the old or the new

Government buildings in the centre of Oslo were damaged in a car-bomb attack in July 2011. Eight people were killed in the massive explosion and 209 were injured, 12 of them seriously. Severe damage, some of it structural, was caused to the Høyblokken or H Block and the lower Y Block to its west and windows were blown out over a wide area.

Many of the buildings have remained empty since they were evacuated, with government employees relocated around the city. Windows and doorways are still, over two years later, boarded up or covered with plastic, and a large area, covering a number of city blocks, has been fenced off and the streets closed to traffic with concrete barriers. 

Y Block Oslo from the south

Y Block from the west with H Block to the right

Norwegians were stunned and shocked by the attack at the very heart of their government’s administration … the offices of the Prime Minister were on an upper levels in H Block along with offices of the Ministry of Justice and the offices of the Ministry of Finance were in a building immediately to the south. 

Engineers have decided that structural damage can be repaired but a report on the economic arguments, balancing the cost of restoration against the cost of demolition and new buildings, has concluded that new buildings would be considerably cheaper.

Of course the arguments for or against demolition are not simply financial. Many feel that to keep the buildings would be a constant and disturbing reminder of what happened, particularly to those injured in the explosion and for the families and friends of those killed, while others argue that if the buildings are demolished Breivik would, in some ways be able to claim a victory, as his aim (in his perverted and distorted view) was to bring about both political and social change.

A poll undertaken by the Oslo newspaper Verdens Gang concluded that 40% of their readers wanted the buildings to be demolished and 34% were against demolition.

A final decision from the Norwegian government about the fate of H Block and Y Block in Oslo has been promised for the beginning of this year but the decision will be a difficult one. 

H Block from the east

H Block from the east

Grubbegata from the north with Y Block and H Block beyond and the Deicmanske Bibliotek to the right

Grubbegata from the south. The car bomb exploded just beyond the building to the left

In part that decision rests on a judgement about the architectural merit of the buildings.

Høyblokken or H Block dating from 1958 is a substantial office block 15 storeys high with, in addition, a high superstructure. The main fronts are stark grids of narrow concrete ribs with glazing set well back. As a single building it is very large and severe but it picks up the mass and silhouette of the towers of the City Hall on the harbour and that symbolic balance or echo across the city between municipal and national power must, in part, have been deliberate.

The lower Y Block to the north and west was finished in 1969. Again, it is a very large building although its scale is disguised and softened by the gentle curves of the three main fronts and the building deals cleverly with major changes of level across the site. There are three main floors with a common flat roof line but a sub basement with several changes of height and level and a series of wide steps that link walk ways and terraces. Both buildings were designed by the Norwegian architect Erling Viksjø (1910-1971).

Generally, H Block and Y Block are described as Brutalist architecture primarily because of their date and stark style and partly because they are faced in concrete - a material that is now almost automatically derided. To critics the two blocks are seen as obvious examples of what is now considered by many to be least attractive about post war architecture but in their defence the long low outer facades of the Y building are really very elegant and well proportioned. These are monumental buildings with a very high quality of design and construction. In part, because of their scale, H and Y Blocks are also symbols of the rapid growth of government in an ostensibly socialist post-war state and important for that alone in terms of social and political history.

The decision to retain or demolish the buildings is made more complicated and more sensitive to potential criticism because internal staircases in H Block and a large external panel in concrete on the south end of Y Block are decorated with designs by Picasso that are unique and significant. They cannot easily be moved - even if that was desirable - and an article published by Reuters on 13th December last years points out emotively that the Picassos may face a wrecking ball.

An exhibition in the National Museum of Architecture in Oslo, between June and October last year, set out clearly the importance of the murals. In a guide to the exhibition, the art historian Karin Hellandsjø describes the buildings as "still one of the most important public art projects in Norway that has ever been created" and in their introduction to the exhibition the Director General Jørn Holme and Audun Eckhoff, the Director of the Nasjonalmuseet, conclude that "The administration of world-class art and architecture is a heavy responsibility, and time will show whether we have proved worthy of the task."

One of the Murals by Picasso on a staircase. Copyright Siri Wolland.

In the summer I was in Oslo and walked around the area. This was not voyeurism … I was in Oslo for another reason ... but I was walking up from the harbour area to find the design museum and came across the fencing and barriers almost by accident and they were all the more shocking for that. It was only by walking around those streets outside the barriers that I could begin to understand the extent of the damage and the huge area it covers.

Several points about the architecture and the urban development of the government buildings really are significant and should be taken into account as officials and ministers make the final decision to demolish or restore the buildings.

One argument that has already been given for demolition is that the offices were designed as a large number of separate rooms rather than as the large, flexible open-plan spaces that have been common in office design for the last 20 years. That flexibility of open-plan space, if new buildings are constructed, is seen as an important financial argument for new buildings that could tip the balance towards demolition. In part, however, this seems to miss the opportunity to reassess rationally how large numbers of government employees will work or should be accommodated in the future. This is an important time to look forward to anticipate what really will be needed not only immediately but also long-term. These buildings were essentially large stark filing cabinets for people … should that work environment be replicated and is that the most appropriate way for government employees to work in the future? 

Perhaps the reality that Y Block is divided into small office spaces is simply a reason to find an alternative and more appropriate use rather than a reason to demolish.

To repeat, the main blocks that were damaged have been described as brutal but in fact the buildings to the east are much more basic and much uglier structures and the whole system of roads and under passes for the ring road immediately to the north, Hammersborggatta and the Hammersborgtunneln, are actually much more inhuman and alienating. As traffic approaches the entrance to the underpasses drivers seem to speed up so, although there are narrow foot paths, most people seem to avoid them, and the roads are left to cars. The tunnels are filled with exhaust fumes and the pathways and the lower parts of the buildings are covered with dirt and grime thrown up by the vehicles.

I realise that planners responsible for the initial scheme were trying to segregate cars and pedestrians but in reality, as you approach the area, particularly from the north or east, you can see upper walk ways where clearly you should be walking, but it is not obvious how you get there.

Large circular light vents with concrete columns, where the road system passes below the Y building, are dramatic but grim and traffic calming measures to at least slow down the cars should be part of any restoration or rebuilding plans.

One of the underpasses with the east elevation of Y Block above the bridge

The urban streetscape, running north south across the west side of the site, is important and could be enhanced and improved in any scheme that retains the main buildings.

At its south end Akersgata starts at a major harbour-side park and runs north, with ordinary but generally good buildings along the length, although it seems to have a rather secondary role in the city now as Kongens gate to the east is the main commercial and shopping street of the city. At the upper end, as a traffic route, Akersgata has already been broken and disrupted by short pedestrian sections. 

The area of the city north of the castle is laid out on a regular grid and the route up from the harbour along Akersgata crosses a number of major cross axis including Rädhusgata to the east, leading into an attractive square, and Stortingsgata and Karl Johans Gate to the west leading to the long narrow park and the National theatre before the Royal Palace and to the east again there is first Grensen with its view of the Cathedral and then Høyesteretts Plass with the Supreme Court.

As you approach the government buildings, Akersgata has been opened out to the east for the public spaces to the north and south of the Y Block with important diagonal views and attractive mature trees and then, as the road begins to climb and curve to the west, beyond the government buildings, there are a number of large bases or platforms with prominent public buildings including the Trinity Church and then the Catholic church of St Olav raised above street level. Presumably these large platforms are in part man made where the substantial buildings bridge across the valleys and ridges of the natural topography north of the historic centre. Whatever the underlying reason, this is attractive townscape that links major public buildings.

If Akersgata could be paved over, and traffic diverted, it would create an important pedestrian route - a way to walk from the City Hall and the harbour right up to the public space around the Y Block - forming a pedestrian spine to the city that could provide an important and appropriate civic memorial to the events of July 2011.

The National Museum has published on line a good selection of photographs of these buildings and the panels by Picasso with a number of contemporary photographs of other major works by Viskjø.