Un-Urban Experiments Design, architecture, and art give valuable answers to societal challenges

by Jason R. August 8, 2018

How can design, architecture, and art give valuable answers to societal challenges we meet today? This summer our students, alumni, and faculty together with students from design schools across Scandinavia worked together on a design challenge at the intersection of the urban and the "un-urban" in Træna, Norway, a village on a tiny island in the Arctic Circle. Alumna Katarina Yee was there and lets us know what they accomplished.

Træna from the sea. Photo credit: Kiia Nummenpalo

After nearly 24 hours of travel via three flights and two ferries, we arrived in Træna, Norway, a group of islands in the Arctic Circle, where fewer than 500 residents live.

During the long journey, we met the other students who we would be working alongside for the next three weeks: five interaction and service design students from The Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) in Norway, and five architecture students from the Umeå School of Architecture (UMA) in Sweden. Together, we were tasked with reimagining an unused space by researching, designing, and building a special place for the residents and visitors of Træna.

The project site was located on the ground floor of the Grendahuset, or Community House. Photo credit: Dhritiman Chatterjee

Our homebase was the Grendahuset, or Community House, built in 1910. The upper level is sometimes used as a meeting place by various groups, and films are screened for the community monthly. The site of our design challenge was two derelict rooms on the ground floor that had been an archival space and ceramics workshop decades ago, and a triangular front yard, neglected and untended.

1 of 2
Two rooms of the Grendahuset had been left unused for decades.

Two rooms of the Grendahuset had been left unused for decades.


In the first week we studied the site and engaged the local community in conversation. After some introductory exercises framing the project spaces, we heard local perspectives from Træna residents and community leaders. Then we were broken up into groups mixed up among each of the schools, to learn about Træna through a dozen different lenses, such as culture and activities, industry and NGOs, and politics and society. Over three days, students explored the island by foot, pored over data, and interviewed residents, meeting them at the grocery store, contacting them via social media, or knocking on doors. Visiting cultural institutions like its church and museum gave us a sense of Træna’s history, while spending time at local businesses like its cafe, pub, and store, immersed us into the residents’ daily experience. We presented our findings to each other, and then moved on to begin the concept phase.

1 of 2
Contacted via Instagram, one resident led some students on walking tour of the island

We also engaged the community by knocking on doors or stopping to chat with locals who were tending to their gardens


In four new groups, ensuring all points of view and disciplines were represented, we were tasked with coming up with two ideas per group—one that came directly from our research, and the other deliberately riskier and out of the ordinary. All eight ideas were sketched out and presented to each other, the Grendahuset board, and to the public, with locals offering additional ideas for each concept. It was amazing to witness their engagement and enthusiasm for what we had in mind.

1 of 4
Workshop participants from Oslo, Umeå, and New York worked together to design concepts for the space. Photo credit: Eric Forman

Informal presentations allowed us to share ideas, get feedback, and iterate quickly

Informal presentations allowed us to share ideas, get feedback, and iterate quickly

The public was invited to learn about what we had in mind for the spaces

Responding to a common theme that ran through all of our presentations—that Træna’s youth had no public space of their own—the Grendahuset board decided to expand the project scope, adding an adjacent room, offering it to us as an additional challenge to design a space dedicated for youth.

The island’s youth were invited to share their needs and ideas with us as we designed a dedicated space for them

After a tough day of deliberations, where each member of our group had a chance to voice their opinions about each of the concepts, we came to a consensus about what to build:

  • A “sun room” to provide a bright, relaxing space to residents and visitors year-round, but especially during Træna’s polar night—when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for six weeks in the winter.
  • A more conventional and flexible “third place” for coffee and conversation. A third place is a space where people can meet that is neither home nor work, common in urban areas but hard to find in small rural communities.
  • A firepit with seating and storage outside, transforming the neglected front yard into a centrally located gathering place.

1 of 2
Using the bullseye framework, we each took turns making the case for our first, second, and third concept choices, until we came to a consensus

Using the bullseye framework, we each took turns making the case for our first, second, and third concept choices, until we came to a consensus. Photo credit: Eric Forman


The challenges of construction were abundant, as we dealt with limited time and tools, and resources that were hard to acquire. The weather also made getting things done a challenge—it was consistently around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and drizzling, with the sun making short cameos from time to time. Nearly 20 hands on deck meant power drills, measuring tape, and framing squares “walking away” when we weren’t looking. Renovating an old building meant nothing was straight, no corner was a right angle, and measuring twice or even three times wasn’t enough. Having to perform a multitude of tasks in confined spaces demanded scrupulous planning, but also, the flexibility to veer away from our plans. All of these challenges forced us to make adjustments on the fly in order to meet our resource and time constraints.

For many of us, construction and carpentry were new experiences. Although difficult to learn at full speed as we worked, it was exciting and satisfying to see tangible results every day. As our deadline loomed, we took full advantage of the midnight sun.

1 of 9
Construction in the sun room included building two walls, an elevated floor, and built-in, multi-level seating. Photo credit: Alice Smejkalová

We decided to paint most of the room yellow. Photo credit: Kiia Nummenpalo

The SVA crew testing out the slope of their new seating...or just taking a break. Photo by Eric Forman

The first step of renovating the third space was to remove its linoleum floor. Photo credit: Pauline Olesen

Then the team prepared the floor for paint. Photo credit: Eric Forman

Students applying the first of three coats of paint to the third space floor. Photo credit: Pauline Olesen

Trænafestivalen organizers lent us a tent, making it possible to continue on with our project in the rain. Photo credit: Alice Smejkalová

The firepit was cast in moulds made from a discarded partition

Students designed and built parallelogram and triangle benches to match the triangular firepit


In the end, we were proud to debut the new space at the start of the Trænafestivalen, an annual music festival that brings 5,000 people to the island for three days. The mayor was on hand to officiate its opening, and nearly 50 people joined us that rare sunny afternoon to grill sausages on the firepit, donate books and plants for the third space, relax in the sun room, and watch how it all came together with process photos projected in the youth room. It was fun to see all of the spaces in use, making special note of behavior that was unexpected—like a group of people perched on the railing behind the firepit’s main gathering space.

1 of 4
Træna’s mayor gave a speech at the opening of the new Grendahuset space

Visitors and locals enjoyed the new outdoor space in expected and unexpected ways. Photo credit: Glenda Capdeville

Visitors were also eager to take off their shoes and try out the sun room. Photo credit: Moa Björnson

Locals brought plants and books for the third space Photo credit: Moa Björnson


Being a part of the inaugural Un-Urban Experiments workshop was an incredible opportunity, where we got to learn from this remote community, and also from our fellow participants from Norway and Sweden. Connecting with these designers and architects was a fun and unique experience—expressing and hearing diverse points of views, sharing both new and familiar design methods, and working toward a shared goal. We even had time for some cultural exchange: spending plenty of time at the gapahuk, a three-sided cabin with a roof and firepit common across Norway, primarily for sheltering hikers; learning how to make flower crowns to celebrate the Swedish Midsummer; and using our firepit for the first time to make hot dogs, hamburgers, and veggie burgers, on the Fourth of July. What drew many of us to this workshop was getting to shepherd a project from research and conception to implementation and launch. We left Træna proud of our accomplishments, and immensely grateful for the multitude of lessons learned throughout the process.

SVA IxD’s Un-Urban Experiments participants, from left to right, alum Nour Malaeb, faculty Eric Forman, alum Kinjal Shah, alum Katarina Yee, and second-year student Glenda Capdeville. Photo credit: Dhritiman Chatterjee

Loading results…