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Norway

By Leo Gullbring
Things move fast in Norway. Only fifty years ago Oslo celebrated its 900th anniversary, and then this very year it is time for the 1000-year Jubilee. The same queer relationship to time is mirrored in how fast the country has been in adopting new architectural paradigms in vogue. Along the streets of Oslo you find beautiful examples of classicism, of romanticism mingling with clear-cut artifacts of early modernism and functionalism. The reason is that Norway, formerly ruled by Danes and then Swedes until a mere hundred years ago, got their own architectural education as late as the second decade of the last century. When the new movements hit Norway, they subsequently met with no resistance. The most exhilarating place might be the House of the Artists from the ’20s. The interesting blend of neoclassicism and functionalism stems from two winning entries showing both the old and the new style in the publicly announced architectural competition by architects Blakstad and Munthe-Kaas, both projects were pertinent to the final design.


    

Now one might wonder if the booming oil-economy has been favourable to the enhancement of design and architecture in Norway? It’s hard to tell, but maybe Peter Cook is right when he says that ’the younger architects seems to get away with it’. Quite a few projects has been commissioned among young architectural practices lately, and some fundamental change seems to be at hand. The reason is not only this distanced relation to history, which is quite uncommon in Europe, the Government has also taken to a responsible approach, which has among other things resulted in many open competitions. But in comparison to the other Nordic countries, architecture and design have had a hard way to be acknowledged in this rocky and sparsely populated country. Although a skilful and poetic architect like Sverre Fehn has been awarded the Pritzker prize and is well known internationally, he has completed few buildings in Norway.

Despite these shortcomings the young office Snøhetta boosted the fame of Norwegian design and architecture internationally when they unexpectedly won the competition for a new library in Alexandria, Egypt, 1989. The original design was not only a brilliant architectural concept, it was also the result of a indigenous way of work ahead of time. After working hard on the entry in Oslo, all CAD-drawings were e-mailed to a second team placed in Los Angeles. This play with time-zones gave Snøhetta twice as much time at their disposal. This acclaimed design have created a strong opportunity to change the image of Norwegian design and architecture. With Åse Kleveland as a fresh face among the ministers of the ’91 government of Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway became a forerunner of Tony Blair. The newly appointed culture minister made the Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer 1994 a showcase of good design, where the advertising for once came in second place after aesthetic considerations. The aim was ’a Norwegian frame without luxury, but with architectural and design qualities.’ This policy where further enhanced when the Gardermoen Airport was built. Although regional conflicts resulted in a miserable location in regard to climatic conditions, which plays quite an essential part in air traffic, a set of design manuals assured that ’good design’ prevailed when the parliament replaced the proposed steel construction for Norwegian materials like stone and wood. (Even the design of gas-stations were the subject for special care.) This was of course not entirely unproblematic, as Craig Dykers of Snøhetta points out: ’aesthetics are the result, not the tool’.

Accordingly Norway today struggles to find it’s own profile in a global world where frontiers has acquired a new meaning, and where cross-cultural globalisation is the theme of the day. As in the other Scandinavian countries, Norway is known for its openness, for political compromise and transparency. Much of Norwegian architecture and design is about translating these ideals into finished products. Einar Vigsnæs of Jarmund & Vigsnæs argues that some Norwegians are influenced by the detailed perfectionism of the Danes and the Swiss, while other are more inclined to go for the conceptual approach of the Dutch, a far more lucky approach. But the geography itself plays an important role, where Holland has no nature to contend with, Norway’s scarce population has a strong relation to mountains and fjords. The lack of distinct history takes its toll, which is shown in an almost puritan return to purist modernism. Among the best examples are Jensen & Skodvig low-profile work, which excels in this typical Norwegian manipulation of the relationship between landscape and architecture.

Maybe some loosing up of barriers among professions is needed. And sometimes, as the recent exhibition Momentum 2000 in the little township Moss showed, it’s hard to draw an exact line between art, architecture and design. Marc Newson’s new bicycle, is it pure design? And artist Garde Eide Einarssons white bathing platform is that a minimalistic sculpture or what? Do we really want to make that distinction anyway? One might rebut that art is not meant to be used, it’s there to question, to provoke. But artist wants to be part of society, the martyrdom of always stand outside is not that fun all the time. And even if architects and designers not always does it, their real want is to both serve and rebel, to stick needles in the bourgeois flesh and questions the fictive conventions of our world.

Obviously thne booming oil-economy can be seen as both a benefactor and an obstacle to the development of Norwegian design and architecture. What to do with such a vast amount of money? A lot of restaurant and bars are popping up, some extravagantly luxurious as ’Oro’ and ’Magma’ (conceived by the owners of Pharmacy in London, who sold out to Belgo), a lot with names like ’bar & restaurant’, ’café con bar’ and so forth, which clearly shows that the minimalist attitude lets the names suffer. These places are often way too elegant, no wonder you would rather go to older and more individualistic places like Clodio, Coco Vica and Kokobella. Why is there no place sporting an interior with sensuous but nonetheless rebellish interior-items, like that table in concrete made by Camilla Luihn for the Form 2000 exhibition.


Photos
Camilla Luihn’s table in concrete sports a sensuous freshness. These organic shapes is both a critic of eating behaviours too fast and sloppy, while also clinical in a unnerving sense, questioning our contemporary relation to food and nurturing.

The design scheme for the new library of Alexandria placed Norway on the international architectural map

UPP   Tillbaka

2001 Calimero, published in Frame, 2000