A nine kilometre walk (or bike tour) through what is becoming the new and fancy Oslo. Not quite fancy just yet, though – and that’s part of its gritty charm, starting from Frognerkilen, the bay of Bygdø peninsula in the west, or Kongshavn, the container port below Nordstrand in the east.
OK, let’s start in the west – from Bygdø and next to the King’s farm, stroll along the not-so-nice E18 highway past the yacht club Kongen (The King). Like yin to its yang, Kongen is overlooking Dronningen (the Queen) – its’ better half (and better yacht club) - on the other side of the bay, at Bygdø Penninsula. They’re both designed in the same period, in the late 20’s: the former in Neo-Baroque kitsch, the latter in a modern style. Eat a meatball or two at Kongen Restaurant or drink an umbrella-cocktail or five next door at the Trinidadian’esque harbour café, Kongen Marina. This is the most unequivocal spot in the city to ask the question: “Is it rolling, Bob?”
Zone out, zoom in and walk further east past the ferry that goes to Kiel, Germany, and the dock area Filipstad, which by 2030 will be developed into a 450,000 square metre shiny dockland bling. The owners, the port authorities, real wordsmiths as they are (after some bottles of Amarone wine), have coined the area The Hans Jaeger quarter, named after Oslo’s most (in)famous bohemian, the bronchitis-ridden, whorehouse-addicted, syphilis-infected Hans Jaeger. Picking fights with anyone stingy with the absinthe (and that included Munch and Ibsen), he’s Norway’s very own Charlie Sheen. However benighted the port authorities may well be, naming the place after a guy who, if he was still alive, would never be allowed into this soon-to-be privatized urban space, they do have a point in the fact that Hans Jaeger did hold fort in a brothel not far from here in the late 1890’s. Historical ignorance and selective truth-telling is always fun, and I would therefore argue it’s pinnacle to put up a seafood and absinthe bar in this area called Oda’s Oyster, in homage to Mr Jaeger and his favourite muse. (Kids, do yourselves a favour: Google Oda Krogh).
From Filipstad, promenade over to the newly redeveloped Tjuvholmen (Thief Island – they once sent thieves out here to recapitulate and regroup). The master plan for this well-heeled area is by Norwegian sailor (and renowned architect) Niels Torp, whose ambition was to replicate those cute villages by the fjord south of Oslo, in a big scale. It’s his office complexes that have given him international acclaim, especially the British Airways Headquarters Waterside (1989). Take a pit stop at Astrup Fearnley Museum, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, it’s feinschmecker cafe and bar, Vingen, and the tiny park in front, which is smaller than a mosquito’s tweeter. This is generously for the public to use, as long as they leave before 8pm. (Don’t know exactly how long Ordinary Joe can hang out here before a rent-a-cop kicks them out. Why not see for yourself, if you consider yourself an Ordinary Joe? No pain, no gain.) The place has got a great view of the Oslo harbour. Check out the sailing yacht docked by the pier in front of the park, the only boat there, owned by the entrepreneur of Thief Island himself. It’s designed by Piano, the dude behind the museum, and therefore defined as an art installation. (No kidding.)
Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art
Acclaimed by many, The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art was nevertheless criticised upon its opening by The Guardian’s, architecture critic, the grumpy young Oliver Wainwright, who insisted it ‘conceals a corporate world of lobby art.’ But what do critics know? Open since late 2012, it was created by Renzo Piano, the man who co-designed Paris’s ‘rebellious’ Pompidou Centre. This private modern art museum, owned by the Astrup Fearnley shipping dynasty, is one of the biggest of its kind in the Nordic countries, and is elegantly situated on the waterfront by the fjord, its picture-postcard view dotted with islands and sailing boats. Funny distraction; the museum wasn’t actually big enough for the omnipotent Italian. The entrepreneurs had to add sixty percent more office space before the Piano agreed to do it. The collection, meanwhile, is – given its many modern pop art icons, including Michael And Bubbles by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst’s violated cadavers – quite rightly nailed by the young Wainwright as ‘Saatchi-art’. Present, too, are interesting pieces by Cindy Sherman, Anselm Kiefer and Takashi Murakami.
From Tjuvholmen, strut down Oslo’s first dockland project, Aker brygge, an ambitious pedestrianized, mixed use pioneer project from the 1980’s that, in accordance with marked force entropy has degenerated to a scenic, albeit conventional shopping centre. With the latest upgrade by a bunch of Koolhaas-heads, there’s no trace left of the main shipyard building, everything is shopping.
Next to it, the new National Museum of Art arises as a final monument over 20th century cultural urbanism. When completed, this voluminous and uninviting structure will hopefully be balanced by its downplayed exterior signed the German romantic Klaus Schurwerk. So, what's wrong with this picture? Well, in front of this massive project is the Nobel Peace Centre. Set in an old railway station with conservation-worthy status, it’s a space increasingly (matter) out of place.
Nobel Peace Centre
This is the shrine for Norway’s greatest modern day achievement, the Nobel Peace Prize. Norwegians take much pride in their role as international peacemakers, though the Nobel Prize itself is not actually a Norwegian invention at all: a Swede, Alfred Nobel, gave it to us. It’s worth noting that he made his original fortune inventing TNT. The fun part is that Nobel wanted to ease his conscience before he died in 1895 and therefore established the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, but gave the most esteemed prize to Norway. This has become more prestigious than all the others put together, much to Swedish noblemen’s growing irritation. You can visit the Peace Centre and judge its aesthetic value, or its many gadgets, for yourself. The renowned Ghanaian architect David Adjaye redesigned this old train station and cruising area in 2005, while the installations are a collaboration with American techno geek David Small. Not following up the ambitions of the architect this peace center has become a dusty place. Insiders tip is to instead visit the Nobel Institute next to the Royal Palace, its hall and library. Very authentic indeed, and it’s for free.
Oslo City Harbour
Now you’ve landed in the city’s midpoint, in front of the City Hall. Here you’ll find the ferries that serve the islands of the Oslo fjord and the Nesodden peninsula, and Norway’s official pier, the tiny Honnørbryggen. This is where heads of states disembark, if they happen to arrive by sea. (Nobody does that anymore, unfortunately). The pier is designed by the duo behind the Town Hall, Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson. It has become of symbolic significance, as this is where the royal family arrived in spring of 1945, after five years as war refugees in London.
Rådhuset (City Hall)
Pending Starchitect Joshua Prince-Ramus (founding partner of OMA New York — the American affiliate of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture - later repositioned to REX) once said The City Hall is the most beautiful building in Oslo. He probably said it just to charm the major to help pushing through one his many building applications. The City Hall is anyway an Oslo landmark with a long pregnancy and even longer labour. Initiated back in 1915, with a competition won by Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson in 1918. (Apparently the only two architects in town back then.) Lack of money and bad times made the realization had to wait until erected in 1931, but completed first in 1950, a construction project that lasted 19 years (including during the war), making the red brick building an unusual mix of neo-gothic and modernist. The entrance is lined with wooden reliefs from Norse mythology, and the interior halls are decorated with frisky frescoes with social-realist motifs from the heroic struggle of the Norwegian working class. (This must be the only city hall in the world with wall sculptures portraying working girls.) The Nobel Peace Prize is given out on 10 December each year in the main hall while CNN’s anchorman, Jonathan Mann, snoops around trying to coax interviews out of the laureates.
Turn towards the sea again, and keep the walls of Akershus fortress on your left. You’ll pass the top security cruise harbour, made for all you safety concerned and cruise-lovin’ Americans, past the Italian harbour bodega Skur 33, the office for the architectural firm Snøhetta and out to Vippetangen pier.
Dominating the eastern side of the harbour, the medieval Akershus Slott and Festning (Akershus Castle & Fortress) are unique in Norway. No wonder: Norway was occupied by two of the world’s lousiest colonialists, Denmark and Sweden, and this was while building castles and fortresses was still a popular pursuit. Norway was traded between these two European underdogs throughout the Middle Ages as war booty, so they didn’t bother making grand-scale extravaganzas in their own backyard. Akershus Castle and the fortress itself were built in 1299 under the Norwegian king Håkon V as a strategic location to protect Oslo and Norway from foreign warships. That didn’t help much, since Norway came under Danish rule a decade later through marriage. (There’s been one pursuit more popular than building castles the last millennia: Royal inbreeding.) Still, at least the park surrounding the fortress is the perfect spot for a picnic where you can catch a view of the Town Hall and boats on the fjord.
Vippetangen is held in high regard by all Oslo folks, as there is a famous song about this pier and a dangerously tasty pastry shop that once stood here, which was so gorgeous that you’d sell your soul to its Danish and die of a cardiac arrest. And if you wouldn’t die, the murderous pâtissière would choke you to death with her doughnuts. Now they’ve opened a cultural hub in the old fish market at this pier, called Vippa. Not a great abbreviation, but the place is filled with events, concerts, fish n’chips and disco dancing all through the year, and that helps. No pastries yet, unfortunately.
Head in towards the city again, past the ferry to wonderful Copenhagen. Here you’ll get a great view of the Opera House and the distinct ‘wall’ of Barcode in front of the central station. (Barcodes probably seemed very progressive in the late 90s when this distinctive project was on the drawing board). Havnelageret (Oslo Harbour warehouse), the huge concrete Neo-Baroque building on your left, was, when completed in 1921, one of the largest concrete buildings in Europe, and the largest building in the Nordic countries.
A crazy sauna-loving entrepreneur from up north above the polar circle, has moved one of his madcap projects from a remote beach near Bodø, south to Oslo, and Havnelageret pier, Langkaia: a giant, partially enclosed fish-drying rack, designed by renown Finnish architect, Sami Rintala, the structures inspired by nomadic culture. Why? Why not, frankly? The meaning behind this mess is actually so that people can celebrate the wondrous, but threatened, nature of the Arctic regions. You can partaking in such worthwhile activities as, amongst other things, enjoying music, examining specially built art installations (one for the dark months, one for the light month’s), dining on arctic sourced food – as well as purging yourselves of the evils of the modern world in a vast sauna with a stunning view of the fjord and the city. It also means that passerby’s may find themselves confronted by naked, sweaty, well fed culture fans discussing how the subtlety of the gesture contextualises the basically transmogrified quality of its overall implications. Or something.
‘The holy grail’ of the Salt installation is, when the cold sets in, the mobile madhouse Naustet – a shipping container disguised as a North Norwegian fishing shack doubles as a bar and en suite sauna. The tiny bar also offers concerts, DJs and other eccentric opportunities fit for a party at the edge of – perhaps even at the end of – the world. You can also huddle around a warm fire outside while sitting on logs and furs listening to old Sami folk tales. This is the place to go if you need a short cut to Northern Norway.
If you survive the visit to the permafrost, head for the Opera House on the other side of the bay. On your left you’ll have Oslo’s new boulevard, Dronning Eufemias gate with Barcode - the swanky district - cutting of the rest of the city on its north side. On its south side, it’s the city’s new cultural hub; the opera, the new library and the new Munch museum. The street itself is leading eagerly, however pointlessly east into nowhere. A local vice-guy-architect laconically described it as ‘a street only a North Korean dictator can love.’ And yes, the name, which means ‘Queen Euphemism Street’, is cooked up by those wordsmiths at the port authorities (them again?!), probably tossing out fancy words in Old Greek from their fraternity days. If you’re not too familiar with Late Antiquity, ‘euphemism’ is an innocuous word to mask profanities with. However off point in this context, it’s a pretty funny name for this absurd-looking street. Strangely enough it grasps the essence of its time perfectly: Bjørvika is the Fjord City vision’s figurehead, and the legacy of 17 years of Conservative rule in Oslo. As a culture-veiled CBD, the area is, for better or worse, a neo liberal millennial reaching its prime.
Oslo Opera House
The Opera, or to give it its full name, the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, has become one of Oslo’s (and Norway’s) most striking landmarks. This venue, designed by Oslo based architect firm Snøhetta, is quite simple a masterpiece of fiddling with a roof. Music connoisseurs still crave bolder events, perhaps a Midnight Munch Death Metal Festival or a Filthy Gabber Club on the rooftop stage in homage to Herr Darkness himself, Richard Wagner. The roof is also fit for simpler tasks, like doing a double Shokohara while reciting Slavoj Žižek’s theory on the combined human compulsions: our desires to die, and to go to the opera. As Mozart said once while writing Don Giovanni – go dark, go nasty, go draped in a cape!
At Sørenga you can visit the spa at the hippie-esque Sauna Fleet, or easier, the city’s new lido. Strip off, tuck your belly in and flex those muscles. Strike a conversation with some local beach kamaika, post a selfie and make out. When you’ve come to your senses, get up and turn in towards the city again and the old medieval park, which is cut off from the fjord by spaghetti junctions and highways. (This area is supposed to become much more pleasant in the coming years.) In closing, turn south towards the container port at Kongshavn, another area ripe for imminent redevelopment, order an Über taxi back home. THE END!
Capo dei capi
While architects contribute to manifest the fjord city vision, the true architect behind what unfolds at the waterfront is former Chairman of the Harbour board, Bernt Stilluf Karlsen, a player, hustler and politician of the Liberal party that singlehandedly solved the decades old conflict between the harbour authorities and the municipality, granting the harbour authorities the mandate to control and conduct urban development in the process. As the new Labour led city government took seat, the controversial chairman was resolutely sacked, but it remains to see whether the removal of Stilluf Karlsen will energize or paralyze the future development of the harbour.