Steven Holl, Knut Hamsun Centre, 2009
A slightly tilted box, sheathed in tarred wood, based, according to Holl on Norwegian vernacular of wood stave churches, sod roofs and windows placed to receive low sun. Conceptually, the skin peels back in places for staircases, windows, tiny decks: tiny lesions that humanise an uncompromised, black three-storey building.
There is, of course, controversy. Hamsun (1859-1952) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920; he is known as the father of the modern novel for his use of such things as flashbacks and fragmentation, his plain prose, his love of nature and beauty. He gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels and was a member of Quisling's National Unity Party. Quisling delivered Norway to Germany, more or less. This has compromised Hamsun's literary legacy.
The Hamsun Centre opened on the 150th anniversary of his birth. He had a hard childhood, much poverty, little schooling; his first book was Hunger in 1890, written in straitened, but for Hamsun, normal circumstances after he returned from an itinerant turn around the American midwest in the 1880s. With the success of his novels he bought a farm in Nordland, married, had a family and continued to write. As Jonathan Glancy wrote in his review of the Hamsun Centre 'The Nazi episode poisoned this well of beauty.'
Although Holl claims that a museum dedicated to a single writer should contain everything, good and bad, just the existence of a Hamsun Centre enrages many Norwegians and particularly the Simon Wiesenthal Centre which, evidently, has been fierce in its attack on Norway for validating Hamsun's life.
Glancey found the building beautiful, complex and unsettling, appropriate to the contradictory life that was Knut Hamsun's. The site is beautiful, the story both tragic and frustrating. How, we think, can anyone have gone so terribly wrong as to support Hitler. Yet the Germany of Hamsun's youth was the European centre of culture: of music, literature, history, philosophy; he was a germanophile, Norway was a colony, Nordland was a distant periphery. Not only did the Nazi episode poison Nordland's well of beauty, it poisoned Germany. This is a terrible narrative to try to encompass with architecture if architecture is supposed to take sides, which if it did, would no longer be architecture but some form of 3-d propaganda.
I can't speak about the building as I haven't seen it, other than in drawings, models and photos. It seems brave: the little details that cling to the black box are like flies: fragile, annoying, but also clean. I'm interested in black buildings right now, and this was one of them. The more I look at it, the more necessary it is that it is black, not because this is some sort of Norwegian barn vernacular, but because it is a building that holds great social and political tension, and has to bear the weight of twenty-first century vengeance. The blackness will be re-inscribed when Hamsun is taken up by Brevik and his ilk.