Star of the North: Community Church Knarvik Forms a Timber Beacon Against the Dramatic Backdrop of Norway

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

If you needed any further proof that native knowledge can give rise to inspired local architecture, cast your eyes over the work of Norwegian firm Reiulf Ramstad Architects. The studio has amassed over 75 bespoke projects either built or proposed across their home country, from the bustling downtown districts of Oslo to the remote coastlines of the arctic north.

Their latest project, Community Church Knarvik, is representative of the firm’s ability to respond adeptly to both physical context and the specific social needs of a Scandinavian locality. The wider public has shown their appreciation for this sensitivity — the church won the popular choice award in the Religious Buildings and Memorials category of the A+Awards — and, as a three-time A+Award-winner, RRA was honored as Firm of the Year at this year’s gala. Principal Reiulf Ramstad is effusive about the honor: “It’s a great honor and we’re humbled to have this recognition.”

As for the project itself, Knarvik’s newest ecclesiastical building is a contemporary interpretation of traditional Norwegian stave churches, famous for their fairy-tale spires, textured timber, and intricate carpentry. RRA has harnessed the same material palette as these age-old structures, but pared down the geometry to create a streamlined, sculptural entity perched upon the hillside. While traditional church design has typically involved the compilation of distinctive architectural elements — the spire, the nave, the transept, the apse – Reiulf Ramstad’s proposal saw these components amalgamated in one form, united by a continuous façade treatment. The different spaces are instead defined by the varied pitches of the roofscape, angular peaks forming a striking silhouette against the evening sky.

An homage to the dramatic geology of Norway, the building’s form naturally evokes images of soaring mountains and craggy rock formations on the precipice of the country’s famous fjords. However, the external edges of the church are infinitely sharper, more reminiscent of a meticulously folded paper crane than any natural creation. The building does not attempt to mimic features of the surrounding landscape, instead striking a satisfying contrast with the use of some extraordinary timber craftsmanship.

“More than Norway’s architectural heritage, I am inspired by the landscapes, the variation between closed and open spaces,” Ramstad muses. “How you can walk along a small passage and then suddenly look out on an enormous fjord that is so big you cannot comprehend it — you see a huge cruise ship, but it is an extremely small element within the space. In New York, you can find the same kind of relationship between big and small spaces, but it’s built, like a ‘second nature.’ In Norway, you have this relationship between the mountains and valleys.”

The wood cladding used for the exterior of the church is made from pre-weathered pine heartwood, giving the church a silvery patina that evokes the textured quality of traditional Scandinavian woodland cabins. RRA has utilized similar façade treatments in other projects across Norway — Square House Veierland in Notteroy and V-Lodge in Buskerud, to name but two — and their knowledge of the material’s properties shines through here with some beautifully clean-cut detailing visible on each elevation.

“Wood is a very interesting material; it’s very sustainable here because it is so cheap to produce,” Ramstad relates. “To exploit the forest in a sustainable way, we will not chop down thousands of trees, we take out trees here and there. It’s a nice way to build, [though it’s] specific to Scandinavia, which makes it an interesting place to work.”

Moving inside, the homogenous use of timber continues with floors, walls, and slanting ceilings clad in locally sourced pine. The building program is split over two stories with cultural and administrative functions separated from the sacred spaces above. An atrium links the two levels with an open staircase, and a sliding glass wall can be rolled back to accommodate a larger congregation of more than 500 people.

The civic value of the building was a core part of the design brief: Reiulf Ramstad was asked to cater to a variety of functions beyond the religious program. To this end, facilities are included to allow for communal events pertaining to art, music, and cultural development, forming a safe gathering place for the children and youth across the region.

The main worshipping space is illuminated by a series of slender strip lights but also permits a high degree of daylight via narrow floor-to-ceiling fenestration, which forms modern abstractions of traditional lancet church windows. A single focal point breaks the unadorned, monochromatic interior: a circular stained-glass aperture is situated behind the altar, a contemporary version of the classic rose window.

From the exterior, the lancet windows reinforce the verticality of the church, creating a rhythmic composition across the façade that transforms the building into something resembling an artistic light installation by night. Given its elevated position on the hillside overlooking the town, its prominence as a local landmark only increases as twilight takes hold.

Community Church Knarvik is an ode to minimalism and an assured exemplar of the achingly cool brand of modernism emerging across Scandinavia over the last decade. Crucially, though, it retains a warmth synonymous with its role as a place for fostering social cohesion: the building is a civic beacon set to be utilized by the community for many years to come. It’s precisely why RRA is deserving of greater recognition: “We’re really proud of the Firm of the Year prize,” says Ramstad, “and also for our church.”

“Of course, what I’m mostly proud of is the people I’m working with every day, who are really great people. The enjoyment I get from working with them is where the real value of this practice lies.”

Paul Keskeys Author: Paul Keskeys
Paul Keskeys is Editor in Chief at Architizer. An architect-trained editor, writer and content creator, Paul graduated from UCL and the University of Edinburgh, gaining an MArch in Architectural Design with distinction. Paul has spoken about the art of architecture and storytelling at many national industry events, including AIANY, NeoCon, KBIS, the Future NOW Symposium, the Young Architect Conference and NYCxDesign. As well as hundreds of editorial publications on Architizer, Paul has also had features published in Architectural Digest, PIN—UP Magazine, Archinect, Aesthetica Magazine and PUBLIC Journal.
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