Canadian architect Todd Saunders has designed a stair in the middle of a remote Norwegian forest. It stands there alone, like a surrealist memory of a long lost ruin.
Saunders moved to Norway in 1996 and set up his practice in Bergen. He has since then embraced the quality of nature in this part of the world with projects that interact beautifully with the different surroundings. He is internationally known for his award-winning architecture.
When a Norwegian independent prime mover, Grethe Meyer Iversen, had the idea to transform a pathway in an oak forest south of the capital Oslo, in Stokke, to a sculpture park, she reached out to Todd Saunders. She was inspired by the Aurland Lookout, which Saunders designed with Tommie Wilhelmsen in 2006. Here, an abrupt bridge leaps out from a cliff into the open air, giving an extraordinary view over the dramatic mountainous scenery. Meyer Iversen invited Saunders to create an architectural sculpture at the highest point of the path that would function as a final destination for the visitors.
Meyer Iversen got the idea for the sculpture park after having trespassed the forest for many years while she was walking her children to school. The walks got her to appreciate the beauty of the forest, and Meyer Iversen started to ask herself how she could get other people to spent more time and see the small unique details in what was commonly perceived as a rather dull forest. It turned out that the trail Meyer Iversen had learned to love was covered with rhomb porphyry, which is known to exist in only three other rift areas in the world — in East Africa and Antarctica — besides Stokke. The forest on both sides of the trail also had the richest deposit of deciduous trees in Norway.
For Meyer Iversen the solution was art. Through art the qualities of the forest would emerge, and the other way around, the beauty of the forest would highlight the artworks in a totally different way than an ordinary gallery. She chose eleven other artists from eight different European countries alongside Saunders and asked them to contribute to developing the sculpture park.
For the project, Saunders worked closely together with professor Rainer Stange, the site's landscape architect, in order to design the infrastructure of the walk along the different art installations. His first solutions included as many as twenty ideas for a series of steel and wooden pathways leading to the highest point where a lookout would arise. He then went through a process he calls a "form of Darwinism", an architectural evolution, where only the best concept survives. He thus arrived at the idea of creating an elevated viewpoint that would rise up above the forest floor revealing a view that would otherwise be unavailable to the visitor.
The viewpoint was created as a stair going up towards the sky. From here the visitors could see east towards Slottfjellet, the Castle Rock. Saunders calls the stair a "one-liner in the landscape," a stairway to nowhere that works through the simple act of raising the viewpoint a few feet in the air. "It's an absurd thing to place a staircase in a forest, but in a flat landscape you need some verticality," says Saunders, "so it's important that the object reads well in the landscape."
Saunders decided to use rusted four-tone Cor-ten on the exterior of the stair. The material will age perfectly, obtaining the same color as the surrounding pine trees. The interior offers a surprising contrast to the exterior with its wooden cladding. Entering the stair, the visitor is embraced with this warm environment that reflects the forest. The glass-balustrade emphasizes the thinness of the structure and its aesthetic side.
An important factor with this project was to keep the vegetation on the site almost untouched. As with all of Saunders landscape based projects, residential, commercial or sculptural, he spent time at the site, intensely and thoroughly surveyed the ground, which in this case resulted in a contour map accurate to 25 centimetres. The structure was built off site and flown in by helicopter. The careful surveying ensured that not a single tree had to be cut to accommodate the new stairway to heaven.
Today, nine years after the idea emerged, tourists and locals can enjoy an approximately two kilometre-long walk that winds towards the final destination, the viewpoint over Slottsfjellet. Saunders' installation is the only functional object in the Sculpture Park, showing how beautifully architecture, at its best, interacts and communicates with people.