Architecture or Apocalypse

By Kjetil Fallan.

We evolve from architects to ecologists, because we want to hide our sins and our shame. We see an ecological idea. Entirely clear. With the help of a new SCIENTIFIC mechanism we dream of cleansing the world of all the filth we and science have dispersed. But we turn away. Close our eyes and our mind. To that which we sense is there all the time. (Not just subconsciously.) The ecological idea’s poisonous excrements. [1]
Brekkestranda Fjordhotell. Photo: John Erling Blad. Creative Commons.

The Norwegian architect Bjørn Simonnæs was no less concerned about the environmental destruction caused by modern industrial technology than were his colleagues—but contrary to other aspiring eco-designers, Simonnæs did not find salvation in the emerging science of ecology. His objection to the notion of ecology as a panacea capable of ‘cleansing the world’ seems to be grounded in the logic that you can’t fight fire with fire. If, as he believed, science was to blame for our destruction of the environment, science could not be the solution—not even the ‘greenest’ science of all. Understood as science, he reasoned, ecology was underpinned by the very same basic structures and principles as any other science, including those most culpable for the current crisis.

This distrust even in science-based ecology as a way forward is what set Simonnæs apart from other anti-growth proponents, pre-industrial romantics and back-to-the-land activists that populated the environmentalist movement at the time. Another intriguing aspect of his rather pessimistic outlook, which aligned better with other streaks of anti-growth thinking, is his view on energy consumption. Based on the notion of the earth as a steady-state energy system, he argued in a 1974 essay that the exponential growth in energy consumption in the twentieth century would be our road to perdition: ‘Here in Norway, Director General Vidkunn Hveding [of the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Administration] fables of doubling Norwegians’ consumption in only 15 years.’ [2] Such technocratic visions spelled disaster to Simonnæs, who claimed that ‘Any power plant implies the loss of lives on an immeasurable scale. The life-giving water in creaks and rivers dries up between dam and turbine. The temperature changes, the climate changes, plants die, insects die, fish die. Only so that technologists can produce even more useless and harmful aluminium.’ [3] That Simonnæs considered even the production of aluminium, normally considered the most environmentally friendly metal due to its high potential for efficient recycling, by means of hydroelectric power—as opposed to, say, coal-fired power—unacceptable, is highly revealing of his dim view of industrial society. Naturally, though, Simonnæs reserved his most intense predictions of ‘doom and gloom’ for the short-sighted exploitation of fossil fuels: ‘Nature has stored this enormous amount of energy for millions, billions of years. And now it is burned up on a gigantic bonfire in the course of a few decades.’ Long before global warming became a household phrase, the apocalyptic architect laconically noted that ‘the temperature is about to rise in the greenhouse Tellus.’ The ‘privileged technologists’ would not stop, he continued, until they have surpassed ‘the Creator himself’ and succeeded in tapping energy from the earth’s glowing core and, ultimately, in ‘creating artificial life.’ Beyond this final frontier, ‘nature may just as well succumb completely’ only to be ‘resurrected artificially in reservoirs, zoos and electronic greenhouses.’[4]

Amidst all his bleak prognostics, Simonnæs eventually acknowledges that there were counterforces at work—but that these efforts made up a classic case of too little, too late. The ‘privileged conqueror human’ was facing resistance ‘from a new type of humans’ who respected life, and not just human life. [5] Based on the same neo-Malthusian view regarding the challenges of the exponential increase in the world’s population that underpinned the Club of Rome report Limits to Growthpublished two years earlier—co-authored by Norwegian climatologist Jørgen Randers [6]—Simonnæs sought to overturn the image of the ‘privileged conqueror human’ in favour of an understanding of humans as ‘unprivileged’, as one life form amongst many. By now his view of ecology had taken a turn for the better: ‘Ecology—the science of balance—has provided the unprivileged human with a great challenge. The greatest of all challenges. To stop the insane crusade. To stop the plunder of energy. To stop the murder on nature.’ [7]

The only hope he saw was in grass-root activism. Self-identifying unprivileged humans should get together and stage revolts against plunder. ‘For example through active participation in the new people’s movement: “The Future in Our Hands”.’[8] The Future in Our Hands (Fremtiden i våre hender) had been founded just a few months earlier by former advertising consultant Erik Dammann, based on the remarkable success of his eponymous book published two years prior, in 1972.[9] Damman and his organization, which grew rapidly to include more than 25,000 members and wielding considerable political influence, pushed for significant reductions in the production and consumption of goods and for a global redistribution of resources. [10] Simonnæs hoped that initiatives such as Dammann’s could inspire people to ‘consume less, earn less, and pay less taxes.’ A particularly promising area in this respect, he believed, was agriculture. Norway was riddled with small plots of land left idle in the wake of the mechanization of farming. These, he argued, could be utilized by turning the entire population into ‘finger farmers’: ‘No tractor. No oil. No electricity. Soon we will be completely self-supporting.’ Fully aware that this sounded exactly like the oft-ridiculed back-to-the-land romanticism, he hurried to mention that reputed, politically recognized organizations like Friends of the Earth Norway (Norges Naturvernforbund, est. 1914) and the Norwegian College of Agriculture currently were planning seminars teaching people how to live off of nature’s non-farmed food. In the end, however, these hopes were just a momentary lapse of pessimism. Because ‘the energy technologists have all the power’ and would not listen to any protests. The recent oil crisis had, paradoxically enough, only made matters worse, he argued, as it had made their quest even more relentless. Simonnæs thus ended on a gloomier note than ever: ‘there is no hope. We must accept that the world will end with a tremendous bang.’[11]

Despite the fatalistic flavour of his prose, Simonnæs did try to practice what he preached. He was actively engaged in heritage preservation and nature conservation projects, and styled himself a ‘nester’. The most remarkable ‘nest’ he designed, with his office partner Jacob Myklebust, was Brekkestranda Fjordhotell (1966-1980, figs. 1 & 2). This small hotel overlooking the Sognefjord, an hour’s drive north of Bergen, represents of a new type of ecological design and can be seen as a manifestation of Simonnæs’ radical ideology. The bulk of the buildings is broken down into irregular volumes adapted to the natural topology of the site, so that the comparably large structure becomes subordinate to the landscape.[12] The foundation walls are made from natural stone, the roof is turfed, and both interior and exterior wall cladding is of rough, untreated flitch—the edge of the log, a material that is normally considered residual, suitable only for low-grade constructions such as fences or ground to chip. Simonnæs also designed much of the furniture for the hotel, relying on craft production and local materials.[13] These contemporary explorations of traditional techniques, materials and methods were intended to demonstrate that a low-tech approach could be a sound alternative, both ecologically and economically, to the high-tech strategies of mainstream modernist architecture. In other words, Brekkestranda Fjordhotell can be seen as a total work of eco-design in which every aspect of the project is planned to work with nature rather than against it.

Brekkestranda Fjordhotell. Photo: John Erling Blad. Creative Commons.

If the built result is remarkable in its carefulness, so is the design process. Firstly, the project was planned and developed in close collaboration with the owners of the hotel, the local Brekke family. Given the family business context and the small-scale economy involved, the project did not lend itself to a conventional top-down design process dictated by the architect as a sovereign, heroic figure. Instead, it called for a genuine dialogue capable of converging the clients’ concerns and the architects’ visions. This dove-tailing of ecological and socio-economic considerations on the one hand and the rethinking of the design process on the other makes Brekkestranda Fjordhotell a good example of how, as Ida K. Lie has shown, the rise of socially responsible design as a key concern in Scandinavia at this time went hand in hand with the emergence of participatory design as methodology.[14] Secondly, the design and construction process was deliberately slow. Simonnæs and Myklebust had earlier, in the 1950s, pioneered design for industrial housing construction, most successfully through the prefabricated modular system Flexihus, which even spawned a British subsidiary, Flexihouse Ltd. [15] By the mid-1960s, however, they had—as Simonnæs’ writings reveal—lost faith in this type of fast, standardized construction. The little hotel was therefore planned and realized in a diametrically opposite manner, constructed in six stages over a period of fourteen years, with the first part opening in 1970, four years into the process. This prolonged process was a willed method fostering—and fostered by—an ethics of engagement and attentiveness. The planning and development of Brekkestranda Fjordhotell thus revealed an understanding of design in terms of consequential and long-term thinking, making it tempting in retrospect to cast it as a case of ‘slow design’ avant la lettre. Sognefjord might be a long way from Yosemite, but as this case has shown, the roots of the ‘combination of design thinking and practice with activism and environmental concerns’ that characterise slow design can be found in the careful design of a low-impact hotel in western Norway just as it can in the careful design of low-impact climbing gear in western United States. [16]

Simonnæs was clearly more hesitant than some in embracing the scientific discipline of ecology as a panacea for design. Not because he was not convinced of the gravity of the environmental problems or that radical changes were required, but because of a deep distrust in the structures and institutions of big science. He might also have doubted if even the most radical versions of ecological design held the potential of arresting the looming apocalypse. But his humble hotel project reveals a hope that slow design could perhaps help slow down what he saw as our frantic race towards the inevitable end. Simmonæs and fellow travellers in Bergen’s countercultural architecture circles later institutionalised their dedication to societal and environmental issues, slow design, and ecological principles with the establishment in 1986 of Bergen School of Architecture, a small, private institution motivated by the desire for an alternative to the educational principles and priorities of established programs.[17]


1. Bjørn Simonnæs, ’ØKOLOGI med store bokstaver’, Arkitektnytt no. 16, 1969: 363.

2. Bjørn Simonnæs, ’Rovplyndring av energi’, Arkitektnytt no. 10, 1974: 205.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, Limits to Growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind (New York: Universe Books, 1972).

7. Bjørn Simonnæs, ’Rovplyndring av energi’, Arkitektnytt no. 10, 1974: 205.

8. Ibid.

9. Erik Dammann, Fremtiden i våre hender (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1972). English edition: Erik Dammann, The Future in Our Hands (New York: Pergamon Press, 1979).

10. Kjetil Fallan, ’”The ’Designer’—The 11th Plague”: Design Discourse from Consumer Activism to Environmentalism in 1960s Norway’, Design Issues 27(4) (2011): 40.

11. Bjørn Simonnæs, ’Rovplyndring av energi’, Arkitektnytt no. 10, 1974: 205.

12. Nils Georg Brekke, Per Jonas Nordhagen, and Siri Skjold Lexau, Norsk arkitekturhistorie: Frå steinalder og bronsealder til det 21. hundreåret (Oslo: Det norske samlaget, 2003), p. 368.

13. Elisabeth Seip, ‘Bjørn Johannes Simonnæs’, in Norsk kunstnerleksikon. Article published 20.11.2014, retrieved 12.12.2016 from: https://nkl.snl.no/Bj%C3%B8rn_Johannes_Simonn%C3%A6s.

14. Ida Kamilla Lie, ‘“Make Us More Useful to Society!”: The Scandinavian Design Students’ Organization (SDO) and Socially Responsible Design, 1967–1973’, Design and Culture 8(3) (2016): 327-361.

15. Seip, Op. cit.

16. Michelle Labrague, ’Patagonia, A Case Study in the Historical Development of Slow Thinking’, Journal of Design History 30(2) (Forthcoming, 2017).

17. Brekke, Nordhagen, and Lexau, Op. cit.