The Challenging Lifestyle of N55´ Ion Sørvin

Peter Kelly, Blueprint Magazine
August 2009.

Ion Sorvin - Danish artist, activist and self-proclaimed ‘closet architect’
It’s hard not to feel a little envious of Ion Sorvin. The Danish artist, activist and self-proclaimed ‘closet architect’, lives out the summer months in primitive but sociable style on a small houseboat moored at Copenhagen harbour. He kayaks every day; has a respected place in the local community, and with N55, the art collective he co-founded with his wife in 1994, has carved out a career challenging conventional notions of living, architecture and land ownership.When I climb aboard his boat, The Ship of Fools, Sorvin is keen that I join him in a glass of wine: he’s on holiday and doesn’t want this to seem like work.

N55’s design for a lightweight aluminium structure for the Ruhr Valley, Germany
The break is well-earned – since the enormously high-profile Walking House project, which he completed last year for the Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge, Sorvin has been fielding media requests from all over the world. A three metre-high hexagonal dwelling mounted on computer controlled hydraulic legs, it was designed with Sam Kronick, a student from MIT and included a living room, kitchen, bathroom, bed, wood stove and a computer for its leg control. Despite its sluggish movement, the effect was mesmerizing. Within a few days the project was seen everywhere, from the BBC, to Good Morning America on ABC News. It was rapidly published and discussed in everything from highbrow books to kids magazines. ‘Basically, it went crazy. It becomes impossible to keep track of where your work’s been shown,’ says Sorvin.
This sudden surge in interest did not disturb him, though; N55 freely distributes its schemes and proposals through copyright-free manuals on its website and he is not concerned about losing control of ideas. The strength of the Walking House was that it found a powerful visual – and architectural – means of communicating N55’s core message of freedom and the dissipation of ownership. ‘It was entertaining to see this huge, metal animal walking,’ says Sorvin. ‘But it was also about mobility, about not disturbing your environment, and about not having to own land. People understand the things that are very important to us.’

An early N55 project, the Space frame from 1999
It was also important that the project was realized and that it worked. Sørvin sees little value in theorizing without producing a physical result. ‘The Walking House was also a comment on Archigram’s Walking City, which is a good idea, but how do you actually create it?’ he says. ‘You build smallscale stuff that can be realized: if you make a lot of them, then you have a walking city.’
Since the success of the Walking House, Sorvin has focused on projects which are technically less complex but in many ways just as ambitious. For Nottingham’s Radiator Festival in January, which had the theme of Exploits in the Wireless City, N55 developed proposals for the regeneration of the city’s Eastside area. Sorvin based the scheme on Copenhagen’s ‘freetown’ of Christiana, with existing buildings retained and only small additions made to allow people to take over the area in whatever way they wished. Despite working with Eastside City, the urban regeneration company that was developing the district, N55’s highly alternative scheme had little hope of becoming a reality. ‘It’s one of the great problems we have in developing cities. The people that live in the area don’t get what they need to develop it for themselves… In the end it’s money that decides everything.’
One of the purest distillations of N55’s ideas came immediately after the Walking House, with the Urban Free Habitat System in 2008, a simple geodesic sphere that is easy to construct, can provide a basic dwelling and proposes that people should be permitted to design the public places they inhabit and share these places with others, regardless of their financial situation.

The hugely popular Walking House project in Cambridge, 2008
Sorvin’s time is now mainly divided between two new projects: a nomadic power station for Essen in Germany, which will be the Capital of Culture in 2010, and a floating Microisland for Cardiff harbour. The Essen project is a lightweight, aluminium scaffold structure, which will be positioned somewhere along the Ruhr Valley (the exact position is yet to be decided) and provides a ‘rest-stop’ where people can engage in all sorts of activities – from performances and events to simply relaxing in hammocks or charging their mobile phones on the structure’s solar powered energy supply. N55’s Cardiff project, which will be completed this year, is a floating dome of welded-together steel sheets that contains a garden with local plants. Cardiff’s harbour development, as a whole, is commercially driven but, again, Sorvin is leading by example in proposing a free-floating, permanent structure that can be appropriated by local people.
The 45-year-old artist’s consistent engagement with architectural ideas and techniques comes not from his education – he studied fine art at the Copenhagen Academy – but from his architect father. The influence was not necessarily positive. ‘I used to sit on his lap when he was drawing up buildings,’ he says. ‘I could see the difference between his ambitions, his visions and what he actually did. He’s a really good architect but he’s doing stupid stuff all the time that he doesn’t want to do.’ Sorvin’s work and lifestyle is a constant battle to show that there are other ways to live a fulfilling life, alternative economic models and no need to compromise.

N55’s Microisland, which will be installed in Cardiff Harbour this year
His houseboat lifestyle, which is officially illegal on Copenhagen harbour, is part of this educating process. Thanks to being well-connected in the city, and having a winter address in a nearby apartment, Sorvin has been able to bypass the laws: the harbour authorities know what’s happening, but ignore it so long as he does nothing to upset them. ‘I think what’s important is to open people’s eyes to other ways of doing things and other ways of living. It’s quite obvious when you come here, that it’s a really good, social and public way of life and it’s very different to people living in expensive apartments.’ This apparently idyllic lifestyle has its downsides though. ‘Most people admire my stupid way of living,’ says Sorvin. ‘They see this strong person, living in a boat with his beautiful son, doing whatever he wants. But at the same time, there’s a cost. I don’t have security, I don’t have a pension, I don’t have a lot of things.’
Sorvin has been fighting for simple freedoms ever since he founded N55 (named after both an address and Copenhagen’s latitude) with his wife, the Norwegian artist Ingvil Aarbakke. One of Sorvin and Aarbakke’s earlier projects was titled Land, which involved the acquisition and dedication of small plots of land to public use, from northern Norway to the Californian desert, in less sparsely populated places in Denmark, Holland and Switzerland, and in waste patches of cities such as Chicago. Each one was marked with a steel polyhedric cairn, which declared the area as belonging to ‘the commons’.
Aarbakke died of cancer in 2005, and it is a measure of Sorvin’s determination, idealism and the clarity of N55’s mission that he has managed to keep it going with no loss of energy or direction. Sorvin mainly now works with one partner, Oivind Alexander Slaatto, a designer and musician, but N55 expands and contracts depending on the project and the skills required. Sorvin says that N55 is not based on an ideology or religion, but as a belief in educating people: ‘The only way I can work is to create good examples.’ He is able to shift between highly specific, local projects and global ideas with ease because the founding principles are clear to the point of extremity. One of the final projects that Aarbakke contributed to was a series of pod-like dwellings, the Space on Earth Station, which critiqued the standard top-down model of space-exploration institutions. In 2007, N55 espoused the breaking down of all national boundaries and redesigned the lags of various countries incorporating the phrase No Borders. The Union Jack, for example, was transformed into a psychedelic swirl of colours.
These radically liberal ideas might make Sorvin a particularly Danish artist. Copenhagen is often held up as an admirable example of liberal politics and progressive city planning: its clean public spaces uncluttered by excessive signage and its ubiquitous cycle paths are considered emblems of forward-looking city management. The 34ha ‘freetown’ of Christiana situated in the east of the city was established in 1971 and remains a near-autonomous enclave of hippies, outcasts and outsiders.
Yet Sorvin sees much that is wrong in the way Copenhagen is developing. Christiana’s liberties are increasingly being clamped down by a city government determined to ‘normalise’ the district. Copenhagen has also, over the last 10 years, become increasingly enthralled with the idea of iconic buildings, particularly along Sorvin’s beloved harbour front. Just across the water from Sorvin’s little houseboat is the vast Copenhagen Opera House, established in 2005 by A P Moller, the super-rich owner of shipping company Maersk, and designed by Henning Larsen. Sorvin is unforgiving in his verdict: ‘They scrapped all the plans for residential areas, demolished all the old buildings and built this pastiche of Jean Nouvel. It’s a stupid, typically Danish thing – a small country looking at what’s going on abroad.’ He also rails against the falsely democratic notion of having subsidized tickets for an opera house. ‘Every time some rich arsehole walks in, Danish citizens pay them 5,000KR (£570) per ticket,’ he says. ‘It sucks, and it’s exactly the way you shouldn’t use the harbour area.
To Sorvin, Copenhagen’s harbour is one of the last truly public spaces in Copenhagen and every bridge built across it by the government is an imposition that threatens its freedom and tranquility. Even relatively generous projects fall short of the artist’s ideals: the new Royal Playhouse by Lundgaard and Tranberg Architects, which can also be seen from Sorvin’s boat, offers an open, wood-decked public space which has been enthusiastically taken up by locals. Yet he criticizes the way it is built into the water and therefore acts as an intrusion.
Such opinions may seem unforgiving, but Sorvin is aware that only by adopting such a consistent position does he have a hope of influencing the planners, architects and, most importantly, the public who decide how societies and cities will develop. For him, action is the only option. ‘The only way I know how to lobby is to create things,’ he says. ‘We don’t have any choice but to start doing things in a different way’

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