A House to Die in by Bjarne Melgaard and Snøhetta


29 September 2012

"I want a house where one half is architecturally sophisticated and the other half looks like shit," says the artist Bjarne Melgaard. "That sounds difficult to live in," I reply. Melgaard pauses. "It will be extremely comfortable," he says.

A Norwegian contemporary artist, Melgaard's style is anarchic. He paints large-scale, coloured canvases, with cartoon figures picked out in careless black outlines. He also deals in installations. His 2012 Ideal Pole exhibition featured live tiger cubs; 2010's The Synthetic Slut: A Novel explored fantasies of rough interracial gay sex.

Now, Melgaard is trying architecture. The artist has collaborated with the Norwegian firm Snøhetta to design a combined studio and home for himself in Oslo. His last studio in the city burnt down in 2000 when a stray New Year's Eve firecracker set it alight. The house will be completed in 2015, but a new exhibition at London's ICA gallery shows the fruits of Snøhetta and Melgaard's work so far.

The exhibition, A House to Die in, is filled with drawings and models. In the gallery's upper floor, paintings of platypuses, cats and vaginal lipstick mouths hang on the walls. Downstairs, Snøhetta has installed a 1:1 model of the studio's facade. The model reveals much about the future building. Its shell is monolithic; made from burnt oak, it has been inscribed by laser with Melgaard's drawings.

In the model, red light glows through the inscriptions like a scene from Dante's Inferno. "It is a domestic home," insists Matt Williams, the curator at the ICA. "Although perhaps not in the sense of a traditional two-up and two-down domestic."

But as well as being inscribed with Melgaard's drawings, the building's form was derived from those same drawings. The artist supplied Snøhetta with two-dimensional sketches from which the architects extracted mathematical data to create three-dimensional renders. As Snøhetta and Melgaard exchanged drawings and renders, the form of the building gradually emerged.

"The drawings from Bjarne Melgaard came in and we tried to interpret them in three dimensions," says Kjetil Thorsen, a partner at Snøhetta. "It was about shaping certain contents of Bjarne Melgaard's drawings that then become sculpture, and which then become a sort of architecture. The whole process was a sort of anti-modernism."

The resultant structure, Melgaard and Snøhetta agree, is neither architecture nor art. Instead, it is a cross-disciplinary mongrel: an oak shell that fails to fit comfortably into any camp.

"It's definitely more sculpture than architecture," says Thorsen. "Although it does have architectural elements like window openings. You just wouldn't recognise them as such." Melgaard is more blunt. "We weren't interested in just building a house. We were interested in doing something that had never been done before."

The strangeness of the exterior continues into the interior. The building's title, also "A House to Die in", refers to the poppy palaces of Afghani and Ethiopian drug lords. Filled with secret passageways and multiple exits, such manor houses are designed to help their owners cheat death. "Those buildings are infused with paranoia," says Williams. "They've got a very nouveau riche idea of taste or kitsch." The style, predictably, has become known as "narcotecture".

Melgaard's home is intended as a narcotectural statement. The building's interior walls shift and pivot on hinges, allowing interior spaces to balloon and shrink according to the artist's changing whims. Doors that led into a bedroom on one day may, on the next, lead nowhere. "I think a house like that could be really interesting," says Melgaard. "I want one big mess and am inspired by that."

The design of the furnishings is similarly eccentric. Inflatable chairs and cheap plastic-covered sofas are expected to feature alongside highly designed furniture. "It's going to be really cheesy," says Melgaard. Thorsen agrees. "It's not a style," he says. "It's a complex conflation of styles related to the concept of being able to purchase things with money."

Snøhetta says that the project has proven a fulfilling experience, although one that the studio is unlikely to repeat in the future. "It's been challenging because it breaks from everything you learn when studying architecture," says Thorsen. "It breaks with the practice of architecture and the methodology. It would be hard to translate this experience into any other process."

Similarly, Melgaard admits to having struggled with aspects of the design process. "I find architecture as a language very foreign to me," he says. "It was not a language I have ever been adopted into. A lot of the scientific explanations of how the models were made was hard for me to follow and all the things that come with building a house I really didn't have a clue about."

The House to Die in seems fated to remain a curio. A bizarre crossover between art and architecture, it is unlikely to be repeated. Nobody expects further burnt oak poppy palaces from Snøhetta.

Instead, the building's legacy will be felt most keenly by Melgaard, who will move into the structure in 2015. It is an arrangement that Thorsen suggests may not last. "Bjarne's life is an extreme life," he says. "But the question of him living there is how long that will last."

Melgaard remains defiant. "I think it will be super interesting to live there," he says. "In fact, I don't really have a problem where I live. Like I said, it will be extremely comfortable."