It’s been called “impractical” and even “ugly” by prime ministers of the past, and one ambitious politician proposed abandoning it in favour of taking over one of the historic University of Oslo buildings downtown instead. Yet there’s a soft spot in the hearts of many for Norway’s Parliament Building (Stortinget, literally, “The Big Thing”), which turned 150 this month.
At a celebration inside the building that sits atop a knoll in the heart of downtown, Members of Parliament expressed their fondness for the building that’s their workplace. “It’s really like a second home to me,” Martin Kolberg, a veteran Labour Party politician who currently heads the Parliament’s disciplinary committee, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum spoke of how proud he was to work in the historic building and so did many others as they gathered for an utterly non-partisan tribute to Stortinget.
“There is a special atmosphere here, you can easily be gripped by it,” Trine Skei Grande, the leader of the Liberal Party who’s been a Member of Parliament for 14 years, told weekly magazine D2. “I remember the first time I walked through the halls here and thought, ‘Now I’m working here.'”
Torbjørn Røe Isaksen of the Conservative Party, who currently serves as Education Minister, said the building “isn’t exactly an architectural pearl, but I remember visiting it as a child, and it was a big, magical building up on a hill, beautiful, majestic and inaccessible.” Now he’s worked there for six years, but said it was “extremely confusing” in the beginning because of its many corridors and underground tunnels. Finding his way to meetings through the labyrinth was a challenge shared by many. “Is it a practical building?” Isaksen mused. “No, but it has soul.”
It was designed by Swedish architect Emil Victor Langlet around 1860, when Norway was still part of an uneasy political union with Sweden and under the Swedish king. It took five and a half years to build the Parliament after it had been discussed for several decades. The government didn’t want to commit to a location for the building before funding was in place, while the Parliament itself wouldn’t commit funding until a location was chosen. So the project that first started being discussed in 1814, when Norway approved its own constitution despite its political union with Sweden that followed 400 years of a union with Denmark, took some time.
In the end, the site was chosen at a spot that was right between the old, original portions of Oslo (then still called Christiania, later “Kristiania” with a more Norwegian “K) and the newer neighbourhoods extending westward to the Royal Palace and beyond. The building held its first parliamentary meetings in March 1866.
It went through major renovations from 1951 to 1959 and a modern addition was built in a completely different style at the back of the building, fronting on Akers Gate. Today it remains the country’s “most important house,” accommodating around 600 people in its splendid halls and ceremonial rooms along with small offices, meeting rooms, a restaurant, exercise room and even its own chaplain’s quarters. Oslo architect Peter Butenschøn has written a new book about Stortinget, richly illustrated with photos and drawings. Nowhere else in Norway have so many decisions been made that decide the country’s future. Political quarreling was set aside for the celebration of its 150th anniversary.
“There’s something ceremonial about working here,” MP Trond Giske of the Labout Party told D2. “There’s just so much history in the walls.”