Into the Arctic Circledsdsd

In 2008 on our way to the Venice Architecture Biennale, we visited acclaimed Pritzker Prize winning Swiss Architect Peter Zumthor in his Haldenstein studio, where he described a witchcraft memorial he was designing for a site in the Arctic Circle. Four years after that conversation, in August this year, we were flying to Vardø over the snow capped mountains, bluey grey fjords and glacial lakes of far north Norway. Our conversation and thoughts were still brimming and stimulated by ‘Crafted’, the 12th Alvar Aalto Symposium that we had attended and all of the Aalto buildings that we had been so lucky to experience in Finland during the days before this flight.

We had travelled almost 14,000 kilometres north from Noosa Heads in Queensland to a latitude of 70 degrees into the Arctic Circle, and we were finally looking northeast from the Norwegian mainland across the icy Barents Sea to the windswept, treeless, most northeast island of Vardø. Amidst the distant pitched roofs and timber clad houses in earthy pastel tones, two structures held presence in the late summer evening light and were scaled more towards the vast landscape – the vertical white spire of Eyvind Moestue’s 1958 Vardø church and the horizontal white line of the Steilneset Memorial built in 2010, which is a beautiful collaboration between Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the late French-born, American artist Louise Bourgeois and the reason for our journey to this end of the earth.

Our pilgrimage to the port town of Vardø on this month long Nordic architecture sojourn, followed the memorable visit to Zumthor’s studio, where he showed us through his projects, the myriad of exquisite models and explained the design of ‘a witchcraft memorial project he was designing with an artist in far north Norway’. We stood looking across the water at all 125 metres of this distinct skeletal white line, which ‘underlined’ the town of Vardø at the edge between water and land, 64 kilometres from the Russian border. We descended 88 metres below sea level, as we drove through the 3km long sub-sea concrete tunnel towards Vardø, an experience reminiscent of a scene from James Bond’s Dr. No. At 7.00pm, we arrived to a misty, sleety evening of near freezing 4 degrees, illuminated with an omnipresent horizontal half light which stayed into the very early hours of the following morning. Our walk through the narrow streets after dinner was narrated by the eerie calls of seabirds, most of the houses we passed, had lamps glowing in their square proportioned curtainless windows, which gave us comfort that we were not alone on the island, even though everyone else seemed cosy inside. We wanted to spend as much time discovering and experiencing the reason for us being in this chilling part of the world, so we were dressed to deal with the arctic climate. It wasn’t long before our extremities felt the cold but any discomfort was anaesthetized by the growing anticipation of Zumthor’s architecture over the brow of the hill.

Our town map gave us the clue as to how we wanted to arrive that evening and so we walked past the gates of the 1307 Vardø Fortress, through the little cemetery, past the small black and white timber Vardø Chapel and down towards the haunting site of the 17th century Vardø witchcraft trials, where 77 women and 14 men were tried and burned at the stake. Seen from the cemetery glowing in the bluey half light of the midnight sun, the Steilneset Memorial, which commemorates the 91 persecuted victims, many of which were indigenous Sami people, came into plain view as another significant ‘underline’ beneath the distant treeless mountains on mainland Norway, along the jagged rocky coastline. It is a two part composition – a long white line and a black dot, also the black and white colour scheme of the nearby cemetery chapel. It consists of two structures designed by Zumthor – an infinitely long structure of bleached ‘driftwood’ timber frames encasing a stretched canvas cocoon structure and a dark glass cube.

In an interview with ArtInfo magazine, Zumthor described his collaboration with Bourgeois as simply, “I had my idea, I sent it to her, she liked it, and she came up with her idea, reacted to my idea, then I offered to abandon my idea and to do only hers, and she said, ‘No, please stay.’ So, the result is really about two things – there is a line, which is mine, and a dot, which is hers… Louise’s installation is more about the burning and the aggression, and my installation is more about the life and the emotions [of the victims].” After what seemed like hours wandering around the rugged site, finding some respite from the wind within Zumthor’s canvas version of the tunnel that brought us to Vardø, the bitter cold finally ushered us back to shelter for the night.

If it actually got dark that night, we didn’t see it. We awoke early to more cries of seabirds and the lapping of harbour water outside our window and to the sight of Vardø port against a magnificent crisp blue sky, a reminder of our big blue sky down under. After a savoured breakfast of ryebread, cheese and pickled Herrings, we headed to the Pomor Museum (Vardø’s Russian history) where we met with Andreas Hawkenes and spent the next two hours discussing the history, politics and stories of the region, and being Vardø born, a true local’s perspective of the Steilneset Memorial story. It was delightful to meet Andreas in person after our lengthy email conversations during months beforehand. The sleet of the previous night had cleared to reveal the clearest, biggest blue sky. We spent the day in places between Steilneset and as many vantage points on the island as we could find to view the memorial in its context.

‘Memory Hall’ is a long fabric enclosure shaped like a herring fillet, supported by hundreds of bleached ‘driftwood’ frames, inspired by the remnant fish drying diagonal timber structures that stood abandoned in nearby fields. The timber structure holds the canvas cocoon up off the ground and allows daisy like flowers to proliferate from the rocky ground below. Its walls, white on the outside, consist of stiff fabric stretched by stainless steel wires into a regular pattern, are suggestive of sail rigging. Ninety-one small, square windows recessed in metal frames punctuate the walls at irregular heights. Entered via a timber ramp, the structure is light to the touch – the inner surfaces of the walls are black fabric which resonates in the wind. Each window represents a victim of the witch trials identified, along with details of each individual’s ordeal on hanging plaques. Ninety one small light bulbs suspended in the windows give a feeling of endless movement along a torchlit corridor, a sensation enhanced by the raised timber catwalk underfoot. The effect produced by the varying heights of the windows and lights, the elevated walkway, and the square, recessed views of the outer world are very theatrical as in much of Zumthor’s emotive work.

In stark contrast, a few metres away, a reflective black glass cube pavilion, encloses Bourgeois’s installation, a terminus of high drama after the studied quiet of the long ‘tunnel’ interior. “The Damned, the Possessed, and the Beloved” is an unforgettable vision in this rugged landscape. A steel chair centred inside a volcanic cone of off-form concrete burns perpetual flames from its seat. Seven huge oval mirrors, angled above the chair on slender pylons, twist the flames and viewer into sinister shapes and distortions. The timber and canvas hall celebrates the lives of those lost, whereas the glass cube expresses the horror.

As well as the experiential quality of the architecture within and its presence in the bigger landscape, it was utterly moving as each of the victims was represented as a unique and valuable person in the memorial. Each had a shining light and a small square window both for looking into and for looking outwards. As we boarded the small plane to take us to Oslo via Kirkenes, we were silent whilst our thoughts were about our 24 hour pilgrimage to Zumthor’s memorable and poignant architecture – our journey was unexpectedly touched by the history and geography of this magnificent Nordic landscape.

Published on Architecture Australia AAU. Click Here to view.