Things Seen in Oslo

Munch still packs them in at the National Gallery.
When I visited Oslo in May 2011, the landscape architect Jøstein Bjørbekk took me around the east waterfront, which he and his firm had a role in planning. We spent most our time at the new Opera House and then at Akke Brygge, an expansive redevelopment of an industrial and docklands area adjoining the ferry slips near Oslo City Hall.
The new Opera House by Snøhetta.

Before I met up with Bjørbekk, my cousin Helge explained—as we looked out from Ekeberg, a hillside restaurant that has commanding view of the harbor—that Oslo was forcibly moved from the east to the west side of Akershus, the fortress that guards the city, after one of Norway’s Danish kings tire of the fires that regularly swept through the town. Five years later, revisiting the city, I took the train from the airport to National Theater, a station that’s in walking distance of Akke Brygge

There’s so much new construction that it took me a while to spot familiar landmarks nearer to where the ferry to Nesodden docks. But I found it, stopping to have a coffee before the next ferry arrived. I noticed immediately that the building housing the café was different than I remembered. Bjørbekk told me later that it was replaced as part of the expansion that was in planning in 2011.

Two paintings by Harriet Backer that I've always liked.
Owing to the long weekend and my cousin Elsie’s funeral, I didn’t make it back to Oslo until five days later. I went first to the National Gallery, a favorite destination. There are plans to replace it with a new building closer to Akke Brygge. Meanwhile, the collection has been “improved” by organizing the work thematically instead of chronologically. Of course, there’s still a rough chronology, but it has changed the character of most of the galleries and reduced the amount of work on display. The old ordering made it possible to appreciate how artists of the same period develop separately and yet together. That contrast is useful, because every period includes its outliers. It also gives the unfolding work a broader narrative—in particular, about how art abandoned history and then the figure in the decades from the mid-19th century to the 1920s, roughly. 

Approaching the Astrup Fearnley Museum from the north.
Leaving the National Gallery, I walked through the National Theater end of the long park that’s fronted by the Parliament Building on the other end, and then made my way to Akke Brygge. Its expansion includes a lengthy promenade along the waterfront, ending in the new Astrup Fearnley Museum, designed by Renzo Piano and his workshop. It has two parts—one along the water, the other loosely attached to an apartment block that somewhat overshadows it. The collections are on the landside, while a bookstore, ticket kiosk, and café hug the water. This is a private museum with an eclectic contemporary collection—a mix of international “names” and less well-known artists nearer to home. 

Looking south from the upstairs gallery at the Astrup Fearnley Museum.
Piano and his workshop have done their best with a constricted site, organizing long galleries that sometimes dead-end and other times open out to the harbor or back to the town. I’m guessing that it was designed just before or around the same time as the new Whitney, and they share an interest in making the view part of the gallery experience.   

Detail of Akke Brygge, giving a sense of its density.
Akke Brygge proper may now be too dense. The promenade sports a number of restaurants with outdoor terraces—the most interesting are closer to the Town Hall end. Its design, including new bridges and places to get down the water, is very good. The buildings share a similar height and bulk, which makes for a less convincing whole. Efforts to differentiate them only create visual cacophony. 

The Bar Code seen from the Opera House.
On my return visit to meet up with Jøstein Bjørbekk, he came to the ferry and we took a quick look at Akke Brygge. Then we drove over the east waterfront to look at two areas that were just beginning construction when we saw them in 2011. The Bar Code is an assemblage of office buildings, closely spaced along the south side of the track way east of Oslo’s Central Station. 

Jøstein Bjørbekk crossing over the trackway. There's a Michelin-starred restaurant in the office building ahead - we were offered a rare table for two for lunch, which we declined.
Two new pedestrian bridges reconnect the two sides, and there are some new buildings there, too—one with a Michelin three-star restaurant, Maaemo.

One of the interior east-west passages under a Bar Code building.
Each Bar Code building is by a different architect. The packed nature of the site is relieved by its considerable porosity, with east-west paths linking it up and wider north-south paths providing multiple ways in and through. For a purely commercial project, the Bar Code is thoughtfully done. That care keeps it from feeling overwhelming, despite its density.

New housing in Bjørvika with a view of the harbor from an inner courtyard.
Along the harbor proper is the emerging new Bjørvika district that includes the new Opera House. Adjoining it to the southeast will be a replacement Munch Museum designed by Juan Herreros—a controversial, 12-story scheme with a three-story podium. (The original Munch Museum, which opened in 1963 in the Tøyen area of the city, was designed by Einar Myklebust and Gunnar Fougner.) 
Housing on pilotis to give a view of the harbor and promenade from a courtyard.
South of the museum site is a former shipping pier, long and wide, that has been completely redeveloped as a residential neighborhood. Bjørbekk and I spent most our time here, admiring the variety of housing types and the skillful integration of interior courtyards, walkways, waterside promenades, and places for recreation and events. The scale is looser and less intensive than Akke Brygge, with great use of the harbor itself as an amenity, since this is a fjord where people can safely swim. 

The swimming pool that uses the fjord for water.

The recreation event, in an area that looks over to the still-active harbor.
It was the weekend, and the Oslo “commune” had organized a festival of recreational events. Two food trucks augmented the on-site restaurant to serve the crowd. At the southeast corner of the former pier, an outdoor swimming pool has been created in the fjord itself, complete with lanes. At the other end, there’s a sheltered place to launch kayaks. Along the whole expanse, set apart from the housing rather than letting it hog the view, there’s ample room for outdoor life that makes full use of the fjord—a pattern that is typical of the region. That it’s shared with the community at large is a good thing.
Jøstein Bjørbekk with one of his Harbor Promenade markers.
Another promenade marker near the recreational event area.
While we were walking around Bjørvika, Bjørbekk pointed out one of his most recent projects, a series of orange markers, made from different parts of shipping containers, that denote a walking route one can take from one end of the harbor to the other. Each marker picks up on its setting, mixing super-graphics and other details to set it in place.

The Ekeberg restaurant terrace and view.
View from the path in the Ekeberg sculpture park.

We then left the harbor and drove up to Ekeberg, a restaurant and sculpture park that’s the brainchild of Christian Ringnes, a wealthy entrepreneur. Designed in the international style by Lars Backer in the late 1920s, the restaurant fell into disrepair, but was rescued and restored by Ringnes. It anchors Ekeberg Park, a vast woodland owned by the Oslo “commune” that Ringnes has filled with his sculpture collection. Bjørbekk and his firm worked on it as planners and landscape architects. The result is quite beautiful, setting the art within in nature in a way that never feels intrusive, but which also allows the work to find its own places in this unhurried, essentially natural setting.

Damian Hirst sculpture at the former German cemetery in Ekeberg Park.

I’m not that fond of Damian Hirst’s work, but his riff on the death sculpture that adorns many Victorian-era graveyards is entirely right for one part of the park that was the German cemetery during World War II. The dead were reburied elsewhere in Oslo, but the place has been recast to recover that history. “The dead are the dead,” Manfred Rommel said as he granted permission for the proper burial of Andreas Baader and others of Red Army Faction. I was reminded of his remark when I saw this.


  1. Wonderful account of your experience in Oslo. Thank you for sharing!


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