February 1, 2011
In rural Norway, Todd Saunders conjures the hidden beauty and buried history of a seemingly unremarkable site.
Alongside a ribbon of highway on the southeast tip of Norway, where 40,000 automobiles motor every day past farms, barns, and weathered industrial buildings, a curious tower has risen from the rolling green fields. Clad in Cor-Ten steel, glass, and vertical strips of cedar, it’s an unexpected and attention-grabbing sight—and that’s precisely the point. Designed by the architect Todd Saunders for the Norwegian highway department and the Sarpsborg regional government, the tower is supposed to entice travelers to stop rather than merely pass through—part of a national architectural effort to get motorists to slow down and appreciate Norway’s natural beauty.
In this case, however, the initial problem—or opportunity—was that the clients didn’t provide any real guidance beyond this. “There was never a program,” Saunders says. “They didn’t know what they wanted, and they didn’t have a budget. The first assumption was a few picnic tables and an outdoor toilet.” The clients had good reason to expect that Saunders could come up with something a bit more dynamic; they recruited him after seeing Aurland Lookout, a vertigo-inducing road-side viewing platform high above a Norwegian fjord, which Saunders designed with the architect Tommie Wilhelmsen (see “Cliff-Hanger,” May 2006).
But where Aurland offered jaw-dropping natural beauty, Sarpsborg offered, well, not much. “The landscape was so flat that the site was missing a feeling of being able to see things,” Saunders says. With the 100-foot-tall tower, which contains only a staircase and an elevator, Saunders tried to open up views of the surrounding fields and forest and also create a beacon to drivers on the road. His other major challenge was noise—it’s hardly relaxing to stop for a break amid the cacophony of cars, trucks, and motorcycles speeding almost directly beside you. To insulate visitors, Saunders installed a sweeping concrete wall, also clad in Cor-Ten, that shields a 21,500-square-foot park. Beside the wall, a concrete ramp gently winds toward the tower, creating space for restrooms and a café underneath.
The last step was the cultural programming. Meeting with representatives of the regional government, Saunders learned of ancient Viking rock carvings and burial sites scattered in the area. “Some people knew about it, but it was only the special-interest groups,” he says. “There wasn’t much promotion or exposure yet.” So Saunders and Camilla Holcroft, a graphic designer, created seven pavilions offering information on the carvings and graves, and then added a timeline from 5,000 B.C. to the present on the long wall, with graphics cut by water jet. Modern-day visitors will hardly be able to miss the implication: that they are but the latest in a long line of Norwegian road warriors taking a breather at this ancient rest stop.