Under: much more than a restaurant
The architecture of this boundary-pushing landmark matches its dramatic landscape
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
Europe’s first underwater restaurant welcomed guests in Lindesnes, Norway, on March 20. Located at the southernmost point of the Norwegian coast where sea storms from the north and south meet, the project is situated at a unique confluence. Marine species flourish here in the brackish waters. The Snøhetta-designed restaurant also functions as a research center for marine life. “One of our main criteria is that our guests will get to experience something unique in the sea,” declares owner Gaute Ubostad.
In Norwegian, Under has the dual meaning of “below” and “wonder.” Half sunken into the sea, the building’s 112-foot-long monolithic form breaks the surface to rest directly on the seabed below. The structure is designed to fully integrate into its marine environment over time—its rough concrete shell functions as an artificial reef, welcoming limpets and kelp to inhabit it. Lying against the craggy shoreline, the structure’s thick walls are built to withstand pressure from the rugged sea. Like a sunken periscope, a massive window offers a view of the seabed as it changes throughout different seasons and weather conditions.
The restaurant’s culinary focus is to create a fine dining experience based on high-quality, locally sourced ingredients with an emphasis on sustainable wildlife. Nicolai Ellitsgaard, who worked at Måltid in Kristiansand city center and the Michelin-starred restaurant Henne Kirkeby Kro in Denmark, is the head chef.
“Under is a natural progression of our experimentation with boundaries,” says Snøhetta founder and architect Kjetil Trædal Thorsen. “As a new landmark for southern Norway, Under proposes unexpected combinations of pronouns and prepositions, challenging what determines a person’s physical placement in his environment. In this building, you may find yourself under water, over the seabed, between land and sea. This will offer you new perspectives and ways of seeing the world, both beyond and beneath the waterline.”
Lindesnes is known for intense weather conditions that change daily from calm to stormy. Upon arriving at the site, visitors’ impressions of the unruly outdoors quickly dissolve as they are ushered into a hushed, oak-clad foyer. Rough wooden finishes transition into an elegant oak staircase as one descends into the building. Dark, raw steel railings with brass tube handrails lead down to a softer interior as the ceiling surface changes from oak to textile.
As a metaphor for the journey of descent, the textile-clad interior turns darker and more intense the deeper one travels. The textiles, stretched over custom acoustic panels, reference the colors of a sunset dropping into the ocean. At the entrance, the ceiling’s neutral color deepens into a sunset pink, intense coral, sea green, and finally culminates in a midnight blue as one arrives in the dining room.
On the mezzanine level and bar area, where the building touches the sea, a vertical window extends from above sea level down to the seabed, revealing the convergence of sea and air in a volatile, dancing waterline.
In the 40-person dining room, lies the panoramic eye of the building. A tall horizontal window connects guests to the wildlife outside. The view will evolve throughout the day and seasons, with the color of the water shifting from sapphire blue on a cold winter day to emerald green in the summer when the algae set in.
The lighting system carefully minimizes the reflectivity of the panoramic window and maximizes the view of sea life outside. Hundreds of LED lamps are installed on the ceiling, illuminating the dining area with subtle yet pointed light. The light can be easily adjusted to respond to differing light conditions outside the building. The outside will be lit up during the dark hours to attract fish.
The type and finish of materials vary according to their placement. Rougher wood at the entrance evolves into increasingly refined finishes toward the dining room. In close collaboration with Hamran, a local carpentry workshop, the walls, roof, and floor are all locally harvested Norwegian oak.
Even the furniture was designed exclusively for Under. The chair, one continuous form that imitates branches growing from a tree, is central to the vision. The furniture represents the philosophy of the project as a whole: to build solid structures without compromising the beauty of the raw materials.
Under was built on a barge as a concrete shell with windows. During submersion, the structure floated on its own and was moved to its final location by a crane and tugboats. Following the submersion, structural work was completed, and the building was bolted to a concrete slab anchored to the bedrock beneath the seabed. The construction team filled the structure with water to make it sink. After ensuring that all bolts were fully tightened, the water was drained and interior work began.
Researching under the waves
An equally important part of the project is promotion of marine research. It welcomes research teams to study marine biology and fish behavior with cameras and other tools installed on or around the restaurant. Researchers from the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomic Research (NIBIO) and other centers seek to learn how wild fish respond to sounds and to study fish behavior throughout the seasons. They will also help create optimal conditions on the seabed for fish and shellfish to thrive near the restaurant.
“The ability to be physically present at the seabed provides a new possibility to observe marine life with precision and patience,” says marine biologist Trond Rafoss, a key collaborator in the project. “Usually, when diving, one has time restraints and is not able to see everything. Yet the comfortable environment of the restaurant allows us to study sea life for time intervals unparalleled by other means. As one can stay in the restaurant for as long as one wants, that opens opportunities to discover species, their behaviors, and stages of life that has never been seen before.”
Rafoss has already reported observing small organisms that have previously only been studied in controlled laboratory environments. Researchers have also already discovered previously unknown species of jellyfish.
Local produce and global ambitions
The culinary philosophy of the restaurant is based on local produce harvested with consideration of the balance of nearby flora and fauna. Eating at Under is a journey through the landscape of Lindesnes, from seafood and seaweed to wild meat during the fall game season.
The restaurant also aims to bring attention to underappreciated seafood, using ingredients rarely served elsewhere, such as stone crab and rugose squat lobster. “Our aim is to display the diversity that can be found in the south of Norway where we do not have much of one thing, but we have a little bit of everything,” states head chef Ellitsgaard. The menu will employ ingredients from limpet and mahogany clam to sea cucumber and local lamb from Lindesnes. The kitchen team forages and harvests some ingredients themselves—sometimes an adventure, given the difficult weather conditions.
Ellitsgaard and his team are in regular dialogue with marine biologists about how and when to harvest from the sea sustainably. The kitchen and researchers also collaborate to attract fish to the window, enabling scientists to study the species more closely while creating a unique view for restaurant guests.
An experience of wonder
Under is a story of contrasts: between the landscape above and the sea below; between the warm interior and the rough façade that can withstand the most powerful waves.
The project underscores the delicate ecological balance between land and sea and draws attention to models for responsible consumption. Under proposes a new way of understanding our relationship to our surroundings: above the surface, under the water, and alongside the inhabitants of the sea.
More triumphs for Snøhetta
Under is more than a building; it is a tribute to Norway’s special connection to the ocean and nature. Your Travel Editor is greatly impressed.
For 30 years, Snøhetta has designed some of the world’s most notable projects, starting in 1989 with the new library of Alexandria, Egypt. This was followed by the Oslo Opera House and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center site in New York City, among others.
Snøhetta is beginning a relationship with the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa, to develop a new master plan and design vision for America’s Norwegian-American museum and heritage center. I can hardly wait.
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.