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Finse, Norway

A remote hotel in Norway dating back to 1909 is given a sensitive update by Oslo architecture firm, Snøhetta

There’s only one way to reach the Norwegian village of Finse and that is by train. There are no roads leading up to this mountain plateau, located 1,222 metres above sea level in the shadow of the Hardanger Glacier. Surrounded by remote landscapes and under snow for much of the year, it is a place where you can be completely immersed in nature. It’s no surprise that polar explorers come here to train, or that it was used as a filming location for the Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, in 1979.

Property developer Petter Hagelund has been developing a strong affection for this place since 2007, when he bought an old railroad building and set about converting it into a holiday home for winter sports enthusiasts. So when an opportunity came to take over the village’s most prominent building, a hotel facing the railway tracks, he jumped at the chance. “The hotel is the nerve centre,” he says. “Nothing up here would work if it wasn’t here.”

Hotel Finse 1222 has a rich history that dates back to 1906, when a simple lodge was built to offer food and shelter to workers involved in the gruelling task of installing the railway line through the mountainous terrain. It was formally established as a hotel in 1909 and has hosted many high-profile guests over the years, from King Edward VIII (then Prince of Wales) to Norway’s Olympic figure-skating champion, Sonja Henie. However, the previous owners could not afford to maintain the building and it was in dire need of renovation.

With a group of investors on board, Hagelund approached architecture firm Snøhetta to oversee the works. His instinct was to make the interiors more flexible so that on weekdays, when there are typically fewer guests, the hotel could host business conferences. “It can be difficult to run a hotel up in the mountains, because you can’t open all year round and you have to house all of your employees,” says Hagelund. “But I always thought, if you have a location this good, then it should be possible.”

Finse 1222 Architect: Snøhetta Photo: Ivar Kvaal

For Heidi Pettersvold, senior interior architect in Snøhetta’s Oslo office, the project was a balancing act of history and logistics. It’s not easy to transport materials or furniture in and out of Finse, so it made sense to retain as much of the original fabric as possible. This led Pettersvold on a voyage of discovery through the hotel’s attic, where she found an array of forgotten treasures. “It was fantastic, like going through your grandma’s loft,” she says.

Vintage furniture was reupholstered and brought back into use, while historic photos were framed to hang on the walls. But the most significant discovery was a William Morris jacquard textile, believed to have been brought to Finse by the hotel’s original manager, a British woman named Alice. As well as inspiring Pettersvold to introduce a Morris & Co wallpaper in the dining room, it provided the starting point for a colour palette featuring warm shades of red, orange, blue and grey. “The history was speaking to me through the walls,” said the architect, “and I thought I should help that history be more visible without doing too much.”

The renovation has made Hotel Finse’s spaces feel so cosy that, when the weather is at its most hostile, you can enjoy the experience of this unique location by simply looking out at it through the windows. The reception has been transformed into a welcoming lounge, with a new terrace and a playful circular seating element, while an intimate library centres around a grand fireplace. Upstairs, the replacement of old leaking roof structures (in some places they found as many as four stacked on top of each other) created the opportunity to add two new loft bedrooms that, like the hotel’s 39 other rooms, combine simple wooden furniture with custom-made wool blankets. Snøhetta’s design even extended to redesigning the branding and signage, giving this historic hotel back the sense of status it deserves.