Vetle Jorgensen

Vetle Jorgensen

Architectural Memoirs at Villa Rockstop Falls, Nairobi, 2014


Vetle JorgensenBorn 1933,  the year when modernistic architecture was killed off in one of the most important countries for  modern architecture, Germany, but I have despite this had a lifelong love for the white buildings with flat roofs and horizontal windows and furniture of chromium plated steel pipes with rounded corners, and of course Piet  Mondrian paintings (1920-1940).

Both my parents were architects,  the mother from Norway and the father from Denmark. From the early 1930s they had private practice, with main projects such as apartment buildings, row houses, individual residences and factory buildings. We never talked about architecture at home, but from 10 years of age I came to the construction sites. It was however during WW II and the first years after, and because of material restrictions it was traditional building methods of bricks and wood, not concrete and steel that dominated. Denmark had or has much fine architecture, the maybe finest castle in North Europe, Kronborg Castle of Shakespeare’s  Hamlet fame built in Dutch renaissance in Elsinore north of Copenhagen and in Copenhagen one of the finest modern buildings I have seen, the State Broadcasting House with its projecting concert hall and administration wing with the long gallery windows (1937-1945).

It was not clear that I would like to be an architect. Unrelated to the fact that my Danish grandfather had been around the world and came home as first mate on a foreign ship and my Norwegian grandfather had been captain on ships going to England, I wanted  to be a sailor and even still have the written proof, that I was betting with a friend that I would be a captain within 10 years. I wanted to be a missionary, not in religion but in environmental topics, such as not spoiling and killing living parts of nature from trees and flowers to animals. And of course as the ‘’real’’ missionaries, I had to start in Polynesia and for that reason I had to be a sailor!

Vetle Jorgensen 01I became a ships boy 15 years old (for 13 months) with my father asking if I would not rather be a naval architect. Anyway, in Portugal I got a letter in which he said, that, if I come to Marseille, I had to see the big building by an architect called le Corbusier ! That was in 1949 with the building having reached 13th floor. Up in the building on one of the raw walls there was a wall sized modern painting. Obviously by le Corbusier who was as much an artist as an architect. This painting must now have disappeared in the finishing and seems not to be described in the literature on the building. On the same travel I also came to Pompei.

Two years later, 1951, hitchhiking through West Europe I had as the red thread the gothic cathedrals (Cologne, Paris Notre Dame, Reims, Amiens and in England, the year of Festival of Britain, Canterbury Cathedral) but I also came into buildings as different as the Volkswagen factory with the 1.3 km long main building not having been destroyed during the war and le Corbusier’s  the Swiss Pavilion in the Cité Universitaire, Paris, and later his Marseille building now near completion. The next year, 1952, it was to Italy where I saw ‘’everything’’ from the Milano Cathedral and the tilting tower in Pisa to the ultra modern central railway station in Rome and of course the famous Greek temples and theatres in Sicily and South Italy.

Before attending the architect school I had already for myself designed a factory with assembly lines and staff showers, a prefabricated room module to be installed or taken out from huge concrete skeletons, a small steel house lifted up one floor on steel columns and with outside walls of primary coloured porcelain-enameled steel plates and a motor boat with toilet room at the far rear to go to Polynesia made from a new British salt water resistant aluminium alloy.      (I also made toy cars for sale with tail fin as on the Czechoslovakian Tatra car in the 1930s).

I was admitted to the Architect School at the Royal Academy of the Fine Arts (founded 1754) Copenhagen, September 1953. At the introductions one of the professors said that it was hard for us to be admitted, but it would be still harder (if ever) to pass the school. Later when I was teaching in USA I was told that the architect school in Copenhagen was considered the hardest in the world. (We had 36-hour tests without leaving the school, doing outside surveys in frost and snow and water colour work outside in the rain for preparing us for the real work).

We were told that the British were the best in prefabricated schools and in town planning but residential design had been stressed in Denmark from before WW II. After the war to speed up the building of individual residences the government would give fine, low-interest loans. The drawings submitted were by the government architects considered no good and 400 of them were given to our National Building Research Institute for investigation of what was wrong, but here they were busy with the new building designs such as ground levels without basements, roof slopes less than 45 degrees, standard windows, etc. They, then brought the 400 sets of drawings to the architect school having the second year reserved for single family house  design. It was just the year when I went to that class and as we were 40, each of us got 10 sets of drawings. The conclusion was that most of the plans could be put in one of 6 plan principles with most made worse than they needed to be. After that, the government required furniture plans for all residential projects for which public support was applied for.

We had to have practical construction site training  8 months divided up into two  4 months summer vacations either as masons, carpenters or cabinet makers. I selected to be a mason apprentice which now has the advantage that on a site meeting I can tell a main contractor that this and that is not difficult at all !  In the following vacations  I continued my studies of architecture around in Europe. One travel was mostly to study the famous housing estates in Germany from the 1920s including the Weissenhof exhibition buildings from 1927 with visit upstairs in le Corbusier’s duplex but also in Stuttgart seeing Erich Mendelsohn’s fine department store having changed name from Kaufhaus Schocken to Kaufhaus Merkur.

The school had a close relationship to the finest universities in USA and we had lectures by both Buckminster Fuller and Charles Eames. Our own professors and teachers went to the USA and also visited Frank Lloyd Wright. When we should design a small summer house the 38 out of the 40 students designed a small wood house with sloping roof. One designed the house as a little 1950s villa with yellow brick walls without windows and full height windows elsewhere. The roof flat with overhangs. I myself designed an aluminium house with sloping sidewalls continuing over as a slightly curved roof and window walls in each end. Also when we should design kitchen cabinets I differed:  The 39 students designed traditional wood cabinets whereas I had borrowed home from an exhibition American white-baked steel cabinets related to the white refrigerators and cookers, and of course I designed my own version of steel cabinets.

Steel HouseMy first city council submission for buildings work, a renovation with internal drainage was in 1954, a job I got through another student, a girl, who felt she could not do it. My 16 months military service was in the Danish Corps of Engineers with site surveys of bridges and where it would have been possible on our chalk cliffs for somebody to come up with tanks!

Later after finishing the architect school I  applied for and also received several large travel grants.  To document what I had done before I enclosed articles I had already got published in the Danish Arkitekten magazine on sliding windows and  sliding doors and on Roman aqueducts in Italy and France. I received money from Larsen’s Foundation  for studying Egyptian temple pylons in Nubia before the High-Dam inundation, from the Danish Secretariat for Developing Countries (now Danida) for studying traditional Arab construction methods in North Africa and Middle East as theoretical preparations for new settlements in Algeria having found oil, and in Egypt considering developing the Second Valley, and from the Ever’s Foundation for research into traditional building methods in South East Asia as preparation for reconstructions after the Vietnam War. On all the travels I made survey drawings apart from taking photographs.

On my own travels I was seeking out modern architecture wherever I came to, but it was first on a late travel 1998 that I finally came into the Rietveld-Schröder House, Villa Savoye and Fallingwater House. With a client, in Spain I saw Gaudi’s work and came into the reconstructed German Barcelona Pavilion. I checked perfectionism in the toilet rooms in the Seagram Building.

My special interest for building in extreme climates   (and in areas with natural disaster risks) may also help for good design in temperate climates. For example, better entrance conditions in cool climates may be learnt from the arctic and more pleasing living rooms and bedrooms in mild climates maybe learnt from the hot deserts and the humid tropics. The study of traditional indigenous housing which still can be seen in remote villages and small towns is important. Also in the local building research institutes and in the towns can be found interested architects with good information on the advantages of traditional building methods and that is true from Sweden to Thailand ! My first tropical design is for the Aiavao House in Western Samoa.

Architecture is a broad field with many related side fields employing architects. The centre in this architectural ‘’solar system’’ is of course building design but with satellites such as building research, town planning, site supervision, teaching, building department’s work, archeology, interior design, landscaping, industrial design, furniture and lamp design, graphics design and fashion design. I feel stronger or maybe more happy because circumstances have done that I have been involved in several of these ‘’satellites’’ !  For fashion design I had a tailor employed.

It is good to have a background both in private and public employments doing architectural design. My own public employments include Greenland Technical Organization with travels in Greenland, United Nations in Western Samoa (South Pacific), Alaska State Housing Authority with travels to the remote parts of Alaska and Danida for Ministry of Works in Kenya.

Shorter UN consultancies would bring me to Somalia, Ethiopia, Comores and Uganda. Other work or research related travels would be to Djibouti, Rwanda, Congo (Zaire), Tanzania and Burundi. Private clients considering ordering building materials to Kenya from abroad took me to West Europe, Dubai and China.

Work in private employment would in Denmark include factories, cold storage, schools and housing of different kinds. In USA airport expansions, schools and department stores. Work in self- employment in Europe, America and Africa would include schools, hospital departments research institutes, museum departments, hotel wings, churches, factories, shops and showrooms and a big variety of residential jobs. All together big fun and with a fine variety of clients: Africans, Indians, Europeans including Americans and other and of all backgrounds.

Teaching has included lectures, but sitting with the individual students in the design studios has been especially joyful. A lecture on Roman aqueducts was given to engineering students in Denmark. In USA I was a Visiting Lecturer 1969-71 at the University of Washington in Seattle. Several of my students got something special out of it. One got an award from the Smithsonian for low cost furniture. Another part time paid employment and travel to Canada on  arctic research, a third a travel to South Pacific, a fourth publicity on a house type for West Africa, a fifth newspaper publicity on his involvement in my coastal aquarium proposal, etc . In Kenya at the University of Nairobi I have given a couple of lectures and 2013-14 been sitting with the last year architect students discussing their mostly very fine projects.

Vetle Jorgensen 02Meeting the famous architects  is definitely a joy : Le Corbusier when I was only 17 to get his personal permission to come into the Marseille building being in the finishing stages and closed for all visitors, Ralph Erskine, who was considered the finest architect for arctic work and who the AIA in Alaska asked me to take care of one afternoon,  Hassan Fathy who understood better than anybody else  how to build in the hot deserts and who invited me for dinner in his classical town house in Cairo, and the two most famous architects in Denmark: Arne Jacobsen with his St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England, who I called on behalf of an architect in Switzerland and Jørn Utzon with the Sydney Opera House and who allowed me to study from outside his own house , the first house in Denmark  with a full height window wall.

Other famous people met would be:  Colonel Joe Fletcher who discovered T-3, Fletcher’s Ice Island, the largest ice  island in the North Pole Basin and who arranged for me to come up to T-3 for some of my arctic studies and the two maybe most prominent American women: Dixie Lee Ray, marine biologist, Director of Pacific Science Center, Seattle, later Director of the American Atomic Energy Commission and later again Governor of the State of Washington, who supported my proposal for a coastal aquarium, and Margaret Mead , cultural anthropologist, author of ‘’Coming of Age in Samoa’’, who I talked with about my own social housing survey in Western Samoa. In the USA I worked in New York, Alaska and in Seattle 1967 to 1972.

Of professional memberships and architectural registrations I have and  have had memberships of the Federation of Danish Architects (MAA/DAL), the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) and registrations outside Denmark where architectural registration is not required: in USA registrations in the States of Washington and Alaska and the NCARB (National Council of Architectural Registration Board) certification, Washington DC, which helped me to be registered in Australia, a requirement for submitting a proposal for the competition for their new parliament building in Canberra. In East Africa registrations in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and also in United Kingdom.

Several of my projects have been on exhibitions in Denmark, Kenya, USA and England. Residential jobs have got awards in Europe, America and Africa: The Fingerplan House, Elsinore, Denmark received a City Council award, the H-Plan House for the Eskimo population in Alaska, got a HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) award, Washington DC, USA and the Lakeview Birdwing Plan House, Nairobi got an award by the Architectural Association of Kenya. Publicity was received through articles, reports, interviews and radio.

BORAQS Conference VetleThe architectural projects , built or not built, having had most influence in my mind as an architect whatever made in employment or in own business would include: the snaky 3-4 storey Quaqssunguaq apartment building designed to follow a sloping mountain ridge on the side of Godthaab/Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, but because of the short construction season replaced with the huge 6 storey Block P on flat land, the largest building in the arctic, mentioned a couple of times in the National Geographic Magazine. The volunteered proposal for the Seattle Coastal Public Viewing and Research Aquarium published in The Architect (Kenya) 4th quarter, 2008, and the Hill Plaza office building, Nairobi, designed in subcontract for George Vamos. Of church projects, the Kariokor Methodist Church, Nairobi is important for me,  and as a letter to the editor in a local newspaper wrote ‘’… it is unique’’ ! But also my proposal for a Rift Valley Visitors’ Centre.  One of my best designs, the radiotherapy building at the Nairobi Hospital, was of course demolished when new architects did not even try to fit it into some new development. But such has also happened for the greatest architects!

Two competition projects for which I got no awards are respectively for the Parliament House,  Canberra, Australia and for the Grand Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt. In both cases I feel sorry, not for myself, but for the people in the two countries not getting some new unique architecture never seen before ! Both were published in the same issue of The Architect mentioned above. In Kenya, I feel good about the original Makini School buildings on sloping land with a staggering of the classrooms giving one dominant sloping roof surface. Also my plan proposal for the Djibouti ISERST research center with Y-shaped corridors giving landscaping and daylight between the split-up corridor parts and with the research laboratories in a clear 2 dimensional modular grid on the outsides. The principle being that any laboratory can be extended outwards in 360 x 90 cm installments with no influence on the neighbouring laboratories.  A principle I later used for the two extensions of the Zoological Science Building at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi.

Of residential jobs the most important for me may be the Stepplan House with every room on a lower level built in a 240 x 90 x 40 cm modular grid and which came on the prestigious Charlottenborg exhibition (later also accepting  Kariokor Methodist Church for exhibition ), and the Fingerplan House in Elsinore also strictly modular in a different way accepting extensions without change in the architectural expression. The H-Plan House in Alaska satisfying both the Eskimo and climatic requirements, built both as a few rammed earth houses and in a 200 unit housing estate of wood studs and plywood. In Kenya the unique Tower Plan House originally designed for Greenland for allowing drifting snow and melt water to pass underneath but in Kenya perfect for black cotton soil sites for minimizing the foundation system, also the Roof Plan House making a 2-storey house not looking like a bulky box but with the special  interlocking roof system blending nicely into the forest site.

Nyari BirdviewSeveral other residential houses have got special plans reflecting very special and different client requirements. They would include the 9-9-14 House in Alaska and in Kenya the X-Plan House, the Corner Room House and the African-European House. Variations over the Fingerplan houses, such as the Accordion Plan House and 2-storey Cobweb Plan House and over the Birdwing plans such as the 1-storey original Birdwing Plan and the Lakeview Birdwing Plan are also important for me. Many of the plans have been published in the architectural journal of Kenya having changed name incl. as Build magazine, Architecture and The Architect.

A special interest is transportation and both in Europe and in Africa I have published articles and reports on ships and rail transport and on my 1956 proposal for an aerial ropeway for cars from Denmark to Sweden ! and on the Radburn principle separating pedestrian paths from streets with motorized traffic. Also of special interest is tropical residential design avoiding low afternoon sun from west oriented windows and access not through living rooms which shall also fit for people who enjoy privacy and peace for reading, music listening and conversation.

Of conferences I have been to, are the international conference for Disaster Area Housing, Istanbul 1977, the international engineering conference held in Arusha, Tanzania 1991 to which I gave a speech on Alleviation of Natural Disasters, later published in Architecture (Kenya), issue 1, 1992, and to the First International High Speed Train conference in Bruxelles, Belgium 1992.  As well as the Weissenhof exhibition had influence on architecture in the western world I did propose (2012) that Kenya should sponsor an international housing estate exhibition also by famous architects demonstrating the best residential designs for the warm-humid tropics.

My hobbies has  and have included ski camping with real igloo building of hard wind packed snow in the high-mountains above the timber line, total three 3–week travels, but I have also been skiing on T-3 Fletcher’s Ice Island near the North Pole and in Greenland. Other hobbies are within geology and engineering, such as glacial geology and glaciology including the special features of huge icebergs; and desert geomorphology with its escarpments, canyons, plateaus and mesas and the dune shapes:  barchans and seif dunes, and within engineering underground railways/metros/subways and motorways/freeways.  The closest to a doctor title would be my world wide study of classical verandah houses throughout the tropics.

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