Two Norwegians’ architecture of necessity


Armed with a sense of purpose, two young architects travel the world to practice local architecture that is internationally relevant. And they want everything to look good too!

THINKERS think and doers do, they say. Ah, but not if you are smart, eager and embrace a never-say-die attitude like Norwegians Andreas Grontvedt Gjertsen and Yashar Hanstad.

Founders of award-winning design studio TYIN tegnestue Architects, these barely-out-of-architecture-school design wunderkinds (they graduated in 2010) are not only thinkers who do but who also create do-good designs that are enhancing people’s lives in remote Indonesia, Thailand, and Uganda, as well as back home in Norway.

A sampling of their projects, like a cluster of dwellings, a library and a bathhouse for refugee orphans along the Thailand-Myanmar border, and a community library and a playground in Bangkok’s slums, has drawn international attention and accolades. Just recently, Tyin was named winner of the European Prize for Architecture 2012.

Yashar Hanstad (left) and Andreas G. Gjertsen are driven to create ‘architecture of necessity and to work in a direct and pragmatic way’.

(The annual award by the Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design and the European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies acknowledge European architects “who have demonstrated a significant contribution to humanity and to the built environment through the art of architecture”.)

The serendipitous path

“We were getting bored in architecture school so we tried our hands at everything, like workshops and competitions,” says Gjertsen during an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently. Gjertsen was one of the speakers at the international architectural design conference Datum: KL 2012, organised by Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia in July.

Back in 2006, they won a competition to refurbish a student house based in an old building that dates back to 1920s Norway.

“We expended lots of energy to transform this ruin back into its former glory,” explains the then student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “Only to realise we spent almost US$150,000 (RM458,175) on a space for kids to get more drunk. It felt superficial!”

It was around that time the disillusioned and antsy youths bought a boat and lived on it for a year. They named it Tyin, meaning “to seek shelter” in Norwegian; that is also the name of a lake in Norway’s Jotunheimen mountain range.

“We realised the limits of the boat: its size, the cold in winter and the heat in summer. It made us very thoughtful of what we brought to the boat,” says Gjertsen. Tyin became the “shelter” where they discussed architecture, what it means to be an architect, and how to find more meaning in their work.

“We knew we needed to get out of our comfort zone and the best way to do so was to leave Norway,” he adds. “The energy from our frustrations was so explosive and invigorating that things started to happen.”

The projects

In 2008, with funds collected from T-shirt sales and solicited from architectural firms in Norway, Gjertsen and Hanstad took a break from their third year in architectural school and travelled to the remote village of Noh Bo in Tak Province, Thailand.

Their first real-life project involved building a cluster of huts for an expanding orphanage.

Rather than design a single dormitory building with institutional vibes, though, they designed six separate units to be shared by groups of up to six kids each. The idea was to provide each child with his own private space that he could call home, as well as communal space for interaction and play.

“Though we had some drawing and design skills, we had no experience in thinking about practical solutions,” recalls Gjertsen, who, with Hanstad, roped in four other friends to help out.

“We brought along our ideals, traditions and a sense of superiority thinking we could implement all the technology we’ve learned on this project,” he confesses.

“In our naive arrogance, we thought we could make a timber structure. After two days it fell apart and water seeped in!”

The local carpenters then stepped in and taught the farangs a thing or two.

Drawing from vernacular architecture and traditional bamboo craftsmanship, the architects settled on woven and slatted bamboo for the side and back walls of the houses. Bamboo was harvested nearby while the ironwood frames and beams were assembled on-site using bolts to ensure precision and strength.

The “winged” roof promotes natural ventilation for the sleeping units and rainwater can be collected via the gutter and stored for the dry season. To prevent moisture from seeping into the structure and causing decay, the houses are raised off the ground on four concrete foundations cast within old tyres. The locals named the houses Soe Ker Tie, or The Butterfly houses, after the winged roofs. The structures were completed in four months.

“It was a real collaboration between Tyin and the locals,” says Gjertsen.

But the water collection system worked “so well” that when there was a downpour, water leaked into the houses. And though the interiors originally had single beds for the kids, the architects later found out that the children prefer to sleep with their siblings.

“Our background from safe homes in Norway sometimes makes us less sensitive to these subtle issues,” Gjertsen admits. On the other hand, their “foreignness” also makes it possible for them to see new approaches and solutions.

“Luckily, we have worked on projects where the client or community is involved and enthusiastic, and there is usually a basic solution to these unforeseen complications.”

“For Soe Ker Tie, better drain pipes fixed the leaks and the children got bigger beds,” he says.

“We try to learn from the mistakes we make and hope to make fewer in future projects.”

They spent six months in Thailand and went on to build a library and bathhouse for Safe Haven Orphanage in nearby Ban Tha Song Yong. Tyin roped in Norwegian University of Science and Technology students and their mentors/tutors Sami Rintala and Hans Skotte for that project.

In March 2009, Tyin collaborated with Bangkok-based CASE Studios Architect to build a community library and gathering space in a derelict shoplot housed in a 100-year-old market building in the slums of Min Buri, Bangkok.

Working with local Thai architect Kasama Yamtree taught Tyin different skill sets.

While the guys had acquired practical skills from living and building in remote Thailand, in Bangkok, they found out that engaging the community was imperative in getting any project started.

“We realised our roles as architects is to translate the needs and wishes of the community; we don’t have to put in our ideas because there’re so many ideas coming from the community,” says Gjertsen.

Some of the local gamblers who weren’t paying attention to the project initially started getting interested after two and a half weeks because of the energy and enthusiasm from the community.

“There was a guy who would start drinking from 11am every day. But the more he got involved in the project, the less he drank,” says Gjertsen. “He was the electrician who eventually did all the wiring work. The project gave him a sense of purpose.”

Lessons learned

To date, one of Tyin’s biggest commissions is the Cassia Co-op Community project in Sumatra, Indonesia. The client, a French businessman, flew to Trondheim, Norway, where Tyin, is based to ask the duo to design and build a sustainable cinnamon school for local farmers and workers.

Based on fair trade standards, the Cassia Co-op aims to provide fair wages, healthcare programmes and access to education for local cinnamon farmers and workers and their families.

“Cassia is one of the most important works we’ve done because it affects more people. Also, we managed to combine ideas from earlier projects into this project and improve on the things we’ve done wrong before and fix the mistakes,” says Gjertsen.

They maximised the roof covering and eaves to keep the rain and sun out. And they used local materials, for example, locally crafted bricks, to find a good local solution.

“Brick retains heat and regulates the temperature throughout the day and night,” explains Gjertsen. They used bricks for the interior spaces and covered them with a self-supported wooden roof construction.

“By separating the brick construction from the wooden construction, we maximised the buildings’ earthquake resistance. If one system fails, the other can still stay upright.”

Defining Tyin

All their projects highlight elements that matter to Gjertsen and Hanstad: a strong sense of purpose, a need to engage the community, and to give new value to materials that people have overlooked.

“We’re professionally interested in the community because we know they are the resource that will make the project better. I call this ‘sympathetic cynicism’ – trying to achieve something good while being cynical and understanding what we’re doing,” he elaborates.

“If you understand, it’s easier to find the purpose, make the right choices, challenge the construction to make it simpler and cheaper, and draw on unexpected resources like people in the community.”

Of course, the duo’s aesthetic sensibilities make their works anti-utilitarian and appreciated across the board.

“For me, functionality and aesthetics are interrelated, we try to find beauty in functionality and vice versa. Aesthetics is part of making the project relevant and sustainable.”

As working partners, Gjertsen’s and Hanstad’s different personalities complement each other.

“Yes, the two of us are very different,” admits Hanstad, 29, via e-mail. “Andreas is the artist and I am more of a carpenter/worker. He’s brilliant with concepts, drawings, planning, forms and colours. I take care of the organising, preparations, on-site managing, and details.”

“One of our friends likens us to a car – Andreas is the brakes and I’m the gas (petrol). And if either of the two is missing, there is trouble!”

“Yarshad and I understand each other through the music we listen to, like hard metal band Deftones, aggressive and gritty, and Radiohead – there is emotion in their music,” Gjertsen adds. “Music is important to us, as inspiration and communication.”

Gjertsen is also inspired by his travels, encounters with other architects and teaching. His favourite quote is his role model, Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s take on the meaning of architecture: “Architecture is about understanding the world and turning it into a more meaningful and human face.”

“The quote doesn’t talk about materials, structures, form or the physical architecture, it talks about the reason behind all of it,” says Gjertsen, a laidback, affable chap. “Then we understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

In the media, Tyin has been labelled widely as “humanitarian architects” or “aesthetical architects” – but that is “hardly close to what we are trying to be and is completely ill-informed!” Gjertsen says.

“We are ‘building architects’ and we have tried to build for clients that actually benefit from the work we do,” he asserts. And they are equally comfortable designing residential homes in Norway and cleverly-crafted bamboo houses in developing countries. “We practice local architecture that becomes internationally relevant, based on functional needs. And we want everything to look good too so we add this aesthetic functionality.”

But despite the slew of awards, critical acclaim and international publicity, Tyin isn’t getting as many paid jobs as they would like to. When we spoke in July, Gjertsen said they hadn’t had any income from design projects for the past year. They teach, run workshops and do lectures to make ends meet.

“The big projects are usually taken by big companies while the small projects have small budgets,” says Gjertsen. “We’re caught in between – we have this reputation for being interesting architects so people think we’re bigger than we are. But things are slowly changing…”

The dynamic duo is hardly discouraged.

“We want to build things in Norway that challenge the way people think about building there. We also want to challenge the roles of architects: design, build and have more control over the project,” says Gjertsen about the studio’s long-term plans.

“We will keep on teaching. The connection with the university and students is important for us to feel alive and inspired because we get so much energy from this.”

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