Goahtis, the traditional dwellings of the Sámi people in northern Scandinavia, have a long history: the oldest goahti found so far is at least 4,000 years old. These huts are adapted to the landscape, they are well insulated and defy the harsh climate.
The material for a goahti is the landscape itself. You build the hut from the material you find on site. The basic construction is made of wood, usually birch. Then you add another layer of light, thinner wood. This creates a semi-enclosed space. Then you put layers of birch bark on the outside to protect it from rain and moisture. And then, finally, comes a thick layer of grass. Those are the three basic materials, beyond that you can add details like windows and doors.
The huts are still built today, just not as often as they once were. And they are much simpler to make: nowadays you would prefabricate a window or take a discarded window that you can get somewhere cheap. Also, these days people often use plastic sheeting instead of birch bark. Debarking the trees is very expensive and time-consuming, so it is rarely done anymore. Not so long ago my uncle built such a hut at the lake where our family often goes fishing in the summer: the basic construction consisted of boards and a plastic sheet, from the outside he covered it with grass and built in an old, discarded door from his neighbour. That is the core philosophy of the Goahti: you build it from whatever you have at hand. It's an improvised structure, a style of architecture that entirely depends on the place you chose to build it.
“A lot of people are more interested in keeping the very authentic, prehistoric way of doing things. I find it much more interesting to look at tradition as something that is always changing in terms of materiality and construction methods”
A fireplace in the middle of the hut often serves as a heat source. In order to preserve the heat and distribute it, the room is round. Traditionally, the fireplace is on the floor and the smoke escapes through a hole in the roof. You can also put a stove inside and build a chimney. I have even seen goahtis from the 1970s with oil heating.
Traditionally, the fireplace is in the middle of the structure. But if a stove or an oil heater is installed, you can also move the stove closer to the wall. The fact you can change the whole form of the hut is what I like about it. When you talk about traditions, many people are more interested in adhering to the very authentic, prehistoric way of doing things. I find it much more interesting to look at tradition as something that is always changing in terms of materiality and construction. Then it's more about how you build and the philosophy behind it.
It usually takes several weeks to build a goahti. It depends on how many people are involved. Several steps take a lot of time: first, all the wood has to be felled and debarked, which is the traditional method, and second, you have to layer the grass. Both steps are very hard work. If many people help, it will progress faster, of course. Moreover, the individual steps traditionally take place at different times of the year. The debarking is done in midsummer, the building takes place in autumn, although it can be done at any time of the year.
“Nomads are masters at keeping the weight of their dwellings as low as possible. They take a certain part of the buildings from place to place and leave the other part of the architecture behind: the Sami reindeer herders follow the herds to the mountains in winter and to the coastal areas in summer”
Architects like me often lack knowledge about materials and how to use tools. That is why I have taken a lot of time to learn how to build goahtis. I have built three so far. The first time, with several people, we asked an expert to show us how to construct it. It was very interesting to learn about the traditional use of materials in this way. I'm not a particularly skilled craftsman, but I like working with people who are. I then built the second one alone with friends in Sweden, and a third one on an island outside Tromsø, where I live. I've still been working on it for five years. Who knows if it will ever be finished!
We should use our knowledge about architecture to broaden the debate about Sami architecture. As a student I was very surprised that there was so little awareness or research on Sami architecture. Sami culture is still looked at in a very folkloristic and museum-like way. I was also interested in history, but mainly in contemporary architecture. And I think today more than ever that a debate about Sami and indigenous identity and culture from a contemporary perspective is necessary.
In Sami culture, I find the concept of nomadism interesting, especially in relation to sustainability. It offers new ways of thinking about resources and materialism, about recycling and reusing things. Nomads are masters at keeping the weight of their dwellings as low as possible. They take a certain part of the structures with them from place to place and leave the other part of the architecture behind: The Sami reindeer herders follow the herds to the mountains in winter and to the coastal areas in summer. The reindeer herds move along the same route every year. In summer they stay in the same grazing area for a few months. There they traditionally build the goahtis, which last up to forty years. In winter, the nomadic Sámi move further afield and live in tents made of cloth, of a similar structure to the goahtis, but lighter and more mobile. The philosophy of the Sámi is based on this: The landscape and the available material is a prerequisite for the product they build. I try to transfer this Sámi tradition into a more modern context in my work as an artist and architect, even though I don't move back and forth between the mountains and the coast, but rather between different cities.
As told to Leonie Düngefeld