Norway: A Goldmine of Architecture
I am the 2015 Chair of the American Institute of Architects Committee On Design (AIA-COD). COD’s mission is to promote design excellence among our members, the broader design community, and the public at large, both nationally and internationally. Every year we organize two conferences, one inside the United States and one internationally, to discover new design in different places.
Our itineraries include visiting historical structures, looking at details such as furniture, landscapes and learning about urban planning, although we mostly visit buildings–all kinds of buildings because COD members design everything from houses to skyscrapers, churches, museums, universities, hospitals and airports, to name a few.
In June we held a nine-day ‘sold-out’ conference to visit and explore Norwegian architecture designed by Norwegian architects. Through our own research, and help from Norske Arkitekters Landsforbund, we set an itinerary to visit some the most influential architecture in Oslo, Bergen, and Stavanger. We visited highlights of historical architecture, (the Hedmark Museum, a Stave Church, the Oslo Town Hall, a preserved farm with Jæren houses) but our primary aim was to learn from local architects by visiting their new projects.
Why did we go to Norway?
Our original intent was to visit Norway and Sweden, having already held conferences in Finland and Denmark. We knew of a few Norwegian projects through international publications. We had seen some of the tourist destination projects, and Snøhetta’s, Oslo Opera House of course and we knew of Oslo-based Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter – who was selected as the 2015 world’s best architecture firm, for work primarily in Norway, by a panel of 300 international judges. We also had met Oslo architect Kristin Jarmund on the occasion of her Honorary Fellowship in the AIA.
We were happily surprised when we started to research what we might visit in Norway to discover that there were so many architects producing high-level architecture. These local architects, some are native Norwegians and others who have made Norway their home, are creating buildings that would inspire even well-traveled and seasoned architects. We felt like we had discovered a ‘gold mine’ of great architects and quickly determined we would not have time to visit Sweden.
What inspired us – what did we learn?
What was especially inspiring is how the tremendous care in designing buildings was applied to so many different types of buildings – offices, schools, churches, houses, multi-family housing, fire stations, even toilet rooms at highway rest stops. There is clearly support in the public and private sectors for carefully crafted buildings.
We found enormous thought, and energy was used to fit each of the buildings we visited into the landscape or a neighborhood. They were inventive and inspiring in their forms and details to be sure, but seldom felt like standalone, alien objects.
As the world of architecture is becoming ever more homogenized, these buildings showed us it is possible to create inspiring new designs that remain rooted to where they are-the history of the place. We were inspired that the use of new materials, details, and forms was influenced more by making a project durable and treading lightly on the landscape than some abstract formalistic gymnastic.
Moreover, the buildings were comfortable – very comfortable. Wood and warm materials seem to be the norm; natural light and views were carefully captured, and breaking down the scale of large pieces with interesting details all added to this sense of comfort.
Perhaps this last impression is a leap on my part – the architecture conveyed a culture of strong individuals who are modest enough to work with others. When seen through its best architecture, Norway’s DNA seems to have a great balance between individual and community needs. It will be interesting to see how that evolves as Norway becomes increasingly international. I suspect, and hope, that core value will continue; it is too good to lose.
The challenges I see
As your cities grow, the challenge will be to maintain the intimate livable quality we found in so much of your architecture. This is not a unique problem to Norway but I think you have some choices:
I think you should avoid high-rise buildings – don’t go over 8-10 stories, it is isolating and destroys a sense of community. A great place to learn from about balancing density with a human-scaled environment is Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Turn existing places within the cities into mixed-use communities. We saw very interesting communities developing such as the Vulkan neighborhood in Oslo and the area around the Oransjeriet and Tou Brewery in Stavanger. We wondered, if in time, a similar community would develop around the Høgskolen Technical University in Bergen.
Think about how to further limit cars in cities and concentrating parking as in Bergen or by putting parking underground – you have a proven expertise in building tunnels.
Protect corridors of land by designating non-developed areas as you have around Oslo and Bergen. In turn, connect existing green spaces wherever possible to create greenways – we saw this strong idea presented by young architects and planners in Oslo.
Lastly, help small towns flourish to take pressure off the larger cities. This approach of nurturing small communities to become vibrant commercial, cultural, social centers is beginning to succeed throughout the United States. These communities are no longer isolated because of improved transportation and the Internet.
As I noted above, Norwegian buildings fit the environment in a beautiful and spiritual way. However, an idea we learned from Ingerid Helsing Almaas, MNAL, one of your most knowledgeable architecture critics, is that you need to strive for actual sustainability. You should let the drive for energy efficiency and the sustainable use of materials to influence the form and details of your buildings. We saw the start of this in a few projects we visited but it is still in its infancy. You have the creative energy and, unlike the United States alas, the collective ability it will take to invent new materials and systems to help achieve this.
I think architects in Norway are among the world’s leaders in architectural design. Their values are increasingly relevant to all of us. I encourage the country to help that flourish by supporting your talent, especially the up-and-coming generations. It speaks volumes about your country; I can’t think of a more positive way to project Norwegian values to the world. Learn from outside Norway but support your local talent to keep showing us a positive way forward.