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Nordic faith: by reinterpreting traditional types, this little church achieves an intensity which is enhanced by great sensitivity in use of materials and light.

Traditionally, there are not many Roman Catholics in Scandinavia. The small town of Kongsvinger, in Norway, east of Oslo and near the Swedish border, has a Catholic community of only some 200 people, made up of immigrants from Vietnam, the Philippines and Poland as well as native Norwegians. To help bring the disparate group together, a new church was necessary.

Because of the size of the congregation, the building had to be simple and quite cheap: a basic 'framework round the liturgy' was required. The architects replied with a building of great simplicity, in an arrangement that has become quite common in Scandinavian churches of all denominations: the church faces a roughly similar sized parish hall over an open court that separates sacred and profane areas, with everything being brought together within an overall rectangle -- a compact arrangement comparable to, for instance, the church at Mortensrud built for a much bigger (and Lutheran) congregation (AR December 2002, P52).

At Kongsvinger, the parts are simple and elemental -- all small abstractions of ancient types. The church itself with its wide, clerestory-lit nave flanked by narrow aisles is a miniature basilica, with the altar emphasized by a skylight, as was the focus of basilican spaces since Roman times; the confessional and the font are in tiny side niches opening off the aisles. The open courtyard, with its surrounding arcades, is clearly descended from the cloister, itself another Roman type that goes back to the atria of the houses of the rich. The parish hall is, in a sense, a negative of the cloister, with arcades surrounding a roofed space instead of one open to the sky; to me at least, the rather dark volume recalls tales of the ancient timber halls of Scandinavian legend -- you almost expect a lantern as a reminder of the central smoke-hole.

For Scandinavia, this is a relatively poor parish, and construction is economical and very simple, but there has been enough money to cover the outside of the blockwork walls in a sawn sandstone skin with flush-pointed joints and solid stone lintels over the portals to the cloister. Inside, walls are finished in tinted plaster, with no skirtings against the floors, which themselves are of polished pale concrete. All columns and main beams are 200mm square laminated pine members, while secondary roof elements, roof linings and most other woodwork are made of untreated pine, the aroma of which permeates the whole complex. Special pieces, like the pews, where you are literally most in touch with the building, are in oak.

Everything has been thought out economically, yet with deep understanding of the sensuous properties of light and material. Sankt Clara's church is a small, yet powerful distillation of community and the numinous.


Hille Strandskogen, Oslo

Project team

Ervin Strandskogen, Henrik Hille, Anla Hole Strandskogen

Interior design and landscape

Hille Strandskogen
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Article Details
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Author:Miles, Henry
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EXNO
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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