17 November 2017

Biotope philosophy & origin story - the AD interview

Biotope just won the Architectural Digest Design Award 2017 in the category architecture. 2017 have been a year where our work is getting quite a bit of recognition and momentum. We are both humbled and thankfull for everyone who have and continue to support our work. We have been fortunate to work with great clients from both the nature conservation scene, ecotourism businesses and onwards to local communities. We have since we started Biotope stayed true to our niche of architecture dedicated to nature experiences. 

As a part of the AD award Tormod was interviewed by the Architectural Digest. Below follows the interview, hopefully with some thoughts and insights you will find valuable. Thanks to AD for the award and a big thanks to everyone following our work as pro nature architects! 

The Kongsfjord cliff wind shelter / bivouac by polar night
Tormod representing Biotope at the Architectural Digest Design Award 2017 in Munich, November 2017.

AD interview with Tormod / Biotope, November 2017

AD: Thank you Tormod, here I go, starting with some short basics: I come from: 
T: Trondheim, central Norway. 

AD: When I look outside of my studio windows I see:
T: Vardø fishing harbour. 

AD: I like in my area: 
T: I am close to everything I appreciate in Vardø: my super cool daughter, amazing nature and all the great people I work with at Biotope: Elin, Alonza, Monica, Raymond and Mika. Everything is just a few minutes walk from our office. The positive atmosphere in Vardø is what I appreciate being a part of. 

AD: The first thing I did that I remember as something creative was: 
T: Drawing dinousaurs

AD: Three words that describe our style: 
T: Open, inclusive, engaging.

AD: Last time I went to a place / an event that really inspired me was: 
T: I live in the most amazing little town in the arctic. Inspiration is everywhere. Awe inspiring nature, great people, and lots of potential do do good things.

And now a bit more detailed:

AD: When did you start your own business and what were the most important career steps before that?
T: The idea of starting our own architcture office emerged during the school years in Bergen. We missed role models in the architecture scene that worked with nature related projects. Personally I decided that I would become the architect that I missed hearing about. The first year after graduation in 2008 was spent researching and preparing to build what became Biotope. We thought that the best way to become architects working with and for nature was to make sure that our contribution was also of economical benefit to the communities we worked in and with. As such we early on realised the importance of working with ecotourism would be a key part of becoming a pro nature architecture office. Things are often left undone if it simply a matter of being morally right, but if there is an economic incentive to act wisely it has a much bigger chance of happening. A key career step, if that is the right term, has been to always maintain a strong realationship to an international nature conservation scene. We moved to Vardø, a small fishing town in Arctic Norway, to become international, not just local. With a highly international and community minded nature scene this is made possible with up to date communication tools. Sometimes "What" and "how" is more important then "where".

AD: You say: "Architecture is a tool to protect and promote birds, wildlife and nature.“ That maybe wouldn’t be the exact same words of any other architect. Please explain the background of your approach? 
T: During the architecture school years it became evident to me that there were extremely few architects that spoke meaningfully about nature, ecology, biology and how we as architects relate to the natural world. It seemed architecture was all about urbanism, starchitects and pompous building projects. Any notion of environmentally friendly projects boiled down to calculations of C02 emissions of a building project, which is important in itself, but also a very narrow understanding of our relation to nature. To be honest I became a bit disillusioned about the role of architecture. In a world where we are rapidly loosing species to exctinction and natural habitats are destroyed at an alarming rate, it seemed to me that architects are surprisingly unaware and unengaged. But rather then being someone who complaints about the state of affairs I´d rather try to be the kind of architect I miss seeing. Hopefully we can inspire others and broaden the concept of what an architect does. I believe in making a positive impact and architecture can play a key role in inspiring appreciation for nature. However Biotope is not only an office designing small pieces of architecture. We think of ourselves as destination developers. Our engagement in Vardø and Varanger serves as an example of our holistic thinking. We are developing ecotourism concepts for tourism businesses, we support ecotourism businesses, arrange workshops for schools and kindergardens, we develop websites, do digital strategy and branding. We even arrange a bird festival and we have written a destination guide book that have sold 3000+ copies to over 40 countries. Architecture is a key part of our work, but is not a goal in itself. Architecture serves a purpose and our goal is always to promote nature and sensible and sustainable development. One of the most rewarding things for us is seeing how we have had a positive impact on a community like Vardø. A fishing village that have experienced many years of decline and economic depression, despite being positioned in the midst of abundant natural resources. When we moved to Vardø in 2009 the community was ranked as the last place in Norway you should move to if you wanted to start a business. Out of 430 Norwegian communities Vardø was ranked 430. However we saw a massive untapped potential in Vardø. We knew that the unique and very rich arctic birdlife in this part of Norway could form a new resource for Vardø and the Varanger region. We firmly believed that we could propell the development of niche tourism in the region, and that, if done right, this would benefit local businesses and bring development to the region based on promoting and taking care of the wildlife and nature of the region. Vardø and Varanger is today experiencing economic growth, a new optimism and even it´s identity is now closely connected to the region as a premium nature destination. In extension we also believed that if we stayed true to our niche we could develop an expertise that would be appreciated in many parts of the world. Today we working with nature conservation organisations, for nature reserves, for ecotourism businesses and rural communities in 7 countries. We believe that architecture should not happen at the expense of nature, but rather protect and promote it. 

AD: Why birds?
T: Personally I have been a keen nature enthusiast for as long as I can remember. As a kid I was endlessly fascinated by dinosaurs, fish, birds and plants. I loved being in nature and David Attenborough was my big hero. When I understood that birds are the evolutionary decendants from dinaosaurs I went all in on birds! However being into birds is not just a fascination for winged creatures it is also a way of reading and understanding nature. Having knowledge about living creatures and their behaviour lets you understand nature in a deeper more meaningfull way. Nature is not just great scenaries and epic vistas, it is a living, breathing ecosystems with endless complexities developed through millions of years of evolution. I mean, how can you not be into nature?! 

AD: Is there a bird you did not see yet but really love to? 
T: There are approx 10,000 bird species in the world. I have seen about 1500 of them, so there is a lot more to go. However the numbers are not that important. I much more appreciate experiencing wildlife phenomena like bird migration and spectacular behaviour. Again, the appreciation of living nature is key. Yet there are a few iconic species around the world that have evolved to become masters of their environment. Snowy Owl is one favourite, as is the Steller´s Eider, and arctic seaduck that is able to thrive in the harshest of arctic conditions. I have yet to see a Wandering Albatross. A giant of the Antarctic Oceans with nearly four meters wingspan. That is very high on my wish list. Diving into the world of nature and particularily birds will leave you amazed and keep you inspired!

AD: Is it only natural materials you prefer to work with? 
T: Wood is our preferred material but it is by no means the only material we work with. We love the warm character fo wood, but every site and occasion requires us to consider what material will best fit the site and the purpose of the architecture. We have made buidlings entirely of aluminium, in the case of a floating photography hide build for an ecotourism business. We have also had a wind shelter built in concrete. This building was designed to withstand the destructive force of a 50-year storm surge. The concrete building sits at the end of a breakwater in Varanger and is very exposed to harsh conditions. We know that a couple of times every century this harbour breakwater is hit by a massive wave. In our design we have calculated for which part of the building will break. The glass walls that defines the sheltered spaces of the building is designed to break at a certain force, leaving openings big enough to let the wave pass through the building without destroying it. Call it climate adapted architecture. In all cases a key character of our architecture is to be open and inviting. You should feel that the architecture is there to take care of you, shelter you and let you focus on the nature experience. 

AD: What are the advantages of building with wood? 
T: The properties of wood are many. Firstly it is such an evidently natural material. The warm character of wood makes it the perfect material if you want to create inviting and welcoming architecture. In many of our projects we build in remote sites and the lightness of wood makes transporting it easier. If treated well wood also ages with grace, however eventually it goes back to nature leaving little traces. The flexibility of wood allow you as an architect to think and design freely. It is almost like you have to keep your cool and not create and shape ´just because you can´. 

AD: Do you think there can be modern architecture that is ornamental?
T: `Ornament is crime´ is a good old modernist saying. I must admit I am rather onboard with that thinking. Again for us architecture is not the goal in itself. Still architecture need to look great, function great and inspire you. However spending time and resources on ornament feels irrelevant. In many ways ornament is an introversion, creating as much attention towards itself as possible. We much prefer to dwell on designing the spaces that let you focus on your surroundings. When working with nature, what you experience from the architecture is worth your full attention. 

AD: Who or what do you think has influenced your sense of style?
T: By far a key inspiration is what we in Norway call ´gapahuk´. A gapahuk is a basic shelter often made by materials found in nature. Most often it is a 2-4 person shelter with roof over your head and a fireplace. I have spent countless nights in nature in front of a fireplace and made many of these basic shelters. The closeness to nature that such open structures provide is unique. From a design perspecive I find japanese architecture to be very inspiring, with the clean estethics and clear focus. It has a contemplative character I admire. Then, perhaps a bit unusual, I do find norwegian countryside barn architecture to be inspiring in its hard core functionalism, where needs have varied through time and the buildings evolve with the needs. It is highly functional architecture without architects and also without a specific style, yet it is still clear, intentional and easy to "read". But, in the end, nature is by far the main source of inspiration. 

AD: What are some of your biggest learnings you gained working in architecture since you started Biotope?
T: I think a key learning is how valuable it has been having an expertise outside of architecture. Our skills in field ornithology, aka birding, and our passionate approach to nature and ourdoor life have been a key component in giving purpose to our architecture and our work as architects. Having very clear reasons for our engagements combined with a lot of passion for nature is incredibly valuable. Especially since work days are long, and running your own office takes a lot of time and energy. If we did not love what we do we would probably not be able put in the amount of work needed to move our office forward. To stay focused and staying true to our niche have been another key learning. In the early couple of years at Biotope we said no to a lot of comissions that fell outside of our niche or interest, even though we from a financial perspective should have said yes to any project. Remaining true to our niche of architecture for nature experiences is finally paying off. 

AD: And finally, a totally open question, open for your very own personal interpretation: How do you want to live?
T: I want to live a life close to nature and close to people. In Vardø I have found a home and made a workplace situated in the midst of amazing arctic nature. The seasons vary extremely from the highly energetic midnight sun season to the dark and cold winter. I enjoy creating a life of intensity and passion, with a strong feeling of purpose. By this I dont mean adrenaline intensity, but rather I try to make every moment and day productive and engaging. I don´t waste time on TV or endless hours cewing in a car on a bus on my way to work. I live and work with focus on being a producer not just a consumer. Seeing how I can make a difference is incredibly rewarding. Both for the community I live in and through my work as an architect that is a part of an international community of nature enthusiats. In short: I aim to keep it positive and passionate!


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Thank you, Tormod Amundsen / Biotope