"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.
New York contributing editor Marc Kristal found himself overwhelmed not only by the urbanistic pleasures of Bordeaux, France- which dueled for his attention with the city's historic architectural legacy- but by what architect Olivier Brochet described as the region's special appreciation of l'art de vivre. Back home, Kristal is working with the Alliance for Downtown New York, documenting a six-month planning study of the Greenwich South district, just below the World Trade Center site.