Abandoned Childhood – Sarnes Internat

by Bjørnar Olsen

If you travel the E69 highway to North Cape, one of Norway’s most famous tourist attractions, you will just a short hour before you reach your destination pass by the quiet and picturesque fishing hamlet of Sarnes. And despite the affluence of stunning views your eyes will almost certainly be drawn towards a large concrete building in a conspicuous state of decay. With the roof partly blown off, fading yellow paint, withering concrete, and curtains fluttering through gaping windows, the derelict building on the roadside seems utterly misplaced in this scenic landscape.

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The building originally housed a boarding school (internat school) and is still today only known as Sarnes Internat. When inaugurated in 1958 the official name given to it, however, was Solvang Internatskole.  Solvang means something like “sunny meadow”, a southern and utterly national and romantic name, which alludes to another if less explicitly expressed “mission” of the state boarding schools in this ethnically mixed northern region: To strengthen Norwegian identity and to integrate or assimilate those Sámi and Kven minorities not sharing it.

For twenty-three years Sarnes Internat served as school and home for children arriving from small and scattered hamlets throughout this coastal district. Without any road connection to the outside world, the children were transported by boat to the boarding school where they shared dormitories, classrooms, refectories, bathrooms and playgrounds. Many of their superiors – the housemother, teachers and assistants – also lived here most of the time. With having to leave your home at the age of 7, it was definitely a new world to be learned and coped with at Sarnes.

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In 1971 the boarding school was closed down, but for a short period the building continued to be used as a school for the few children living in the Sarnes hamlet. Attempts were later made to turn the building into a guesthouse or motel, but despite added facilities such as a bar and café they were largely unsuccessful. During a brief period it also accommodated workers constructing the tunnel and road that connected Sarnes to the national road system in 1999. Since the early 2000s the building has been abandoned and left more or less to its own destiny.

As the brief account above suggests it is a layered past that you encounter upon entering the main entrance; events are piled, times assembled. This gathering, importantly, is not confined to the time when new possibilities and formal uses were still sought for. Despite years of abandonment and redundancy human and non-human visitors alike have continued to leave their traces. And yet, within these time-compressed assemblages the ‘boarding school past’ still stands out conspicuously. It is present in the very building itself, the grand entrance, the interiors, and in myriads of stranded things; a past ruined and petrified at the same time. Being exposed to this stubborn past evokes a wealth of involuntary memories – of childhood and play, discipline and work, home longing and dreams. In some sense, the affective presence of these things and the memories they hold is perhaps felt even stronger, or more actual, when situated in their new and gathered settings among bar chairs, workmen’s cloths, graffiti, snow dunes, and nestling birds.

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In its ruining state Sarnes Internat also objects to our simplified notion of abandonment as an end to a building or place, a death to something once warm and full of life. As human control and care ceases, it rather enters a new phase that has its own mode of being, its own pace and rhythms. Far from being terminated and sealed off, the building in this state invites new engagements with humans, things and natures. These engagements are made manifest during our repeated visits over the past few years to Sarnes: People stop by for memories, for thrills, curiosity and ghosts, or they are simply drawn by the building’s pure ruin allure. Things are moved and removed; new things are being added. And as the building ages and whithers, nature also increasingly intrudes. Weather and seasonal changes becomes part of its formerly secluded spaces, part of its vernacular ecology. Plants grow in cracks along the floors; snow drifts in and creates new surfaces, new seasonal layers that both conceal and bring forth the forms of things.

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Sarnes Internat may soon be torn down, demolished; thus accommodating the wishes of those who see in it little but an embarrassing grim ruin that visually pollutes the gateway to the tourists’ North Cape. So far, however, it has survived petitions and pleas, and continues to astonish and annoy locals and travellers alike. And even when the building is gone, and yet another disturbing anomaly erased in the current yearning for public and environmental purity, there will always be something left, some things to wonder about and to remember.

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