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The changing face of norway - Architecture today

One of the leading architectural historians of the last hundred years, Dr. Spiro Kostof, once remarked that “architecture is a social act and the material theatre of human activity.” The huge success and soaring reputation of Norwegian architects around the globe at the beginning of a new century owes no small thanks to a focus on those two factors. The biggest projects of today, such as the development of the Bjørvika Harbour in Oslo, have been conducted with an eye both to society and democracy, and even to theatre – or perhaps opera – whilst other local and international projects by architects such as Jensen and Skodvin have focused on nature’s own theatre, as illustrated by their designs for the Gudbrandsjuvet waterfall viewing platform and the Juvet Landscape Hotel, deep into the woods.

Architecture in Norway has always had a unique position in Europe. Historically, from the elegant wooden Viking ships and stave churches, Norwegian expertise within wooden structures has remained unprecedented. Furthermore, with a sparse population, the spread of styles which variously flooded Europe – the Baroque, Renaissance and Rococo styles – never impacted to such a degree. Consequently, a new generation of Norwegian architects is today working against the backdrop of a highly individual and adaptable culture with ‘nature’ often the common thread.

Architects and architectural companies such as Brendeland & Kristoffersen, PUSHAK and Kristin Jarmund are among the new stars of a vibrant and sophisticated Norwegian architectural scene. Noteworthy projects reflective of their creativity allied to the modern outlook of society in Norway, include Ivar Lunde and Morten Løvseth’s Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger, Stein Halvorsen and Christian Sundby’s Sami parliament building at Karasjok, in the far north of Norway, and Lund Hagem’s Norwegian Crop Research Institute in Ullensvang, to name but a few. Helen & Hard, founded in 1996, is another of the major success stories – already named by Wallpaper’s 10-year jubilee issue as one of the 50 up-and-coming architect firms in the world. Like many Norwegian companies, sustainability is a key word: Helen & Hard co-operated with the Norwegian petroleum industry in the use of recycled elements from oil products in their housing project ‘Base Camp’ and ‘Geopark’, an activity park for young people.

Add to this list the internationally renowned luminaries that have been producing famous buildings for many years, including Lund & Slaatto and Sverre Fehn, and Niels Torp – whose designs for the buildings of the Aker Brygge area of Oslo have transformed into arguably one of Europe’s most up-market, stylish quaysides - and the picture of a thriving industry is complete.

A ship? An iceberg? Snøhetta’s elegant opera house slopes down to the Oslo fjord – the stage is 16 metres below sea level.
© Trond Isaksen / Statsbygg

The New Norwegian National Opera
It is of little surprise that, during 2008, the architectural scene in Norway has been dominated by the new opera house that rises majestically from the sea at Bjørvika Peninsula in Oslo, as part of a wider development that could, literally, transform the face that Oslo turns outward to the Oslo fjord and the world beyond. The opera house has even been described in some quarters as the most important cultural building on Norwegian soil for close to a thousand years.

The architects, Snøhetta, had already won international acclaim for their Library of Alexandria in Egypt, a commemoration of the ancient library that was once a centre for the world’s knowledge and literature. The Turner Contemporary Museum in England and the National September 11th Memorial Musuem Pavilion at the site of the World Trade Centre in New York are amongst Snøhetta’s other notable achievements.

“Welcome aboard! You have entered a ship – or an iceberg – or both,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre at the opening ceremony. It is not surprising that he should wonder – the National Opera House is a stirring and multi-faceted creation, consisting of white stone, marble, glass and wood – light oak in the foyer and darker oak in the auditorium. With the stage located 16 metres below sea level, the whole building is protected by a massive underwater barrier from damage by the Oslo-Copenhagen car ferry in the event of bad weather. The iceberg analogy is far from misplaced: there is more here than meets the eye. With over eight thousand metres of stage area and close to two thousand seats, 1,578 rooms (not to mention 36,000 marble and granite slabs), this building is a spectacular monument, and “our new national landmark, our international landmark,” in the words of the Minister.

Already the awards have been pouring in: the building was a winner in the “Culture” category of the prestigious World Architecture Festival Awards (WAF Awards) in Barcelona in October 2008. According to the judges, “Oslo Opera House, the anchor project in an urban regeneration scheme, has already proved highly popular with its local community. The building in its scale, ambition and quality has raised the bar for Norwegian architecture.”

Working in wood has been one of Norway’s traditional strengths right back to the Viking times, as the magnificent interior to the new national opera house illustrates.
© Trond Isaksen / Statsbygg

A Building to be Shared
In the words of its designers, the Oslo opera house is a “social democratic monument.” By nature a rather mysterious, even ambiguous description, the concept of a building by the people and for the people is easier to comprehend when seen in the light of the almost extraordinary lengths to which the project has sought to demonstrate inclusiveness at all stages of development. “Eight thousand workers from 600 companies from 25 countries constructed the building,” enthused Støre, adding, “The Opera has opened many doors – also for us – and has literally provided a stage for dialogue and contact across borders.”

The opera house is a truly international project with international appeal – its iconic status could in time even come to rival Sydney. But despite the international focus, there has also been extensive input from dozens of Norwegian companies producing everything from chandeliers to urinals and highlighting the fact that, in this building at least, there is no such thing as the banal –
or the exclusive for that matter. Where else might the public have been invited to view all 350 entries in the search for an architect and contribute to the selection process? Where else might the opening ceremony feature a chorus of 430 amateur singers – one from each municipality in Norway?

The giant chandelier in the opera house auditorium comprises of 5,800 glass elements, supplied by Hadeland Glassverk.
© Trond Isaksen / Statsbygg

The Cream of Norwegian Accessories
Bosvik AS is one of those Norwegian companies invited to play a part in the opera house’s unique brand of “social democracy” – stretching even back to the design stage. Established more than sixty years ago as a supplier of interiors and accessories for the pleasure boat industry, Bosvik has been involved with Snøhetta’s projects before, most notably delivering the reading lamps at the new library at Alexandria. The company is responsible for much of the carpentry at the opera house, including the distinctive wooden “wave walls” and the coat stands in the cloak room. It is rather rare that walking into a toilet could be seriously compared to viewing a work of art, but, typically, the opera house is once again a source of surprises and Bosvik bears the responsibility for it with the supply of a stylish range of steel wash basins and urinals.

Elsewhere in the building, Norwegian expertise has been called upon to cover a wide range of the architects’ requirements. Take, for example, the gigantic centrepiece chandelier – Norway’s largest. Hadeland Glassverk, based at Jevnaker, just north of Oslo is a leading glass designer that also boasts being one of Norway’s most well-regarded tourist attractions owing to its colourful, varied and often innovative designs. Hadeland Glassverk’s chandelier, produced together with Snøhetta, Statsbygg and Art-Tech, is specially designed to act as an acoustic reflector that disperses sound appropriately to enhance the acoustics of the music. The chandelier is the first installation of its type to use light emitting diodes (LEDs) to the extent that it does. Around 8,000 LEDs, together with 5,800 glass elements make up the structure. Hadeland Glassverk is also the supplier of many of the champagne and wine glasses in the opera house.

Some of the other major contracts include electrical systems by Siemens AS, telephony and system control by Profitek Industsri og Offshore AS, gates and special doors by Magmo AS, ironmongery by Trioving AS, cooling systems by Novema Kulde AS and plumbing by Oras AS. In terms of the larger visible elements of the building, ground works and foundations have been covered by Johs. Syltern AS, structure and external walls and rooves by Veidekke Entrepenør AS and internal walls and ceilings, including masonry of walls and stone floors by AF Ragnar Evensen AS.

The New Bjørvika – The Barcode Project
Oslo’s new opera house forms part of a wider development of the harbour area at Bjørvika. Another site with over 200,000 square metres of building space is being developed by Dutch architects MVRDV together with Norwegian firms a-lab and Dark architects. The whole concept revolves around a set of parallel buildings of varying size, shape and function, rather like a “Barcode” – the name of the development. The first building completed is the Price Waterhouse Coopers Norwegian headquarters by a-lab, a twelve floor block with glazing to ensure good lighting all year round. Amongst the other planned buildings is a giant “iceberg”, by Snøhetta. The Barcode Project is also defined by its environmental consciousness – plans for a 70% recycling of waste and the extraction of heat from sea water are high on the list.

Looking to Nature – a Very Norwegian Outlook
Many of Norway’s most prominent architects emphasize the environment and the importance of nature in their projects. Award winning architects Jensen & Skodvin are amongst them. Earlier this year, Jan Olav Jensen and Børre Skodvin won the German Erich Schelling Architecturpreis 2008 to add to a string of others including the Jacob-Prize, awarded by Norsk Form in 2007, and various individual awards such as the Forum Aid award for the Tautra Monastry for Cistercian nuns on Tautra Island in the Trondheimsfjord.

The Juvet Landscape Hotel, together with the viewing platform at Gudbrandsjuvet in the Norddal municipality, highlights the continuing centrality of nature in many Norwegian architectural projects. Hotel rooms at the Juvet hotel are designed so that they form small, independent detached houses with at least one wall made of glass. The view of the dramatic landscape is a key factor in the hotel’s appeal. The viewing platforms and bridges, also constructed by Jensen & Skodvin in different materials according to suitability at each site, allow tourists to safely look out over the spectacular waters beneath and soak in the raw beauty of the gorge.

The Juvet Landscape Hotel is a shining example of the important role nature plays in many Norwegian architectural projects.
© Jensen & Skodvin Architects

Norsk Form – An Invaluable Resource
Established in 1992, Norsk Form is the Norwegian Government’s initiative to enhance the understanding and importance of design and architecture in Norway, with innovation and a strengthened professional and interdisciplinary collaboration an important part of its mission. Aside from organizing awards such as the Jacob-Prize, the most prestigious award within Norwegian architecture and design, Norsk Form uses exhibitions, publications, conferences, media projects and other initiatives to the benefit of the industry.

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