On August 4th 2009, Norway celebrated the 150th birthday of Knut Hamsun with the inauguration of the Knut Hamsun Center in his home town of Hamarøy, north of the Arctic Circle not far from Lofoten. Designed by Steven Holl nearly 15 years ago, this tower clad in dark stained wood was the subject of intense public debate in the wake of half a century of troubled relations with a writer of great artistic talent but with controversial political views: Hamsun was a racist and convinced sympathizer with the Nazi cause. Ever since Plato called for the poets of the Republic to be banished if they failed to condone its political system, the West has been acutely aware of the terrible conflict between love for the works of a great poet with obnoxious political views. Ernst Junger and Ezra Pound are among the outstanding writers of the last century who, in completely different circumstances, are encumbered with comparable difficulties. Invited to submit a proposal for the project, Steven Holl was moved by Knut Hamsun’s novel “Hunger” (1890): “...despite my alienation from myself at that moment, and even though I was nothing but a battleground for invisible forces, I was aware of every detail of what was going around me. A big brown dog ran across the street, toward the trees and the Tivoli; it had a small collar made of Mexican silver. Farther up the street, a window on the first story opened and a girl with her sleeves rolled up leaned out and began polishing the panes on the outside. Nothing escaped my eyes. I was sharp and my brain was very much alive, everything poured in toward me. The women before me had two blue feathers in their hats, and plaid kerchiefs around their necks...”. Holl was captured by the surrealist quality of the prose. He certainly saw the 17 films made of Hamsun’s writings; he was particularly enamoured of Henning Carlsen’s film “Hunger”, (1966) that includes a scene of a girl polishing window panes on the outside. This episode was transcribed in the balconies of the house for Knut Hamsun. Indeed perhaps the only other example of such an intense exchange between architecture and literature is Adolf Loos’ Tristan Tzara House on Avenue Junot in Paris (1926). The wood-clad concrete tower standing on the edge of the water just below the cemetery where Hamsun’s father and mother are buried is a testimony to Holl’s insight and intuition. It was on this hill that Hamsun acquired some of his traits: his independence of mind and the incomparably unadorned, naked and clear sighted view of the world so forcefully embodied in his prose. The building in Hamsun’s image is a sublime achievement. Mimetic yet anthropomorphic at the same time, it is spacious and full of surprises, its overwhelming luminosity giving each floor a particular character. The visitor is carried swiftly to the top (sixth) floor by an elevator at the center of the building, as if through its spine. The descent is via a spiral staircase going from floor to floor right to the dark basement on a journey of discovery of the early life of the poet. Leaning at an incline of 86 degrees, the building inevitably brings to mind a body, skull or head. The tufts of bamboo rising from the roof resemble hair. “...On the rare occasions when I had no duty to perform (for my uncle in Presteid), I would go up into the forest or else to the graveyard... Often I found bones on the grave and tufts of hair from the corpses which I put back underground again as the gravedigger had taught me...” (“A Ghost”, in the collection of Kratskog Stories,1902). Apart from the addition of an auditorium beside the tower, the final architectural design is practically the same as the first thumbnail sketch of 15 years earlier. The auditorium echoes the plan of the vertical section of the tower. A half buried passage connects the two volumes. The monument, although small, stands in defiance of convention, a striking, expressive and memorable icon in a formidable, forbidding, sublime landscape. Following the inaugural ceremony, a company of actors and singers gave voice to the complexity of Knut Hamsun’s work, reciting and singing lyrical sounds full of light and dark speeches. As they performed on the roof of the auditorium, on balconies and at windows, the building became animated before our eyes: a truly moving tribute to the monument and its subject.
Yehuda Emmanuel Safran, Paris 10.VIII.09