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Contemporary healthy magazine
Rune Grasdal, senior architect and project manager at Snøhetta, the studio in charge of designing Under, Europe’s first underwater restaurant, talks about the design process and its challenges only weeks before the building works for the project begin near Båly, in Norway.

On your website, you say that your work is an example of attitudes rather than design, could you further explain this?
Well, when we talk about attitude it is more about a way to say that this is a design that is more linked to the job that it should actually do. This building for example is designed to take care of this exact job, what the design or architecture should do …You don’t make design just for the design itself, it’s more related to the nature it’s in, the conditions around and also that there’s this place in this very rough environment, that sits on the base of the sea and also the water pressure… And so that is the attitude… so we don’t design this building just to create a fancy design, something that should look cool or something, this is very linked to the situation and the job it should do actually.

How is the creative process at the studio to come up with a concept?
It is not exactly the same every time, it depends on the job and also what kind of team we put together in different jobs, but what is very common is that we never work alone. One architect never sits alone and designs things, he always has a team and this team will always consist of different skills. We have a landscape architect, we have interior architects, and we also bring special professionals if needed, if we need to bring an artist or even other professionals … so we always work as a team and it is also important that even if you are not a landscape architect, you are free to tell what you think. There is a very open discussion and people can say what they want and there is no leader that says ‘this should be the way that we do it’, it is a very equal platform in that way. That means that everybody also will have the ownership to the design. We think that all this discussion makes the design, working as a common ownership to design and there isn’t anyone who says this is how it should be. I think this is very important actually, to have this discussion in a good way and we always think that my idea combined with yours can even bring out something better that nobody would have found out if we hadn’t had these discussions.

A relationship between multiple disciplines is a driving force in all of Snøhetta’s work. This is demonstrated through the company’s long history, where landscape and architecture work together without division, from the earliest stage possible. Is Under the project that represents the most this conjunction between landscape and architecture in your practice? If so, why?
It’s a bit misleading if you say that the project is under the water because part of the project is under the water but also a lot of the project is visible above the sea level and is linked to the land, so you can see this kind of concrete tube that is a hard surface. We have a lot of that kind of stuff from the World War, from the Germans that left them in the nature along the coast of Norway. What happens during time is that they become more and more integrated with nature because nature in a way takes over again and you have things that grow on it. We hope that this building should not be clean, it should be free to admire the nature itself and all the things that go below sea level should be in the building and it should be an environment for all these organisms and fish and so on and should be more into the nature… And we also focus on the nature under sea level, the seabed, and this is also what we tried to shape in a way, so you have the normal building on land and you also treat the outside of the building, in this case we try to have control of the area in front of the window so in our building we have these stones so that fish can swim around. We also try to give shelter for the nature and the fish there. In this building we also care about the landscape below sea level. People in this building should also feel security, feel a good atmosphere, warm and good conditions for being here and experiencing a good atmosphere to eat your dinner in a good secure environment, so the lighting and the acoustics and the materials we use inside this building are also important to have control over that.

What has been the most challenging when designing Under?
We had many discussions before landing this concept … to make it as simple as it looks now, that has been the main challenge. It took a long way to come to that, and of course this is not a normal building, so another challenge is how to build it. This building has to be built on a boat on land and then be shipped over to the site and there has been kind of limitations, it is a very critical operation. We have had lots of discussions about how to deal with the weight of the building and how to stabilise it during the mounting process so you have to make a design that is also meant to be moved and have the strength to take the forces that will be exposed or due in this operation. And that means that some of the design also has to take care of that, and you can say also that the shape of this tube, a slightly curved shape, is also due to the forces and the waves that will be in this area, which I think it’s a great thing that the design looks at the environment of the shape not just because it looks great but because it makes it much stronger and also the shape takes away some of the forces that would hit the building.

It sounds very challenging
Yes, it is our first time with a building like this. There is a lot to learn, there are a lot of new things that you have to have in mind and also how you insulate big windows like this. It is not a normal insulated glass, and also how you ventilate the building, and also how you escape the building…

Has the construction started?
It has not started, we are into the details and making the goings for the constructions. The plan is to start in February with the foundations, so its very close. The plan is to open the building in March 2019, which is not so far away.

Do you have an idea of what could visitors expect when they visit Under?
You can say first of all that it is a kind of tube. All you can say it is a tunnel, and then you are down and then out. There are two windows and they are high windows and you can also see above sea level. You can see all the layers from the bottom and see above the lands. That’s a very exciting experience. The interior is very important to find a nice atmosphere, a good feeling, it shouldn’t be claustrophobic, should be warm and nice. We use wood and natural materials which I think is important, and of course the huge window is a big screen when you are down on the lower level and the idea is that what you see outside will vary a lot during the different time of the year and also during the time of day or night. So maybe some part of the area will be rough, windy… it will be another kind of experience which I think is great to see that natural forces can be great and spectacular.
Other times you will have quietness and see the fish and plankton more clearly, and also parts will be cloudier, so you have to play with some objects in front of the big window to have big depth and all this can be amplified with the light, so you can control some of it, but on the other hand you can’t control it. It is not a normal aquarium so you have to play with nature, you can guarantee a specific experience, which I think is great to put the building out in the nature instead of have a controlled environment.
Food is a very important part of the concept for the owner and they will produce a local fish menu. And then of course a lot of people will come (art students and other people interested in the design) and they will need to take care of these people. There will also be a kind of visitors centre close by the restaurant and there will be a lot of learning from the sea, people can get the information and learn what the coast means to Norway, so there will be a lot going on!

Will there be a research centre?
There will be a restaurant and the research centre will be built next to the restaurant. There will be kind of researching and things to be tested in front of the restaurant out on the sea and there will also be kind of testing of what we do with concrete surfaces below sea level to help organisms and fish, so all this will be directly tested on the building itself.

What environmental considerations have you taken to make sure the sea life is not disturbed?
First of all, we have some very good people on board in the team that are scientists that will be in the area to test out things, they are interested in seeing what we can learn, they test out how all this building will react to what we are doing, and what happens to what is growing there. What we also do in the visitors centre, we can take further out and test for instance how the mussels react, there are different layers of researching in this building and this project. And also how to learn across what happens on the coast, and there will be a kind of information about what happens if you over fish and about the plastic in the sea.

Are the people in Båly happy about the project being installed where they live?
Yes, they are happy. In this area, you have the famous monument, a lighthouse, around 80,000 visitors, and it is the only thing they have, so this will be a new attraction for tourists and for people to come and visit. I think it is important for them and people are willing to help to make it happen. This will put Båly on the map again with new tourists coming to this area, which I think is good.

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