Tham & Videgård
Your feet thump the floor of the forest, pine needles crackle as you step, and rays of light penetrate through fluttering leaves high above your head in a remote forest just south of the arctic circle in Sweden. You’re outside the town of Harads, cool wind brushes your face and you look up to notice something of a mirage, a visual anomaly reports to your view. As you approach, the geometry of a mirrored cube suspended high above from the trunk of a tree becomes apparent, and this is the hotel room in which you’ll be staying.
I first noticed images of the Mirrorcube, by the Swedish architecture team Tham & Videgård a few years ago when running my own architecture studio in Paris and remember stopping on the pictures within the magazine, reflecting on my childhood memories of constructing crude tree forts in the woods around the home I grew up in, and intuitively thinking that these guys nailed it, created something rather magical, and I was a little jealous. So when I was contacted about writing this article I happily agreed to do so.
The Mirrorcube, a 4x4x4 meter hotel room clad in mirrored glass reflects the surrounding nature, rendering the structure itself visually embedded within its surroundings. The interior, of minimal design, was fabricated from locally grown and produced birch and plywood, while the entirety of the room was constructed by local builders and craftsmen.
I had the fortune of interviewing Martin Videgård and Bolle Tham, two men clearly aware of the need to design with a certain humility, with attention to site specificity - refreshing within the context of contemporary architecture which in recent decades has been driven more by the abilities afforded architectural design via 3D modeling, computation, and the myriad of fabrication methods emergent from such tech-driven advances.
With these new tools, architects have been making a kind of abstract expressionist architecture, indulgent, echoing old science fiction imagery to invent a derivative skyline rather than creating new and relevant experiences for people to inhabit.
Tham & Videgård’s Mirrorcube project eschews the form-driven exhibitionism of starchitecture, and by creating a project which virtually disappears, weaves itself into the fabric of the surrounding nature, the team has afforded their studio a good many deserved accolades.
John: What were your first experiences with the forest.. as children.. your earliest memories...and did you grow up in a forest, or near one? or were you city-born, urbanites?
Tham & Videgard: We grew up in Stockholm.. actually, I’ve been living all my life in a flat. But during the summertime I’ve been staying at our summer house on the archipelago, which is a big contrast.. nature-wise.. with the urban city and the relation to the archipelago, with its small islands and pine trees and allot of water.. so that’s pretty close to the nature you can find.. in the same way you can find up in the Harads where the tree hotel is, but its nature..
What was the last time you guys climbed a tree?
Well… it was obviously not yesterday.. um.. I don’t know.. I don’t think it was that long ago.. we both have children, so..I think from time to time you end up climbing trees with them...Or climbing up just to get them.
Can I ask, how did the initial concept for the mirrored hotel come about within your studio?
Well, the background is that Kent and Britta, the Grants, who own the original bed and breakfast up in Harads, they asked us to do this tree hotel room, and we were quite free to interpret that idea and to us, we were interested and fascinated by the duality that sort of arrives when we as human beings approach wilderness.. and this is really big, and people living in big cities go to most remote places to experience natural wildlife or wilderness and in combination with this idea about experiencing the wild we also tend to bring very high-end technology gear like engineered textiles, or fabrics and tents, and if you go diving you bring allot of tubes and technology with you.. so all of these materials, which seem to be at the far end of civilization combined with the total simplicity and experience of something that is original. So to us, we wanted to combine this idea with the idea of a tree hotel, which meant that the idea of the mirror cube works on these two levels. On one hand, it blends completely into nature, reflecting everything that is around it.. a bit like a camouflage effect so it from certain viewpoints or in certain light actually disappears very well. At the same time, it’s a very abstract high tech object that is inserted into nature. So this, I think was the sort of basic observation that we made from the start.
And then again, of course, the idea of being a child climbing a tree, or perhaps building a tree hut was also something that we enjoyed and that feeling of being up among the trees and very protected and secured... Like a very calm place in the middle of the forest was also something we wanted to achieve.
Sadly, I’ve only seen images of it, the tree house, and I hear the word camouflage allot in relation to the project .. to me, when I see these images it looks more like a surrealist object, just because of the effect it produces visually .. I think it’s the decision to make it as a cube instead of a metamorphosed object .. it really seems surrealist to me.. it looks somewhat like a surrealist painting in the middle of nature, which is brilliant in a way, and I think that may be what strikes a cord for allot of people regarding this project.
Were you guys looking at things such as Johnson’s glass house, or the Farnsworth house because it’s obviously related in a way to the concept of immersing the individual within the surrounding nature..?
There’s a long tradition or discussion within architecture and architecture history of how to relate to nature somehow.. you can compare the Corbusian space in relation to the Miesian space.. the Miesian space is more dissolved and sort of blends into nature in a way different from the Corbusian .. and I think you can find many, not only those two architects, like Johnson’s house as well.. but during the modernist period there was this sort of interest in materiality and new techniques like the possibility of doing insulated glass enabled the architect to do those kinds of totally glazed buildings where the surroundings were the wallpaper of the interior.. but um.. I think in our case when it comes to the tree hotel we weren’t following that sort of modernistic idea i think.. it was more an interpretation of the context, the pristine uncultivated nature, the urge of going there to such a remote place, super harsh climate and how we can not interfere with that. The mirror effect sort of makes it surreal, as you say… more like a mirage somehow. It’s not that typical of a man-made building. This effect which is more closely linked to art pieces by Dan Graham, or Robert Morris. But with mirrors in nature, or in urban locations as well is more suitable I think to have as a reference piece rather than the early modernist buildings that are built from the development of a specific technique, which of course our house has as well, but I think that the surreal and the sort of extreme were more prescient and interesting for us rather than making a general statement as the modernist architects did.
When you talk about Dan Graham, you’re speaking about his pavilions?
Dan Graham, and Robert Morris…
Morris made a lot of experiments with boxes and paints, and mirroring glass...the thing that Dan Graham does is that he explores something that is useful in a way that is the spyglass.. it's highly reflective so that depending on the light you get either a reflection or a see-through effect...
I think it’s one-way glass, and I think his concept is similar to yours in that you’re trying to relate the individual to nature and I think he’s trying to create an interpersonal visual experience between people inside the pavilion with those outside the pavilion
...then from inside you if you see images you know that… one of the ideas was that the inside should be sort of contained to create a secure, cozy place where you could still sort of have views of surroundings in all directions.. there are different sized cut outs in all the interiors where you can see through the glass and at night as the light shifts you can see where these openings are from the outside, but not during the day
Right.. a friend of mine once explained ‘avant-garde’ architects are seeking the disappearance of architecture, or not necessarily the disappearance, but rather an invisible architecture, and I think this project is in that direction… do you guys feel that your work is trying to reach toward that goal?... toward the disappearance of architecture in a way?...
Well, one of the main starting points for us when we come to each project we do is how we interpret the context and in this case the mirroring effect did a job in that interpretation about the uncultivated landscape.. when it comes to other locations, other projects our interpretation, the reading of the context, both the cultural and the physical context differ, so, therefore, we can not say it’s about mirroring or trying to hide or disappear somehow.. If you’re familiar with the other projects we’ve done, the outcome differs quite a lot depending on the specificness of the site..
I have looked at quite a few projects and they don’t necessarily seem to disappear.. with you guys there always seems to be that blending within the environment as opposed to the recently ubiquitous architectural grand gesture.
We can find quite a few of those within our production ..of course, it’s the way of dealing with the site and being humble to its nature and context in total.. an exception might be the museum of modern art in Malma... it's an orange perforated cube and it sort of stands out totally in the surroundings .. more like defining a red dot on a map. It was about transforming a former industrial site into a public building which quite often has a different kind of architecture driven out of the idea of being a public building ... where industrial architecture is kind of closed off and we’ve created a barrier between the industry and the city, perhaps because of security and that kind of stuff.. but this orange sort of addition we did was intended to open up and transform the whole building into something else that became a new entrance for the museum, and from there there’s mainly an interior experience .. but the addition sort of pops out.. and definitely doesn’t really blend into its surroundings.
Through my screen, I see you guys are sitting there with your library behind you… let me ask... what is your ‘go to’ book for materials these days
I don’t think we have any specific ones ..they’re all books about architecture I think..I think that these days when everything just sort of flows through social media and the internet it’s like a juicy flow of information just sort of pouring through your computer whether you like it or not.. and so in a way, there’s a common knowledge across the world about what’s going on… and then if you ask us, I think we’ve been looking at older architecture in Sweden, that’s perhaps not so well known, but there was here a very direct way of using local resources.. in our case allot of timber, etc… to produce buildings .. and then I think this attitude has been something we used in the small projects in the beginning, but we also brought with us to the bigger projects a searching for a direct relation between the way the building is produced and where it is produced… so that could perhaps be something that is out of the ordinary, that you would find in any office across the world, like from Palladio to Le Corbusier.. or Rem Koolhaus.. and more contemporary.. i think this is where we find our inspiration as well.
So what we’re talking about now is the relation between the global … as a global knowledge and awareness of what’s being built at the moment all around the globe.. in relation to the local... where the local has a specificness. If you compare the north, like Sweden to say the south of Europe. it is a big huge difference .. not only by climate, but also culture wise.. to build something in those places, the circumstances, and starting points differ quite allot.. and we find it kind of interesting to have all our buildings and projects sort of grounded in the local context.. the context when it comes both to climate or culturally specific and historical aspects.. it makes the architecture hopefully rooted and it creates a sort of relation that’s probably more relevant compared to something that’s generic and could be placed wherever..
And in doing so you’re trying to accommodate local needs yet keep within a global context...
This idea of sort of combining the global knowledge, because the awareness and knowledge is sort of common wherever you go .. but to look within the local specifics and situation is interesting.
Portrait photography: Elizabeth Toll