“The Whale”: the new Arctic attraction

300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Norway is currently the scene for an architectural tour de force. Danish architectural firm Dorte Mandrup has won the competition for designing the new visitor centre, known as “The Whale”. The new attraction is not only designed to appeal to whale watchers, but also to protect the local nature and wildlife.

From cave drawings to biblical tales of Jonah in the belly of the whale and Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, whales have always exuded a particular fascination for humankind. From the Norwegian island of Andøya, you can see the giant creatures gliding peacefully through the ocean. This is why, every year, some 50,000 visitors come to the small town of Andenes, where the first ever whale safari took place 32 years ago. This same place is now playing host to a further attraction: “The Whale”. A visitor centre that does admirable justice to the living fascination that is the whale.

Taking centre stage: the whale

“We want to create a place, an exhibition and an arts centre the like of which the world has never seen before,” explains Andøy’s mayor Jonni H. Solsvik. Over three decades, the giant sperm whales that live to the north-west of Andenes have proved to be an enduring phenomenon: “This means that we are uniquely positioned to tell the story of the whales. And now we are giving the world a brand-new attraction in which the whale takes centre stage.”

Landscape around Dorte Mandrup's fascinating project "The Whale".
As if it had emerged fully formed from the landscape: Dorte Mandrup’s fascinating project “The Whale”.

Winner of the international competition for this unique project: Danish architectural firm Dorte Mandrup, which is known for its unusual designs. And the concept upon which “The Whale” is based is nothing short of spectacular.

Top specialists for “The Whale”

The Mandrup team includes specialists whose outlook fits perfectly with the plan of creating a museum-like structure that respects its natural surroundings. These include Marianne Levinsen Landskab for landscape architecture and JAC Studio for exhibition architecture. Also involved are engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, AT Plan & Arkitektur, marine researcher Nils Øien and museum curator Anders Kold.

Not only will we be creating architecture in yet another remarkable landscape, but we will also take part in increasing the understanding of whales and preservation of marine life.

Dorte Mandrup, architect

“Choosing a winner of the architectural competition has been a major challenge because we had several proposals of a very high quality. However, the project from Dorte Mandrup is a clear winner and meets the competition criteria in the best way,” emphasized Børre Berglund, CEO of The Whale AS and chairman of the panel of judges for the architectural competition.

Mandrup’s concept was described as “poetic and low-key” yet at the same time “exciting and unusual”. The perfect ingredients for creating a world-class attraction.

View from top of "The Whale"
From the roof, visitors will have a clear view of the sea, the mountains, the midnight sun or the northern lights.

The architectural whale will grow out of the dramatic Norwegian landscape at the edge of the ocean, rising like a gentle, natural hill on the rocky shore. Almost as if a giant had lifted up a thin layer of the Earth’s crust and created a cavity underneath.

“The Whale” will host exhibition rooms, offices, a café and a shop. Visitors will be able to walk about on the roof and enjoy a clear view of the sea, mountains, the midnight sun and even the northern lights.

A design inspired by the landscape

For Mandrup, the landscape was instrumental in determining the shape of the structure. The roof’s parabolic shape is defined by three high points on the site, the foundation by the natural ground. Large windows open out onto the archipelago, merging the exhibition rooms visually with their broad surroundings.

The close connection between the building and its natural environment is accentuated through the use of stone. The curved roof is also covered with stones, forming a natural patina. This underlines the harmony between the Norwegian landscape and the new building.

Interior of "The Whale" with view of the outside landscape.
Inside “The Whale”: gigantic views from the “belly” of the architectural whale.

As Dorte Mandrup explains: “Not only will we be creating architecture in yet another remarkable landscape, but we will also take part in increasing the understanding of whales and preservation of marine life. Right here on the edge of the ocean, we will be making a mark in a magnificent and ancient landscape. This opportunity comes with great responsibility, which is extremely motivating and inspiring.”

“The Whale” to open in 2022

The immense respect that Dorte Mandrup and her team have for natural environments can be seen from their exemplary track record, with projects such as the Watten Sea Centre in the Danish town of Ribe or the Icefjord Centre in Ilulissat, Greenland, to their credit. Both of these are located in sensitive zones and are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. Similarly, “The Whale” will not only fit seamlessly into the landscape in the future, but also serve as a complementing element.

Architecture protecting animals and their natural environment

Architect Dorte Mandrup’s declared goal is to help protect the marine environment and animals through art, science and architecture. The opening of the spectacular new building is scheduled for 2022.

Giant windows on the shore
Giant windows directly on the shore: this extraordinary construction will be the scene of many unforgettable natural experiences.

A total of 37 designs were submitted to the competition tendered by The Whale AS in spring 2019. Of these, four qualified for the final round. In addition to Dorte Mandrup’s project, there were submissions by three other high-profile architectural firms: BIG, Snøhetta and Reiulf Ramstad.

Great expectations

Dorte Mandrup’s concept was declared the winner in early November 2019. The region has high expectations of the project. Mayor Jonni H. Solsvik: “This facility will enable Andøy to be the most important whale destination in Northern Europe.”

The Whale aims to help us to better understand the giants of the sea and to learn more about them. And what better place than a building every inch of which exudes respect for these fascinating creatures?

Text: Elisabeth Schneyder
Translation: Rosemary Bridger-Lippe
Images: MIR / Dorte Mandrup