Architects traditionally gravitate to big cities. Building among crowded, iconic skylines represents a shot at industry fame, a greater platform for publicity. But beyond the city center, the trade changes, becoming a delicate practice of context-sensitive, locally-rooted design. In Tromsø, Norway, the world’s third-largest city north of the Arctic Circle, we’re working on the new Tromsø Museum. We sat down with Kasper Kyndesen, Partner and lead of Henning Larsen’s Norwegian market, to discuss how the project balances iconic form with a sensitivity to the surroundings.
While we want this building to become an attraction, but we still need to represent the scale of the city and the local context. We’re building along the old harbor, in an area that’s transforming from maritime industry to a cultural center. With this in mind, we’re looking at activating the harbor for the public, and connecting Tromsø’s southern waterfront to the north. But we’re also influenced by the urban scale of Tromsø: We could have done one large scale building, but instead, we broke it down into four smaller volumes that are all freestanding, while in close relation to one another, connected by a landscaped base.
Between this base and the four freestanding volumes, the design functions as an exhibition and museum space, a laboratory, an administrative center, and a café. We are incorporating surrounding parklands and making a beach-like area at the water’s edge – we imagine the transition from water to land as a gradient, so you really have a sense of the landscape moving up between the buildings. To add to this landscape effect, much of the stone used at the ground level of the building was sourced from a local quarry, less than 100 kilometers from Tromsø. So the project is really getting woven into the existing environment through local materials and flora, and a scale which reflects the same one found throughout Tromsø.
Tromsø is far up north, so it’s very dark for a lot of the year. In this setting, we decided we wanted to create a point of light – so the building will have glowing glass facades that are lit from within. At night, and especially during the winter, the building will give off a soft white glow. The idea for this light partially comes from the northern lights, but also from how the light of a fire or lamp looks when it illuminates a tent, which connects to the area’s Sámi heritage. Other major buildings in Tromsø have a similar effect. The city library and swimming hall both give off light through big glass facades and the Ishavskatedralen across the water has a very striking white glow at night. In this sense, the Tromsø Museum becomes another beacon in the city.
When you look at the city from up in the surrounding fjords, the museum will be a guiding point. You need to understand, a building doesn’t need to be 20 meters tall to be a landmark in this setting. It will be a landmark because you can move in the surrounding landscape and it will always be there, glowing, showing you the way.
As architects, I think we need to approach challenges like this with a great deal of empathy. To me, architecture is about understanding the environment, the program, and the local materials – that’s your starting point. Everything else grows out of this context.
An iconic building should attract you and pique your curiosity, but it doesn’t necessarily need to beg for your attention. As you engage with the building, you’ll get a deeper appreciation for the details, and for the overall function. It’s also important, especially in a setting like Tromsø, that this experience of meeting the building works in a range of climates and settings. In the dark winter, there’s less vegetation, which emphasizes the building’s architecture more. Then the form seems clean and compact, like ice cubes floating on a dark surface. But you could revisit it in the bright summertime, where all the greenery and gardens take over from the darkness. Then, you’re in really close contact with the water, too – the museum transforms, appearing more a part of nature. This adaptability keeps people coming back and ensures that it becomes a destination.