Photo: Dagfinn Sagen

MORTENSRUD CHURCH, OSLO, NORWAY (1998) Photo: Per Bertntsen


A wall of dry-stacked stones, a roof structure with wooden beams that criss-cross one another, and the ever-changing patterns of sunlight that enter: these are just a few of the features shared by the Mortensrud church and the Tautra Maria convent, designed in both cases by the Oslo based firm Jensen & Skodvin Architects.

One of the partners, Jan Olav Jensen, described how he sees the difference between designing a secular space and a sacred one. “In my experience, there is definitely a difference, although I find it hard to analyse and verbalize it in a precise and conclusive way. Maybe this is because it is not my field of expertise. Besides the Mortensrud church and the Tautra Maria convent, we designed a mosque, although it was not built. Presently we are completing a monastery for Buddhist monks. I have been struck more by the similarities than by the differences when it comes to designs of the religious kind. All the clients have shown a firm belief in the potential of architecture to create spaces that resonate with their religious beliefs. As an architect, I have come to the point where I try to understand the relationship between religion and architecture in relation to eternity. This seems to be an overriding wish among all the clients, although they never articulate it explicitly. For me, the architectural parallel to the concept of eternity is infinity, which is a more mathematical and geometrical interpretation.” 

- Architects work with physical structures, which are essentially limited, so not infinite at all. Are you able to express the idea of infinity in the building materials?

“I regard architecture as an autonomous, non-verbal language. In this respect architecture has an obvious parallel in music. I do not believe it is possible to translate this language in a precise way into written or spoken language, but I will try. I believe that architecture can express things that no other language can express, and that is why it is important in every culture. An aspect that architects do not talk about much is the physical metaphor. In other words, architecture can be poetic and full of hidden meanings. The idea of infinity is central to a lot of what we do at Jensen & Skodvin. It is often a matter of introducing elements that are irreproducible, for instance natural stone blocks or a stony outcrop. We retain the scratches and scars that building elements such as steel components acquire in the production process. Instead of painting them over, we allow each object to preserve its individuality and to have a unique readable history. I believe these and the similar techniques that we have developed create a richness and a density such that the materials can contain or express the concept of infinity.

MORTENSRUD CHURCH, OSLO, NORWAY (1998) Photo: Per Bertntsen

- Was creating a space with an aura of infinity your starting point for designing the Mortensrud church?

“Not really. The dialogue with the clients began in a much more pragmatic, down to earth way, but it was clear that they longed for a beautiful space that would resonate with their deepest religious feelings. Three people were selected from the forty members of the congregation council, and were appointed to deal with us during the design process. They stated three main requirements. Firstly, the church should look like a church. Even a child knows what a church looks like of course, but many architects find it hard to design one. The second requirement was that people should want to have weddings in the new church. It may sound strange, but statistics show that in Oslo very few people choose to get married in churches built after 1945. The oldest churches are far more popular and have long waiting lists. It is architecturally interesting to reflect on this. Are we no longer capable of creating suitable spaces? I see this requirement as related to the first. The third requirement was a bench at the back, which in old Norwegian tradition is where criminals and other sinners would be allowed to sit. This wish was very interesting architecturally: I thought of it as a zone where you are neither inside nor outside. All these wishes indicate a deep longing for a space that has poetic qualities, and that resonates with the atmosphere of worship taking place there.”

- Looking at your architecture, it is surprising that you designed a church with traditional characteristics like a symmetrical nave and a gabled roof.

“This was due to the first requirement, that the church should look like a church. We of course knew that a gabled symmetrical roof was an obvious solution, and we did not propose it ourselves. That was twenty years ago, and I must admit that I had problems with the conventional church shape in those days. I found it hard to combine it with certain deep-rooted architectural ideals that we adhered to, for instance our strong affinity for abstract and asymmetrical forms. After long discussions, the committee lost patience with our resistance and told us, ‘either you design a gabled roof or you are out’. It might seem hard to understand today, but it hurt the architectural pride of architects educated in an orthodox modernist tradition. Nevertheless, it was a great lesson for us. We struggled a lot with the gabled roof design, but some of the best parts of the architecture of Mortensrud arose from the way the gables were resolved. This struggle set off an architectural chain reaction that influenced the design of other parts of the church. To my surprise, I began to like the choice of the gabled roof more and more during the design process.”

- Unlike many modern architects, you have a passion for vernacular construction methods and craftsmanship. Can you say why you are attracted to these characteristics?

“You are right, we greatly enjoy using such methods. You could compare architects to composers, who must know the possibilities and limitations of the musical instruments in order to compose music for them. This knowledge is in many ways an indispensable part of our architecture when it comes to tectonics. When you start a project, you have unlimited possibilities. It is my belief that you need to find some kind of compositional discipline. We like our vocabulary to be grounded in an understanding of what can be done with the building materials we use; brick, stone, steel, wood, concrete and glass. Often, we deliberately search for ways to limit our choices, to take a path that seems more demanding. This approach seems to yield results. I have often wondered why. Maybe it has to do with the adrenaline rush that comes from the risk of being locked to a single path. Anyway, it is a strategy that tends to force you to enter new architectural terrain. In my opinion it is an obligation for architects and artists. The ‘transparent’ stone walls in Mortensrud are the result of a budget crisis. We had to get the cost down. We found a quarry that had a big heap of waste slate, a material that they could not use for commercial production. We bought the slate for a low price, but we could still not afford to use this material both on the inside and the outside. We then found a way to make an even cheaper wall, with glass. The idea was to use the glass wall as an outer climatic skin, combined with the ‘transparent’ dry stone wall on the inside. These choices came from our tectonic investigations combined with a tight budget. It was a gradual development. Using the waste stone was also conceptually interesting, because no two stones are identical. Their irreproducibility, their endless variation beyond any possible mathematical formula, in a way contains the idea of infinity, a very complex and dense expression.”

- Could the same be said of the light that penetrates between the irregular slate slabs of the wall, or of the light patterns created by the wooden roof structure of the church of the Tautra Maria monastery?

“Sure, the sun takes a slightly different path from one day to the next, and the weather changes too. So in practice there are endless variations in the lighting. For me, this is related to a sense of infinity.”

MORTENSRUD CHURCH, OSLO, NORWAY (1998) Photos: Jan Olav Jensen


Photos: Jan Olav Jensen

- As in all of your buildings, a connection with nature is an important theme. But in the case of a church or a monastery, details like these could also distract attention from worship and contemplation. Is there a risk that the architect tries to compete with God?

“Some people might come to that conclusion, I suppose. A priest who was also a researcher at a university in Norway wrote a dissertation about the architecture of new churches. He argued that some of them, such as the Mortensrud church, revealed a tendency: that people were losing their faith in their religion and it was taking second place to nature.”

There appears to be a distinct ambivalence in the Mortensrud church and the Tautra Maria monastery. On one hand, they enter into an intense dialogue with nature, for example in the way natural mate-rials such as stones, slate and wood are deployed. On the other hand, they are largely artificial constructions that are alien to nature. Do you deliberately strive to achieve this kind ambivalence in your work?

“Yes, I like architecture that is ambiguous and intellectually open – architecture that can be interpreted in many ways. We are very interested in structure, geometry, and composition, in all that is man-made. For me it is fundamental that as an architect you deal with change. When you build, you create physical objects. By so doing, you define conditions for human activity and influence how people live. The Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati makes a clear distinction between contextual and self-referential architecture –  or ‘the temple’ as he calls it – and he has declared that he is only interested in the latter. I can understand that, and I sympathize with his position. But I am convinced that as humankind we cannot ignore the context. In our work we try to combine these two opposites.”

- In most of your buildings, including the church and the monastery, you expose materials like slate, stone and wood in the raw, and create harsh confrontations between them. What do you like about this clash?

“Maybe it’s just a preference for surprise. I am not a big fan of crime novels, but I do like their fundamental storytelling concept: you are constantly astonished by turns in the plot and by changing suspicions about who is the villain. A similar narrative of the unexpected is a very potent architectural concept. It takes time before you see the whole picture, if you even get the chance.”