While their fellow Bergen School of Architecture students whiled away a 2002 class excursion to the coastal Norwegian town of Brønnøysund, Håkon Matre Aasarød and Erlend Blakstad Haffner roused community support to preserve a firehouse that was scheduled for demolition. The building and the adjacent town square, they had learned, were going to be turned over to a shopping-center developer. Aasarød and Haffner returned to the site repeatedly during the school year, and ultimately proposed adapting the brick tower into a regional contemporary art headquarters. “We found this more interesting than school,” Haffner says, “and decided that we would go into architecture to make positive social changes.”
A year later the newly minted graduates established Fantastic Norway, making field trips their MO. With a beat-up car pulling a Bjølseth camper, Aasarød and Haffner spent 30 months traveling to a dozen cities, identifying local ailments—an underused public space, a preexisting design that had gone sour—and inviting residents into their mobile office to brainstorm solutions. Though the caravan was sidelined in 2005 while Aasarød and Haffner earned their master’s degrees, it wasn’t retired. The partners are now exploring 1960s social housing in the Oslo suburb Romsås. They, however, will have to juggle that adventure with several commissions to realize concepts born from earlier trips. “People feel threatened by completely new ideas because often they don’t participate in the process,” Haffner says. Listening, Fantastic Norway’s success suggests, is good business.