A sleepy capital perched by the sea, Oslo is in the midst of an architectural surge. The old port and the new opera house are just two examples of why Norway’s capital is pointing the way fjordward.
"You won’t get to heaven without skiing," observed Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn. If the Pritzker Prize–winning master, who died in 2009, made it to the great slope in the sky, he’s undoubtedly looking down with pleasure on the Holmenkollen ski jump. The Oslo icon has been upgraded 18 times since it was built in 1892. The latest iteration, by the design-forward Copenhagen-based firm Julien de Smedt Architects, is a glass-and-steel cantilevered structure that projects a slash of light into the night sky—–a sweeping gesture that mimics the kinetic thrill of the event. It’s a double triumph of aesthetics and sport, and, as the Norwegian tourist board’s website puts it, "one of the first designer ski jumps."
That’s appropriate for a city that is starting to take contemporary architecture seriously. Other than the 14th-century Akershus fortress, the adjacent Kvadraturen, and other remnants of the Renaissance city built by Denmark’s King Christian IV in the 17th century, Oslo’s architecture is rooted in the 19th century. In March 2008, however, King Harald V presided over the opening of the exhibition hall at the National Museum—Architecture, Fehn’s renovation and expansion of an 1830 bank designed by the nation’s great 19th-century architect, Christian Grosch. A new opera house—–the first in Norway’s history, and step one in the redevelopment of Bjørvika, the city’s harbor district—–debuted in April of the same year. Just on its heels arrived Grims Grenka, Oslo’s first design hotel—–all of which suggests a capital committed to new design and culture.
The fjord overbrims with boats in warm weather, and cross-country trails and downhill slopes enliven the hills located to the north. Museums featuring impeccably preserved Viking ships and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki raft and venues such as architect David Adjaye’s Nobel Peace Center present provocative cultural experiences. Oslo’s music scene is internationally famous—–it’s home to the Norwegian Wood rock festival—–and the Grünerløkka district offers the rarest of distillates: hipness without attitude.
And, as demonstrated by Aker Brygge, Oslo is undergoing a familiar port-city transformation. The 19th-century shipyard was updated in the 1980s and 1990s into a development combining residential, office, and retail venues—–plus countless restaurants and bars—–in a mix of maritime and contemporary architecture. Fjordside, Aker Brygge’s popularity heralds Oslo’s shift from a centuries-old emphasis on the port to a 21st-century economy abetted by North Sea oil revenues and an expanding population—–resulting, says Tarald Lundevall, "in what is the liveliest, most rapidly changing capital in Scandinavia." Lundevall—–a former professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and advisor to the Minister of Cultural Affairs, presently a partner and architect with Snøhetta, the firm responsible for the nearly $700 million opera house—–ought to know: He’s lived in the capital for most of his 62 years.
Why is Oslo flourishing now?
Three factors. First, compared to the rest of Europe, Norway was late to urbanize. We are still in a process where people from the fishing areas in the north and west are searching for possibilities in the city. The next factor is that with huge global migration directed at Europe and Scandinavia, our population has really changed. This has given us a richer, livelier set of cultures. And third, you have a shift in the waterfront. Here we have had a broad discussion about what’s called the Fjord City project, which was started by the Oslo Kommune, the local authority. It has convened an organization of planners and given them freedom to investigate how to resolve the functional mix among commercial buildings, dwellings, and green areas.
With an emphasis on the commercial, no?
Correct. In Norway, there has been a tradition in which the government had wide responsibility to make decisions about land use, and it was expected that it should invest in commonly owned areas. This has been transformed in the last 50 years by the shift from the social democratic Norwegian Workers’ Party taking care of everything to power increasingly being in the hands of private investors. With Aker Brygge, nearly the only thing the Kommune did was to devise design guidelines. Private investors put up the money and actually did the thing. In such a situation, the pressure for increased height and fewer common areas is there all the time. You still have a professional bureau that comes up with solutions based on solid planning, but the bad thing is that it doesn’t discuss the consequences of this shift in power between the public and private sectors.
Are people pleased with Aker Brygge?
Aker Brygge, in most respects, is a good project. But after World War II, when the social democratic planners had the power and set priorities, they built a huge project called Groruddalen, which today has some 123,000 inhabitants, where people were given the opportunity to live in cheap, good housing. The older project demonstrates how the local authorities took care to develop housing, schools, and parks for the young and poor, for the workers. Today, as we know, the priorities flow from "How do we attract the rich buyers, how do we earn money?"
Yet the arts remain quite lively—–the opposite of institutional.
Oh, yes. We have an extremely wide, differently shaded music scene. When it comes to art, you can see a lot of things here that are rawer and younger than you see in the rest of Scandinavia. What people find interesting is that we are not well polished. Our society is more informal and therefore offers a richer opportunity for bright persons of all ages to come up with really rude things—–of which there are many.
Building is booming now, but is there a modernist tradition in Oslo? From the 1920s until World War II, Norway had some very good functionalist architects who were inspired by Germany and France at that time and who built mainly villas and smaller buildings. One is the Ekebergrestauranten by Lars Backer, which was built in 1929. It has been restored rather nicely, and it’s a very good restaurant and a fantastic place to view Oslo. If you are interested in architecture from that period, I would give priority to visiting the villas, such as Arne Korsmo’s Villa Stenersen. In contemporary architecture today you have two schools. You have the pupils of Sverre Fehn, who taught many of the best young architects in Norway—–Jan Olav Jensen, Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk, the firm Jarmund/Vignæs, and five or so others—–who have done beautiful, experimental villas and bigger projects outside of Oslo. The other segment—–firms that have been influenced by Rem Koolhaas—–is working with urbanistic questions as its core preoccupation. Space Group and a firm called MMW both work in a tradition where the setting and program reflect broader discussions about a building’s task in the urban fabric. And as they tend to be politically more knowledgable and go into all aspects of transforming cities, I’m optimistic that they can introduce a broader discussion into the process, which so far has been a closed thing between capitalists and bureaucrats.