Off the coast of the small village of Båly in southern Norway, a big piece of concrete looms out of the waters. But the building is no mere remnant of the bygone trend for Brutalist architecture, nor is it ruined or abandoned. This extraordinary structure is actually a place where you can dine below the cold Atlantic waves. Yes, it plays home to an underwater restaurant – the biggest of its kind on the planet, in fact.
Brothers Gaute and Stig Ubostad come from a family of hotel owners, so it may have seemed natural for them to buy the Havhotell in 2014. The hostelry – which had previously suffered from dire financial troubles – sits in the small settlement of Båly, which lies at the southernmost tip of Norway.
And Båly is pretty remote, situated as it is over 40 miles from any other reasonably sized town in Norway and five hours by car from the capital of Oslo. However, the drive from Båly would not be dull. The coast in this area is spectacular, in fact, thanks to its position at the meeting point of northerly and southerly sea storms.
Such a phenomenon can lead to weather that is often wild, with massive waves smashing onto the shoreline as a result. But when the storms pass, you can see all sorts of wildlife in the waters, including killer whales and dolphins. And on a clear day, you can apparently look out to sea for 20 miles.
Plus, the land around Båly is stunning. Rivers flow through the area, which along with the lakes offer opportunities for fishing and rafting when it’s warm. In the winter months, meanwhile, there’s plenty of snow to enjoy trekking across on skis. And if you choose to venture to the nearest town of Kristiansand, you’ll find a center of culture with its own opera house.
That said, Båly may seem a strange place to put a restaurant – especially given the lack of people in the area. But that’s precisely what the Ubostad brothers did, as they realized that the picturesque charms of the area were able to draw tourists during the summer. The location would need something special, though, to get people to visit year round.
That something special was Under, a restaurant that sits under the waters off the coast of Båly. The first of its kind in Europe, Under is also supposedly the largest such restaurant in the world. And it didn’t come cheap, either; the brothers reportedly spent around $8 million to build the eatery.
Of course, such a sum makes the restaurant a big investment. And the brothers were certainly aware that they were putting a lot on the line in order to create the attraction. As Stig told U.K. newspaper the Financial Times in March 2019, “We’re risking everything. If we weren’t a bit crazy, it would be too big for us.” Even so, the Ubostads were willing to forge ahead with their plan.
Interestingly, in the Norwegian language the word under translates as both “beneath” and “wonder.” And that’s entirely apt, given the majesty of the finished product. But in order to create such an awe-inspiring concept, the brothers first needed to enlist some expert help.
That assistance initially came from Snøhetta – a Norway-headquartered architectural firm well known outside of its native country. Snøhetta is responsible for the design of a number of famed structures, in fact, including the pavilion at New York’s National September 11 Memorial. Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina – which aims to capture the spirit of the ancient Library of Alexandria – is also among the practice’s portfolio.
And that’s not even to mention a building closer to home. Yes, Snøhetta played a part in designing Oslo’s opera house – the biggest cultural structure built in Norway for over 700 years. But despite this wealth of experience, Under posed a new challenge for the seasoned architects. And having sifted through a bunch of ideas, they landed on one possessing the power of simplicity.
At 112 feet in length and 40 feet in width, Under is essentially a rectangular box of concrete. And the structure is by no means delicate: the walls are more than a foot and a half thick and are a little curved. Yet there’s a simple reason why the building has to be so sturdy.
In short, the design came after Snøhetta consulted with experts from the oil sector. Drawing on their experience with oil rigs, the specialists suggested that Under’s architecture would need to be strong. The structure would inevitably be battered by the fierce waves that are common to Båly, you see.
Then, after the massive rectangular block of concrete – which weighs around 1,600 tons – had been created, it had to be moved by barge into the inlet where it now sits. A crane that floated in the sea subsequently lifted the tube and put it into position on the seabed. And after it had been sited, builders sealed up the structure and removed seawater by pumping.
Finally, the construction workers secured the bottom of the concrete shell to the seabed with bolts. And this process means that while one end of the edifice lies 16 feet under the waves, the other pokes out from the sea. Consequently, the structure has a gentle slope of 20 degrees from top to bottom.
What’s more, Under lies in stark contrast to the picturesque inlet it calls home. But Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, the founding partner of Snøhetta, claims that the building will fit in better over time. As the sea starts to claim Under as its own, Thorsen suggests, it will decorate the concrete with mussels and seaweed.
Yet despite the restaurant’s location and construction, it is designed not to feel overwhelming from the perspective of the people inside. Lead architect Rune Grasdal has suggested that the structure is in fact similar to a periscope; he has also emphasized the need for people to have a sense of security inside rather than claustrophobia.
To get the feel they were looking for, then, the designers worked hard to get everything right. And to that end, they used natural components such as oak; lighting was also a consideration. As Grasdal put it to CNN in 2018, “It should be an exciting experience, but people should also feel secure and well when sitting down there.”
And Grasdal elaborated on this point when talking to Dezeen in March 2019. He said, “If the weather is bad, it’s very rough. It’s a great experience – and to sit here and be safe, allowing the nature so close into you. It’s a very romantic and nice experience.”
But getting into Under is not always an easy endeavor. To do so, diners must first traverse some 40 feet of black steel from the shore to the restaurant. And if they happen to visit during one of Båly’s storms, they’re advised to bring proper outerwear.
That’s because the winds whip up spray – and those not dressed for the eventuality are in for a soaking. Snøhetta’s Trædal Thorsen suggested as much to the Financial Times, saying, “In Norway, there’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing.” However, the patrons may only face wet conditions on the way in. Yes, as the restaurant’s dress code states, “no swimwear is required” when dining at Under.
And once customers have braved the elements and found shelter, they may be wowed. Oak panels line the foyer of Under, leading to a staircase that descends into the structure’s lower levels. Deeper down, visitors should also come across a bar where they can sip champagne and enjoy the view.
And it’s some view, since the bar features a window that runs from the ceiling down to the ground. The top of this opening sits above the waves, while the bottom is located below them – creating a contrast that the designers hope will strike diners with awe. But that’s only the beginning of what’s in store.
Take a few more steps down, you see, and you’ll reach the restaurant itself. The space is sparse and clean, too, with only a small number of tables and furniture that seemingly don’t aim to catch the eye. But it’s perhaps fair to say that nobody comes to see the furnishings. And the dining area’s main feature is actually its massive window, which stretches 36 feet wide and 12 feet high.
Through the window, moreover, you can see the bottom of the inlet, which is embellished with rocks and seaweed. Yet while other underwater eateries tend to be in the tropics and show off native fish, Under has less color to offer. Instead, restaurant patrons may spot cold-water fish such as pollock, cod and mackerel while dining. The sharp-eyed may also pick out a lobster or a stone crab, and from time to time a eider duck may dive into view.
But despite the gray waters and less-than-flashy sea creatures, Under still offers something special. The restaurant claims, for one, that it provides “a journey into the unknown” by extending the chance to experience the Norwegian seas up close.
“For most of us, this is a totally new world experience,” Grasdal told Dezeen. “It’s not an aquarium, it’s the wildlife of the North Sea. That makes it much more interesting. It takes you directly into the wildness.” And diners at Under aren’t the only ones who will be able to benefit from the building.
Yes, the structure will not simply be used as a restaurant; it’ll also operate as a working center for research into marine life. There, marine biologists and other specialists will be able to use cameras and measuring devices to study the creatures that call the inlet around Under home.
As a consequence, then, Under will act as a base for analyzing local sea life. And, of course, there’s plenty of this in the area. The salty waters off Båly host many different species, in fact, meaning the ecosystem there possesses a great deal of biodiversity.
And the researchers will attempt to lure some of these creatures to the general vicinity of Under. This will both provide diners with something to see while they eat and also supply the experts with animals to study. It’s true, too, that this double usage of the structure has a further benefit to the restaurant.
You see, Danish chef Nicolai Ellitsgaard offers an “immersion” dinner at Under, featuring seafood of the kind that can literally be seen outside swimming around the concrete. “Just on the other side of our iconic window, the ocean is bursting with fresh delicacies from the sea,” Ellitsgaard told the Financial Times. “So the journey from the kitchen to the plate is minimal.”
And alongside the seafood, Ellitsgaard and his staff will use the fruits of their own foraging in the nearby forests. These finds may include fungi, berries and herbs along with seaweed taken from the coastline. The cooking staff will then whip these fresh ingredients into unusual gourmet dishes.
Indeed, as Ellitsgaard told the Financial Times, “Part of the deal is I can do whatever I want, but I promised the brothers not to be too weird.” The chef has exercised a certain amount of creativity when coming up with meals, too; in fact, he has even made one dish from items that are typically thrown into the trash.
On a visit to buy fish, Ellitsgaard once told traders that he wanted the head and roe of a ling. And while the vendors claimed that those parts were “garbage,” the chef was undaunted. He told the Financial Times, “I said, ‘Give me time, and I’ll show you.’ The head is tastier than the rest of the meat.”
Then Ellitsgaard turned the “garbage” into a delicacy intended to meet the high standards he sets for his kitchen. He added to the Financial Times, “We have really high ambitions. It’s dangerous to talk about Michelin stars, but it would be a dream come true. This place really deserves it.”
And Ellitsgaard’s cookery was unveiled to the world when Under was officially opened on March 20, 2019. The occasion was met with considerable fanfare throughout Norway, too; the restaurant was even featured in a live television broadcast.
What’s more, it seems that the awesome sight of Under delighted the Norwegian public, who flocked to book their seats. At the very least, few tables were left available until around September 2019. And that’s in spite of the hefty cost of $260 a head for dinner alone – plus another big chunk for paired wines.
But Under really is a unique place to eat, as Snøhetta’s Trædal Thorsen pointed out to Mashable in March 2019. “In this building, you may find yourself under water, over the seabed, between land and sea,” he said. “This will offer you new perspectives and ways of seeing the world – both beyond and beneath the waterline.”
And this sentiment is echoed by chief architect Grasdal. “One of the benefits of this building is how it links nature and land,” he told CNN. “You can come safe from the land and in a very dramatic way go down through this concrete tube to the nature at sea level and experience what normally is not experienced.”
Certainly, Under offers the incredible chance to get up close and personal with the sea life near Båly. And although the restaurant is in a remote spot, it is nonetheless reachable to select international patrons thanks to flights that land in Kristiansand. Meanwhile, the Ubostad brothers still own Havhotell – the project that originally brought them to the village. And, naturally, it’s now very close by to the restaurant.