Vesterheim, National Norwegian-American Museum, and Folk Art School
ARCHITECT OF RECORD
HERITAGE PARK PHASE I LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT
Fast + Epp, MBJ Engineers
GLASS & CUSTOM FRIT
VESTERHEIM CURTAIN WALL CONTRACTOR
ENTRY SIGN WOODWORKER
ENTRY SIGN WOODWORKER
MASS TIMBER FABRICATOR
Bell Structural Solutions
Decorah, United States
Snøhetta and Vesterheim have completed a new building and landscape for the storied Vesterheim campus in Decorah, Iowa, housing the largest collection of Norwegian-American cultural artifacts in the world.
A new 8,000-square-foot building, known as The Commons, and a collection of outdoor spaces, establish a dynamic new entry point and gathering space for a cultural campus containing a museum, folk art school, and other community-oriented facilities.
Aside from anchoring the site, the new Vesterheim Commons project threads together Vesterheim’s Heritage Park with Water Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.
Most importantly, the new design provides a contemporary forum for the cultural center and community to look forward to their future.
Marked on the street by a soaring wooden canopy, the new building’s public reception lobby and event space mirror the cozy and sheltered outdoor rooms of the surrounding park.
Flexible upper-level galleries, including state-of-the-art facilities and a new digital production studio, create spaces where visitors can explore a rich collection of artifacts and artworks.
The lobby is bathed in light from above by a wood oculus while a flexible event space and new circulation areas create interior connections to Vesterheim’s Folk Art School in the adjacent Westby-Torgerson Education Center.
A second-floor gallery connects to a terrace overlooking the park, supporting year-round events indoors and out. On the 3rd floor, new digital workspaces and offices support Vesterheim's online efforts, including a new study room for the focused observation of Vesterheim’s astounding collections.
Taken together, the project allows Vesterheim to draw in local residents and visiting groups from around the country and the world, so that new stories can be told through multicultural experiences bridging time and place.
AN EVOLVING WOODLAND PARK.
Snøhetta’s master plan for Vesterheim, completed in 2019, set in motion a unified campus composed of historic structures, outdoor classrooms, and revitalized commercial buildings set within a wooded landscape.
In addition to offering a new public green, Vesterheim’s Heritage Park creates a dramatic setting for year-round public access to a variety of immigrant-built structures brought to Decorah from across the Upper Midwest region.
Heritage Park’s urban woodland, inspired by the surprisingly similar Driftless region of Northeastern Iowa and the wooded landscapes of Norway, extends throughout the outdoor spaces, bringing together two unexpectedly rugged landscapes on the site.
Here, plantings frame woodland clearings to provide obvious thresholds and edges defining Vesterheim’s grounds. In turn, The Commons’ outdoor classrooms and interpretive spaces are framed by diverse regional plant species intended to adapt and evolve alongside the institution and its programs.
SHAPED BY TRADITIONAL CRAFT
Built using locally sourced brick, wood structure, and textured concrete walls, The Commons links the museum collection and the Folk Art School to Norwegian craft traditions through honest and humble materials.
This tactile and time-honored sensibility extends to skillful forestry practices necessary to nurture Heritage Park into the future.
With its mass timber wood frame fabricated in Albert Lea, Minnesota, and exterior walls built of brick from Adel, Iowa, The Commons extends a long tradition of using local materials to give shape to the life and culture of Decorah.
The project’s distinctive yet respectful outward appearance creates multiple opportunities for Vesterheim visitors to experience and appreciate Decorah’s downtown architecture and the region’s verdant landscapes.
ARCHITECTURAL FORMS INSPIRED BY NORWEGIAN CULTURE.
The design of the Commons draws on elements of Norwegian culture. The welcoming canopy provides a protected and highly visible point of entry that is inspired by well-known boat designs, including the Colin Archer boat from Risør and the Restauration craft that first landed in the US in 1825.
The timber frames with concrete footings harken back to the stone foundations of the Norwegian “stabbur,” traditional storehouses.
The textured concrete was inspired by the work of Erling Viksja, the architect of the Norwegian national government building, known as the Y-block. Inside, the oculus resembles Saami tents, known as “Lavvu.”