Oslo is rapidly growing into an exciting, international metropolis, while in the countryside, prestigious projects seem to grow out of nature itself. There has never been a more exciting time for Norwegian architecture.
While retaining its heritage going back more than 1,000 years, the Norwegian capital is undergoing enormous changes – with a number of notable buildings and city development projects underway.
Coming into the 21st century, large parts of Oslo’s seaside areas were more or less inaccessible to the public. They were almost completely occupied by highways, ports and gritty industrial sites. Now there is a huge, ongoing project to transform the face of the city.
An entire new district is emerging between the new Opera House and the “Barcode” high-rise buildings that have given the city a new skyline. Two landmark buildings – a new Munch Museum and the Deichman Main Library – will flank the Opera House, next to new apartments, commercial buildings and a long seaside promenade with a city beach.
At the other side of the historic Akershus Fortress, the small peninsula of Tjuvholmen is now home to a cluster of modern design housing and hotels, as well as Renzo Piano’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. The new National Museum is under construction nearby, at the site of an old train station.
Within the city, the “Vulkan” area has risen around several old industrial buildings by the river Akerselva. Mathallen Food Hall, which opened in 2012, is one of several repurposed industrial buildings along the river, where you find a vibrant culture, good foods and nightlife.
That’s not to say that Oslo is all new. For instance, it has several hidden and not-so-hidden gems of early 20th century functionalism: like Villa Stenersen and Villa Dammann, the Ekeberg Restaurant and the Ingierstrand Bath.
What may come to mind if asked to visualize Norwegian architecture are the old stave churches, named after the wooden posts (Norwegian: stav) that bear them.
About 30 of these remain – like the magnificently preserved 12th century Borgund Stave Church, or the slightly older Urnes Stave Church (finished in 1132), which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Read more about stave churches.
Some aspects of these are visible in modern church architecture as well – albeit transformed and reinvented. One new landmark is the acclaimed Community Church Knarvik by Reiulf Ramstad Architects, just north of Bergen – a dramatic and stunning, yet still peaceful wooden church.
On the other hand, some recent landmark churches have broken decisively with the stave church tradition. The now 50 year-old “Arctic Cathedral” in Tromsø is a masterpiece that brings to mind both the surrounding mountains and the Sydney Opera House, while the 2002 Mortensrud Church in Oslo is a reimagining of the church building in steel, glass and stone.
In Norway you also find the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world. The country was converted to Christianity a thousand years ago, by kings Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf II Haraldsson, the latter canonized as a Catholic Saint at Nidaros (present day Trondheim) after his death at the Battle of Stiklestad.
Construction of Nidaros Cathedral started in 1070 at his burial place, and was finished some 200 years later.
Extensive use of plain wood and stone are common traits of many new houses, cabins and public buildings across Norway, showcasing sleek, simple shapes that nevertheless bring to mind mountains and glaciers.
In many cases, the architects have focused on creating warm, open spaces that capture precious daylight, in a country where the winter sun sets shortly after noon – if it rises at all. These structures are not visualized in isolation, but in relation to surrounding landscapes and other buildings, frequently with a touch of symbolism.
Cases in point are Juvet Landscape Hotel near the Geirangerfjord, the Snøhetta Viewpoint pavilion at the mountain Tverrfjellet, and the Knut Hamsun Center at Hamarøy. The same goes for a number of private residences and cottages, like Jensen & Skodvin’s Storfjord Summer House, Reiulf Ramstad Architects’ Split View Mountain Lodge or Atelier Oslo's basalt-clad Cabin at Norderhov.
Even in the cities you have buildings that fit this bill, like the multi-award-winning, sustainable wood and glass D36 Green House apartment building in Oslo, at the corner of a small park where it blends in.
Last, the National Tourist Routes initiative cannot go without mentioning in this context. Along some of the most spectacular and beautiful roads in Norway, several notable buildings and landscape designs now enhance the experience of the surrounding nature, with rest areas and view points that are works of art in their own right.
The earliest traces of humans in Norway date back to the last ice age. One may wonder what the people of ancient cultures would have thought of the modern wave of Norwegian design and architecture.
A new wave of designers are making themselves heard, while the classic icons are rediscovered. Lighting, rainwear, wool and passports are among the Norwegian designs that are attracting worldwide attention.