“Nature first, architecture second.” The words of a Canadian, (Gander, Newfoundland—a resident of Bergen, Norway since 1996)—a world-renowned architect for his design of Fogo Island Inn. The words spoken by Todd Saunders when he and fellow architect Tommie Wilhelmsen began conceptualizing Stegastein Viewpoint on Norway’s infamous “Snow Road.”
It was quite the initiation for Magellan, newly behind the wheel of our rented motorhome Hjulrundt (“wheel around”). Enroute from our first campsite at Undredal, we stopped at Flåm (350 residents), a village full of shopping plazas and fast-food outlets erected to accommodate the thousands of tourists bulging en masse from large cruise ships and over-sized tour buses. In Flåm I wanted to close my eyes and imagine this village 50 years ago. Hjulrundt had no time to cool her engines before we hurried back to her.
However, Hjulrundt would soon be feeling a chill.
First, let me tell you a bit about where she was about to venture.
The Snow Road or Aurlandsfjellet (Fv243) starts at Aurland, four km from Flåm. Open only from June to October, even then sections of this 47 kilometre road can be blanketed in white. Until 1967 the Snow Road was only used for construction access. Now it’s among Norway’s 18 Scenic Routes. The road rises from sea level to 1,306 metres, cresting above the tree line through what’s called Norway’s Grand Canyon then ebbing back down to the fjord. Hjulrundt was facing a grade up to 12% and 20 hairpin corners. Like the Troll Road we told you about a few weeks ago, vehicles over 12.2 metres long aren’t allowed, a relief to us after seeing buses three times as long as Hjulrundt in Flåm. In many places on the Snow Road there isn’t room for two cars to meet—and the shoulders can barely accommodate a motorcycle.
The road is in Sogn og Fjordane county, home to the longest fjord in Norway (Sognefjorden) and naturally bejewelled with glaciers, waterfalls and national parks. For sheer drama and beauty, the pros advise driving it the opposite way we did. They suggest starting in the summery valley of fruit trees (where we bought apples and cherries) and climbing up into the fjord landscape. We agree but it didn’t fit our itinerary.
Now back to Hjulrundt’s oncoming chill.
The higher we drove, the more voluminous the cocoon of fog and cloud cover, an endless expanse of snow-white. Ethereal for me, but not for Magellan who inched Hjulrundt along, in spots at the pace of a caterpillar, a near-blind caterpillar. Although it was a Saturday in late August, there was little traffic. Perhaps because of the inclement weather, our off-season timing or most drivers turned back at Stegastein Viewpoint, eight kilometres from Aurland and the only section that’s open year-round.
Todd and Tommie designed Stegastein so visitors would feel suspended in nature. Out of the mountainside 650 metres above the Aurland fjord, a minimalist ramp juts 30 metres out into space then curves down in what’s been described as a ski jump or a diving board heading into the fjord, a startling drop ending with an almost-invisible pane of glass above the void—a ghostly white void when we were there. (Confession: I’m no diver or ski jumper—I hugged the rails.) Although it appears to be made from wood, Stegastein was constructed in sturdier material, laminated pine and steel. As you can see in the photos from Todd’s website, on a clear day you can see for miles down the spectacular fjord.
Todd and Tommie designed something else here.
“Didn’t you love the fancy toilets in Norway?” a friend asked us.
Although we were glad to see (and use) them, the fog made it too eerie for us to photograph the cliff-edge toilets constructed in concrete painted black and said to have the most spectacular lookout—in the country!
There’s contrasting artistry farther down the road.
An artificial stalactite cave called DEN, designed by American artist Mark Dion in collaboration with the Norwegian architect Lars Berge. A taxidermied bear lays on a bed of artifacts from second-hand stores, lit by a bluish wintery light from an opening in the roof. The entangled objects represent Norway’s cultural history, relics from the Viking period at the bottom, stuff from the present at the top.
While at first it may seem like an odd choice of art, DEN feels rightfully placed. You find yourself wondering: What’s grander: the marvels of nature or the engineering of the Snow Road? DEN or a real winter lair, impossible to find in this part of Norway where bears no longer exist? Panoramic views over the fjord or the architecture of Stegastein Viewpoint?
Although Stegastein Viewpoint won first prize in the Norwegian tourist routes competition and has become one of the country’s most popular attractions, I have a hunch how Todd would answer those questions…
Following his studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax and McGill University in Montreal, Todd founded Saunders Architecture in 1998. In addition to practicing architecture, he teaches part-time at the Bergen Architecture School and has lectured and taught at schools in Scandinavia, the UK and Canada. Aren’t we proud!!! You can find further online details on the architecture and Node Engineering’s construction of Stegastein here.
You can read more about the artwork DEN, completed in 2012, six years after Stegastein Viewpoint by Mark Dion, here.
Here you can find more about Norway’s 18 Scenic Routes.