Clearing. The story of a butterfly and the creation of a memorial.
This is a summary of the one-year process of designing and building the memorial after the July 22nd 2011 terror attack at Utøya.
Written by Haakon R. Rasmussen, CEO 3RW architects. The text was published in the Norwegian newspaper Bergen Tidende (BT) on July 22nd 2015 and has been translated to english by Torkil Heggstad.
Spring 2014. A small notice in the architecture periodical Arkitektnytt announces an upcoming architecture competition for the memorial at Utøya.
A few months later we stride ashore from MS Thorbjørn. AUF, the youth association of the labor party, has called for an on-site survey with the various groups selcted to design proposals for the memorial. People are quiet, we wonder whether it would be OK to take pictures, we feel we are entering hallowed ground, and are petrified of missteps.
Just about every place on this island has a history, and often a nickname that hints at what has occured here. Stoltenberget [a rock with the name of the previous prime minister], Bolsjevika [an inlet with a pun on Bolshevism], Nakenodden [the Nude Point], Kjærlighetsstien [the Love Path]. Interspersed with all the good old stories come the new ones. Here ten people were killed. Here six were hiding, and survived. We visit all the scenes of the crime.
It is extremely powerful inside the café building . Bulletholes in the walls next to pictures of children and youth. Outside in nature the scenes of the crime are different. Here there is not much that reveals what happened that day, except for small signs like a heart on the path, teddybears, candles, cards and flowers marking the places where the youth were killed. All other signs are erased, overgrown. It may be a cliché, but never has it been more appropriate: What an amazing ability nature has to mend its own wounds.
AUF har decided where to put its memorial. It will be situated in a place that was not subject to any of the events that occured on July 22, 2011, a clearing in the woods on the north side of the island, high up above the Love Path with a view between the trees toward the Tyrifjord. The place is beautiful and abundant. In one place you are surrounded by tall trees, hearing woodchuck and cones crunch underfoot. A bit beyond it is sunny with meadow plants in the clearing. Another place opens to the Tyrifjord and you can hear waves breaking against the naked rocks just below.
It is like a miniature Utøya, with all the characteristics of the island compressed into a small place. In a way the memorial is a void, it has no sense of history, both as it relates to July 22, 2011 and the rest of the island’s history. At the same time the place is everything but empty. It is bursting with one of the premier characteristics of Utøya, its beautiful and diverse nature.
Christian Mong, who is an ecologist, took part in the survey and confirms our first impression: The island has extraordinary and diverse nature. While we are working through a large amount of material regarding sorrow, memorials and nature, something appears that pulls it all together. The butterfly Mourning cloak.
Mounrning cloak is a large butterfly, and it is called something related to sorrow in all languages; Trauermantel in German, Sorgmantel in Swedish, Sørgekåpe in Norwegian. The butterfly is dark with light colored borders along the wings. It is reminisicent of traditional mourning dress. The mourning cloak can be found along the Tyrifjord and at Utøya. It hatches in birch and aspen, and when it breaks free as an adult butterfly in the spring, it flies to particular plants for sustenance, such as daisies, poppies, lilacs, and wild strawberries.
Together with the ecologist we start to research the connection between the host and sustaining plants for the various butterflies found in the area. Eventually we have a map of Utøya with various plants, trees and bushes that are host plants for the various butterflies during the larvae stage. Now we can compose a palette of very specific plants, flowers and herbs that we know these butterflies will prefer as nourishing plants when they emerge from their cocoons in the spring. The cycle of butterflies migrating from the various parts of the island to the memorial, would become the core of the project.
We contacted Dr. Joseph Chipperfield at the University of Bergen, a butterfly expert. Together with him and ecologist Christian Mong we adjusted the plans for the ecological dimension of the project. Just like we generally design with wood and rocks, we now shaped the idea of the memorial with ecological processes, sun conditions, soil and plants.
On July 4th 2014 I am sitting in a meeting room at Youngstorget, Oslo. AUF has called for a working session with the memorial committee and all the four teams that are in the process of designing proposals, are present.
Two seats to the left of me in the meeting room, sits Kolbein Fridtun, who lost his daughter Hanne Kristine at Utøya. It was Kolbein who found the location for the memorial. When he tells us why he liked that place, it is like hearing our own thoughts. Kolbein passes around his mobile phone with a picture of the sunset and says that his daughter took this picture at Utøya shortly before she was killed. He says the sunset can be seen from here.
We are told that the drafts have to be completed within a month. Every local chapter is to review them. Our studies of the place that AUF had picked out for the memorial revealed that the qualities of the place were in the process of disappearing. The place is being transformed from a clearing in dense pine forest, to a dense deciduous forest.
On the basis of this, we prepared a number of small measures to ensure that the tall pine forest would last and that the clearing would remain the good place that Kolbein had found. Slate walking paths would limit the emergence of deciduous trees, removal of spruce and deciduous trees in the surrounding area would reduce the propagation of those plants. Based on sun and shadow analyses in a digital 3D-model, we formulated a plan for thinning out the forest. This would provide the necessary sun conditions for the clearing, so that the plants that the butterflies enjoyed, would flourish there.
To all times humans have gathered in a circle – around the bonfire, for singing and dancing or for reflection. Especially when encountering nature the circle is a primary social form. Like with traditional tents and teepees in many different cultures, people protect against the forces of nature and danger from animals and enemies at the same time as guarding the fire and gathering around it. While working on the model of the memorial at Utøya, we tried to insert a circle in the steep terrain.
By using the circle as the basic form, the place would be distinct, but at the same time opens. As we saw it the memorial had to allow for everyone’s different interpretations of the sorrow, and not just select one or a few of them. Everybody should be able to come to the memorial with their own experiences and needs and find a place for them there.
We wanted to have the least amount of elements possible at the site, and with this adaptation of the terrain we could get all the features we needed as a part of the landscape, and not as foreign elements. The low building budget which had worried us now seemed manageable. We envisioned that the work tasks to a large degree could be carried out as a dugnad, the traditional Norwegian mode of collaborative volunteer work, under the leadership of experienced craftsmen. Using wheelbarrows, putting down slate, planting flowers, thinning the forest.
One of the most challenging elements of the memorial was the presentation of the names of everyone killed. There was an absolute requirement that it had to be possible to add more names later on.
The memorial is situated in such a way that the path of the sun across the sky can be tracked throughout the day. The shadows from the tall pine trees sweep across the clearing and changes it from one hour to the next. We started creating models where we cut out type in a plate and observed how the sun in the course of the day changed each character, shining through letter by letter and how each one could change the characters from light to dark by moving in relation to the cutout. The cutout could be observed and read as a meaningful character, as information. But the eyes could also look through it to see the fjord and the forest behind.
We wanted the presentation of the names to be adapted to the movement of the site and the unifying circular shape of the clearing, and started working on a new circle, with all the names cut as a central and organizing element of the site. Something you could walk around and experience, engage in and not just look at.
At this point we had prepared a concept for the site that was adapted to the processes of the forest, that would not disappear, but which also would not be deteriorated by the forest’s constant changes. Quite contrary. When a cone falls to the ground in the forest, you don’t see it. But when it falls on a piece of slate, you hear it, looks up at the tall trees and get to take part in a small part of the cycle you just witnessed..
But the name ring was different. It could not be allowed to get disheveled and age, and not be perceived as decayed and badly maintained. It had to be perpetual, everlasting. We had a test made of cut out letters in a thick, stainless steel plate and it was just like we imagined it.
We wanted the name ring to be separate from the ground, so that it would relate to the body when you walk around it. So that it would kind of hover in the clearing. We therefore suggested hanging it from the tall pine trees encircling it.
Just these trees, that were the main elements of the site, provided the hallowed sense to the clearing. These trees were the ones Kolbein had mentioned in particular when describing the site and what had moved him when he noticed it. It was a simple idea. But it would turn out to be very complex.
In August we delivered our proposal to the memorial. The memorial committee had now traveled around Norway and presented the proposals to survivors and local chapters of AUF. Most of the feedback was very positive. It seemed like such a nature based concept really touched those relating to it. There were also numerous questions: Will the plants in the clearing need a lot of maintenance and care? Will this thing with the butterflies actually work? Will the plants attract other insects and animals and not just butterflies? And the ring hanging from the trees; is that really possible? Will it be safe? Will it damage the beautiful trees that are so important to the site?
We contacted a number of different entities that make a living from hanging things in trees. We examined the concept with the butterflies more closely together with our advisors. We calculated the various work operations that had to be performed. We prepared for a course that would include a lot of volunteer work and prepared cut lists to be able to adapt the extent of the various elements. When we delivered our complete draft about a month later, we felt safe that we had a robust project.
A Friday in early December, at the end of the day Marianne Heier, head of the memorial committee, calls and tells us that they have chosen to proceed with our proposal. I don’t remember what I answered. But I remember that I ended up sitting for a long time afterward in the quiet room. What are we going to do now? Should we rejoice? Should we celebrate? The seriousness of the task made all the usual reactions very unaccustomed.
After the decision was made public, reporters started calling. The conversations were largely related around one thing: Can we have a picture of how it will look? “I can send you a nice report,” I said, “that describes everything about the natural processes we have based our work on, and about the butterflies and the background to why we have created this project the way we have.” “No thanks, we just need the picture, and you have to spell out your name one more time.”
No one was interested in what we had worked most on. The process, how we imagined it, through volunteer work, how the place would become a part of Utøya with its own ecology, its own cycles. Alive. Not a monument, but something that begins on the day that the first turn of a shovel starts. That changes with the seasons, through the coming years. Noone wanted to write about this. “We are not looking for a thesis, Rasmussen, if you could just send us the picture by 4 pm that would be great.”
We are aware that hanging a one ton steel ring from the pine trees at Utøya would be the most difficult part of the project. The more people we talk to about this, the more uncertain we become.
In February we are contacting the arborist Glen Read, who has 50 years of experience with trees. He has been responsible for hanging the steel sculpture “The Couple” from pine trees in the Ekeberg park. In March Glen has an on-site inspection at Utøya to evaluate the trees in the clearing. The feedback is positive. The trees are strong and healthy and are suited for hanging the circle from them. But he asks us what we are thinking of doing to the ground on the site. The trees that will carry the ring have roots that cover the entire area, and if these are damaged, the trees will die. How much can we do?
As little as possible. No machines in the area; the ground pressure could damage the roots. No digging where there are roots with diameter of more than about three quarters of an inch. None of the usual filling with layers separated by fabric, it limits the oxygen uptake to the roots. We pondered. Surely we had a robust project.
In April we travel out there again with Glen and Christian, the ecologist, and review everything we can and cannot do. Small spades are dug into the soil, probes are inserted to check the distance to the roots. It all depends on how far it is to the rock at the back of the clearing, where we want to lower the terrain. We will not know this until we start digging.
As part of our implementation organization we also have the engineering company NODE rådgivende ingeniører, that will be responsible for all construction techniques associated with mounting the name ring to the trees. Glen tells how the trees react to strain of this kind. If we do it incorrectly, the trees will die. The engineers must have a setup that guarantees that the ring is stable, hanging from trees that float in the wind, but Glen places strong demands on how we can manage it.
There are still problems with the ground, regarding how the roots will lie. The landscape gardener Finn Andersen is contacted. He has an incredibly small excavator with no greater ground pressure than human feet, that we can use to start the excavation work.
I stand by the bucket, and work with my hands to check if there are roots or small rocks as we dig. By the end of the day we have gotten 45 cm down into the ground along the upper parts of the clearing. This is just as far as we must to create the sitting edge we will have there, and to even out the terrain so that we can ensure access and accessibility by wheelchair. There are no roots from the large pine trees in the layers we dig through. They lie deeper. We can do this.
Øystein Kjerpeseth, the craftsman that is part of almost all our projects, has worked in parallel with Finn and created a floor centrally at the memorial that is created from tree stumps. As a nature parquet floor, the stump floor creates a circle on the ground exactly where the name ring will hang down from the trees. A foot print. Everything is ready for the volunteer work.
At the memorial we meet a pack of people from the press. And the main persons; a large group of survivors have traveled to Utøya to come and build. We greet them and their names are familiar.
We have been sitting for hours and adjusting print sizes and placement of the names to their children on the screen. Now they stand before us, in work clothing. For two days the volunteer group works at laying slate, clearing forest and moving forest bottom from the surrounding areas of the forest and in to the memorial to revegetate the areas that have been modified. We work, eat, talk, and laugh. What stuff are these people made of? The stories are told, the serious backdrop rises and returns all the time. But more than anything we have a wonderful time together these days.
Now only the name ring is missing. We have worked on it all the time since February, when we received the lists of the names of all the people killed on July 22, 2011 at Utøya, and the laborious work of distributing all the names across the plates started. Some names are long, some are short. We wanted to assemble the names so that they naturally ran across the whole ring. Moving a little bit to the left, changing the size, toggling a short and a long name. Print. Post to the wall, changing it a bit again. This is some of the most difficult work I have ever done. To treat the characters on screen as graphical elements and then suddenly dwell on it being the name of a 16 year old girl, or a 14 year old boy, that is no longer alive.
In the middle of July I have started my vacation. But I am standing at the pier at Utstranda waiting for MS Thorbjørn. The entire pier is covered with plants in boxes, pots and bags. The ecologist Christian Mong and his colleague shall lead the volunteer work by planting out all the specially chosen plants that favored nourishing plants for the butterflies that live at Utøya.
We meet Utøya veterans that were part of the previous volunteer session laying stone. They greet us with smiles and hugs. The first time I stepped ashore at Utøya it was horrible. Today, one year hence, it feels so good to come out here.
When we leave the island that day, everything is done. One week prior to the opening. I end up sitting up late this evening too.
Today I look forward to traveling back out to Utøya. To honor those who lost their lives four years ago. To show that they will never be forgotten. To meet all the wonderful people I have gotten to know through this work. And to see a butterfly at the memorial.