New landmark opens in Oslo

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The new Astrup Fearnley Museum of contemporary art has already become an instant landmark on the waterfront of the Norwegian capital, even before its three-day opening festivities this weekend. Designed by famed architect Renzo Piano, it’s attracted international attention and stands in stark contrast to the endless delays and political quarreling that plague other museum projects in Oslo.

The new Astrup Fearnley Museum soars over the Oslo Fjord in a combination of glass and wood meant to capture the light and the water. In the background, a cruise-ferry sailing up from Denmark. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

While Oslo politicians seem unable to make a decision over where and how to properly care for the city’s priceless collection of works by famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, the private enterprise behind Astrup Fearnley allowed the graceful new sail-like structure to almost quietly rise on some of the city’s most expensive real estate. It opens to the public on Saturday, and museum director Gunnar Kvaran said the process of going from “sketch to finished building … has been a wonderful experience.”

Piano himself, who traveled to Oslo for the opening events that began on Thursday, said the project began around 10 years ago in connection with an exhibit he attended at the Louisiana Museum on the coast just north of Copenhagen. He and others started discussing “the possibility of making this museum on the fjord, where art and community could meet.” Piano was intrigued by the “informality” behind the integration of art and nature and community in the Nordic countries and clearly wanted to get a foothold in the area.

A view of the new museum from the waters of the Oslo Fjord. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

In 2002, Oslo architectural firm Aspelin-Ramm won the contract to develop, along with construction firm Selvaag, the contract to build the new Tjuvholmen office and residential project on the western waterfront just beyond the Aker Brygge complex that rose in the 1980s and ’90s. In 2004, Kvaran said, “the museum was contacted and invited to move (from its original quarters in an office building behind the Akershus Fortress) to Tjuvholmen.” Piano was on board as architect for the museum project, which now includes two buildings under one roof, a café, museum shop and outdoor sculpture park that connects to a beach for swimming in the fjord.

Inside one of the light and spacious new exhibition halls. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Piano’s 7,000-square-meter design also includes an office building for the Oslo law firm BAHR, and “is fundamentally a roof, with many places underneath,” Piano told reporters on Thursday. The design “creates a sense of complexity and diversity under the same roof,” he says, while also playing up the two key elements he wanted to highlight: The light and the sea.

“I think the light is the main element, then the water,” said Piano, who also designs sailboats and claims he was “born on the water,” in Genoa, Italy. Light is so important in a far northern country like Norway, he stressed: “You need the light here, you have to try to catch it.” He called the water “magical, changing all the time.” His use of glass and wood, with the “places underneath” separated by a canal and bridges, has resulted in a low-rise structure that resembles a ship and sails.

Renzo Piano, architect for the new Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, was also behind the Pompidou Center in Paris and has won the Pritzker Architecture Prize. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The new landmark can be seen from miles away, while driving north on the E18 highway across the fjord, for example, and is perhaps best viewed from any of the boats and ferries and ships that ply the Oslo Fjord every day. Piano said he wanted the building to be welcoming, with visitors able to enjoy both its art and the sea.

Inside can be found a collection of works by some of the world’s most innovative artists, including Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Dan Colen and Bjarne Melgaard. The opening exhibit, “To Be With Art Is All We Ask,” features selected works from the Astrup Fearnley collection gathered over the past 30 years. While the museum has concentrated on American contemporary artists over the last decade, it also has sought out Japanese, Chinese, Brazilian, European and Indian artists more recently.

“As a private collection, we’re able to choose our subject matter independently, to concentrate our resources for a certain period of time,” museum director Gunnar Kvaran said. The private initiative also clearly played an important role in building the new museum, which cost NOK 700 million (USD 117 million), although Kvaran didn’t want to comment directly on the difficulties facing museums in the public sector. The Oslo City Council remains deadlocked after years of public debate on the location of a new Munch Museum, to replace the small and outdated building currently housing the collection.

“I can’t give too much advice to the city council, but it was a privilege to work with an architect like Renzo Piano,” said Kvaran, who’s led the museum since 2001. “And this has been a private project, with clear goals from the beginning. We had all the terms for the project to succeed.” Piano said they also had the chance to develop the project, and took it.

Queen Sonja was formally conducting the opening ceremony Thursday afternoon, with Friday set aside for special events with cultural officials from inside and outside Norway. The doors will open to the public on Saturday.

For more photos from in and around the new Astrup-Fearnley Museum, click here.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund