Alta Cathedral by Link Arkitektur and Schmidt Hammer Lassen 16.05.13

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Alta is a town of about 15,000 people, nestled up against the sea right at the very northernmost part of Norway, 500km into the Arctic Circle. In this rather inhospitable environment, Link Arkitektur and Schmidt Hammer Lassen have built a focal point for the town in the form of a cathedral, with a design whose whorls and swirls are designed to evoke the aurora borealis that so frequently lights up the night sky.

The 1,900sq m building is based upon the motif of a single wall spiralling around and upwards. Situated at the very end of the town's pedestrian precinct, it is approached by a straight, wide-ramped bridge. Its first turn marks out a garden at a low level, before rising and looping around to create the main functional spaces of the church. Another turn of this form lifts the ceiling high above the main hall, and it then proceeds to coil inwards to form the belfry that rises 47m high in total. The cathedral has a concrete structure, externally clad in small titanium panels, which gives it a reflective sheen in the always low-angled light.

The concrete is left exposed on the interior of the main hall, a softened wedge shape in plan with the wall lifting up like a raised curtain to expose an alcove where a statue of Jesus is dramatically lit by a concealed rooflight. The concrete finish is enlivened by timber panelling to the ceilings and floors, and warm vertical backlighting against the wall.

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John F Lassen of Schmidt Hammer Lassen claims that the cathedral is "a landmark, which through its architecture symbolises the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights". This isn't a conceit of the architects, however, as it was an integral part of the original competition brief in 2001, with a part of the building given over to an observation room for viewing the lights as a community activity.

The architectural response, with the building's shimmering skin picking up the reflections and its forms mimicking the sinuous traces of the lights, is a fairly friendly concept, but it can just as easily be taken as a response to the local pine trees, the rugged hills nearby, or the old-fashioned church metaphor of protective hands wrapping around the congregation.

For a generation after the Second World War a church was one of the ultimate commissions for a modernist architect; after Corbusier built the Ronchamp chapel the opportunity to flex secular architectural muscles at expressing the ineffable was too great an opportunity to miss. You can see traces of that in the Northern Lights Cathedral. The hidden skylight behind the altar is a classic move, as is the formal abstraction of the spire and other typical church functions, creating a highly unified whole acting as a communal focus. Lassen channels this spirit when claiming the building is to be "ethereal, transient, poetic and beautiful" – qualities equally appropriate to worship and to awed reference to nature.



Adam Mørk



Douglas Murphy

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A landmark, which through its architecture symbolises the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights

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