This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
Europe’s first underwater restaurant opened in Lindesnes, Norway, in March of 2019. Under (also meaning wonder in Norwegian) is nestled in the rocky coastline of the country’s southernmost point and partially submerged in the North Atlantic Ocean. Five years prior to the restaurant’s opening, its owners—brothers and fourth-generation hoteliers Stig and Gaute Ubostad—purchased the neighboring Havhotell to lodge Under’s future guests. Building this high-end restaurant has been cast as an expensive gamble (approximately $6.2 million) to attract more tourism to the small remote town. Oslo’s Snøhetta designed the structure, and carpenters at Norwegian interior design firm Hamran were commissioned to furnish it. But what seems like an extravagant gimmick of a building is actually a marine science laboratory.
Yes, just a four-minute walk from Havhotell, guests and tourists can enjoy a fine pre-fixe dining experience as the occasional seal swims by, but outside seaweed is already beginning to grow on the 1.6-foot-thick concrete walls. Snøhetta chose concrete for its ability to withstand rugged conditions and fit into the existing wildlife’s habitat beneath the surface. Students from the nearby University of Adger use the restaurant to conduct research through cameras and live observation with associate professor Trond Rafoss. They are studying topics like restoring human-impacted marine ecosystems, fish behavioral patterns, and the ability of fish to learn. Rafoss is also Under’s in-house marine biologist. The lab recently received a grant from the Norwegian government to support the students’ efforts. It’s unlikely that the university would have been able to secure these funds on their own.
Under seeks to delight as well as educate its guests. The restaurant boasts a 36-by-11-foot window into the ocean where diners can observe marine life—but it isn’t just the scientists teaching. A critical part of guest education is the secretive but Michelin star–adorned menu. Head chef Nicolai Ellitsgaard strives to push people out of their comfort zones. Under’s website features a dramatic photo of him harvesting—he’s standing on top of a rock formation, in one hand a fistful of kelp and the other a sickle. His menus highlight each season’s unique, sustainably sourced produce. Under’s goal is to impart an interest in marine ecology through a guest’s experience of the food. The idea is that helping diners understand the context of their seafood’s natural environment might make them care more about the longevity of the Earth’s oceans and sustainable wildlife capture practices.
The sustainability of the planet and especially its oceans are as central to Under’s construction as they are to its culinary vision. Using concrete to create an artificial reef, Snøhetta designed the submarine portion of Under to eventually become an indiscernible part of the coastal environment. The architects also partnered with Hamran to sustainably source wood for both interior and exterior use. Hamran did all of the woodwork, from the curved ceiling evoking an ocean wave to the custom design of the tables and chairs, using locally harvested Norwegian oak. If this restaurant were a gimmick, at least its long-term impact on the Lindesnes environment would be minimal.
It is unfortunate that most press about Under in English neglects its laboratory entirely or glosses over it as an aside. There is at least one vocal critic who considers Under to be an eyesore on the North Atlantic coast and complains about its distant location from major metropolitan areas, but Under succeeds in manifesting a more harmonious relationship between commercial architecture and nature than almost any other privately or corporately owned establishment. Under’s commitment to sustainability in both construction and restaurant practice is remarkable, as well as its staff’s continued dedication to science, research, and education. It would be nice to see more businesses be this intentional about community, sustainability, and materiality—and working with the surrounding natural environment instead of against it.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.