Tor Inge Hjemdal: Architecture Should Be a Part of the Educational System

19 June 2017

What do Norwegians do to achieve the absolute quality of architecture the Scandinavian school is famous for? Archcouncil Portal interviewed the Director of Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture (DOGA) Tor Inge Hjemdal about architectural competitions, promotion of young teams and popularization of the architecture discourse in Norway.

Archcouncil: Norway has high-quality architecture. How do you regulate it?

Tor Inge Hjemdal: First of all, it’s very difficult to define quality. It’s almost impossible. We’ve been trying for a number of years in different ways to a kind of pinpoint what architectural quality is. Because you have to ask for whom this architecture is being created? For you or for the guy who is going to build that? Whom is this quality actually for? It is difficult to define because they all will have different answers. During one of my projects, I did a short survey among seven different people with different goals, and they all gave me different answers about quality. So, first of all, it’s really difficult to say what quality is or to define it. But I think I know what you mean.

Secondly, we need to define the drivers of the quality. Who controls and ensures the quality? One way to do it is to adhere to regulations and rules.

Foto: Sverre Chr. Jarild

I always say that regulations control the minimum quality. If you follow rules and regulations, you’ll have the very minimum. And that’s okay.

Then come specific organizations that are trying to say something about the quality and ensure the quality. Factor number three, which is possibly more important in terms of ensuring quality, is the market. It should be the driver of quality. Because, for instance, in Norway, if you have a well-regulated market, people wouldn’t be asking for housing of bad quality; it would be unsold.

As far as I have understood the Russian market, is also that the Russian people are not so educated in terms of architecture and don’t have a good insight into what architecture is or what it can be. Then, it’s difficult for them also to ask for the right kind of quality. And it’s the same in Norway.

Foto: Adobe Stock

If a country doesn’t have a well-functioning market, the market will never demand for the right kind of quality.

— I would add that in Russia we also have a different scale of construction...

—I know, but that’s not a well-functioning market in terms of ensuring quality. it’s a very difficult question how to make sure you’ve achieved the right quality. A good way to go is to educate entrepreneurs, builders, developers so that they know what the quality is and want to build according to that quality, and not just focus on money.

— That is, you are talking about popularization and involving people in the architectural discourse?

— Oh, that’s certain! I’d take it a little bit further, because I’d say that architecture is so important —it shapes your life. Good quality is a good architecture which gives you a different life quality. When it’s a regional segment, the public also get this kind of knowledge (which might be annoying), but also take part in shaping our environment. I think this issue should be discussed on the same terms as, for instance, economy in news; because there is always economy...

Architecture and physical planning should also be a part of a natural way of discussing what kind of society we want

 How can we bring architecture into the general cultural discourse?

—Schools. It’s kind of enclosed and it’s something that we as architects can help in. Not in terms of simplifying, but using the right kind of language in terms of communication, as communication is super important. Call it a ‘stair’ if you’re a minister, do not talk about ‘vertical communication’—vertical communication is very difficult to understand, but word ‘stair’ is very simple. You don’t have to lose intellectual level of discussion, even if you use simple language. You don’t have to make it more intellectual than it actually is. So that’s one thing in terms of communication.

The second thing is that the professional architecture and architectural knowledge should also be part of basic education.

Your pre-school years start at the age of five or six, it should be a natural part of the educational system.

Architecture is like a cross-over, a kind of umbrella, a kind of knowledge through which you can discuss history, you can discuss social changes, you can actually discuss physics... You know what I mean, it could fully integrate into education which is not happening today. Schools as forms of communication are very important.

Foto: Johnny Syversen

— Speaking about young architects. How do the authorities in Norway help them to promote and to enter the market?

— It is difficult because young architects are very eager to get into the market, while the developers are nor so eager to use them, as they like the experience, the know-how, how to do things; but they can contribute in something else that the experienced architects can’t.

For a few years, we’ve had a program in Norway that helped young architects to get a position. And we also have an agreement with the governments saying that when you have new competitions, even invited competitions

For example, if you invite four to five different architectural companies, one of them should be, what we call them a ‘Wild Card’, meaning that the younger ones should always be included. And I’ve helped one team so that they could compete in the program on equal terms. Instead of never being invited to the competitions they take part in the competition and they are also in the position to win the competition, because all of these competitions were anonymous, which is one way of doing it.

A different way is, of course, to promote, to communicate, visualize or make known what kind of quality and what kind of other qualities they can contribute. That’s to make it visible for developers and commissioners what the qualities are and what the needed contribution is.

Foto: Inge Clemente

— Could you tell us about how architectural competitions are organized in your country?

— In Norway, we have a separate competition secretariat, so, I think, three people are working on architectural competitions on a national level. Norway is quite open; there are a lot of national competitions where international companies can take part. There are several ways to do it. When you get invited, it’s invited competitions: it’s a competition on terms of price —do you give a price in a competition to do another commission. Another kind of competitions is the ones based on interviews, portfolios.

It not only refers to terms of getting commissions and taking part in competitions, it isn’t just working on architecture, but also working with developers —the ones who are actually commissioning these new projects— and trying to convince them that a good way of doing this is through competition. In that case you can get a different result than you were actually thinking you would get in the first place. Then you get different commissions or different kinds of projects and different ideas.

— Do you think architecture should be in fashion and follow the trends that were discussed, for example, at the Biennale in Venice?

— It’s always difficult to see the ongoing trends, to ‘spot’ them. We at the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture are trying to argument that Norway has got some kind of value. Not today, but in ten years’ time we could probably look back at it as art. But I think k it’s more based on the values: quality, inclusiveness, democracy that we were building; and architecture is in direct relation to this kind of values.

We see that architecture is reflecting this kind of basic values, but of course, you can talk about style, and different types of shaping, because Norway is multiform right now. And you can possibly talk about how Norwegian architecture reflects also sustainability, not just social but also climatic form of that, you could find some distinctive features, such as the lightness, the use of light, but also that is interior being whitened and airy.

I see now, after working with this for some years, that what fascinates me is the direct relationship between the society that we are building — not only on political level, but also in terms of what inherited into culture, and the architecture and our surroundings.

Special thanks to ARCH Moscow and the architectural digest SPEECH: for organization of the lecture by Tor Inge Hjemdal «Norway: top-10» and their help in preparing the material.

Images: (c) DOGA, photo: Perann Sylvia Stokke


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