Strong warnings were in no short supply when Tormod Amundsen from Trondheim and Elin Taranger from Stavanger, fresh out of architecture school, told people they were planning on starting an architecture firm in Vardø.
Why Vardø? This was back in 2009, the same year that the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise named this Finnmark municipality the least business friendly in the country. At the extreme northeast of Norway, literally a thousand miles from the more prosperous south, the place had seen a steady depopulation since the 70s.
But Amundsen and Taranger had an idea. They wanted to work with architecture addressing nature, ecology and environmentalism in new and surprising ways. And Amundsen, an enthusiastic bird watcher through 25 years, eyed a niche.
“I knew that the Varanger peninsula has an unusually rich birdlife that only exists in Arctic environments. I also knew that there is a big bird watching community internationally, and that Northern Norway had a large, undeveloped potential,” Amundsen tells Visit Norway.
To begin with, they met resistance. Bird watching was seen as a rather peculiar niche with narrow appeal, with no obvious connection to architecture. Yet Biotope, as the firm came to be known, politely declined to build kindergartens or expanding private cabins. Rather, they were set on the world’s first – and, at the time of writing, only – architecture firm for bird watchers.
There are now 12 “birdhides” or shelters at Varanger, made by Biotope. And according to Amundsen, the area has already gotten a reputation for being a world-class arctic bird watching destination.
“After a couple of years things started moving fast, and it had an immediate effect on the travel industry. Not just because of our projects by themselves, but also because we were working deliberately to promote Varanger, including its architecture, towards the international bird watching community. We also strove to facilitate travel, including making a guidebook,” says the architect.
By now Biotope have designed shelters at several other locations across Norway, as well as one building on Iceland and another in Essex, northeast of London. They are six employees.
“Rather than being eye-catching and pretentious, our buildings are supposed to be small and strategically placed. Nature itself is the main attraction, there is no better design than nature’s own,” says Amundsen.
“What significance does it have that you, the architects, are active bird watchers?”
“It means that we may be more aware of the details – like sightlines in the landscape, how to deal with wind, and the extent of human activity that can be handled by various species of birds. And it is just as much about what not to do. For instance, you shouldn’t have windows on a door that opens outwards. That will create movements that will scare off many birds.”
He is very happy to be able to make a living based on what started as a hobby, written off by many as too niche.
“But it is a niche that millions of people are passionate about. I think the travel industry is more and more aware that they should focus on the exotic – on the niches.”