Book contribution – Oslo Learning to Fly


Erling Fossen has edited a volume on Oslo, where I contribute with an introductory essay on Oslo and the Fjord City.


Five takes on Oslo’s Fjord City –

Halvor Weider Ellefsen, Architect, PhD, Associate Professor, Oslo School of Architecture and Design

#1: Shift Work: In 1983, as the first illustrations of the initial Oslo waterfront competition The City and the Fjord, – Oslo Year 2000 reached the newspapers, author Jon Michelet reacted to how the proposals lacked any sign of traditional industrial workplaces. Michelet, a Marxist and former sailor, regarded with apparent puzzlement how an area that had cradled one of Norway’s proudest industrial ventures suddenly was envisaged as a future site for consumption, leisure and play. In Michelet’s eyes, the illustrations reduced the wharf’s rich industrial past to mere imagery, where maritime industrial history became a caricatured backdrop catering to new forms of urban entertainment. Frustrated by projects imagining the wharf’s dry dock as a new amphitheater for the city, Michelet rhetorically asked why the harbor’s infrastructure had to be transformed. Could it not be regarded for what it was, namely a dry dock? For the author, the removal of traditional industry from the urban core deprived the city of its most fundamental forms of production, and inherently, its meaning. In fact, what Michelet experienced was a shift in meaning, where one form of production and use of the urban core was replaced by another. Similar waterfront redevelopments had been completed in European cities like London, with the Docklands, and in North American cities like Baltimore and Boston. In Baltimore, private entrepreneurs, unveiling the obvious spatial qualities inherent in the urban waterfront, developed the first inner city entertainment centers. These development strategies asserted that recreation and entertainment could become the framework for attracting new forms of economic investment to the city, with synergic effects that could benefit not only the urban core, but entire metropolitan areas. These innovators were the forbearers of what in a couple of decades would be coined the “knowledge economy,” in cities fuelled by “culture urbanism” development strategies. In Oslo, the transition from mechanical to immaterial production was particularly swift, as it was the wharf owners themselves that initiated and executed urban development, even before the area was terminated as a functioning wharf. And while Boston’s Harbor Place was in large a pure commercial center, Oslo’s new borough Aker Brygge would manifest as a real estate venture that combined offices and entertainment with education and housing in an extensive pedestrianised urban design. It became a second-generation urban waterfront, praised for its advanced mix of functions in its urban design.

#2: Fjords follows Finance: The development of Aker Brygge became a new chapter in a 150-year-old industrial venture: In the mid 19th century, Akers Mekaniske Verksted, a workshop along Oslo’s Akerselva river, relocated to Pipervika, the westernmost of Oslo´s two main bays, transforming into a shipyard that would grow to become Norway´s largest. A hundred years later, the venture dominated Pipervika bay. Flanked by the new Town Hall and the new, modernist central business district Vika, the wharf employed two thousand workers, producing large gas tankers and Norway´s first oil rigs. As activity on the wharf declined, the Aker Group reorganised its assets. Moving most of its maritime industry to the west coast, the wharf was to be transformed as part of the large harbor-front development competition. Aker Brygge was ambitious, combining offices and cultural and educational institutions with a lavish streetscape tableau dense with restaurants and recreational activities previously unknown in Oslo, swiftly transforming it to become Norway´s most attractive real estate investment area. And while the economic crisis of the late eighties led to a serious setback for Aker Brygge’s owners, it established the premise on which the entire Oslo waterfront would be developed in the coming decades: Using culture and recreation as the framework for real estate development of new central business districts, and apartments housing the wave of new and affluent urban migrants. It would also contribute to the Oslo brand and an internationally oriented identity. The municipal Fjord City Plan, was aimed at merging cultural, social and economic growth strategies in an urban development scenario targeting real estate investors and office workers, as well as tourists and the Oslo population itself. This was inherently the innovation of the Aker Brygge project: How governmental agencies could enable private entrepreneurs, through real estate development, to combine public attractions and new urban lifeforms with new forms of production. Although the new urban spaces represented by Aker Brygge and the more recent Tjuvholmen area embodied real estate logic familiar to most western harbor-front cities, they also reacted to an obvious deficiency of the inner city: The lack of common urban spaces for social congregation and interaction. Decades of planning had ignored the urban core for both economical and ideological reasons, resulting in an urban form that required basic functions to accommodate the needs of its now growing population, despite harbouring a large segment of its work places and cultural institutions. The development thus represented an actual reclaiming of the waterfront, offering new pedestrian streets and plazas, and activities and attractions that contrasted with Oslo’s otherwise worn urban fabric. And as the social preferences of the population changed, salaries improved and spare time increased throughout the 1980s, the social sphere of the city again merged with its working sphere: The post-war divide between work and leisure was replaced by a model that cultivated labor and leisure side by side (or as with Aker Brygge, on top of each other), as a property development model. This has been the Deus ex Machina of Fjordbyen, enabling its continuous development along Oslo´s seven-kilometer long harbor front.

#3 Prominent Promenades: The realisation of Fjordbyen as a plan follows roughly two different strategies: In Pipervika, Aker Brygge was joined by adjacent development at Tjuvholmen. These areas are akin both in terms of spatial concept and planning philosophy: They are developed by private companies on private properties, they share a similar approach to urban form, and brand themselves as urban boroughs with distinct identities, as destinations in the city. They also target capital intensive branches like shipping, day trading and law-firms. As compact entertainment districts with seemingly infinite amounts of harbor-front bars and eateries, these areas cater to a substantial part of Oslo’s tourist scene. Flanked by the new National Museum, there is no reason why Aker Brygge should lose its position as Norway´s most visited tourist area in the future. East of the Akershus fortress, the Bjørvika bay has been developed according to a municipal masterplan, dominated by its central business district that houses labor-intensive businesses like banking and accounting. The one million square meters constructed in the area combine Norway´s busiest infrastructure hub, with 20,000 work spaces, 5000 housing units and Oslo´s largest cultural institutions. Thus, the development of Bjørvika displays how the Fjord City also represents a new and substantial economic engine for Oslo’s downtown. Bjørvika is organised around the boulevard Dronning Eufemias street, and seven commons; large urban spaces connecting the adjacent city with its waterfront promenade. The promenade itself encompass a range of different spaces, functions and attractions, including the Vippetangen area between Pipervika and Bjørvika, currently the more attractive and tranquil parts of the waterfront walk. Among the more interesting features of the promenade are the municipal activity points, like the family oriented skatepark in Skur 13 on Filipstad. Such cheap, low-threshold activities are invaluable for attracting and supporting a broad audience of Fjordbyen visitors beyond large tourist groups and weekend visitors. They are also a reminder of the importance of securing user diversity through municipal engagement: The risk of such succumbing to commercial entropy is a threat facing most attractive (and pricey) urban environments. Possible future remedies for such issues in Oslo could include waterbuses to encourage everyday use, or non-commercial subsidization strategies that could provide the Fjord City with a more diverse set of users than it currently has. One might assume that this is not only socially, but economically the most sustainable approach for nurturing the Fjord City in the years to come.

#4 Economy Culture: The scale and scope of the Fjord City Plan meant that both municipal and state governmental institutions were involved in its development, particularly in terms of financing the restructuring and removal of infrastructure, and the implementation of Fjordbyen´s four largest cultural institutions: The Oslo Opera House, the Deichman Library, the National Museum of Art and the Munch Museum. These signature buildings and their adjacent public spaces are textbook examples of cultural urbanism strategies with profound effects on surrounding real estate and the outward image of Oslo. Among these, the Opera House is the one structure that has undeniably proven the validity of cultural urbanism as strategy: The building’s slanted, accessible roof landscape maintained the iconicity required of landmark buildings in the tradition of the Bilbao Guggenheim, but added social consciousness. For all the critics’ cries of cultural urbanism´s lack of social sustainability, the Opera ‘s capacity as architecture remains undisputed. As the centerpiece of Bjørvika, the building is a manifestation of the political struggles that led to its location on Oslo´s poorer east side. Here, it also became central for financing the removal of Bjørvika’s extensive road system. Thus, the development of Oslo’s Fjord City not only entailed creating attractive urban environments, but also encompassed massive infrastructural investments. In the case of Bjørvika, this became a game between large and powerful governmental institutions, that have, through subsidiary companies, developed most of Bjørvika´s properties. In this perspective, the development of the Fjord City is also the story of political horse-trading and outright fights.

#5 The Future of the Fjord: In the egalitarian Norwegian context, critics have accused the Fjord City of lacking affordable housing, and thus inclusive urban environments. They also question whether its entertainment areas might be superficial for the sophisticated users Oslo aims to attract. The question is manifested in a new wave of common spaces represented by institutions such as Sentralen and Kulturhuset, whose raison d’être emerges from other priorities than the brand building we´ve seen in the art programs of Tjuvholmen and Operakvartalet. While the waterfront currently boasts the city’s largest attractions, Oslo’s true new charms, whether of a social, cultural, gastronomic, or artistic nature, seem bound to be found elsewhere. On the other hand, there is an obvious discrepancy between the austerity of this critique, and the enthusiasm of Fjordbyen´s many users, especially during the short summer months. There might also be a devaluation of the premise that a dense CBD by any standard is the smartest way to develop Norway’s most well connected area. Furthermore, Fjordbyen is young, still not completed and with development potential. One can thus hope that future developments along the harbor also encompass alternative housing strategies that cater to other urban lifeforms than market-calibrated housing schemes can offer. Such strategic approaches to planning might help intertwine the waterfront with the city in a manner that retains Oslo’s inclusive character as a city. With this optimistic scenario in mind, one might indulge in the Fjord City´s spaces of surplus and decadence undeterred by one’s healthy skepticism. Anyway, remember that the deep chairs of the Opera House, the boardwalks of Sørenga or the sunny quay outside Vippa are all perfect venues for critically contemplating the Fjord City…


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