A group of architects’ winning plan to rebuild Norway’s government complex in the center of Oslo became the target of immediate criticism this week, with city officials claiming the state is overruling them. It’s already been six years since the former complex on the site was heavily damaged and partially destroyed by a right-wing Norwegian terrorist’s bomb on July 22, 2011, and now the entire project faces more delays.
Called Regjeringskvartalet, the project has been the subject of numerous studies and competitions over its design, scope, planned memorials, and which former buildings (all of which housed government ministries) should or could be saved and renovated. One of them includes the high-rise building known as Høyblokka, which housed the Office of the Prime Minister and the Justice Ministry and structurally survived the bombing. It will not be torn down, and has been featured as the centerpiece of most all the new design proposals submitted.
The entire area is owned by the state and it’s the state ministries, currently spread all over town after the bombing forced their relocation, that want to move back. State government officials want to reassemble the ministries where they’d been located just two blocks from the Parliament building for more than 50 years.
City officials, however, have been trying to exert their influence on the rebuilding project to suit their city planning interests. They were not happy when state building agency Statsbygg, which has formal responsibilitiy for and ownership of the project, announced this week that a jury had chosen the so-called “Adapt” design submitted by Team URBIS. The architectural team is compromised of several prominent Norwegian firms including Nordic Office of Architecture, Rambøll, Asplan Viak, COWI, SLA, Haptic, Bjørbekk & Lindheim, Aas-Jakobsen, Per Rasmussen, NIKU and AS Scenario.
“The winners convincingly met all the criteria in the competition,” said Harald Vaagaasar Nikolaisen, chief executive of Statsbygg. “The buildings have been scaled down and will be built for our time. Team URBIS’ proposal creates good workplaces and meets our demands.”
The “Adapt” plan also includes creation of a large park around the government buildings, more pedestrian passageways through it than in the original complex, and new public space aimed at attracting “motion and life at street-level.” A memorial to the July 22 attack will be placed in a pavilion at the site and outdoor artwork by Pablo Picasso that survived the bombing will be integrated into the new complex. A second-story pedestrian path for those working inside the complex will wind through it, to a central area where all meeting rooms, a library, café and employee canteen will “bind the ministries together.”
Critics, however, claim the complex is much too big and too dense. They blame the state’s plans to reassemble all the government ministries plus the Foreign Ministry, which traditionally has been located in the historic Victoria Terrasse complex on the western fringe of downtown. Only the defense ministry will remain where it is, near the Akershus Fortress and Castle.
“We have said that we disagree that the Foreign Ministry should be moved from Victoria Terrasse,” Raymond Johansen, head of Oslo’s city government from the Labour Party, told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday. He claims the space needed to accommodate the Foreign Ministry along with all the other ministries makes the building mass too big, unnecessarily crowding the area. Even though the city has no direct say, Johansen expects the state to listen to his objections and address them.
“We live in a democracy even though the state is overruling us now,” said Johansen, who earlier described the design as a “desert made of stone” in the middle of Oslo. “We just have to hope they’ll listen.”
Janne Wilberg, leader of the city’s historic preservation agency Byantikvar, agreed. She has also been critical of the plans and objects to the “Adapt” proposal, not least because it calls for tearing down a low-rise building known as Y-blokken that has been adorned by Picasso’s art. She wants it to be preserved and claimed that “the fight should continue.” She referred to the plans as an example of “the state’s arrogance.”
Jan Bøhler, another Labour Party politician from Oslo who now has a seat in Parliament, vowed to take the fight to the Parliament. He said he was surprised that the government minister in charge of the project, Jan Tore Sanner of the Conservatives, was allowing the process to continue. “He has not given the message to Statsbygg to reduce the volume of the buildings,” Bøhler complained to Aftenposten and other media on Thursday. “I’ll take that up in Parliament, either as a question of a proposal for new evaluation.”
State officials seemed surprised by the criticism but not disturbed. “We have the impression there are many positive reactions to the project, too,” said Paul Chaffey, a state secretary in Sanner’s ministry. “This is a project where it’s natural that there’s a lot of debate.” He claimed the process has been open and acknowledged it also was “natural” for the city to have concerns.
The architects were taking the criticism in stride and so was Statsbygg. “We’re certain the project will be discussed a lot and that more people will have opinions about it,” said Nikolaisen. “It’s important that political decisions be made before we start moving on this.”
Pål Weiby, a spokesman for Statsbygg, said it can be difficult to make more major changes in the project at this stage. He stressed that it had been put out to public hearing and is now due to come up for approval in Parliament in 2019, where the government is expected to win majority support for it. Even if all goes as currently planned, construction won’t start until 2020 with completion expected in 2027, 16 years after the bombing.