Over the last decade, a generation of Norwegian architects has attracted international attention for work characterised by readable form and simple use of materials. But can we talk about a ‘new Norwegian architecture’, asks Ingerid Helsing Almaas?
The relationship between place and identity has been a central theme for many architects in the late-twentieth century. Critics have analysed this connection in different ways: Christian Norberg-Schulz contributed his speculations on genius loci and Kenneth Frampton introduced ‘critical regionalism’ as a concept anchoring architecture to local conditions and experiences.
But is it really possible to say that the projects built in Norway today have something in common beyond being realised within the same geographic area? Is nationality a meaningful marker of identity for architecture today, or have we reached a point where our physical environment, too, is part of a much larger context?
People are few and far between in Norway, and their image of themselves and each other is naturally coloured by this, even today. The rocky landscape has given Norwegians little to work with, and until oil exploration started in 1970, it was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Today it is one of the richest in the world.
Is this wealth the reason for what can be interpreted as an upswing in Norwegian architecture in the last 15 years? It is hard to imagine that it is irrelevant, but there is nothing to suggest that architecture is high on the list when people decide how to spend money. Construction is the country’s largest industry, measured by number of firms, but 90 per cent of these companies spend less than five per cent of turnover on r&d – which says something about the climate for new ideas.
Architects report that despite the amount of building going on, the conditions for making good architecture in Norway have worsened in the last decade. Increasingly, the building process is focused on financial predictability and standardisation of technical solutions. Few developers have ambitions beyond return on investment. But there are exceptions, and it is these that have earned recent Norwegian architecture its international reputation.
We have no natural inclination in Norway for cultivating the exceptional. Poverty made us practical. The thin spread of the population and scarcity of resources did not make a base for a rich material culture, for big cities or fine universities. What little there is of architecture from the great continental periods – Baroque, Rococo, Regency and Neoclassicism – are local copies of foreign styles.
The industrialisation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, allowed the construction of a respectable number of buildings
that marked a growing national confidence: banks, libraries, hospitals, prisons and railway stations, schools and barracks, theatres and a parliament. Norwegian architecture from this period was not particularly original, and did little to affect the course of architecture in a larger context. And in any case the architects who designed it, like Linstow, Grosch, Schirmer and von Hanno, were mostly born and educated in other European countries.
But when modernism started to question the pompous symmetries and extravagant materiality of the Beaux-Arts period, it had reverberations right into the heart of Scandinavian popular culture, and for once Norway did not lag behind its neighbours. Lars Backer’s Oslo restaurant, Skansen, the first Functionalist building in Norway, was built in 1927, just four years after the publication of Corb’s Vers une Architecture, and three years before the Stockholm exhibition of 1930, the seminal event in the Modern Movement in Scandinavia. Architects like Ove Bang, Gudolf Blakstad and Herman Munthe-Kaas, Nicolai Beer, Leif Grung and Arne Korsmo contributed large and small projects, which are among the best examples of early modern architecture in Europe.
It is questionable whether Modernism represented as total a break from the architecture of the past as the polemic of the time had it, but there is no doubt that ‘Functionalism’ appealed to the practical minds of Norwegian people. Its products and architecture appeared in women’s weeklies, and appealed to the man in the street. And it was the practical aspects of Modernism, rather than its aesthetics, that people could understand. Norwegians felt at home in modernism, which gave moral, social and aesthetic value to what was within most people’s financial reach. When the exhibition Design in Scandinavia (1954) launched the concept of Scandinavian design in the USA, however, aesthetics rather than practicality dominated.
Norwegian post-war architecture follows more or less the same trajectory as that of the rest of the Western world. Architecture was at the service of an industrialised and financially optimised post-war reconstruction, until the increasingly impoverished rationality of late-modernism was obviously no longer capable of answering every question. But while the rest of Europe plunged into postmodernist speculation and frenzied experiment, most Norwegian architects stayed within a largely modernist practice, the Great Norwegian Consensus that ruled most of the twentieth century.
A critical exception was Sverre Fehn, the first Scandinavian to be honoured with the Pritzker Prize. Many Norwegian architects would reject the mention of Fehn’s name in the same sentence as ‘postmodernism’, and there is no doubt that Fehn had his roots in modernism. But from the late 1960s, and particularly in his later works, he takes a narrative, even figurative turn which in Norway has been called ‘poetic modernism’. To my mind this needs to be reassessed as the first Norwegian contribution to postmodernism: a step into a relative or subjective reality where the story, not the function, forms the architecture.
Fehn was professor at the Oslo School of Architecture through most of the latter half of his career, from 1971 to 1995. Through a long period when he built very little, he nonetheless had a great influence on a generation of Norwegian architects as a teacher. The most important aspect of the inherently paradoxical and imprecise designation ‘poetic modernism’ is that it drives a wedge into a modernism which until then had seemed intellectually unassailable. Norwegian architects were bound to notice. And so, from the 1990s, Norwegian architecture seemed to split into several directions. Options opened. A new generation of younger architects appeared around the turn of the millennium, and today the image of Norwegian architecture at home and abroad is a lot more varied. Perhaps there is enough difference in the variety of approaches for us finally to speak of a Norwegian postmodernism. If you can call it Norwegian, that is. There are two things outsiders generally assume characterises the country’s architecture: first, that it has a particularly close relationship with nature, and second, that Norwegian architects are particularly good at building in wood.
It is true that the presence of the untouched landscape characterises most places in Norway, and that wood is a readily available and well-known building material. But despite the unique history of the stave churches and shipbuilding traditions, the assumed glories of Norwegian timber construction quickly fade when compared with achievements elsewhere. Japanese architectural tradition, for example, is infinitely more sophisticated both tectonically and spatially. And the cultivation of the landscape – gardening – was mostly a case of copying foreign styles.
We may return to a closer relationship with nature as resources that once seemed infinite dwindle, and the world shrinks. We do not yet know that will happen to architecture in a shrinking world, but for now, globalisation seems to affect it in several ways. First, it affects the construction industry – industrialised production characterises much of what is built and the same products are sold everywhere. The possibility of locally adapted solutions and traditional crafts have all but disappeared. The economics of most building projects rules out anything but standardised solutions. And second, globalisation affects our architectonic ideals.
Perhaps that has always been the case. Heinrich Ernst Schirmer’s model for his prison in Oslo (1851) was Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Lars Backer’s study trips went from London in 1919 to Italy and France. Christian Norberg-Schulz studied with Sigfried Giedion in Zürich, and had one leg in Italy all his life. Sverre Fehn was fascinated by the American John Hejduk. How meaningful is it to talk of a ‘Norwegian architecture’, when you see all these lines of influence stretching back and forth across the globe?
Many of the practices that form our image of Norwegian architecture today cannot very easily be labelled Norwegian. Snøhetta has offices in Oslo and New York. Snøhetta, Jarmund Vigsnæs, Jensen & Skodvin and others are building outside Norway, both on their own and in collaboration with practices from elsewhere. Are they producing Norwegian architecture? Helen & Hard has one Austrian and one Norwegian partner. Haugen Zohar, a Norwegian and an Israeli. Rintala Eggertsson a Finn and an Icelander, Space Group a Norwegian, a Dane and an American. Are they Norwegian practices? Dahl & Uhre is engaged in urban planning on Greenland. Narud-Stokke-Wiig builds an airport in India. TYIN tegnestue builds in Bangkok (nonetheless, architecture is not a great export industry in Norway – salaries are not globally competitive).
This points to an important fact: The projects presented in exhibitions and publications all over the world as ‘Norwegian architecture’ are the exceptions. About 30 per cent of new buildings in Norway are designed by architects. Most of what is built will never reach any architectural publications. The projects that are singled out are, in one way or another, special. The average client is not particularly ambitious, the average construction budget is not very big, the average builder not particularly innovative nor quality conscious. The projects that are singled out have achieved something despite, not because of, the realities of today’s building industry.
There is reason to remember this when Norwegian authorities pat their own backs for producing an architectural policy, launched in 2010. Architecture.now lists a number of good initiatives and future focus areas. But if the government is serious about implementing its aspirations – that ‘environmentally sustainable and energy efficient solutions should dominate architecture’, that ‘towns and cities should be developed with high quality architecture’, or that ‘the state has to set an example’ – it will take considerably more effort than what we see in an average building project today.
Most of the projects chosen to illustrate architecture.now – the Oslo Opera, the housing at Svartlamoen, Tautra convent and many others – are very special buildings. They have a quality, an architectural clarity, a use of materials which is the result of special rather than conventional circumstances: a particularly ambitious client, a good design competition, a good architect, or builders willing to go to the extra mile to achieve something beyond the ordinary.
There is no doubt that some very good things have been built in recent years in Norway, designed by some very good architects, some of them Norwegian. Some Norwegian architects have built fine things abroad. Rather than attempting to hold these together in empty generalities, we need to look for the specifics. What made this particular project so good? Who took part? What did they do? Would it be possible to recreate those moves elsewhere? Only then will those projects have a value beyond themselves, regardless of where they are built. Only then can you improve the processes by which buildings are made.
The collection of exceptional works presented as the best of Norwegian architecture today is part of an international as much as a national context. How ‘Norwegian’ it is no longer matters Not because the architecture itself has been generalised: on the contrary, an increased focus on local climatic conditions, for example, is increasing the site-specificity of much contemporary architecture. But it is in an international context that these buildings stand out, where they find their models, where they are recognised, where they belong. Our identity is no longer tied to where we are from, or where we build.
Ingerid Helsing Almaas is an architect and editor-in-chief of Arkitektur N, the Norwegian review of architecture. A version of this essay first appeared in the magazine Arkitektur. An exhibition, Contemporary Norwegian Architecture: Landscape and Intervention by Reiulf Ramstad and Jensen & Skodvin, is at the RIBA in London until 15 June.
First published in AT227, April 2012