Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway (ALA Architects 2012). Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo.
Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway (ALA Architects 2012). Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo.

A conversation with Bjarke Ingels and ALA Architects

One of the most well-known works of young, contemporary Finnish architecture is the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway by ALA Architects. Recently, Kilden was nominated as the Jury Winner in the Theatres & Performing Arts Centers category in the Architizer A+ Awards 2014. By courtesy of the Finnish Architectural Review, we are happy to re-published a topical interview with Bjarke Ingels and the partners of ALA Architects – Antti Nousjoki, Juho Grönholm, Janne Teräsvirta and Samuli Woolston. Kilden and  the interview were published in the Finnish Architectural Review, issue 1/2012.

Bjarke Ingels: You can totally break your neck working on your first building, trying to do everything everywhere; especially when your first project is one like this was – a building of a significant public status in a very special location. There’s “a transition from the reality to the fantasy”, although architecturally it is almost more like the other way round. Behind the curtain everything is ultra-realistic, whereas in front of it everything is very imaginative and very different.

Antti Nousjoki: The architecture gives way to the drama and music. We weren’t all that young when we took part in the competition and our overall scheme was based on very pragmatic thinking: use the extra ammunition on the foyer space, make a very straightforward and functional production facility, contrast those against each other – and put all the spaces above ground. That was one of the reasons our entry won: our design was one of the few that looked good without tons of stuff pushed underground in basements because of the site’s small footprint.

Juho Grönholm: We really concentrated on functionality, understanding that a performing arts building is both a factory for producing performances and a workplace for 200 people. The result was a quite functional and straightforward design, where the architecture assumed a more decorative role. Of course you shouldn’t say that architecture is a decoration, but somehow here it is: a sort of black box machine with a decorated public face.

Ingels: Let’s talk a little bit more about the original scheme. I think the lobby works incredibly well. Has it changed much from the competition proposal?

Janne Teräsvirta: Everything changed a million times in the backstage areas, and the halls have been reset dozens of times throughout the project – they have even switched places. But the foyer is exactly the same, the definitive space for the public. All the main elements of the competition entry are still there, which is pretty amazing in retrospect.

Samuli Woolston: Often in theatres, the stage tower becomes the landmark. We chose instead to bring out the auditoriums, the event where the performers and the public meet, rather than emphasize the factory behind.

Nousjoki: And since there are two big halls of equal importance, the curving foyer wall is the symbol or the identity that actually supports that.

Woolston: They have a unified identity, but you can also see that there are several things going on behind.

Ingels: Two recent Danish theatre buildings, the Royal Danish Playhouse (2008) and the Copenhagen Opera House (2004), didn’t manage to escape the silly tower hat.

Grönholm: Kilden also has a four-meter-tall hat, but the building is just big enough to hide it.

Woolston: Originally a flat roof was the goal and everything was to fit underneath it, but at one point we had to push the perimeter down, so there is a small hat.

a shed with a duck

Ingels: You don’t see it anywhere, I didn’t see it anyway.

Nousjoki: We followed the progress of the opera house in Copenhagen and knew what problems they were encountering. Also with Kilden, the roof extends out to the water and you don’t want to make it look like some kind of mannequin’s head with a fencing mask, but instead resolve the problem. The Lucerne Cultural and Congress Centre (2000) was an example to us, and, of course, the Copenhagen Playhouse was well underway as well.

Woolston: It was obvious that we wanted to do a big canopy in some way, so that you could just drive up right in front of the foyer and step in.

Grönholm: The idea was to extend the foyer to the outside and provide easy access.

Ingels: In America there’s this tradition of a big exciting canopy, a sort of Las Vegas, “decorated shed” attitude, to use the vocabulary of Venturi. Only now it is a decorated black box.

Grönholm: It’s a shed with a duck.

Ingels: Yes, exactly – a ducked shed.

Teräsvirta: It reminds me of theatres that are built within a city block with only one façade to the street. The façade is loaded with features and the rest of the building is just merged into the city block. In this case it is merged into the harbour context.

Ingels: That aspect may have become exaggerated by the technical facility building behind Kilden and the parking facility situated in a separate box. It is almost impossible to see where the concert house ends and where the warehouses take over.

Woolston: For now at least, until they demolish the harbour and build it into a housing area. I don’t know what will happen then.

Nousjoki: Hopefully, the housing will resemble warehouses and they’ll keep the silo.

Woolston: That’s why we wanted a concrete or asphalt floor, to merge into the rest of the harbour plane.

Ingels: Now it’s granite?

Grönholm: Actually it is not granite; it is Norwegian flint stone from Alta. The idea was to have exactly the same surface throughout the building, but the concrete floor cracked.

the architecture is actually the reverse

Ingels: As my old professor would say: “It doesn’t matter what it costs, as long as it looks cheap.” Sometimes you end up in this situation where you’re trying to save the blatancy.

Ingels: I think there’s something quite interesting about how the architecture of Kilden performs: how the undulating wall acts as a plane that distinguishes between reality and fiction. But the architecture is actually the reverse – much more lyric in the reality section and much more basic and practical in the fantasy part.

Grönholm: Sure it’s like that, but there were two functions to consider: a factory that needs to be very functional and utilitarian and a foyer space whose only purpose was to entertain people. So of course there’s a contradiction in the theory about reality and fantasy. It’s fundamentally about how the space is used, with the foyer used to entertain and the backstage spaces used to create entertainment.

Woolston: The first reaction from the theatre was: “Are you sure which side is fantasy and which is reality?’” Because for them, obviously, the plays are about reality and whatever happens outside in the real world is…

Nousjoki: …just a sick capitalist fantasy.

Teräsvirta: Well I don’t think there’s a contradiction, it’s the architect’s job to bring “fantasy” to the public side and the theatre people’s job to bring fantasy to their side.

Grönholm: It’s like stage decorations: when you see them from behind they look very pragmatic with all the structures and modular geometries, but on the front you see only the painted West Side Story.

Ingels: In a sense Kilden is a sort of urban scenography, even to the extent that it’s actually quite fake in the sense that the main program does not directly follow the curving wooden shapes.

Nousjoki: The undulating wall is an exaggeration of what is actually happening behind. The public part is really important, as it is a publicly financed and run institution, not a private entertainment house. The building delivers even if you never visit it, even if you just see it from a distance.

Grönholm: It is important that the foyer space is like a living room where people can come and have a coffee and just wander around.

Ingels: In Las Vegas casinos, the arrival is a spectacle, with volcanoes and pirate ships and excessive architecture. As soon as you break through it, however, everything is organized; endless slot machines organized according to maximum security. Hotels are also organized with complete efficiency. In that sense Kilden is similar, with the public spectacle at the front, and then everything gets organised according to logistics and function and fire code and egress as soon as you penetrate the wooden curtain.

rational meeting the sculptural

Nousjoki: The problem with the design of many performing arts centres has to do with the idea that the hall has to be the most fanciful space and that everything has to water down from there. It becomes really bland from the inside. Maybe the Oslo Opera House (2007) is a counterexample with its usable roof that at least has some drive to it, although it may indeed prove to be pseudo-functional. Kilden is really about rejecting this kind of thinking as well, something evident also in some of our other work. We’re not so focused on thinking in terms of hierarchies – that the most amazing components should be exactly where the most precious artwork is in the museum. We think it can be a little mixed, that hierarchies can be played around with. A lot of our work has the rational meeting the sculptural. The sculptural is often at the scale of the whole project, whereas the rational gets broken down into a very small scale.

Ingels: In terms of the other ALA projects, your competition entry for The Warsaw Museum of Modern Art is most closely related to Kilden, right? But it seems to work the other way round: the public interface is extremely straightforward, while the back of the house is completely insane.

Teräsvirta: I guess, in terms of process, we discussed and focused on the public role and public space of the building the most, instead of the actual gallery spaces. The galleries do have a strong half-box, half-curve character, but it was pretty much a result of our conceptualising the project as a public building. Just as with the early design stages of Kilden, there was amazingly little discussion about the halls, but there was a lot of talk about the functionality of the spaces for the people who work there and the building’s public role.

Grönholm: Performing arts spaces are like products: the client describes what they want – effects and acoustics – and as a result every surface has to be precisely modulated. The desired atmosphere is specified, the theatre is described in detail to the architect. So performance halls are the sorts of products that the architect can in effect only decorate. The architect is given the task of wrapping the products up and bringing it all together.

Ingels: What about the two other theatre halls that you are currently designing, did they inherit any features from Kilden?

Nousjoki: They are both such unique projects. The Kuopio City Theatre is a renovation project to extend and refurbish a brutalist 1960s theatre building. This obviously gives the project a whole new vocabulary. The Lappeenranta City Theatre will be built on top of a new shopping mall with little exterior architecture. One floor on top of the mall will contain all the theatre halls and public spaces. Both of these designs play with the same functional ideas that we favour, like using a single floor plane so that the public foyer and the stage are on the same level, which should also serve as the main loading level.

Ingels: I find the way you combine two different kinds of approaches in Kilden interesting: decorating a strictly-dictated rational program, while at the same time creating something spectacular and not necessarily practical. The less information you have from the program, the more courage you build to exercise some kind of existential freedom, whereas the more the program takes over, the more you just become a humble servant or a facilitator. Also, like you described it before, the different products that you bring together, the blatant clash of two quite different ideologies within the same building, and a quite sudden change…

When I saw Kilden for the first time this morning there were two things that I identified as very Finnish. One is the big enigmatic sculptural object. It called to mind the Finnish Pavilion in Seville (1992), which was a completely anti-functional autonomous design, and Aalto obviously did similar things – it is easy to see how your canopy relates to the Finnish Pavilion in New York (1939). The other thing that immediately came to mind was when, in my second year of architecture, I visited the Danish Film High School (1993) by Heikkinen and Komonen. I had only seen it published in black and white. We arrived at night, slept in the car, woke up in the morning and looked out – and there it was in these quite shocking colours. I think a lot of the colours were similar to those used in Kilden.

Grönholm: With Kilden, the contrasts are very important. The program and the site: it’s in the city but it’s also in the harbour. It’s black and it’s white. It has the public side and the production side, there are the non-colours and the colours, quality materials and standard stuff. There’s a huge amount of contrast, the project is alive with them.

Ingels: Probably every single struggling architect on this planet, including me, is very jealous that you got a city’s landmark public building as your first commission. It’s what everyone works their entire life to achieve. Having that as your office’s first job is also a recipe for disaster. I think that your winning scheme offered a loophole in the sense that there’s almost no limit about how relentless a compromise you could have actually surrendered to – client demand, contracts, value engineering, whatever – it could have occurred in the backstage areas without essentially influencing the success of the building at all.

Nousjoki: That’s something we discussed from the absolute beginning.

Grönholm: Actually, already in the competition phase. The proposal was the framework: this part has to be done like we want and that part can be left to the process.

if you’re going to party, you party hard

Ingels: Normally I would be very sceptical of something that is, even in your own words, so purely decorative as the premise of this building. But I think this actually accounts for a lot of your work. There’s a certain effortlessness, in this case it’s framed with a perfect diagonal cut and then there are some seemingly effortless light-hearted shapes… in Danish you would say suveræne, although ‘sovereign’ sounds weird in English. A single gesture that almost becomes undisputable, even though you can argue that it creates different entrances and pockets. But the relationship between what it does and exactly how is not that bureaucratic – in fact there’s nothing neurotic about it. It may also be Finnish sensibility: you can be really crude, basic and pragmatic in general but sometimes, if you’re going to party, you party hard.

Grönholm: Thanks for that, that’s beautifully said.

Ingels: I think that’s maybe what is unique about Aalto. Most of the time, he is quite a functional and rational modernist – really by the book. Then he has these moments of unapologetic poetry.

Grönholm: Suvereeni in Finnish.

Ingels: It is the same in Danish. Suveræne means both complete independence and autonomy and sheer brilliance.

Nousjoki: You brought up the Finnish Pavilion in Seville. We are definitely the generation to whom, whether we wanted it or not, the Seville Pavilion was a huge influence. To see how that project completely rejected the contemporary high-tech, super-pragmatic, super-moralistic Grimshaw thing that was going on at the time.

Grönholm: When we started our studies, the Seville Pavilion was the only contemporary Finnish role model we had. It was the only Finnish success story in a long time.

Teräsvirta: The pavilion’s wooden part with the curving shape is the sovereign-suvereeni element. To me, that is the true Finnish tradition. The best Finnish architecture is about being suvereeni here and there; instead of being just pure, white and modernist all the time – or instead of following a consistent logic throughout – to also build contrast, contradict and be free in places.

By courtesy of the Finnish Architectural Review.
The text has been previously published in the Finnish Architectural Review, issue 1/2012.

Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway designed by ALA architects. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo.

Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway designed by ALA architects. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo.

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