Images: Pasi Aalto
THE LUSTROUS ENTRY HALL of the Student Society in Trondheim, with its stately, chevron-topped columns circling a dramatic, sparkling chandelier, seems an outlier in the portfolio of Norwegian architecture firm TYIN tegnestue, which has become known for dynamic, textured, and eclectic buildings around the world. However, this restoration project — a competition won and completed in 2007, during founders Yashar Hanstad and Andreas Grøntvedt Gjertsen’s third year of architecture school — set the philosophy behind the internationally acclaimed TYIN (pronounced “teen”) into motion.
While restoring the 1920s Rundhallen (Student Society) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Hanstad and Gjertsen decided they needed a change of scenery, so they bought a boat. Living on the hundred-year-old boat, named TYIN, in the frigid waters surrounding Trondheim, the young architecture students frequently aired their frustrations about spending a year improving a space that was in perfectly good shape. They stumbled on a comic strip that perfectly encapsulated how they felt: In the first and second scene, a seagull is shown apathetically flying in an open sky. Then the seagull realizes how bored it is. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” it shouts. “This is soooo boring!” After this realization, the seagull returns to cruising the sky, as in the first two scenes. To Hanstad and Gjertsen, the comic symbolized the cycle they wanted to escape: airing frustrations about meaningless actions but never making a change. So the architecture students made a pact never to work again on a project that, at the end of the day, made them scratch their heads and wonder why they were doing it.
"Listen more than you talk"
In 2008, Hanstad randomly began talking with a man named Ole Jørgen Edna at a gas station.Edna told him about an orphanage that he had built along the Thailand-Myanmar border and how he was in need of expanding it. Looking to fulfill this deep desire to take action on their pact, Hanstad told Gjertsen about the opportunity, which they decided to leap on. The pair decided to take a year off from university, packed their bags, and booked a flight to join Edna along the tropical Thailand-Myanmar border, taking the boat’s name, TYIN,with them as a reminder of their pact and the launch of their practice. The duo arrived in the small village of Noh Bo, Thailand, in the fall of 2008. Home to 2,000 Karen people who escaped decades of conflict in Myanmar, Hanstad and Gjertsen spent the first few weeks acclimating to the village life and meeting the residents of Noh Bo. They also spenttime with Edna at the orphanage, meeting and playing with the children and observing how the children lived. Edna explained the need to expand the orphanage so within a few weeks of arriving,the newly founded TYIN tegnestue was presented with its first project. Bringing on locals they had befriended, the pair, along with four fellow architecture students who arrived later, designed and constructed the Soe Ker Tie House, a set of six bamboo-and-wood sleeping huts, featuring butterfly roofs for natural ventilation, that could house 24 children.
Although the huts are captivating and have appeared in numerous design magazines and books, the process and methods employed ended up being far more important than the structures themselves. “We made so many mistakes in that project,” said Hanstad, “but we’ve learned so much from it.” In one instance, Hanstad and Gjertsen decided to replicate a traditional Norwegian building technique — similar to stacked log walls built with thick, aged trees — in bamboo. They split the bamboo stalks in half and stacked them into a neatly aligned façade. The next day they returned to a warped, shrunken, cracked wall of bamboo,as well as a group of irritated Karen builders. One of the men thrust his machete through the wall,tearing it entirely off of the structure. At that moment, Hanstad and Gjertsen knew they needed the locals to show them how it could be done better. Four days and truckloads of bamboo later, the Norwegians were presented with six huts wrapped in beautiful woven bamboo screens. This drove home the invaluable lesson of listening more than talking. “We have two ears and one mouth,”said Hanstad. “Listen more than you talk and you will be successful.”
Along with learning locally appropriate building techniques, the fledgling architects felt the absence of the engineering safety net once structures began going up, so they called on professors back in Norway for advice on calculating loads. One offered a method that TYIN still employs to this day in areas without stringent building codes: Get 10 people on top of the structure, and then shake it as hard as you can. If they don’t fall, then it’s safe.Despite the mistakes, the duo were able to do something that the vast majority of architecture students are not. “For the first time, our ideas on paper were becoming reality,” said Hanstad. “Architecture was becoming 1:1 in scale. It was becoming heavy, and we were really feeling the dimensions, which was very new to us.” Six months after arriving in Thailand, Hanstad and Gjertsen had completed their first ground-up project in a place of their choice, for people that needed it.
"Leave more behind than the physical structure"
With an injection of confidence from the Soe Ker Tie House, TYIN built three additional projects in Thailand over the next two years. The one that proved most impactful to the firm itself came through a partnership with Community Architects for Shelter and Environment (CASE), which taught TYIN about the value of community engagement and how to “leave more behind than the physical structure.”
After working with fellow Norwegian students in a village near Noh Bo to complete the Safe Haven Bathhouse and the Safe Haven Library — the latter giving TYIN international recognition when it was named a 2009 Building of the Year by ArchDaily — Hanstad and Gjertsen set out for the dynamic urban environment of Bangkok, where they met CASE architect Kasama Yamtree. Yamtree, who was extremely well versed in participatory and community-led design in Bangkok’s slums, took them to the area of Min Buri. After observing Yamtree’s connections with the locals and thorough understanding of the neighborhood, Hanstad and Gjertsen decided to approach their fifth project by following in the footsteps of CASE. The pair dedicated five months solely to interviewing locals, conducting a variety of workshops, and gaining a comprehensive understanding of Min Buri in order to understand what TYIN could do, if anything at all.
The result of their extensive community study was the Old Market Library, a small but powerful intervention that reenergized Min Buri’s old market location, which remained rundown from a fire in the late 1990s. Within a row of shops, a dingy, narrow space was transformed into a community library, offering up spaces to read, study, and escape to a serene patio along a small canal. Similar to previous projects, TYIN, CASE, and a group of dedicated locals sourced materials nearby, the majority of which were repurposed castoffs. People brought old wood planks to form the walls and ceilings, while CASE donated wooden boxes that were turned into bookshelves, all contributing to a warm and inviting space enhanced by richly textured natural materials and brightly colored accents.
Over five months of community research, TYIN discovered the importance of actively involving locals throughout the process, from inception to maintenance. To gain trust and encourage participation early on, TYIN began with children, the easiest age group to engage. The initial workshops were simple: draw flowers and plants and watch the animated movie Ice Age. Hanstadand Gjertsen incrementally introduced more complex drawing exercises and construction projects along the way, and by the end of the five months, the children were building models and designing structures, a way for them to communicate their hopes about having a place to gather with friends and do homework.
The adults, however, were not as easy to engage. But over time and with enthusiasm from the children, they recognized the potential for a common space to not only transform the children’s experience in Min Buri but also their own. As the common space evolved to include places for them to have meetings, gather with neighbors, and read, the adults were just as eager to see the derelict space transformed. and wanted to see it
completed. Once the project began construction,TYIN had a regular group of locals working alongside them every day, committed to seeing the project come to life. In the end, the local people most involved had developed an attachment to the library and a sense of achievement and pride in their work. This is what keeps the library functioning in the long-term, long after TYIN returned to Norway.
“Be precise, stay sharp, and cut the crap ! ”
Fast-forward to 2012 and six projects after the Min Buri library, and TYIN releases the Architect’s Toolbox, a “mobile, sturdy, practical and simple to use” guide based on what they had learned in four years since starting their practice while simultaneously completing their architecture degree. In contrast to the usual architectural practice manual, which often focuses on checklists, project phasing, contract management, and scheduling (valuable information yet lacking in the human element of architecture), TYIN’s toolbox is both inspirational and practical, offering insights and suggestions on how to design an “architecture of necessity.” In 32 pages, TYIN uses simple watercolor images paired with a few sentences to quickly convey the firm’s methodology.
When it comes to communication, TYIN suggests, “Don’t worry too much about language difficulties. Use the universal language of the drawing and be aware of your collaborators body language.” For hands-on fieldwork, which TYIN frequently engages in, they recommend Antibac to stay clean and healthy while simultaneously noting, “Knowledge of basic sanitation is not available to all. Don’t confuse lack of education with respect for local culture and tradition.” One of the firm’s favorite tools is the white board: “White board drawings are immediate, changeable and intuitive. ... Only the strong ideas will survive the elusive quality of the white board.” A hammer, flashlight, handsaw, and first aid kit also appear in their toolbox, along with a mobile phone. Finally, TYIN always brings a laptop, which serves as a “sketchbook, telephone, cinema, encyclopedia, music machine, organizer, game center, day planner, dictionary, and internet provider.” However, they warn, “Don’t give the computer an unreasonable amount of credit; it will not make your design for you.”
Working in remote places and showing up with no preconceived designs has forced TYIN to strip its architecture kit to the basics — essentially, everything you need can be carried in a backpack.Although TYIN is a young firm, the toolbox represents a fundamental look at how Hanstad and Gjertsen design, build, document, and share their work.
After spending four years working in Thailand,Burma, Haiti, and Uganda, Hanstad and Gjertsen returned to Norway in the hopes of finding projects within and around their homeland. Linking up with university programs, they began by building a few small structures with architecture students through studio courses. As recent graduates, the duo was excited to take students out of the studio and get them building in the real world, as they had done only a few years prior.In the summer of 2013, the Porto Marghera exhibition in Venice was designed and built by 70 architecture students over 20 days using reclaimed timber from the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale’s Canadian pavilion. TYIN then partnered with NTNU for a design-build course closer to home. Using the methods learned in Bangkok, TYIN and 15 architecture students conducted workshops with children in Gran, Norway, to develop a project that encouraged walking and biking to school. A seriesof colorful huts were built along the main route to provide places for the children to meet while traveling between the school and their homes.
In the fall of 2013, a group of 50 landowners in Lista, Norway, approached TYIN about realizing a project to draw attention to the area, which was dealing with a shrinking population. Invited to temporarily relocate to the area by the group’s enthusiastic leader Solveig Egeland, Hanstad,Gjertsen, and 14 architecture students from Mexico and Norway arrived empty-handed, with no specific project site chosen, no housing for project participants, no sponsors, and no government approval. It was truly a blank slate.
As with previous TYIN projects, the entire community pitched in, providing shelter, food, and the materials and machinery to build. After speaking with Egeland’s group and witnessing the arresting landscape, the team identified an area with rolling sand dunes to showcase Lista’s wild, natural beauty, and conceived of a “lookout cabin” as an invitation for people to enjoy the view. As the design unfolded, the local government required that all materials used for the project had to be fully removable, meaning no concrete foundations. With this constraint, TYIN turned to a reliable and popular Scandinavian material: wood. The entire structure — from foundation to roof — is constructed of wood and can be taken apart and removed when necessary. In a matter of three weeks, the design team and the community constructed a 60-meter wood pathway that wends its way across the rippled landscape to arrive at a warm wood cabin wrapped in reclaimed wood and an array of mismatched windows. Overjoyed with the structure that offers panoramic views of the southern tip of Norway, the locals have named it “Lyset paa Lista” — the “Light of Lista” — referring to the “dazzling natural light unique to this area.”
Today, TYIN continues to build both in Norway and internationally, albeit at a deliberately slower pace. Although the question of scale and impact is a hot topic within the social impact design community, TYIN is not jumping on the bandwagon so quickly. With a new Trondheim performing arts venue under construction and another project kicking off in Brazil, Hanstad and Gjertsen are intentionally keeping their team of two and bringing on collaborators — students, peers, and locals — when appropriate. This affords them time to iterate and improve their process with their clients in a meaningful and manageable manner. But even if the firm itself isn’t growing, the transparency of process it presents and the information it provides allows others to learn from TYIN’s experience and spread the firm’s approach to architecture. Since its inception, TYIN has documented projects with fervor.
Frequent collaborator Pasi Aalto beautifully photographs each one and provides them to Hanstad and Gjertsen for free. Timelapse videos, drawings, 3D models, reports, and project descriptions are easily accessed on the firm’s website. Further, Hanstad and Gjertsen travel extensively around the world to give lectures, lead workshops, and share their work in exhibitions.The most magnetic aspect of TYIN is Hanstad and Gjertsen’s candidness. In front of a theater of students in Madrid, and without any hesitation,Hanstad described TYIN’s first projects as disasters.“We cannot go to an area and do a stunt for two weeks and then go home,” he said.“We shouldn’t glorify this idea of traveling somewhere and doing something quickly, because it will not be sustainable in the end. If you do a stunt, you do it for your own good. If you’re doing it for yourself and to learn, then maybe do it. But know that it’s not sustainable.”
They also speak openly about the fact that the projects that brought them notoriety were not financially feasible, pointing out that they used student loans used to pay for travel and materials.Since graduating from NTNU in 2010 and fully embedding themselves in practice, TYIN has come to understand the necessary aspects of an architectural practice. “Running a business is a very complex thing,” said Gjertsen. “We get quite a lot of inquiries from students who want to do work with us. But I don’t think they realize how boring it is to run a company. It’s e-mails and accounting and a lot of administrative work. There’s so much under the surface of the structures we present that they seem quite boring, at least from the outside. But it’s important and it’s part of the work.” This kind of honesty, humility, and transparency that TYIN displays has the potential to shape the emerging field of socially orientated design.
Yashar Hanstad, Andreas Grøntvedt Gjertsen
- AASchol.ac.uk. “AA School of Architecture – Lectures Online.” 2012.
- Basulto, David. “AD Interviews: Andreas G. Gjertsen / TYIN tegnestue” 12 May 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 04 Sep 2014.
- Hanstad, Yashar and Andreas Grøntvedt Gjertsen. “Lyset Paa Lista_Project Description.” 18 March 2014. Accessed 04 Sep 2014.
- tyinarchitects.com. “TYIN tegnestue Architects.” 2014.
- vimeo.com. “The Architecture is Present_TYIN.” 2014.