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Helen & Hard – Architecture Magazine

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Siv Helene Stangeland and Reinhard Kropf founded the award-winning architectural office Helen & Hard in 1996, which today has 25 employees and offices in Oslo and Stavanger.

Having been awarded RIBAs International Fellowship, Helen & Hard are an internationally exhibited  studio with a renowned body of built work in timber. They have taught and lectured extensively about their research on holistic sustainable practices and their specialisation in timber architecture. Here, Siv talks to Architecture magazine about their innovative use of materials and how they are forging engaging developments with a new co-housing model.

What is your earliest memory of design and architecture having an impact on you?

We both think about experiencing and playing in nature as being core to our spatial history; Reinhard in the deep woods of Austria and I from the tidal zones of the west coast of Norway. I remember this coastal milieu as a rich world of boats, peers, sea houses and cabins, all built out of timber; whole parts of trees, or simple planks shaped and connected in skilful ways to protect against water and withstand the wind.

Where did you study?

Reinhard studied in Graz and then at Oslo School of Architecture which is where we met. I studied at Oslo School of Architecture, but spent two years in Barcelona, as a guest student at ETSAB and the art school Massana.

What kind of architects did you aspire to be and who inspired you on your way to setting up your own practice?

Our first common fascination was with Sverre Fehn, when meeting him as a teacher at AHO.  We both attended his legendary drawing lectures where he with a calm, soft voice and humour explained how an idea of a building was born in intimate dialogue with the landscape.

In Barcelona, I was struck by the playful Catalonian modernism, and of course Gaudi. It was colourful and rich in materiality, mimicking nature’s organic forms – combined with tectonic intricacy. The whole design scene in Barcelona was having a boost in the nineties and was very intriguing. It seemed so free and without dogma, very far from what I had experienced in AHO. With Louis Matteo and Enrique Miralles at ETSAB I had legendary teachers that have inspired us till today.

Venezia Biennale
Venezia Biennale

What does Helen & Hard represent as an architecture firm? Tell us about your specific model for working as a practice.

Helen & Hard´s main interest is to investigate the inherent ecological potential of architecture. By that we mean its relational, holistic and experiential nature which is often forgotten in the sustainable focus driven by calculations of emissions and certifications. The relational design approach cultivates a sensitivity and respect for the site specificity and singularity of each project. It’s nurturing an inclusive and emergent design devel­opment based on participation and engaging on a systemic level to provide better conditions for more holistic ecological solutions.

With these capacities and interests, making architecture for H&H means at the same time producing and being supported by designs which allow for multiple feedback and creative dialogues. We are constantly investigating spatial, structural and aesthetic concepts which can support these kinds of developments. Moreover, we also engage in changing and inventing new systemic conditions which can create better frameworks for a relational design practice.

Since 2011, H&H have been developing a new model for co-housing together with a green investor and is today its own company called Gaining by Sharing. As partners and investors we have taken on new roles as architects to be able to introduce alternatives in the established commercial housing market.

How do you carve your own path in the industry as a studio and individuals?

Helen & Hard was started in Stavanger on the southwest coast of Norway in 1994 when the first discarded oil platforms were returning from the North Sea to be disposed. It made a big impact on us to understand how the region was thriving economically as the result of a polluting and waste producing oil industry.

As a reaction we started to investigate design strategies based on recycling and transformation to demonstrate a more sustainable use of resources and also driven by finding new aesthetic expressions.

When transforming old log houses in the large timber heritage centre we discovered the many advantages when building in timber and it was therefore evident to us to use timber as a building material in new and larger projects as well. H&H has specialized in timber architecture since 2004 and is today renowned for innovative use of timber and timber structures in many different building typologies.

The exposed structural timber skeleton has become our main relational design vehicle. It is conceived as a structure which creatse rich experiential qualities, invites social and physical interaction and is suited to integrate infrastructures and furniture.

Financial Park- photo Sindre Ellingsen
Financial Park- photo Sindre Ellingsen

Where is the majority of your work based?

We mostly work in Scandinavia, in the west and southern part of Norway, and around Oslo where we also have an office. Alongside this, we have realised larger housing projects in Austria.

What has been a milestone design commission for your studio?

The Vennesla Library which was realized in 2011 and set a new standard for how we make relational timber structures. The SR-bank, an office building with 1300m2 and seven floors in timber was also a milestone in the development of larger urban timber structures. The Vindmøllebakken co-housing project realized in 2018 was an important pilot for our Gaining by Sharing co-housing model. As well as our recent commission for the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale which enabled us to show new models for co-housing and to create a dialogue and exchange with an international audience.

Vindmøllebakken atrium
Vindmøllebakken atrium

What does the face of architecture look like to you in 10 years time?

We believe there will be radical development of AI produced architecture. As a counter reaction architecture’s haptic, atmospheric, spatial and aesthical quailities will be revalued, enlivened and advanced as will handcraft and the use of natural materials.

A biophilic approach which seeks to connect building occupants more closely with nature will go hand in hand with the development of advanced technological infrastructures.

If you hadn’t become architects what would you be doing?

We would probably have become artists and philosophers. 


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