OSLO — The Pritzker Prize, the highest honor an architect can receive, will be presented to Sverre Fehn on May 31 in Bilbao, Spain. It is the first time in the 18-year history of the prize that a Norwegian has received this honor.
A study of Fehn's body of work, which spans 50 years, makes it evident why he is so deserving.
His Glacier Museum, in Fjaerland, Norway, has walls of mountains on three sides and a fiord on the fourth. He describes it as "an altar in a landscape." Two stairways lead up to the roof of the museum where you come face to face with the glacier.
Fehn's Hedmark Cathedral Museum in Hamar, Norway, is regarded as an architectural triumph. It is built in and around 12th-century ruins. "They must remain unchanged for they tell the old tragic story of wars, bishops, and history," he says.
"You confront the past, and have to work with it. It has made a great impression on my work."
Fehn was at his home in Oslo when we talked. His house is meaningful to him, since it was designed by his late teacher and mentor, Arne Korsmo, one of Norway's leading architects.
"When Bill Lacey, secretary of the Pritzker jury, phoned me that I was this year's winner, I was amazed and happy. My thoughts went back to Korsmo. You see I am the first of my family to be an architect. My father was a lawyer and my mother a pharmacist.
"If it hadn't been for Korsmo insisting that I had a gift for design and construction, this might never have happened. He was the one who inspired my study in France, and later Morocco."
Those three years in Paris made a deep impression. "I was of the generation," Fehn says, "where we students rode our bicycles to the home of Le Corbusier and tried to absorb his pictorial world. We seemed to come of age in the shadow of modernism."
His time spent in the villages of North Africa was in deep contrast to the landscape, weather, and light of Norway.
Now the architect has a body of work that includes museums, cathedrals, and housing projects. One of the most unusual was a series of Holiday Houses in Sweden, which were built of nonconventional materials - 10 percent clay and 90 percent straw. "If you do it right," he says, "it has good insulation and a textured surface."
Next month will be busy for the soft-spoken architect. The Pritzker Prize will be presented at the almost-completed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Its architect is Frank Gehry, a former Pritzker winner (1989). (Last year, the ceremony was at the Getty Center and Museum in West Los Angeles, again "a work in progress" by 1984 Pritzker winner Richard Meier.)
The following week, he attends the opening of a retrospective of his architectural career at the Basilica by Palladio in Vicenza, Italy. The same week, a new book on Fehn's architecture is being published by Electra of Milan. Also, Fehn's son, Guy, will release a video on his dad's work.
"And," Fehn smiles, "I have just received the green light to begin construction on the addition to the National Theatre in Copenhagen."
Fehn won an international competition for the National Theatre. In the heart of the city, it is a sensitive issue because it must blend with the existing theatrical complex.
His motto is: "Have a good understanding before construction" - which he told his students when he taught from 1971 to 1993 at his alma mater, the Oslo School of Architecture, part of the University of Norway.
Also, when he designs a residence, "I explain building a home for a man is like making his self-portrait. You create a kind of poetry around your client or project."
Fehn has taught and lectured extensively around the world. In the United States, he has taught at Yale and Cooper-Union and lectured at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cornell.
Fehn is proud for Norway. "As a youth, I always imagined I was getting away from traditional Norwegian architecture. The more I studied, the more I realized I was operating within its context. My interpretation of the site, the light, the materials has a strong relationship to my origins."
Ecology is paramount to his planning. When he designed the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, he never disturbed the magnificent grove of trees. The result? The structure was built around growing trees, with construction accommodating the trunks and branches.
The diffuse light Fehn uses to such dramatic effect has been characterized as Nordic. This is evident in the Glacier Museum, where green translucent glass mirrors the ice green remnants. Such lighting reminds one of the calving of the glacier.
"The act of building can be brutal, he says. "When I build on a site in nature that is totally unspoiled, it is a fight, an attack by our culture. In this confrontation, I strive to make a building that will make people more aware of the beauty of the setting, and when looking at the building, a hope for a new consciousness to see the beauty there as well."
One of Fehn's frequent messages is: "Only by reincarnating the moment can we begin a dialogue with the past." For Fehn, these words live through his works.