Risky Business: Oslo Redeveloping Harbor

October 29, 2007

by James Murdock

Norway occupies an enviable position: Flush with cash thanks to its oil deposits, the social democracy enjoys universal health care, low unemployment, and a steadily decreasing average number of hours worked per capita. Decorating one’s weekend getaway cottage is a national pastime. The dampening effect that this cushy lifestyle might have on creativity has prompted soul-searching amongst Norway’s architecture community, indicated by the theme of the 2007 Oslo Triennale, “Risk.” The event began in late September with a daylong conference that encouraged designers to push the envelope beyond traditional wood buildings and Scandinavian Modernism; an exhibition and related symposia continue through November 17.

Image: Courtesy SpaceGroup
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The Triennale was curated by Gary Bates, a Delaware native who cut his teeth with OMA in Amsterdam before establishing his own practice, SpaceGroup, in Oslo. During the eight years since, Bates has won increasingly high-profile commissions. His firm is collaborating with REX, the New York City OMA spin-off, on the Deichmanske Library and Stenersen Museum, a 3-million-square-foot cultural complex to be located just behind David Adjaye’s Nobel Peace Center in the heart of Oslo’s harbor. Just west of it, SpaceGroup is designing the redevelopment of Filipstad, a 74-acre container port, into a neighborhood with 6 million square feet of offices, residences, hotels, and parks.

The waterfront on Oslo’s east side is also undergoing regeneration. The city is burying a highway, the E18, and in its place welcoming new offices and hotels. The project’s anchor is nearly finished: Snøhetta’s new National Opera House. For a country that worries it might be risk-averse, this $614 million, 387,500-square-foot performing arts center makes a bold statement. Its marble-clad roof rises from the waters of Oslofjord, forming a ramp on which visitors may walk, wrapping around the lobby and fly tower, then down again, so that it resembles a snow field punctuated by a rocky outcropping. It’s fine if visitors make that visual association, says Snøhetta’s Kjetil Thorsen, but no symbolism was intended: “The space touches the water and the sky, but it’s its own thing.”

Although the Opera House opens next April, 15,000 people previewed its exteriors one day in September. A group of blind persons objected that the roof presents a safety hazard, but Thorsen takes such criticisms in stride. After all, he admits, it’s doubtful that one could realize such a risky public building in an overly litigious country such as the United States.

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