Ivar Kvaal

The concrete shell of Europe’s first underwater restaurant plunges into colliding weather systems and a teeming marine biosphere.

Af Henry Stephens

Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019, Norwegian office Snøhetta has spent the past three decades blazing a trail of iconoclastic buildings around the world. Perhaps best known for the publicly accessible roof landscape of the Oslo Opera House, but including everything from beehives to banknotes, Snøhetta’s work has been characterized by dynamic formal moves, generous public spaces, and a Nordic approach to materiality. Described by founder Kjetil Thorsen as an ‘architecture of prepositions’ – visitors to a Snøhetta project might find themselves on, in, off, under, over, and through the building, often in surprising and novel ways. It is no surprise then, that the Oslo-based office has taken on the challenge of designing a singular restaurant experience with a similar set of values.

Situated at the southernmost tip of Norway, Lindesnes is known for its intense weather, which can change from stormy to calm several times a day as weather systems from the north and south collide. In particular, the confluence of still and saltwater sources results in copious amounts of marine life – Lindesnes is also known for its seafood. This unique convergence of weather and water results in the perfect site to exhibit the area’s naturally abundant biodiversity, and Under was the result. By night, Under is a small fine-dining restaurant with a focus on high quality, locally sourced seafood. By day, the building doubles as a marine research center.

Under is defined by one clear formal move. Wrapped by a monolithic, 34-meter-long cast-concrete shell, the building plunges into the sea, drawing visitors down into a central submerged dining space. Originally constructed on a barge twenty meters from the site before being lowered delicately into place by crane, the sculptural concrete shell serves as an informed response to both site and program. Pragmatically, the thick concrete walls protect the building from both the intense weather of the site and the changing pressure levels of its underwater placement. More contextually, however, the rough finish of the concrete surface both blends into the craggy shoreline and encourages the growth of various marine life. The rest of the building is finished with timber cladding, which will weather to grey over time.

Drawn down into the building’s interior, visitors are directed to look out through a massive, single-pane window of toughened glass to a view of the seascapes beyond. Described by the architects as a periscope that connects viewers to their immediate surroundings, throughout the year the view will change, from the icy blue of winter to the green of summer when the algae begin to grow. This view is the singular focal point of the interior space, with the diffused light creating an almost dreamlike ambiance. At night, the sea bed outside is illuminated to attract marine life. The uniquely spatial nature of this experience connects visitors to the underwater environment in a new way, adding a unique dimension to the dining experience.

Following the theme of submersion, a set of parametrically designed textile panels artfully blend a gradient of natural colors across the inner surface of the concrete shell, suggesting a transition from above land to below sea. Concealed within this textile layer are acoustic panels and over 380 LED lamps, which can be configured in a variety of different ways to suit the mood of the restaurant and external lighting conditions in the evening. Other fixings and fittings are finished in blackened steel, oak, and other durable materials fitted to the building’s unique siting.

Held up to many of Snøhetta’s major public works, Under is smaller and comparatively unassuming, but in many respects no less spectacular. What could be another relatively pedestrian fine dining experience is transformed into a strange, singular and almost precarious experience, effortlessly hovering between a series of different prepositions. A monolithic cast concrete form that plunges into the sea, Under successfully combines clear architectural design, rugged materiality, novel engineering, and productive splicing of the program to achieve something truly unique.

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