feel to it while at the same time appearing unassuming as it blends into its natural environment. What’s the idea behind it?
“It’s very much about the local environment, both in the physical sense and the historical sense. Part of it is paying tribute to the natural surroundings, including the Oyran field that used to be there before it was developed for infrastructure and industry. We wanted to make a gentle reminder of that natural environment.”
The building also forms a bridge across a river while the interior features a large, transparent glass circle on the floor of the main meeting hall from where people can enjoy the sight of the river running freely underneath them.
“It’s about authenticity, which involves respecting, taking into account, somehow reflecting the surrounding environment and local history. I think that as a principle is gaining traction in many places around the world; I’m also of the opinion that we need more of that approach in most places, including the Faroe Islands. But again, I think we’re seeing it more now than earlier. Perhaps it has something to do with finding our own space as it were and being confident there—much as we’ve seen great progress lately here in the music scene as well as in culinary arts.”
Jacobsen won the international competition ‘Klaksvík City Center’ project in 2012, which is still ongoing with parts completed.
“We need more boldness at times, yet with proper consideration of the local environment, rather than monumental imposture. Call it an holistic approach if you like, and I think Klaksvík has made an excellent move in that direction.”
Elsewhere, in quite a few places, it would appear that car traffic and parking lots are sometimes sole determinants of the development of cities.
“That’s a challenge, yes, and I’ve pointed it out many times over the years. Often that space should not be sacrificed because it’s essential for creating an atmosphere that is pleasant and sustainable.
“Traffic and parking is essential in a modern urban society, therefore we need to address these challenges; but at the same time I would urge local decision makers to balance these challenges and support and seek alternative solutions that may seem like big investments right now, but which in the long run can support the progressive and ambitious development of our cities.
“In the Faroe Islands centrally placed underground parking could be one of the solutions.”