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Norwegian architecture & design - does it make sense?

Does a specifically Norwegian architecture and design exist? Is there a collective identity which is essentially and tangibly different from that of other nations? Or, as national boundaries seem to dissolve, with trends and products spreading in global waves, is this mainly and outdated discussion put forward just to attract tourists?

A Scandinavian Origin
The term ‘Scandinavian design’ has been widely used and accepted as a valid concept since the exhibition ‘Design from Scandinavia’ opened in New York in 1954. The exhibition stated clearly that such a uniform character exists, admittedly with national accents due to differences in natural surroundings like landscape and climate. The concept was greeted with enthusiasm, not just as a distinctive style but as an expression of a lifestyle. The purity of line, simplicity in execution and economy in the use of materials was interpreted not just as mature modernism but as a genuine interpretation of humanism and social democracy: Chairs in blond wood, glass with bold lines, rugged ceramics, family houses with sparse detailing and spatial openness, schools and health institutions which spoke of informality and care for the individual user. These products may not have signalled a daring aesthetic departure, but they seemed to express an opinion, signalling social values and a philosophy of life which evoked a response in a world of apparently insuperable class barriers, a world of reckless and insatiable consumption and a world of unlimited formal excesses.

The concept of a distinctive Norwegian architecture and design, within the collective concept of Scandinavian design, has always been closely related to the meeting of everyday needs, the respect for the individual and the security of the family home. The influence of royalty, aristocracy and wealth were never dominant in the formation of the Norwegian building culture. It was rather a culture focusing on the home of the nuclear family, offering shelter from a harsh outdoor climate. The home and its products had to be useful, usable, friendly and durable.

Das Kurhaus Bad Gleichenberg, Austria.
Architect Jensen & Skodvin, 2008.
© Jensen & Skodvin

A Position of Freshness & Surprise
Norway was in many ways the junior partner in the Scandinavian group, lacking the star players such as Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen and Bruno Mathsson. Our industry was less developed, our spokesmen perhaps less convincing, our resources spent on promotion less generous. But from this position of unpredictability and informality there emerged an element of surprise, of freshness. Norwegian architecture, perhaps also Norwegian design, is now by many international observers rated as the most creative and freshly radical in all of the Scandinavian countries.

If there can now still be said to exist a definable Norwegian architecture, it can be seen in the details and in the use of materials, much of it natural. It can be observed in the careful use of natural light, an important resource in the long dark seasons. There is perhaps a very close fit for the user, with much care given to the human dimensions. It is an architecture that is no longer principally concerned with the family home; these user-oriented concerns have been moved into areas like hospitals and care centres, schools and universities, cultural institutions, offices and production facilities. A typically low-key political system based on a strong sense of equality and respect for natural resources has given fruitful challenges to those who shape the new environments. Norwegian architects and designers can now, at the best, offer highly original solutions with an attitude of responsibility and ingenuity.

Norwegian architecture and design in the 21st century may be seen as a product of a cross-fertilization of a traditionally-based honest craft tradition and extremely advanced industrial production, based not in the least on the offshore and process industries. In a world apparently obsessed with the mass production of trivia, in which design and the quality of the materials are obliterated by the superfluous, by the half-finished and the borrowed, the Norwegian formgivning (shaping or design) tradition seems capable of offering something genuine and perhaps unexpected which combines honest materials with innovative technical and scientific solutions.

The essential strength of Norwegian architecture and design still lies in its ability to express the egalitarian and democratic ideals in produced form. There is an unbroken thread, from the Arts & Crafts movement and Bauhaus through the trade union movement to the ideals and social reform of the welfare state. The respect for the individual and everyday needs, reflected by many of the young architects in the form of the hospital and the school, the house and the chair seems clear. The distinctive characteristic of what Norwegian architects and designers can offer is thus its combination of a design tradition with social ideals: The exquisite craftsmanship, the simplicity of detail, the sure touch in the overall design, the ecological awareness, the functional clarity, the compliance with ergonomic requirements, the obvious user-friendliness. Such quality may not make a big splash in today’s sensation hungry design press, but it may serve as a valuable anchor in a somewhat chaotic world.

Exhibition pavilion, The National Museum - Architecture in Oslo. Architect Sverre Fehn, 2008.
© The National Museum/Morten Thorkildsen

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