Out There

Project Lookout Point, Aurland, Norway

Architect Saunders & Wilhelmsen Arkitektur

Text Leslie Jen

The career trajectory of Newfoundland native Todd Saunders begins with the story of a boy whose travels abroad convinced him that the community of Bergen in Norway would be a viable and ideal place to start up his architectural practice. As a consequence of receiving the AIA Research and Special Studies Scholarship along with a Canadian-Scandinavian Travel Scholarship during his studies, Saunders eventually decamped for Bergen in 1997 after graduating from McGill University’s School of Architecture, and he has lived there ever since.

In these past nine years, Saunders has cultivated a thriving practice of small but sublime projects; this diving board into the abyss is a particularly unique example. In response to a 2002 invited architectural competition, the winning team of Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen conceived of this dramatic intervention entitled 640 m over Aurland and 20,120 km from Tokyo, giving visitors to Aurland an unprecedented ability to engage with the captivating landscape of the Norwegian fjords. Aurland is a small town in Sogn og Fjordane, one of the larger fjords on the west coast of Norway which is quickly becoming a major tourist attraction.

Not surprisingly, landscape and site formed the primary guiding principles for the design of the lookout point. A minimal intervention was proposed so as not to disrupt the purity of the site. Though the bridge form is highly expressive, it is also an incredibly restrained and elegant gesture which complements the stark fjord condition.

The structure measures 4 metres wide, 30 metres long, and 9 metres down from its edge to its bottom support. A bolted steel frame forms the armature of this bridge to nowhere: smaller steel components to be assembled later were easier to transport, a serious consideration given the winding Norwegian roads accessing the site. Steel “legs” are visible at the base of the structure and end in concrete footings buried in the earth so as to remain invisible. Solid pine planks sheathe the floor surface and underside, and the wood is naturally preserved with a clear colourless finish. The sides of the structure are constructed of 3-inch-thick laminated beams–the straight beams were made locally in Norway, while the curved portions had to be manufactured in The Netherlands.

The initial concept provided for an opening near the entry point of the horizontal bridge plane, enabling visitors to take an alternate path down the stairs hugging the steep slope to the fjord. This feature was eventually excised from the scheme: apart from the preference for a cleaner and simpler design, the safety issues requiring additional construction of walls and protective supports for the stairs went against Saunders and Wilhelmsen’s design philosophy of restrained site intervention.

To heighten the dramatic potential of the experience, the architects projected the bridge form horizontally for 30 metres into the air. As such, the construction creates a distinct horizon, a bridge into the vast openness of this immense fjord. Leaving the dense forest pines and vegetation virtually untouched achieves two objectives: one obviously to do with lessening environmental impact and sustainability, the other to enhance the power and experiential quality of the project. Choosing to walk the plank to the very end rewards the visitor with a vertiginous sense of hovering amongst the treetops, 640 metres above the ground and water below, and beyond the steep surrounding cliffs. A virtually invisible 1.2-metre-high glass barrier affixed at an angle maintains unimpeded views to the landscape, and more importantly perpetuates the sense of potentially falling off the edge of this precipice.

To accommodate vehicular-bound tourists stopping to appreciate the fantastic views over the fjords, the architects made provision for a small parking area and washrooms 100 metres further up the road away from the bridge, preserving the purity of the lookout and of the views. The materials used in the public washroom buildings echo that of the lookout bridge, and the washrooms also employ the same conceptual underpinning of hovering over the fjord with an unprecedented sense of visual engagement and connection to the landscape.

Saunders and Wilhelmsen worked in partnership from 2001 to 2003 as Saunders & Wilhelmsen Arkitektur AS during which time this project was conceived. They have since parted ways to manage their own independent firms in the separate cities of Bergen and Hardanger respectively, though they still collaborate frequently.

Now still only 36, Saunders’ work is displaying a maturity that is finding an appreciative audience around the world. Prior to venturing out on his own, Saunders’ global work experience lists Canada, Austria, Germany, Russia, and Latvia. Although the office is currently building mostly in Norway, it also has projects in England and the US. For such a young practice, Saunders Architecture has an astonishing number of projects under its belt: exquisite summer houses, lofts, apartments and small public space projects like this one flesh out the portfolio. The quality of the firm’s work was recognized in the fall of 2004, when Saunders was featured in a group exhibition entitled 20 under 40: Young Norwegian Architecture hosted by the Norwegian Architecture Association. His practice also benefits from his continued involvement in academia. Since 2001, he has been teaching part-time at the Bergen Architecture School. He has lectured across Scandinavia and in Canada and England, and will teach a one-week design/build course in the International Architecture Program in Oulu, Finland.

It’s not surprising that Saunders is doing so well in his adopted country: apart from a cold climate, Scandinavian countries share with Canada a finely honed design sense encompassing a reverence for honest natural materials along with a clarity and expression of structure. The Nordic/Canadian design sensibility permeates the Aurland lookout point, its emergent streamlined bending form warmed by the bands of wood sheathing its surface. Its official opening takes place this June.

Client Norwegian Transport Department

Architect Team Todd Saunders, Tommie Wilhelmsen

Structural/Mechanical/Electrical Node As

Landscape Todd Saunders, Tommie Wilhelmsen

Road Engineers Asplan Viak

Contractor Veidekke As

Budget 17 M Norwegian Kroners ($2.95m)

Completion November 2005

Photography Todd Saunders