Published in Damn magazine 2011 www.damnmagazine.net/
By Halvor Weider Ellefsen
Oslo, August 2011: I meet Julien De Smedt (JDS) of JDS architects, Gary Bates (GB) of Space Group and Kjetil Trædal Thorsen (KTT) of Snøhetta at the Oslo Opera, facing Monica Bonvicini’s sculpture ‘She Lies’ floating in the harbour.
KTT: Everyone who comes here think they have to play on the ice-theme, but this has not anything to do with ice. JDS: But certainly, you have your white monument here too, no?
KTT: Yes, but this is a white shirt, you can see how it’s folded, it’s a shirt ready to get stored! GB: I always said that the hardest thing to find is a perfect white shirt…
Scene 1: Vertical horizons
Location: The Norwegian Opera rooftop, Oslo. Architect: Snøhetta
HWE: Julien, although familiar with the Norwegian context, JDS architects are not Oslo based. How do you see the 1 million m2 Bjørvika development with foreign eyes?
JDS: What is remarkable about this intervention is the fact that it‘s so massive. We don’t see the extent of it at this point, but basically it means that the Opera building becomes extremely important as a void within a newly constructed borough.
HWE: The opera can also be seen partly as a justification of the speculative developments of the ‘Barcode’ buildings currently being built in the area. First Snøhetta made the Opera, and now you are building a speculative tower in its close vicinity?
KTT: Well, culture is always used to justify speculative development of urban sites. And while culture is horizontal, commercial is always vertical.
GB: I think it’s a question of density, and today we have a much more prolific discussion on density than we had 15 years ago when we all were looking at quantifications. In Norway you have space to justify horizontal cultural occupation, but what about other places in the world, like Holland?
JDS: Interestingly, when it comes to the Opera, there are in reality no tools to quantify the density of the building. It’s a place for glorifying the arts, yes, but much more than that it’s a public space, and when you bring that into the equation, you blow the system of quantification.
KTT: I think the horizontality of cultural buildings is tied to its level of public availability. I foresee that in the future, public architecture will function more like parks, whereas commercial architecture needs smaller footprints and increased density in order to earn money.
HWE: But do you assent with the tendency that the institutional architecture that populates the Oslo harbour front becomes main carriers of public life, while the general building mass like the barcode mostly services accountancy firms?
KTT: One of the big problems of European urban development is that every square meter is sold at the same rates. But in large-scale urban developments you have to offer a variety of costs. So yes, these buildings have a major job to do, providing the public with spaces they don’t have to pay for.
JDS: This brings us to the prospect of the 200 000 new inhabitants Oslo is facing the next 20 years. We all believe in densifying cities, but what to do in Oslo?
KKT: There is a natural aspect of using what you already have. Utilizing the long waterline is a unique situation for Oslo, but what kind of qualities do you provide, and for how far into the future?
GB: Frankly, the general new housing stock in Oslo is not exceptional. There are not really a lot of interesting living conditions offered here. And the risk of the waterfront being developed is that it becomes monochromatic ghettos consisting of people in their ‘silver years’. But there are ways to resist gentrification, one of which is through public programs. The Opera creates a differential space, showing that architecture can influence gentrification.
Scene 2: Ménage à trois
Location: Oslo Central Station area, to be reconfigured and expanded by 2020. Architect: Space Group
GB: The Oslo central station is like stations everywhere; they bloat and expand until some moment where the spillage is uncontrollable. We had an approach where we needed to sort through the different identities and instead create radically different conditions.
JDS: I think this hyper-central node of access at the bottom of the valley is a nice feature of Oslo. For me, it represents an immediate injection to the city. But it could be interesting if we saw a more mixed program in its core spaces. Right now you get the sense that there is a lack of residential programs in the area?
GB: It’s an interesting thought. But actually, there is massive housing in the area ‘Stiklestadskvartalet’ just north of here, although it probably is a disaster in contemporary housing planning.
HWE: The housing you refer to across the pedestrian bridge of Bjørvika has a different character all together than what is found in the harbour areas we just left?
KTT: There is a lack of mix there. The question is how to budget buildings with mixed functions? Maybe with the politics of sites, basically by distribution of sites subscribing space to each plot. Maybe it’s the mistake of the site more than the architecture.
JDS: we must be careful not to criticise something because it’s not appealing to us as architects. First time coming here, I think it has a blend of converted pseudo-romantic industrial buildings and squares that are lively. But if I look down the alley, I just see more of the same.
GB: The question is, can you do cheap places well? There are a million examples of it, the cost does not necessarily decide whether it’s good or not.
JDS: Most significant in Holland is that the need for density due to shortage of space has created the demand for complexity and inventiveness.
GB: And lets be frank, there are 4 companies doing all these projects in Norway. They now how to get it done and there is no competition in this market. In Holland you can still be 30 and build these places. Why not here?
KKT: We don’t have a structured development of young architects at all. They seem to be commercially too important for the client to take any type of risk.
JDS: That is a typical misunderstanding of the cost of architecture. If you don’t repeat something you have done already 12 times its going to be more expensive, while by rethinking your plan and innovate you are more likely to earn more money.
GB: How do we get the maximum number of ideas on the table? We have the substructure here to support ideas, and hopefully the climate for innovation is changing. The security net here is the biggest in the world, so the potentials for taking risks are enormous.
JDS: Now my opinion of Norway has evolved, but from the outside, it looks like the richest country in the world is the richest because it does not spend money! In a way this is partially true as not enough is invested in innovation. We did twelve competitions in Norway before we won Holmenkollen. Seeing the ones we lost, they were always cultural projects of innovation, and always the projects selected were painfully conservative.
HWE: But how do we nurture such innovation?
GB: It’s the ménage à trois that is missing, I think: The university-government-profession-link. While the architectural universities are incredibly important, they are also far too passive.
Scene 3: Slow cooking
Location: The Royal Lounge, Holmenkollen Ski Jump. Architect: JDS architects.
JDS: As a foreigner, I never really fully understood or manage to grasp the extent of it. Is it really so that this location has such a strong meaning for people?
KTT: It does not only have a meaning, it’s mythical, deeply rooted in the Norwegian soul. We have other symbols as well, but they are often related to landscape, like the ‘Prekestolen’ cliff.
JDS: So is Holmenkollen the manmade version of Prekestolen?
KTT: This is Oslo’s representation of us discovering the North Pole; this is like a primal scream!
HWE: Symbolism aside, what about the budget?
GB: Well, although most of the budget went to infrastructural work, we in the jury knew from the start that the budget never would hold water. But in the end, there is an imperative: Holmenkollen had to happen! KTT: I think there should have been less compromise, but all together it’s a wonderful construction. And this whole thing about why is it only 85 % finished is less about money and more about attitude. It’s not what you do, but how you do it.
HWE: In the perspective of this discussion and all the collapsed competition-projects in Oslo the last decade, how can we better facilitate architectural production in the future?
JDS: One thing I heard after the world championship was that Holmenkollen came in a string of dramatic losses terms of architectural competitions, so people were glad on behalf of the profession that the project was built and became a powerful and positive outcome example.
GB: In the consensus society the architectural process is always going to be difficult. Such commissions demand singular individuals and ownership, which too seldom is the case in Oslo. In any event, projects need clients, someone than can fight for the architecture as much as the architects them selves.
KTT: At the same time open-ended compromises is regarded as a virtue in Norway, which means that you postpone the decisions until it’s absolutely necessary. The result becomes unpredictable.
GB: In that respect, I would argue for the ‘culture of slow cooking’: In terms of urbanism and planning in Oslo, the virtue is that if you have the patience and resources, you can facilitate a process that will get the right people and discussions on the table sooner or later. The question is if you have good enough choreographer to lead it.
KTT: But one thing you need to take into account when you do slow cooking is low temperature! You cannot have a heated commercial market happening within a slow cooking urban development. If there is a disparity between the eagerness of the commercial world and the slowness of the political world, they will never match…
Julien De Smedt is founder and director of JDS architects that recently built the new Holmenkollen Ski Jump in Oslo.
Gary Bates is co-founder of Space Group that currently is drawing the New Oslo Central Station to be completed in 2020.
Kjetil T Thorsen is founder and director of Snøhetta that built the Oslo National Opera.
Halvor W Ellefsen is an architect and PhD-student at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design