Tullinløkka or Vestbanen? A short tale of patience

Cultural buildings were erected with great gusto in Kristiania in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, cultural buildings became the subject of passionate debate in Oslo. The current boom in cultural buildings is also a result of nearly 100 years of indecision.

Exterior image of the Munch Museum in Oslo. The front of the museum with entrance part is photographed from Finnmarkgata. The museum was designed by the architects Gunnar Fougner and Einar Myklebust and opened in 1963, a hundred years after the artist’s birth. Photo: Teigens Fotoatelier, 1963. DEXTRA Photo, Sparebankstiftelsen DNB/The Savings Bank Foundation DNB.

TTT. Things take time. Sometimes cultural development takes a long time.  Apart from a building boom in the early 2000s and a similar upsurge between 1850 and 1900, getting cultural buildings put up in Oslo has demanded the patience of a saint.

Edvard Munch bequeathed his works to the City of Oslo in 1944 and the Munch Museum in Tøyen was completed in 1963. Erecting a cultural building in just 19 years could be seen as remarkably quick by Oslo standards.  Rolf Stenersen or Amaldus Nielsen, who donated their art collections to the city in the 1930s, would certainly agree. It took 60 years before their collections found a home in the Stenersen museum in the same complex as Oslo Concert Hall, another facility that was not built in a day.

Oslo Concert Hall, designed by the Swedish architect Gösta Åbergh. The concert hall was opened on March 22, 1977. Photo: Paul A. Røstad, 1977. DEXTRA,  Sparebankstiftelsen DNB/The Savings Bank Foundation DNB.

And it was not just museums that took time. In 1899, the Kristiania Musikkforenings Orkester (Kristiania Musical Association Orchestra) moved into the new National Theatre for stage and opera with 44 musicians. The orchestra was disbanded in 1919 and the musicians transferred to the Filharmonisk Selskaps Orkester (Philharmonic Society Orchestra), whose first concert was held in Gamle Logen on 27 September 1919. During the 20s, the capital’s concertgoers climbed the monumental staircase to the University Aula with increasing frequency and for 60 years they were able to study the decorations by Edvard Munch if, contrary to expectations, they found listening to symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner tedious. The concert hall in Vika was not finished until 1979, 60 years after the Filharmonisk Selskaps Orkester was founded.

It was not just the orchestra that wanted to leave the National Theatre, however. Det Norske Operafond (Norwegian Opera Foundation) was founded in 1935. Its purpose was to support the operation of an opera venue or build an opera house in Oslo. Den Norske Opera (Norwegian National Opera) was founded 22 years later, and in 1959 the curtain went up on its first performance in its temporary home at Folketeatret (People’s Theatre). In 1998, more than 60 years after Det Norske Operafond was founded, a government white paper identified the Vestbanen site just down from the concert hall as the optimum location for a new Norwegian opera house.

Nationaltheatret (The National Theater in Oslo, Norway). Photo: Olaf Martin Peder Væring. 1900. Oslo Museum: Byhistorisk samling.

From an urban development perspective, Vestbanen seemed the obvious site. Between 1872 and 1982, the Vestbanen and Aker mechanical workshop was a centre for industry and transport, but it closed in 1982, followed seven years later by the railway. By 1990, the new economy with its shopping centre and offices was already in full swing at Aker Brygge, so what could be better than adding some culture. Thus White Paper No. 37 stated:

“The Vestbanen area could offer the Opera a vibrant city centre that will surround the largely introspective functions of the opera venture with life. By locating the opera house in such an environment, the institution could be integrated in a large and well-established cultural and entertainment context. Siting the new building in the heart of the capital would also stress the institution’s national character”.

National Gallery short of space
At the same time as Filharmonisk Selskaps Orkester and Det Norske Operafond were fighting for new buildings, the capital’s art museums were suffering from a shortage of space. The National Museum was founded in 1837, with the National Gallery on Tullinløkka being completed in 1882 as part of Oslo’s previous building boom. It was extended in 1907 and 1924, with the Munch Room being added in 1937. Despite this, the state art collection ran out of space relatively quickly.

– The museum was already full by the late 30s,” art historian Steinar Gjessing explains.  The proposal back then to place a functionalist building between the Historical Museum and the National Gallery, but then the war started, and in the post-war years priority was given to rebuilding the country”.

The Norwegian National Gallery’s first building stage. Photo: Olaf Martin Peder Væring, ca. 1885. Oslo Museum: Byhistorisk samling.

So it was not until spring 1972 that an architectural design competition was announced. A total of 50 proposals were submitted by the October deadline. Seven were highly commended, and Lund + Slaatto won first prize. They can be seen as the star architects of the day, winning three very important architectural design competitions in the centre of Oslo between 1971 and 1973: the National Theatre extension, a new headquarters for Norges Bank, and the Tullinløkka competition. As things turned out, both of the cultural projects came to nothing.  Their earlier projects included Asker Town Hall (1964), St Hallvard’s Church and Monastery on Enerhaugen in Oslo (1966) and Chateau Neuf (1971). Ulf Grønvold, the former director of the Museum of Architecture, writes in the journal Kunst og kultur that no other Norwegian firm of architects won as many competitions in such a short time. The firm’s success was down to its skill in analysing the assignment and the site, though being the leading proponent of structuralism was also a factor.

In architecture, structuralism means combining modules, or uniform building elements, based on a set structure. One of its main objectives is to create maximum flexibility in the use of space and maximum expansion potential while forcing down costs, since uniform building elements can be produced industrially.

Lund + Slaatto’s prize-winning design seems to have been well received.  Their proposal for a new national gallery was shelved, however, both because of overdevelopment of Tullinløkka and because Minister of Culture Einar Førde decided to give priority to another needy cultural institution.  Det Norske Teatret was founded in 1912 on the initiative of Edvard Drabløs and Hulda Garborg in order to “stage plays in the Norwegian language, vernacular or dialect.” In its early years it performed in the theatre of the Bondeungdomslaget i Oslo youth organisation, then moved to the disused Casino theatre at Stortingsgata 16. Seventy-two years after its foundation, Det Norske Teatret moved into a new building on Kristian IVs Gate.  Visitors to the new theatre were blessed with a large car park 100 metres away, on Tullinløkka, behind the National Gallery.

Photo montage from 1972 of Kjell Lund and Nils Slaattos (now Lund + Slaatto) winning draft to the expansion of the National Gallery. Photo: Lund + Slaatto Architects.

In 1986, proposal was put forward for a scheme for a small pavilion along Kristian Augusts Gate, a sculpture park at the centre, and, under the park, a car park for 500 cars. The proposal won no backing. It was at this time that Knut Berg, Director of the National Gallery, realised that a new approach was needed.

Museum of Contemporary Art founded
Knut Berg’s big move was to start pushing for a museum of contemporary art, Steinar Gjessing explains.

– As I saw it, Knut Berg realised that the extension of Tullinløkka would have to be set aside for the time being. So he started putting together a contemporary art collection instead.

The Museum of Contemporary Art was set up in 1987. Jan Brochmann was appointed Director in 1988 and Riksgalleriet was incorporated in the Museum of Contemporary Art as a separate department for touring art mediation.

– Then Norges Bank’s old headquarters became available, and Berg used the empty building as a bargaining tool. It could meanwhile be used as a museum. It was also a way of making the government realise that a new museum was needed.

Gjessing relates how, when he started in 1988, the staff were based in the old buildnings of the Riksgalleriet at Fornebu. They moved into the former bank building in Kvadraturen at the centre of Oslo in the summer of 1989.

– When the museum opened in January 1990, it was independent  of the National Gallery. The agreement was that all art created after 1945 should be transferred to the new museum as a deposit, but that the oldest art should be transferred back to the National Gallery every 25 years.

The government had created the first new art museum in Oslo since 1836. Just like Det Norske Teatret, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, it began life in temporary accommodation.

A new competition and unparalleled controversy
The year is 1990 and the Museum of Contemporary Art has opened. The National Gallery has room to breathe. The Historical Museum is short of space, however, and is looking to Tullinløkka to meet its needs. Twenty-one years after Lund + Slaatto had won the Tullinløkka competition, Minister of Culture Åse Kleveland and Minister of Church Affairs, Education and Research Gudmund Hernes took the initiative to expedite a museum building on the site that could accommodate both the National Gallery and the Historical Museum.

Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Rune Aavik. 1999. Oslo Museum: Byhistorisk samling.

A new competition was announced in the summer of 1995 with a December deadline. Sixty proposals were received. According to the jury, none was satisfactory. Three of the entrants were asked to rework their outlines and, in February 1996, the competition was won by Telje-Torp-Aasen. The firm had won the competition for a new university building at Blindern the year before, and its proposal for a new national gallery was very similar to the library that was under construction. Ulf Grønvold pointed out that as in the university library, the planned row of columns at the National Gallery had strong associations with the German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the Altes Museum in Berlin. He relates how this project was never built either, and believes there were many reasons for this.

– First of all, the media debate was unparalleled. Kåre Willoch, Peter Butenschøn and a good many protagonists living in Bærum and Oslo’s West End campaigned for a park on Tullinløkka.

In spring 1997, the debate was given a new twist, this time about style.

– Petter Olsen and the Foundation for Urban Renewal put forward a classical proposal for a new museum, which turned it into a purely stylistic debate between modernism and classicism.

The style, or taste, debate is reminiscent of the discussion when Lambda, the design for the new Munch Museum, was launched, which was about whether you liked the kink or the architecture, but, according to Grønvold, the debate in 1996 was more heated.

The new Munch Museum in Bjørvika, Oslo. Illustration: MIR / Herreros Arquitectos.

– The project loses impetus when Åse Kleveland steps down as Minister of Culture and Gudmund Hernes becomes Minister of Social Affairs. The initiators behind the museum on Tullinløkka disappear.

And as if that were not enough, the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Culture undermine the project.

– In the new project the National Gallery would get half the building. Now, however, the bureaucrats have started thinking about combining the various museums.

The Ministry knows that there are other museums in Oslo, like the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, that are in need of new premises.

– If all the museums in Oslo need new buildings, they will end up behind a new building somewhere else in the country on the priority list. There have also been several attempts to build a new National Gallery, but the problem doesn’t seem urgent enough.  Combining the museums in a new national museum makes the problem a lot bigger, ensuring that a new museum building goes to the top of the priority list.

The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design was founded in 2003. It included the National Gallery, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, the Museum of Architecture and the Museum of Contemporary Art. A new director was appointed in 2004. His name is Sune Nordgren. And he is an optimist. When the journal Arkitektnytt asks him whether a new architectural design competition will soon be announced for Tullinløkka, he says in March 2004:

“Everything is pointing in that direction, and I hope it will be this autumn, with the winning project being unveiled in summer 2005”.

Norgren’s optimism was not unfounded, as the situation had now changed in terms of both site and museum, Grønvold says.

– The Museum of Cultural History is to go to Bjørvika, freeing up the Historical Museum. The National Museum can then have the whole Tullinløkka site, not a shared solution. The government has also listened to the criticism from the earlier competition regarding the overdevelopment of Tullinløkka. It has therefore purchased, through Statsbygg, a couple of buildings on Kristian Augusts Gate for use as a museum.

Grønvold himself is involved in writing the remit for the architectural design competition. Everything is ready and throughout 2006 and 2007 more and more people in the museum ask why nothing is happening.

To Vestbanen
Eight years before Ulf Grønvold wondered why an architectural design competition was not being announced for Tullinløkka, the plan put forward by Minister of Culture Anne Enger (formerly Lahnstein) to build an opera house at Vestbanen had been scuppered. The capital had another railway station, Oslo Central, whose environs also stood in need of urban development. This resulted in the location of the opera house being hotly disputed in parliament, and, since the Progress Party did not want an opera at all, the government did not get the majority it needed to build an opera house at Vestbanen in 1998. In June 2002, the decision was taken to build the Opera in Bjørvika. With the business cluster at Aker Brygge expanding towards Tjuvholmen from 2005 onwards, the Vestbanen site was left as gaping wound right in the heart of the city.

The Oslo Opera House, the home of the Norwegian Opera & Ballett in Bjørvika, Oslo. Architecture by Snøhetta and finished in 2008. Photo: Wilhelm Joys Andersen, 2007.

The City of Oslo tried to solve this problem. On 9 May 2001, a united city council voted to locate the new Deichman Library, Oslo’s main public library, on the Vestbanen site. A 20-screen cinema and the Stenersen Museum, which occupied the lower ground floor of Oslo Concert Hall, would also be incorporated in the building. The City does not have the wherewithal to hold a competition and ends up asking Statsbygg to do the job. It is mainly international architects who are invited to take part in the competition. OMA, a Dutch firm, wins in June 2002. The year after, journalist Lotte Sandberg writes enthusiastically in Aftenposten:

“The new knowledge economy has a high priority – in Norway too. The success of OMA’s Seattle library promises that the Deichman Library at Vestbanen, designed by the same firm of architects, will make a unique contribution to the Oslo of the future.”

The new hotel was reviled, however, and in 2005 the city council voted to move the Munch Museum to the hotel site together with the Deichman Library and the Stenersen Museum.  It is not until April 2007 that the City of Oslo purchases the Vestbanen site from Statsbygg. It is nevertheless clear that the City of Oslo’s building project at Vestbanen is not on track. A year later, in May 2008, the government buys the site back and on 28 May 2008 the Ministry of Culture issues a press release about the government considering a new combined building for the National Museum at Vestbanen.

“I now believe that the real reason for there being no architectural design competition for Tullinløkka was that Minister of Culture Trond Giske was actually looking for a better alternative,” says Grønvold.

February 2009 sees publication of the report recommending a shared location at Vestbanen.  That same day, it is announced that the museum is to be built at Vestbanen.

Grønvold believes that Vestbanen was a distinctly better site for the National Museum.

– To begin with, it was one site, not two, making it possible to develop the museum horizontally. The problem at Tullinløkka was that a stream, Bislettbekken, ran under Kristian Augusts Gate in a culvert, so to get between the two sites on Tullinløkka and Kristian Augusts Gate, it would have been necessary to build a bridge over the road or dig down under the stream.

The National Museum is being relocated to Vestbanen, next to Aker Brygge and Oslo City Hall. Image taken February 2018 from the ongoing constructions. Photo: Ken Opprann/Statsbygg.

In autumn 2010, the German firm of architects Kleihues + Schuwerk won the international architectural design competition. Out of a total of 237 entries submitted by architects from all over the world, the jury selected six proposals for further development.

Ulf Grønvold is of the opinion that Kleihues + Schuwerk’s proposal was the best by far.

– It had a better understanding of the situation and better layouts. Locating visitor access at the front and goods access at the rear is just one example. There are two storeys at the front, which takes account of the station building. I see it as a restrained monumental building.  

The architects found their inspiration for the building in the past. They studied an architect who set his stamp on Oslo during the previous building boom in the late 19th century, another architect who designed the same building i Berlin and Havana, and, not least, a man who loves stone.  Things take time. Cultural development can take a very long time.

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