Visitor centre between land and lake

Naturum Vänerskärgården-Victoriahuset in Kållandsö, Sweden by White

At first glance, the random-looking wooden facades of Naturum Vänerskärgården–Victoriahuset are reminiscent of reeds. With its curved forms, dramatic cladding and large windows, the building is a work of craftsmanship on a large scale – challenging its neighbour, Läckö Castle, in its own way.

WITH GREAT SELF-CONFIDENCE, Läckö Castle looms over its surroundings in the unique natural and cultural landscape of Lake Vänern. With all its pinnacles and towers, the edifice stands enthroned on a plateau like a fairytale castle, overlooking the dark waters of the lake. The castle has dominated this site since the 17th century. However, just over a year ago the Baroque building gained some competition, when Naturum Vänerskärgården–Victoriahuset became its new neighbour. In terms of size, this visitor centre is overshadowed by the castle, but it still manages to make its presence felt. It is, after all, a large building of 1275 square metres sitting prominently in the open landscape – and the architecture certainly draws the eye.

Ulla Antonsson, Pär Andréasson and Mattias Lind of White in Gothenburg are the architects behind the building. Together with their colleagues, they have designed seven of the nine ‘naturum’ visitor centres that have been created in Sweden over the past decade. In their work on Naturum Vänerskärgården–Victoriahuset, their focus has been on combining the location’s distinctive cultural roots with its unique natural assets, and in so doing they have managed to combine the Baroque design language of the castle with the reeds and driftwood of the archipelago.

The exterior of the pentagonal building is lined with vertical laths and punctuated by large windows. The facade is made up of two layers of wood. The inner wood panelling, which is part of the actual building envelope, is protected in the traditional way by metal flashing along the top edges. The outer layer comprises wooden batons of various depths, forming a membrane that sweeps freely around the building, across the windows and up over the eaves. These laths create an ever-changing transparency. From shallow angles only certain laths are visible and, come the evening, the light from the windows filters between them. All the exterior wood is pine impregnated with linseed oil. The impregnation method allows the laths to have exposed ends, lending an air of simplicity to the design.

“The linseed oil treatment provides long-term rotproofing, but the effect of the weather will always impact on the material and eventually give the building an added dimension,” says Ulla Antonsson. “The surfaces of the wood will bleach, mostly on the sunny sides. The facades will therefore age differently depending on the direction they face. The panelling that envelops the visitor centre has a very deep relief. This means panels on each facade have exposed surfaces on three sides at the same time. With all the facades variously subjected to sun and moisture, the effect will be dramatic.”

THE EXTERNAL LATHS are repeated inside, lining the walls and the balcony parapet on the upper floor. The whole interior is dominated by untreated spruce, which is fitted on walls of brown-stained structural plywood. The floors are also wood – industrial ash flooring, to be precise – which gives a lovely foundation to the room. All the wood is fireproofed in the factory.

“Modern fireproofing treatments don’t change the look of the wood. It doesn’t show at all. The treatment is therefore an excellent alternative to fitting whole new technical systems such as sprinklers in a building,” explains Pär Andréasson.

Acoustically, wooden laths of different depths and internal walls with rounded corners are perfect. They break up the sound and create a muted acoustic environment, which is important with an exhibition space and restaurant sharing the same area.

The suspended ceiling may not look like an ordinary ceiling, but it does the same job. It is made of woven unstripped willow from Halland, reflecting the surrounding forest and the many wicker baskets to be found in the castle’s gardens. The baskets, like the ceiling, were woven by the gardeners at Läckö Castle. The slightly larger supporting beams are made of hazel from Kållandsö.

“The purpose of this visitor centre and exhibition space is to highlight the unique natural assets of the local area, while also giving the cultivated castle setting and its history the respect it deserves. We discovered the woven unstripped willow in the castle gardens, where we also found the craftspeople who keep this art alive. It was love at first sight when it came to the willow, and we had a vision of scaling up this craft that so rarely features in modern architecture,” says Ulla Antonsson.

All the installations, lighting and sound absorbers are concealed above the ceiling. If something requires maintenance, you can simply push apart the woven willow, do what needs to be done, and then pull it all back into place again. The ambient lighting filters down through the weave for a rather special glittery effect. The ceilings end a slight distance from the internal walls, with shallow-angle lighting running around the edge. This detail strengthens the sense that the layout is made up of independent volumes, calling to mind rocks and skerries.

THE BUILDING IS SITUATED right by Lake Vänern, between an artificial carp pond and the landscape’s characteristic rolling hills. This location is due to the project being considerably delayed following the architectural competition that White won in 2008. White’s original design called Tallspråk was a low building wedged poetically between the pines of the forest slightly inland. In the design, the visitor centre had a distinctive floor and equally distinctive roof, with large round holes in them. The holes were intended for the pines that the visitor centre would have been built around.

There are no similarities between Tallspråk and the visitor centre that was opened in May 2013. This is because the original proposal was much more complex to construct than was first thought, costs spiralled and the clients, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and the National Property Board Sweden, started getting cold feet. More money was needed. Local financiers were willing to put more funding in – but on one condition: the money was to be earmarked for 15 guest rooms. With this stipulation the project took on a whole new direction, and magnitude.

“It just wasn’t possible to complete the project to the new brief on the old site. It’s always sad when an idea fails to come off, but sometimes it’s better to go back to the drawing board,” states Ulla Antonsson.

And she was right, it was better. The new situation turned out to be a great improvement, when the clients came back with a different plot in what the architects considered a dream location. With access to this land, a new concept was created that took account of the financiers’ requirements for guest rooms and a tighter budget.

Before the visitor centre was constructed, a survey was conducted to work out how best to position the building: back against the rock, close to the water, or somewhere in between? The fact that this visitor centre was primarily meant to convey the unique natural assets of the Vänern archipelago argued in favour of the current position. The building was also pushed slightly out into the water to give it a clear logic. In addition, the design was tweaked to give the building’s facilities an outlook that matched their function. The restaurant faces towards Läckö Castle, while the exhibition space has views across Sweden’s largest lake and its surrounding nature reserve, and towards Djurö National Park. The guest rooms are located on the upper floor.

Despite the much praised end result, the location, in amongst the reeds on the water’s edge, could be seen as eccentric, and visitors with an interest in architecture have been known to ask: couldn’t the building have been turned a little?

“The building’s precise position embraces the idea of creating a direct axis from the south approach up to the main entrance of Läckö Castle. This access was only partly realised south of the castle, but the location of the visitor centre keeps the intended axis – directly west of the visitor centre – clear, so as not to build out the tantalising future possibility,” says Mattias Lind, who goes on:

“With this rotation, the building presents a narrow gable end to the castle, making as little visual impact on the castle site as possible. At the same time, the castle can be seen from the heart of the visitor centre through a cutout in the beams above the reception.”

JUST LIKE THE CASTLE, Naturum Vänerskärgården–Victoria sits up on a plateau, but in this case the plateau is a sizeable wooden deck that steps down towards the surface of the lake. One of the greatest challenges of the project was building the supporting structure for the wooden deck that appears to float above the Vänern shoreline. Circumstances permitted only two plinths to be laid in the water, with the rest on dry land. The solution to the problem was a steel framework of suspended girders making up the primary structure.

All the wood in the jetty, as well as the joists and decking, is made from the same material as the facade – pine impregnated with linseed oil.

“This wood meets all our requirements, including durability, minimal maintenance, attractive ageing, bare endgrain wood, being a Nordic conifer and the fact that it’s economical and eco-friendly. Another quality we were looking for is that all the exterior wood could be of the same sort,” concludes Ulla Antonsson.

Text Annika Lagerberg Munter

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