Sunday, 8 February 2015


Norwegian architect Hege Schjønhaug started her own business Iroko Arkitekter AS  togehter with Eva Birkevold in Ålesund, one year ago, after working for other agencies. She gets inspired by people who work hard and challenge themselves and who push themselves further.
Her connection to Berlin stems from her exchange year at TU Berlin which was highly recommended to her by other students at her university in Trondheim.

Hege Schjønhaug (right) | Photo source: Hege Schjønhaug

Tell us a little about your background. What was your motivation to study architecture? Do you have any role models or favorite architects?
I think architecture is very interesting because it is all around us, from the small scale houses to the high rise buildings, hospitals, airports and so on. You can work as an architect in so many different ways and specialize in a variety of fields. Architecture has so many different scales, all from the smallest cottage to the urban plans that plans large cities. I have always liked the way architecture combines science and art, and how we always have to balance these two ways of thinking to succeed.

How did you discover your talent for architecture and what inspires you? You wrote about the different spheres you can work as an architect. Do you have any specialisation?
I didn't know that much about architecture before I went to Trondheim to study, except that architects "design buildings". The more I learned and the more I studied, the more I liked the subject and understood that it was more complex, varied and interesting that I first thought! I get inspired by people who work hard and dares to challenge themselves, the clients and the projects. People who instead of chosing the safe, wellknown road all the time works to reach further, learn more, explore new things, and get the most out of every project.

You lived in Berlin for a year during your studies. Why did you choose Berlin and had it have an impact on your work?
I had never been to Berlin before I moved down there to study. I chose Berlin mainly because I heard so many good things about the city from previous architect students. It seemed to be the perfect city to study architecture, and after one year there, I can say the same as they told me.

Why is Berlin the perfect city to study architecture? Can you specify it in greater detail?
The faculty for architecture in Berlin is quite big, and all the architecture students are located in the same building. That made it easy to interact with, not only your course-mates, but all the other architecture students. From my university in Trondheim we were more “scattered” around the university, so I liked that everyone had the same “base” in Berlin; ate in the same café, used the same workshops and so on.
They had a lot of interesting and good courses and lectures which I found very positive. Berlin has a lot of new building projects, both big ones from well-known international architects and small, more temporary projects from artists and smaller offices. So the city itself is very much alive and changing and it is developing all the time. Just walking around the different parts of the city was exciting in itself!
Iroko Arkitekter AS | Photo source: Hege Schjønhaug

There was a passionate debate in Berlin about the reconstruction about the former city palace that implicated the demolition of the Palast der DDR, DDR´s parliament building. Is there any comparable situation in Norway? What do you think about the preservation of a historical building? Demolish them, or reconstruct and preserve them?
I don't know if there are any projects in Norway with direct comparison to the demolition of the Palast der Republik, and rebuilding of the old castle. Personally I think it is strange to rebuild an old castle in an old building style completely from scratch. If the castle was already there and they wanted to rehabilitate an existing building it would be different. To build a completely new "old historical" building in 2015 I find a bit strange. It is a good thing to rehabilitate and preserve old buildings as long as you keep most of the old structure and save what is worth saving of the old. I think it is important to try to rehabilitate and reconstruct if possible, not only from an environmental point of view, but also to keep a variation and the historical timeline in the cities.

What were your reasons to move back to Aalesund and why didn´t you move to Oslo for example?
When I finished my diploma, my main plan was to move to Oslo. I come from a small village not far from Ålesund, so when I got a job offer here, I reconsidered and decided to give Ålesund a chance. I love the nature and the many possibilities it gives for both hiking and skiing here on the north west coast. Living so close to both the ocean and the mountains is just amazing. After now 5 years working here as an architect, I do not regret my choice!

How would you describe the creative scene in Aalesund in comparison to Oslo or Berlin?
The creative scene is of obvious reasons much smaller than in both Oslo, and especially Berlin. It takes more effort to make things happen when the population is so low, so in comparison to the bigger cities things don’t happen that frequently. But I have been very surprised to see how many cool, creative and nice people that live in this city. And most of them are very eager to get to know other people, so it is easy to get in touch and mingle when things happen.
Iroko Arkitekter AS | Photo source: Hege Schjønhaug

Early this year you founded your own agency. Can you describe your experiences so far and do you think it is harder to start a business as a woman?
All in all I will describe starting my own business as a positive experience. Of course, a lot of work, and one million new things to learn and figure out. But at the end of the day, it feels really good to be your own boss. I don’t know if it would be easier to do it as a man. I believe that if you work hard, and are a nice and honest to the people around you, you will succeed, whether you are a man or a woman.

You named your company Iroko Arkitekter AS after an African tree. How did you come up with the idea and what does it mean to you?
We wanted a name for our company that meant something and that could tell people something about our philosophy and us. The Iroko tree has very deep roots and beautiful leaves that flow in the wind. It is a tree that is very strong and durable. Some tribes in Africa believe that it is bad luck to cut down an Iroko tree, and that you should leave it alone and allow it to grow big and strong. Of course, this is superstition, but we liked the idea that some people think it is better to let it grow than to cut it down.

What kind of advice would you give a person who studies architecture and would you recommend starting your own business?
First of all I would say that they can look forward to start working! It is a lot of fun. I worked for many years in an agency before I founded my own agency. In these years I learned so much and I would advice them to try working in an agency as an employee before going solo.
Iroko Arkitekter AS | Photo source: Hege Schjønhaug

What are you up to next?
The following year I will continue the work with Iroko, making it an even better place to work and find new projects to work on. And continue to explore Ålesund and the opportunities the city has to offer.

If there would be no restrictions: What kind of building would you create/design?
The last couple of years I have worked mostly with public buildings such as schools, kindergarden and officebuildings. At my new job our projects so far has been more focused towards housing. I like the projects which has more complex programs such as schools and kindergardens because you get to work with other occupations and more people; engineers, interior designers, landscape architects and so on. Housing with simpler programs is also interesting because we get to work very close with our clients, and in many cases follow the project closer from idea to a finished building.

Thank you Hege! For further information about Iroko Arkitekter AS check out theri homepage or facebook page.

Interview: Skadi Borchert
Editing:   Robert Win

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