28 May 2020
One wonders what Carlo Collodi have made of spotting a whale like this, possibly not so very dissimilar to the one he described in Pinocchio! The story about the wooden puppet seems to continue in this fairytale building that appears to emerge both from the sea waters and from the land, as if a giant had lifted up a scrap of the earth’s crust.
Due for completion in Summer 2022, the reinforced concrete shell of The Whale rises and takes its shape from the lunar landscape around Andenes, a coastal town on the Norwegian Sea comprising 2,600 inhabitants.
The choice of location was no mere accident. Andenes sits 300 km north of the Vesterålen archipelago, and is the nearest town to the almost 2,000 m deep underwater canyon of Bleiksdjupet, which provides a perfect habitat for large marine mammals, such as sperm whales, killer whales and pilot whales in summer and humpback whales, blue whales and killer whales in winter. Thanks to the huge numbers of cetaceans and the fact that they are easy to spot on sea trips, Andenes has been the leading Norwegian whale watching centre since the late Eighties. Bolstering its prime position – it currently boasts 50,000 visitors a year, the company The Whale AS, set up in 2018 and involving public and private parties, launched a competition to design a site-specific centre for the observation and study of large cetaceans that was also an iconic, poetic, organic and sustainable building.
37 studios, including finalists BIG, Snøhetta and Reiulf Ramstad, took part in the competition, which was won by Danish architectural studio Dorte Mandrup A/S in collaboration with Marianne Levinsen Landskab and consultants JAC Studios, Thornton Tomasetti, Nils Øien and Anders Kold. Dorte Mandrup has a particular affinity with unpolluted landscapes, and currently has three other projects on the go – the Icefjord Centre at Ilulissat, in Greenland, and two visitor centres on the Wadden Sea, which, along with two completed buildings, are located in UNESCO World Heritage areas. The Whale building instantly strikes one as a seamless insertion into the morphology of the softly undulating landscape. The parabolic, hardwearing and easily maintained roof structure, covered in local untreated stone, underscores its total connection with the natural surroundings. The building does not merely blend into the landscape, it accentuates its character and complements it. Nature is also very much to the fore inside the building, with a long glazed strip offering amazing views across the landscape.
The Whale is a sculptural building owed first and foremost to Dorte Mandrup’s training as a ceramist and sculptor. The extensive shell, the inside of which also serves as a film screen, is made of concrete from the Breivik cement works in southern Norway, as are the floors, making it the first zero impact structure in the world. Its parabolic shape allows for an ample interior free of load-bearing structures, thus cutting the use of materials to a minimum. Its aerodynamic shape is designed to withstand atmospheric turbulence and build-ups of snow, which in winter are slight. With The Whale – says the Danish architect – “we will be making a mark in a magnificent and ancient landscape. This opportunity comes with a great responsibility, which is extremely motivating and inspiring.”
The “underbelly” of the building – the internal spaces taken up with the exhibition areas, the offices, the stores and a cafe/restaurant – is laid out to a single open and flexible plan, echoing the borderless journeys whales make around the world. The exhibition space is an extension of the architecture and the landscape, harnessing views, sounds, ceilings and floors as intermediaries or co-narrators of the fascinating world of cetaceans. The museum visit continues outside the building, with the roof structure, which becomes a spectacular panoramic observatory for the Vesterålen archipelago, which is particularly fascinating during the midnight sun. The area benefits from a mild climate despite its latitude, and thus the area surrounding the building has been conceived as an educational space in which sculptures and installations continue the stories that began inside – from the evolution of whales to their biology and behaviour, research into cetaceans and marine mammals to their inclusion in myths and legends right up to their relationship with humans. The exhibition space will also include traditional installations such as skeletons on a scale of 1:1 and historical artefacts made from teeth and bone, as well as digital and multimedia technology ranging from film to video mapping.
A 3,000 m2 footprint and some 16 million euros well used and well spent!