Inspired by Norway’s traditional boathouses, Swedish architect Erik Kolman Janouch plants a cottage into Vega Island’s barren landscape—its design so minimal, it becomes dramatic.
“It’s basically just two ordinary pitched roofs,” architect Erik Kolman Janouch describes the Vega Cottage on the namesake Norwegian island. But the simple elegance of this small wooden cottage that blends so perfectly with its wild and forbidding landscape is, in itself, spectacular—not to mention the boldness and care in siting it there. What’s more, it is exactly what could be expected in this coastal region of Norway.
Not far from the house, by the seashore, stand a few of the colorful traditional boathouses—naust—found throughout Norway’s long Atlantic coast. With origins in the Viking era, this building type has withstood the test of time and weather with the island’s extremely rough climate. So, looking for another architectural typology for the Vega Cottage seemed like a futile enterprise for its Swedish architect of Kolman Boye Architects in Stockholm.
Casual observers might also miss the second most striking architectural feature of the Vega Cottage—its windows. At first, the house’s windows might appear like ordinary rectangular openings in a wall, covered with glass. But that’s just scale and perspective playing tricks, since the barren landscape of Vega Island offers little else of human scale for comparison. Standing directly in front of the house—where one’s cheeks quickly turn rosy from the cold Atlantic wind—an adult visitor can stand head to toe in the huge windows and absorb the majestic landscape. Buffeted by the wind and swept away with the dramatic views, one realizes that the windows are what this house is all about. They showcase the grandeur of the island.
“The windows are what this house is all about. They showcase the grandeur of the island.”
A Place Apart
Vega is home to 1,200 people and lies roughly an hour by ferry out in the Atlantic from the tiny city of Brøn- nøysund on the west coast of Norway, just south of the Arctic Circle. The cottage’s site is not much more than a farmstead, marked on the map as Eidem.
This is where the man who commissioned this house, Norwegian theatre director Alexander Mørk-Eidem, has his roots. Born on the island, he has lived most of his life on the mainland, and for the past ten years in Stockholm, Sweden. That is also where he met the architect. He approached Kolman with his idea for a country house or a cottage, commonly known in Norway as a hytte. A small and simple residence in the countryside where you go on weekends and during vacations to relax and enjoy nature… something with which Norwegians, blessed with a country of stunningly beautiful mountains and fjords, seem to be obsessed.
The end of the world, as Vega feels, seems like the obvious place for a director of the stage to seek peace and quiet and to find inspiration. Mørk-Eidem jointly owns the house with his siblings, a brother and a sister who now live in London and Oslo. The house is intended as a place for solitary retreats, but also for family gatherings, since an uncle and cousins still live on Vega.
“Inside, the house is neutrally furnished to allow for nature to…” Mørk-Eidem starts to explain when I visited the house, only to get interrupted by his architect: “It’s like three paintings. There is no need to adorn the walls.”
The Cast of Characters
What they mean is that the house is built to be a minor character—the lead is reserved for the surrounding landscape. It doesn’t take a stage director to reach that conclusion. Trying to cast this drama in any other way would have been pointless. On the other side of the windows of the combined living and dining room lies the mighty Trollvasstind mountain, 800 meters (2,625 feet) high with a ridge that’s hidden behind milky white clouds. In the other direction the Atlantic Ocean and open sea stretch all the way to Labrador in Canada.
“What they mean is that the house is built to be a minor character—the lead is reserved for the surrounding landscape… Trying to cast this drama in any other way would have been pointless.”
Kolman recalls the first time he came to the island and the site, after having accepted the challenge of designing the house: “I went there in January, which is the worst time of year, weatherwise. It was pitch dark and freezing. Shockingly freezing, really. I wasn’t prepared for how harsh the climate would be.”
But nature can be kind on Vega, too. At milder times of the year, when the tide comes in during the day, the sand at the shoreline that had previously been heated by the sun warms the shallow water, allowing for some appreciated beach life. But the weather changes quickly here: from calm to a wind you can lean against in a matter of minutes. It is wise never to leave the house without the proper attire: mittens, Wellingtons, and a decent raincoat.
In contrast to the adventurous landscape and weather of Vega, the cottage interior is serene with a neutral color palette to enhance the tranquil atmosphere. Practically everything inside the house, from the walls to the bed linen, is white. The architect thinks it gives the house a hotel-like quality.
The Right Stuff
Kolman met his client through a mutual acquaintance in Stockholm. Mørk-Eidem had been looking for someone to build the house for quite some time. Realizing what a challenge it would be on this particular site, he pictured someone young, eager to take on the assignment for the experience, and Kolman fit the bill.
In addition to being one of the partners of Kolman Boye Architects, Kolman also runs a construction firm. A lucky combination since all the contractors Mørk-Eidem approached for a tender had simply refused to answer. “There was nobody who could see any joy in trying to do the impossible,” Mørk-Eidem explains.
Kolman proved to be different. In the Vega Cottage he saw nothing but an enticing challenge. Building the house on Vega was possible, but it took five years and twenty-three Stockholm-Vega round-trips by car for the architect. A total distance, he figures, that roughly equals a trip around the equator. True or not, one trip by car from Stockholm to Vega is long, time-consuming, and not very pleasant.
“It was really important to build the house without doing any damage to the landscape and to make it appear as if the house had always stood on this site,” Kolman says. “What fascinates most people who come here is that you get the feeling that it’s grown out of the bedrock.”
Building on the bedrock and being gentle with the landscape also made the construction difficult. A road had to be built to the site, and building material laboriously towed over the bedrock the house stands on—not to mention the efforts to transport and install the windows. The panes are 40 millimeters (1.57 inches) thick to withstand the storms and high winds that would shake and shatter thinner glass. Residents can enjoy the spectacle outside from a quiet, warm, and cozy house, cheered by the hearth that is the heart of the lower-level’s social area. “They’re not something you can break easily,” Kolman says about the windows. “In fact, you can jump on them and nothing will happen.” Staying at the Vega Cottage, I was glad the project was graced with such a persistent architect-builder—the landscape is beautiful, but I was happy to keep the elements of nature where they belong—on the other side of the glass.
“It was really important to build the house without doing any damage to the landscape and to make it appear as if the house has always stood on this site.”
Other than the pitched roof, this is a rather minimalistic house—or as Kolman says, “There is nothing that juts out, so there is nothing for the wind to grab on to.”
There is not even a railing around the terrace outside the lower level’s two bedrooms. “My sister wondered when they would be put in place,” Mørk-Eidem says. “They never will be,” he declares, adding, “This is a childproof house in the sense that nothing can be broken.”
If nothing can get broken, theoretically nothing will need to be fixed. To keep maintenance on the house to a minimum during holidays and vacations, Mørk-Eidem and his architect opted for weatherproof solutions for the house. At one stage in the project they considered black facades. But when I visited, a year after completion, the unpainted facades, which were only treated, already had their gray patina. Houses age fast on Vega.
“Houses age fast on Vega.”
The cottage owes much to vernacular architecture, but the local building tradition has always emphasized protection from the elements of nature. The island’s old buildings, placed wherever there is shelter from the storms, all turn their backs to nature and to the extreme weather. “You get very unsentimental living out here,” Mørk-Eidem tells me. “You get used to this nature, and you look at it as a kind of antagonist.”
“You get very unsentimental living out here.”
He proceeds to tell how his father reacted when he first came to the house. As an adult, Mørk-Eidem senior moved to Oslo and hadn’t lived on the island for decades. “At first, he was suspicious,” Mørk-Eidem recalls, “because he’s never been used to sitting inside and just admiring the view. For him it was a really different experience to come to a place he knows so well but to see it from an entirely new perspective.”
Hearing that this outpost can give even natives new perspectives is a testament to the qualities of this house that makes the architect say, without the slightest hesitation, that he would gladly take on the logistical and psychological challenges of an assignment like this again. △