Norwegian architects have attracted considerable international attention in recent years. New building projects in Norway are regularly presented in international publications, and the work of smaller practices like Element Arkitekter, Tyin tegnestue, Rintala Eggertsson, Haugen Zohar, Code or 3RW hold their own alongside more established names like Snøhetta, Jarmund Vigsnæs, Jensen & Skodvin, Helen & Hard and others.
The most successful of their projects are characterised by readable form, simple use of materials and a clear attitude to landscape as well as social context. Does this mean we can talk about a new Norwegian architecture?
The connection of place and identity has been a central theme for many architects through the latter half of the 20th century. Critics and historians have summarised this connection in different ways: Christian Norberg-Schulz contributed his well-known speculations on genius loci, the spirit of place, and Kenneth Frampton introduced “critical regionalism” as a concept anchoring architecture to local conditions and experiences.
It is always tempting to generalise. But is it really possible to say with any base in fact that the projects being built in Norway today have something in common beyond having been realised within the same geographic area? Is nationality a meaningful marker of identity for architecture in the 21st century, or have we reached a point where our physical environment, too, is part of a much larger context?
There is a country called Norway. It is a small national state at the top of the globe, stretching from its tenuous connection with Europe in the south to the last outpost in the Arctic Ocean to the north. Norway is actually not a small country – in total area a little smaller than Germany, but considerably larger than Britain. The reason why Norway is thought of as a small country is of course that there are not a lot of people in it. We are 12,98 people per square kilometre – while Britain has 255, and Macao or Singapore, for example, 7000 people per square kilometre.
"Until the end of the 19th century, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe."
The last Ice Age left a craggy, barren strip of rocky terrain at the edge of the North Sea, and only 4% of the area of Norway is arable land. Such conditions do not support large populations. People are few and far between in Norway, and their image of themselves and each other is naturally coloured by this, even today. Most places where people live are only a short way from the untouched, stony landscape; even the larger cities. The rocky land has given Norwegians little to work with, historically speaking, and the history of Norway is in many ways the history of poverty, and the struggle to overcome it. Historically, until the end of the 19th century, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe. But no longer. Since the discovery of North Sea oil in 1970, the per capita GNP of the country has increased twentyfold, and for more than a generation Norway has been one of the richest countries in the world.
Is this wealth the reason for what can be seen as an upswing in Norwegian architecture in the last 10-15 years? It is hard to imagine that it would not be relevant. Buildings are expensive. If people didn’t have money, neither the state nor private clients would be able to build. Nonetheless, there is nothing that suggests that architecture has been high on the list when people were deciding how to spend their money. The total turnover of the construction industry in Norway is about 570 billion Norwegian kroner (approx. 99 billion USD), about 15% of the country’s value creation. The oil, by comparison, our black gold, contributes about 22%. Construction is the country’s largest industry, measured in number of companies. Nonetheless, 90% of these companies spend less than 5% of their turnover on research and development, and 24% of them spend nothing. So even if quite a large proportion of what is built, about 30%, is designed by architects, the Norwegian construction industry is not focused on innovation – which says something about the climate for new ideas.
"90% of construction companies spend less than 5% of their turnover on research and development. The Norwegian construction industry is not focused on innovation."
Norwegian 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, a turn which does not leave a lot of room for improving projects through the design development phase. Quality is in most cases kept to the minimum level necessary to satisfy regulations within narrow financial constraints, and few developing clients have ambitions beyond return on investment.
But there are exceptions. And it is perhaps these exceptions that more than anything have earned recent Norwegian architecture the reputation it has today.
We have no culture in Norway for cultivating the exceptional. Poverty made us practical, and Norwegians had to put their energy and their creativity towards solving the many practical problems of life. 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. When Norway finally got its first university in 1811, it was named the Royal Frederik University, after the Danish king Frederik IV – a name that remained until 1939, when it became the University of Oslo. Norway was a supplier of raw materials – of fish, lumber, minerals and metals, and later of hydroelectricity. The refinement of these materials happened elsewhere.
"We have no culture in Norway for cultivating the exceptional. Poverty made us practical."
The nobility that ruled Norway from the Black Death in the 1300’s until its independence in 1814 was either Danish or Swedish, and what little there is of architecture from the great continental periods, from Baroque and Rococo, Regency and Neoclassicism, are local copies of foreign styles. In the same way as the focus of continental architecture was to express wealth and power, we built as much as we could afford – we just couldn’t afford very much. Most people never got to experience any of the splendour of architecture.
With the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, growing profits allowed the construction of a respectable number of buildings that marked a growing national confidence; banks, libraries, hospitals and insane asylums, prisons and railway stations, schools and barracks, universities, theatres and a parliament. The well-ordered world of the growing bourgeoisie displaced the foreign nobles. Many national institutions were founded and made manifest in sturdy, confident buildings modelled on edifices from nations we were keen to emulate. Norwegian architecture from this period was not particularly original, and provided little to affect the course of 19th century architecture in a larger context, and the architects who designed it – like Linstow, Grosch, Schirmer and von Hanno were born and had their education and their inspirations from other European countries.
But it is no accident that when Modernism started to affect architecture, and 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 restaurant, Skansen, which is labelled the first Functionalist building in Norway, was built in Oslo in 1926-27, just three years after the publication of Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture, and three years before the famous Stockholm exhibition in 1930, the seminal event securing 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, from single-family homes to industrial complexes, which can be counted among the best of early modern architecture in Europe. It is doubtful whether Modernism represented as total a break from the architecture of the past that the polemic of the time would have. There are direct lines connecting Schirmer through for example Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson to Bang and Korsmo. But there is no doubt that Functionalism, which was introduced as an industrialised, economical and modern alternative to the elaborate and expensive aesthetics of earlier times, appealed to the practical minds of Norwegian people.
"Functionalism appealed to the practical minds of Norwegian people."
The products and architecture of Functionalism surfaced in women’s weeklies and popular publications, and appealed to the man in the street. And it was the practical aspects of Modernism, rather than its aesthetics, that people could understand. The aesthetic simplicity of furniture and everyday objects signalled something sensible, something most Norwegians could accept, even identify with.
Popular educators like the architect Odd Brochmann made sure that the rhetoric that underpinned this new, practical aesthetic became known. Norwegians felt at home in modernism, which gave moral, social and aesthetic value to what was within most people’s financial reach. The popular press continued to present this modernised reality through the 1920’s and -30’s, and when reconstruction efforts accelerated after the Second World War, architects and designers picked up the same thread.
When the concept ‘Scandinavian design’ was launched with the exhibition “Design in Scandinavia” in the USA in 1954, however, aesthetics rather than practicalities dominated. The exhibition catalogue, interestingly, does not focus on use or economy – the black-and-white images of Scandinavian nature, and the presentation of exclusive handmade artefacts alongside industrial products, make it clear that aesthetic expression is the important thing.
It is the meaning of the simple forms and the natural materials that is emphasised, and both the crafted and the industrial objects take on a representative function, they are symbols of simplicity in an increasingly exclusive market that stretches all the way to the luxury minimalism of today.
The development of Norwegian post-war architecture follows more or less the same trajectory as that of the rest of the Western world. Modernism 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 post-modernist speculation, Norwegian architects held back. While Archigram, Michael Graves, Charles Moore, Leon Krier, Aldo Rossi, Peter Eisenman, Mario Botta, Daniel Libeskind, Coop Himmelblau, James Stirling and many, many others worked their way out of the 1970’s and through the 1980’s with a lust for experimentation unequalled in the history of architecture, very little was happening in Norway.
The only part of European Post-Modernism that reached Norway, was the attempts headed by architects like Krier and Moore to reformulate the vocabulary of form and detail found in Classical architecture. This may be because our two only architectural theoreticians during this period, Christian Norberg-Schulz and in particular Thomas Thiis-Evensen, concentrated their writings on presenting architecture as a language – Norberg-Schulz through an approach rooted in his understanding of Heidegger’s phenomenology, which he described in Genius Loci – Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (1980), and Thiis-Evensen in a kind of architectonic dictionary, Archetypes in Architecture (1987). Only few of the practicing architects of the time followed.
Jan & Jon and Arne Henriksen produced some of the most articulate Norwegian examples of this form of Post-Modernism, but during the 1990’s it became clear that Norway would not see anything approaching the frenzied experimentation that was opening so many doors elsewhere in Europe. Most architects had stayed within a largely modernist practice, the Great Norwegian Consensus that ruled most of the 20th century – the way of doing things that most Norwegian architects have agreed on as sensible, giving results that everyone recognises as good.
But one Norwegian star remained hanging on the international firmament after the post-modernist party died down: Sverre Fehn, who in 1997 was the first Scandinavian to be honoured with the Pritzker Prize. Many Norwegian architects will no doubt reject the mention of Fehn’s name in the same sentence as “post-modernism”, but many stories of Fehn’s career and his work are yet to be written. There is no doubt that Sverre Fehn had his professional roots in Modernism – he visited and studied Le Corbusier and he worked for Jean Prouvé, and his early competition collaborations with Geir Grung fall well within an international modernist idiom. But already from the late 1960’s, and particularly in his later works, he takes a narrative, even figurative turn which in Norway has been called “poetic modernism”, but which to my mind needs to be reassessed as the first Norwegian contribution to architectural post-modernism: a step into a relative or subjective reality where the story, not the function, forms the architecture.
"Sverre Fehn's later work needs to be reassessed as the first Norwegian contribution to architectural post-modernism: a step into a relative reality where the story, not the function, forms the architecture."
Sverre 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 through his work as a teacher. Perhaps it was his language, as it was presented for example in Per Olaf Fjeld’s book The Thought of Construction from 1983, which as much as anything labelled him as a “poetic modernist”. The most important aspect of this inherently paradoxical and imprecise designation 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 1990’s onwards, Norwegian architecture seemed to split into several directions. Options opened. A new growth 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 Post-Modernism.
If you can call it Norwegian, that is.
Nature... and wood
Regarding Norway with foreign eyes, there are two things people generally assume characterises the country’s architecture: Firstly that Norwegian architecture has a particularly close relationship with nature, and secondly 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 where buildings are built, directly or in the form of a beautiful view. And it is true that wood is a readily available and well-known building material, both historically and in today’s construction practice. But despite the unique history of the stave churches and not least Norwegian 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 – Japanese culture developed not only very specialized techniques for working in wood, at both a large and a small scale, they also have a highly developed spatial language for a universe of architectural concepts, for example for negotiating the thresholds between inside and outside.
In Norway, we didn’t get much past punching a hole in the wall to get some light in. And the cultivation of the landscape, gardening, was in Norway mostly a case of copying foreign styles, in the few places people could afford a leisure garden. People in general never got past the flowerpot. So in actual fact, Norwegian architectural tradition does not have a lot to offer – not in our relations with nature, nor in the development of our timber structures.
Today we may be closer to our traditional dependence on nature than at any point during the last three or four centuries. The world has first expanded, as explorations, colonisation and trade increased the reach and the influence of Western culture, and growth seemed to stretch into an infinite future. Now, however, the world is shrinking again with threatening rapidity, as we see the end of many of those seemingly infinite resources. “Globalisation”, we call it, when events on the other side of the globe affect us as much or more than decisions made within our own country, when the food we eat comes from Africa and our clothes from China. We do not yet really know what happens to architecture in a shrinking world.
"Globalisation affects the construction industry, and it affects our architectonic ideals. ... 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?"
For now, globalisation seems to affect architecture in several ways. First, it affects the construction industry. An industrialised building production and construction economy characterises much of what is built, both in the West and in developing countries. The same products are sold everywhere; the market for building materials and elements is global. The possibility of locally adapted solutions and traditional craftsmanship has all but disappeared, and with them an entire spectrum of architectural possibilities. The economy of most building projects rules out anything but standardised solutions. And second, globalisation affects our architectonic ideals.
Perhaps that has always been the case. We are affected by all our experiences, whether at home or abroad. Heinrich Ernst Schirmer’s model for his prison in Oslo (1851) was Jeremy Bentham’s late 18th century panopticon-principle. 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 the characteristics of a “Norwegian architecture”, when you see all these lines of admiration and influence stretching back and forth across the globe?
Many of the practices that dominate our image of Norwegian architecture today, cannot very easily be labelled Norwegian. Snøhetta have offices in both Oslo and New York. Both Snøhetta, Jarmund Vigsnæs, Jensen & Skodvin and several others are building outside Norway, both on their own and in collaboration with practices from other places. Are they producing Norwegian architecture? Helen & Hard have one Austrian and one Norwegian partner. Haugen Zohar, one Norwegian and one Israeli. Rintala Eggertsson a Finn and an Icelander, Space Group a Norwegian, a Dane and an American. Are they Norwegian practices? Dahl & Uhre in Tromsø are engaged in urban planning on Greenland. Kristin Jarmund teaches master classes for Mexican architecture students. Narud-Stokke-Wiig builds an airport in India. Tyin tegnestue builds in the centre of Bangkok. Space Group are redesigning a town in Kentucky. Nonetheless, architectural design is not a great export industry in Norway, and so far, initiatives to help Norwegian architects establish a market for their services abroad have been unsuccessful – Norwegian salaries are not competitive in a global market.
"The projects that are singled out and presented in exhibitions and publications all over the world as “Norwegian architecture” are the exceptions."
This points to an important fact: The projects that are singled out and presented in exhibitions and publications all over the world as “Norwegian architecture” are the exceptions. About 30% of new buildings in Norway today are designed by architects. Seen in a global context where only 2% of buildings are designed by architects, this is high, but it is low compared to how much is being built in Norway. Most of what is built will never reach any architectural publications. The projects that are singled out are projects that, in one way or another, are special. The average client in Norway is not particularly ambitious, the average construction budget is not very big, the average builder not particularly innovative or quality conscious. The projects that are singled out to represent “Norwegian architecture today” have achieved something despite, not because of, the realities of today’s building industry in Norway.
There is reason to remember this when Norwegian authorities pat their own backs for producing an architectural policy, which was launched in 2010 in the form of a document entitled architecture.now.
The document is a fine summary of many aspects of the status quo; it lists a number of good initiatives and future focus areas. But if the government is serious about implementing the aspirations in the chapter headings, 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 in Norway today, whether state-funded or private. “Good architecture will improve our quality of life”, is one of the statements under the heading “Vision”. We have a long way to go.
Most of the projects chosen to illustrate architecture.now – the Oslo Opera, Preikestolen Mountain Lodge, I-BOX passive energy experiment in Tromsø, the housing at Svartlamoen, Tautra convent, the Hamsun Centre, Solbergplassen lookout, Mortensrud Church and many others – are very special buildings. They have a quality, an architectural clarity, a use of materials which are the results of special rather than conventional circumstances. Perhaps they had a particularly ambitious client, a good design competition programme, a good architect, particularly skilled engineers, or builders willing to go to that extra length to achieve something beyond the ordinary.
It seems meaningless to try to summarise or generalise a development on the basis of a more or less random picking of such exceptions. Some very good things have been built in recent years in the country called Norway. They have been designed by some very good architects, some of them Norwegian. Some Norwegian architects have built some fine things abroad, and some foreign architects have built some fine things in Norway. 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 somewhere else? Only then will those projects have a value beyond themselves, regardless of where in the world they have been built. Only then can you improve the processes by which buildings are made, and form the policies, the regulations and the economy that are the framework for today’s architecture. That might give an architectural policy built on experience, not just on intentions.
"Rather than attempting to hold these together in empty generalities, we need to look for the specifics. What made this particular project so good?"
It is a paradox that in a world where more and more connections are made across national borders, we still approach the unfamiliar with suspicion.
We can meet strangeness and unfamiliarity in many ways. We can deny it, we can recognise aspects of it and so absorb it without being affected, or we can meet it with curiosity, a curiosity that might even grow into admiration. Admiration can change us. When we see the best of what others have done, we also glimpse the possibility that we could achieve the same. Admiration is the antidote to exclusivity, to national chauvinism, to self-importance.
The collection of exceptions that we list 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 making much of contemporary architecture increasingly site-specific. But it is in an international context that these buildings stand out. It is there that they find their models, that is where they get attention, where they are recognised, where they belong.
"This is what we have to look forward to as the world gets smaller: The possibility of being at home in many different contexts. Our identity is no longer just tied to where we are from."
This is what we have to look forward to as the world gets smaller: The possibility of being at home in many different contexts. Our identity is no longer tied to where we are from, or where we build; and it is not a completed picture. Identity in a globalised world is the histories each of us gather as we pass; identity is in the traces of all the individuals that make up a nation, or the trace of a single individual as it crosses and re-crosses the boundaries of this world.
This essay was first presented in the Swedish magazine Arkitektur. Translation by the author.