the development of the west harbour in Oslo

Back at the beginning of the year, in the early hours of the morning, I caught a programme on the World Service of BBC radio called Business Matters where there was an article about new buildings in Oslo under the title Oslo’s rapid growth redefines Nordic identity

Despite the odd hour I listened closely because the summer before I had been to Oslo to look at the development of the area on the west side of the main harbour - it had been extensive commercial docks but is now undergoing a massive transformation. I had read about the development in several architectural journals before the trip and was curious to see for myself what was being built.

The redevelopment of that part of Oslo, Aker Brygge and Tjuvholmen, raises interesting points about inner city redevelopment, and about design in general, and planning and architecture specifically and raises questions about how any city balances and controls, if it can, change that is driven by fast economic growth. With redevelopment, there is usually the promise of jobs, pressure from developers and investors, pressure on politicians and planners for the development to succeed and, of course, there are possible and interesting conflicts of taste and and conflicts of requirements between the young and the old or the incomer and the long-established citizen.  

At the centre of Oslo is the castle on a high outcrop with amazing views down the fjord to the south and with the core of the historic town sheltered behind it to its north where there is a fairly regular grid of streets with some fine buildings dating from the early 19th century. There are large bays forming harbours to both sides of the castle, that to the east with the new Opera House and considerable areas of new building in that part of the city and to the west, at the top of the west harbour, is the famous Oslo City Hall built in the 1930s. On the west side of that bay, looking across to the castle, there had been extensive docks and commercial buildings and it is that area that has been cleared and redeveloped with new apartment buildings, a hotel, a major new art gallery - the Astrup Fearnley Museum designed by Renzo Piano - and of course restaurants and cafe’s with some shops.

The apartment buildings are relatively high, compared with comparable buildings in Copenhagen, and have been built on either side of a wide main pedestrian street running north south that has a distinct urban character. Private cars and service vehicles enter the area through a traffic, services and parking area hidden below the apartments although cars and taxis do have to emerge to drive over a bridge over a wide canal that runs east west across the centre of the development in order to reach the south part. For the general public buses and taxis seem to stop at a turning circle at the top of the development.

Architects for individual apartment blocks seem to have had a free hand in terms of the choice for facade materials and for the arrangement of the inevitable balconies and curiously, in some ways because of that, it feels more like a commercial district than a residential area. The blocks at the southern end do seem to have a more restrained palette with white facades that did look amazing in the bright clear light of mid summer.

My assumption was that these apartments would be occupied by young professional people, many of them single, who would have moved to Oslo with the attraction of its thriving economy but several people told me that in fact older couples have been attracted to the area as a place to retire, having sold large family houses in the outer parts of the city, and attracted here by the views across the harbour and the central (or relatively central) location.

Berths for private boats close to the apartments and a large marina are a major part of the scheme and attract lots of visitors - both boat owners and tourists wanting to watch - and there seemed to be quite a lively night life here, at least in the Summer, with open-air bars and restaurants down the east side of the development with views across to the castle.

The Thief in Oslo

On that trip to Oslo in the summer of 2013 I stayed at The Thief - partly because it is promoted as a design hotel, so it seemed like a good subject for a post on this blog, and partly because the hotel is very much part of the new development and I wanted to stay there, rather than in the historic centre of the city, so that I could see what the area was like in the early morning and in the evening and so on. 

In the end I didn’t really enjoy the stay and decided not to write about it on this blog. Don’t get me wrong I had a fantastic time in Oslo and The Thief is an extremely comfortable hotel but I am not in the demographic that it targets for visitors - to be honest I’m just a bit staid and my inner puritan is a bit close to the surface. 

However, the hotel did have a crucial role in the early stages of the development to draw people to this new part of the city: along with a new major art gallery, the Astrup Fearnley Museum designed by Renzo Piano, it was one of the key new buildings that are crucial to the ongoing attraction and success of a new development. The importance of this area of Oslo will be consolidated by the redevelopment of the former West Station at the city end of the area as it was confirmed earlier this year that it is to be the site of new buildings for the National Museum.

The Thief also illustrates well that new hotels, at the top end of the market, are important in the professional world of interior design and architecture: hotels provide major and high-profile commissions for architects and professional designers; the hotels need very large quantities of new furniture and fittings when they are set up, so are important for manufacturers, and they can establish new trends and make the reputations of new designers as hotel guests are inspired to emulate ideas in their own homes. Particularly the design of bathroom and shower fittings in a new hotel can drive forward the style and arrangement of domestic bathroom fittings but guests also take home with them ideas for bedding, trendy colour schemes and so on and it can be a chance, particularly in design hotels, for potential buyers to try out well-known classic or new and innovative designs of furniture that they may go on to buy for themselves.