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Adaptable Architecture with Tham & Videgård

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Based in Stockholm, lead architects Bolle Tham and Martin Videgård of Tham & Videgård Arkitekter have attracted attention for their experimental and innovative approach to architecture. From starting their studio in 1999, they have worked on a variety of projects, including the Kalmar Museum of Art, the Stockholm Concert Hall and the KTH School of Architecture, to name a few. As a result of their forward-thinking and influential designs, Tham & Videgård have won several national and international awards.

Taking the step into the automotive sector, they have recently collaborated with Volvo to develop its’ Scandinavian identity, with three flagship stores in Milan, Tokyo and Stockholm. MiND had the opportunity to speak with them about their journey during the Stockholm Design week.

Volvo Stockholm flagship store

Can you tell us how your studio developed?

We started out like everybody else: the two of us in a very small studio. In 1999 in Sweden –just after the Great Recession – there was a shift in how you look upon architecture, and we were probably the first ones of our generation to interpret this. I think we had a great start at representing something different from the average Swedish studios.

An important moment was in 2004 when we were still designing small houses and interiors. We took part in competitions, where we got a couple of second and third prizes but didn’t win. So we said that we wouldn’t take on more work just to keep the business going. We had time to do two more competitions, one of which was the Museum of Arts in Kalmar. To our astonishment, we won out of 294 proposals from 16 countries. We were very happy to win and to actually be able to build the museum, because it’s a challenge, especially in Sweden – even if you win a competition, there can be a problem with building it.

“We had trained very well because we knew how to build efficiently from small projects we had done with scarce resources."

In 2007, we were invited to do a proposal for the new school of architecture, which we also won. These couple of years were successful for us as they gave us a platform to grow and develop. However, our ambition is not to grow; the idea is to create the best architecture that we can and develop that. If you have too many projects, regardless of scale, it can become problematic. We have to be close to every detail and every project.

Summerhouse Lagnö, photo by Åke E:son Lindman

How do you divide the work between the two of you? Do you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses?

We do not divide the work – we started this office as a collaboration so we work on every project together. We don’t think about strengths and weaknesses – it’s more about the things that join us than the things that put us apart. We like to think of it as a continuous conversation, because when you work together every day, you cannot remember who said what or where ideas came from. After 10 years, something that you thought was a bad idea could suddenly become a good idea. We enjoy working like this; you see things from a different perspective.

The way we work also links to the way we collaborate with our team. We have to describe to ourselves what we are looking for, and that opens up discussion with the rest of the team.

How would you describe Tham & Videgård Arkitekter’s style or philosophy?

We try to be as realistic as possible; we are interested in proposing things that can actually be built. So being pragmatic and realistic is important to us. Parallel to that, we look for architecture that could be bold and have a strong presence and that could offer great solutions and qualities.

Every project has a separate opportunity, so perhaps style is not the right word. We don’t have an idea that we want to push into each new project, rather, we are interested in analyzing the specific context; how we can develop the possibilities and the know-how rather than having an overruling idea about how architecture should be. It’s a way of looking at a situation rather than bringing preconceived concepts.

“It’s an adaptable architecture rather than being stylistic."

Kalmar Museum of Art, photo by Åke E:son Lindman

After working predominantly in the residential area, why do you think Volvo came to you?

I think they had a list of well-known architects, and we were one of those. We ended up taking part in a competition where we were able to talk to the client who didn’t know us that well. We came up with some good ideas that they liked. That’s often what happens, we are a name; people know who we are but they don’t really know us. You have to start a collaboration to show what you can do and see if the collaboration works.

Volvo Stockholm flagship store

What interested you in the Volvo project?

One reason was that Volvo had already started a shift with the new design executive, so they were already working on moving the brand somewhere. Obviously being a Swedish car with the Scandinavian identity to it, it was interesting for us because we are a Swedish or Scandinavian firm; not necessarily working only with what you would expect to be Scandinavian design parameters, but being contemporary and curious about what happens next. This forward-looking attitude was interesting for us when we looked at Volvo, but also for them looking at our practice.

It was an opportunity for us, since Volvo wanted to rebrand themselves and we had the chance to strengthen this idea and the way they refer to Scandinavian values. It was a great opportunity to redo a lot and the whole atmosphere around Volvo changed due to that.

Could you tell us about the most challenging project that you have undertaken?

The [KTH] School of Architecture was definitely a great challenge, since it’s our former school! Being an architect designing your school is a challenge; you will be criticized and valued and everybody will look at it. The students will refer to the school when they stay there, whether they want to or not. It was also the biggest project that we had approached until then.

KTH School of Architecture, photo by Åke E:son Lindman

There were many different challenges with that project. The school is in a little courtyard among protected buildings, because when the KTH was originally built around 100 years ago, it was by one of the main architects at the time. So it was a challenge to place a building in that environment without taking away any qualities, but also to add new qualities and create a dynamic between the new and the old.

Do you have any other future projects or collaborations that you can tell us about?

We’re doing a project in Gothenburg, which is similar to the school of architecture but for the art and design students. It’s a super important building to develop and we’re really excited about it. We also have an ongoing project in Prague so we’ll see what happens, but it’s a different country and a different building culture so we’re still trying to adjust to that.

What advice you would give to young, aspiring architects?

It’s easy to say that you should just be bold and believe in yourself, but on the other hand not all architects can have their own office. Many architects have to work in teams, so being realistic is also key. It’s important to learn to be a good collaborator because there are always opportunities to express yourself.

“You should really think about what interests you in architecture and develop that.”

Inside the Stockholm Concert Hall, photo by Åke E:son Lindman

What motivates you both professionally and personally?

The driving force for us is being curious. We want to explore the possibilities within architecture. If we use a new construction method, it opens up new opportunities. If we work in a new scale or in a new country, that’s also exciting. We want to develop our architecture as far as we can; every project is an exploration of what it can be.

By: Elena Parise & Isabelle James