although he was born in norway, architect casper mork-ulnes was raised in italy, scotland, and the united states — a diverse upbringing that shaped his design principles and philosophies. with offices in san francisco and oslo, mork-ulnes’ firm — mork-ulnes architects — is based on built work characterized by both playfulness and restraint, and informed by economies of means and materials.
to learn more about the architect, who has just been announced as one of the eight winners in the architectural league of new york’s emerging voices competition for 2020, we spoke with mork-ulnes who discussed, among other things, his dream brief and how he views his role as an architect. read the interview in full below.
mork-ulnes architects’ san francisco office | image by bruce damonte (also main image)
designboom (DB): what originally made you want to be an architect?
casper mork-ulnes (CM-U): I am not the type of person who can say that I wanted to be an architect since I was a toddler playing with LEGOs. it took a bit longer for me — and was more a process of transformation during my teenage years.
my mother was an artist so I had always been interested in drawing and painting. during high school I attended a summer art program at the california college of arts where I was exposed to architecture. it was not space making, but the craft of drawing and model making that initially sparked my interest. I was drawn to the idea that architecture fulfills a use — that the drawings and models would result in a final product that was built and inhabitable. so I initially enrolled in art college undecided about what I really wanted to study and do in my life, but by second year I had decided architecture was for me as I began to understand how much depth there is to the field — and I have never looked back.
mork-ulnes architects’ san francisco office | image by bruce damonte
DB: although you were born in norway, you were raised in italy, scotland, and the US. how did living in these countries effect your design philosophy?
CM-U: experiencing and adapting to different cultures during childhood certainly broadened my mind, but it also made me aware of the good (and bad) of each culture. I have always been nurturing the things that I learned — and continue to learn — from the different cultures and places I am fortunate enough to experience and work in.
while moving between many countries can make you a bit rootless, it makes you hold on to those things you really appreciate in each place. I think this goes back to our office’s design philosophy in that we are always seeking out the most fundamental factors in our projects. we iterate and pare things back to their most essential elements in an effort to keep things straightforward.
mork-ulnes architects’ san francisco office | image by bruce damonte
DB: what has been the biggest influence on your career?
CM-U: as I mentioned earlier, I think that you learn a lot from the places you work or live. for me, working and living in both norway and the US has given our work a strong pull-and-play between the two cultures — norwegians having a very pared back functionally minded approach and americans often have a more bold ‘can-do’ spirit… the cross-pollination of these forces has I think given our work a unique point of view.
mork-ulnes architects’ oslo office | image by bruce damonte
DB: overall, what would you say is your strongest asset, and how have you developed that skill over time?
CM-U: I am not sure, but I like to think that I am a listener that can help our clients achieve and interpret their goals in the best possible way. I hope I have instilled this on our whole team to really listen to our clients, as we sometimes find that even very particular needs of a client can become a strong tenet of a design concept.
kvitfjell (2018) — scale model
DB: from the initial sketch to completion, what is your favorite stage of a project?
CM-U: the beginning and the end are the most exciting, but the phases in between are satisfying in other ways. concept design is exciting because it’s a new project and you can think more loosely, and the end is gratifying because there is a final project that realizes all of the efforts that the team has put into the project. that said, the phrase ‘god is in the details’ has always stuck with me. so while the more laborious iterative and slow moving process between the start and finish is not perhaps as exciting, it is that process and rigor that is required to get it right. this is where the attention to detail and craft of architecture comes into place.
ridge house (2018) — scale model | see designboom’s coverage of the project here
DB: what project so far has given you the most satisfaction?
CM-U: we are lucky in the sense that we get to work on (for the most part…) only satisfying projects, so it is hard to point out a favorite. smaller projects are very satisfying because space is limited and you need to make every move and every detail count. it’s maybe easier to see the design intent through all the details in these projects, but we aspire to do this and get the same satisfaction as the scale of our projects increases.
we recently designed and built our family’s ski cabin in the mountains of norway. being able to push our concept through to the details, and now being able to experience those details and enjoy the project as a whole on a frequent basis, obviously makes for a very satisfying project.
ridge house (2018) — iteration sketches
DB: do you have a dream project that you would love to work on?
CM-U: perhaps a cabin in the italian alps. it is probably my favorite area in the world and is full of fantastic conditions to draw from.
ridge house (2018) | image by bruce damonte
DB: what do you think is the role of an architect working today?
CM-U: we are hired to develop a concept and make sure it gets delivered in the best way possible for our clients so I still see our role today as a sort of editor and director.
on the whole there is no arguing that the role of the architect is changing and there is increasing risk of architects becoming BIM facilitators of someone’s agenda — generating generic buildings and urban landscapes. that said, I think there is also a growing sense that as architects (especially the recently educated — who at this point seem to be the most energized to take action) we can assert and increase our influence on the built environment in particular with regards to pivotal issues like de-growth and sustainability.
triple barn house (2018) — iteration sketches | see designboom’s coverage of the project here
DB: which architects, designers, or artists working today do you most admire?
CM-U: those who appreciate craft, place and the human side.
triple barn house (2018) | image by bruce damonte
DB: what is the best advice you have received, and what advice would you give to young architects and designers?
CM-U: I am not sure it is something I have been told or more something I have learned through experience, but I feel it can be relatively easy to make something look good on the drawing board, and even more these days through visualizations. the challenge in architecture in my mind lies in the execution — the realization of a piece of architecture from the beginning to the end. I also think we can look for advice in history — in architecture that has withstood the test of time, like norwegian wood buildings that are almost 1,000 years old. these are often functionally driven, and their attention to detail and material and has insured their longevity in a low-tech and sustainable way.
BIM and visualization technology often make buildings look too real too fast so I hope that we don’t forget that often the iterative process of design is what makes more thoughtful and better buildings.
casper mork-ulnes, principle of mork-ulnes architects
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