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After Tragedy, Can Architects Reclaim Oslo's Public Space?

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, we visit Oslo, Norway.

The July 22, 2011, mass killing in Oslo, Norway, was the largest loss of life in the country since World War II. Over the course of three hours, a young political extremist detonated a car bomb in front of the office of the Prime Minister and walked away. From there he went to a political youth camp twenty-five miles outside of town and massacred dozens of teenagers and young adults. Seventy-seven people were killed.

Only one building was severely damaged, but even the others were abandoned. Oslo's government buildings seemed vulnerable. And now, four years later, they remain empty. Government employees work around the city in rented offices while architects, preservationists, and bureaucrats face off over what should be done with the damaged structures downtown.

"When you're planning in the center of the city, [you address the question of] how should we prioritize? What comes first: the public or the security?" asks Superunion's Vilhelm Christensen.

One building in particular illustrates this question. When it comes to the Y-Block, finished in 1969 and designed by architect Erling Viksjø, Christensen and partner Johanne Borthne suggest that security and public needs might not be mutually exclusive. In the fifties and sixties, Viksjø designed and constructed two government buildings: the Y-block and the H-block, which housed the Ministry of Justice and the offices of the Prime Minister and was the target of 2011's attack.

Both are made of exposed concrete with similar facades. The H-block is tall and austere next to the Y-block's long, elegant wings. Across one exterior and one interior wall of the Y-block, broad wall reliefs by Pablo Picasso, made with Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar, depict fishermen and seagulls. Just one month before the attack, the Directorate of Cultural Heritage had proposed to list the two buildings as protected monuments.

Now, as both sit vacant and blocked off, the Y-block is slated for demolition. A main city road, which passes beneath the building, poses a continued security threat. Though the façade of the H-block and the public square in front of it will be preserved for symbolic reasons, according to current plans, vast swaths of the quarter will be demolished and re-built on a timeline that stretches into 2025.

Christensen and Borthne's proposal revolves around a simpler solution to the security threat: lowering the road to an isolated tunnel beneath the ground—thus decreasing the building's vulnerability—and uniting what are right now three separate spaces into one broad, open public plaza. By scooping out the area under and around the swooping wings of the building, which right now face the H-block and the entrance and exit of the road that passes beneath the building, three largely unused areas become public space.

"We're just editing and removing what's problematic and changing the building's relationship to its environment," Christensen says of his firm's proposal. "Instead of making something that's purely new, we tried to make something that's a combination of different layers of the past, present, and the future."

Christensen points out that from the 1940s until Y-block's construction, this land had been Arne Garborg Square, a green space with benches and a fountain in front of the main fire station, between the government quarter and the Oslo Public Library. When Y-block was constructed, a lid covered the square to connect two streets and improve the flow of traffic.

The building itself, he continues, is not the main problem, but rather the infrastructure is. By lowering the road beneath the ground, through-traffic moves within a tunnel, while light traffic and foot traffic circulate above ground. The lid is removed, and the bottom floor is pulled under the main structure and covered in glass. The building, perched on light columns, embraces its original Le Corbusier-esque tone. The current cylindrical staircase is extended down to the main square, opening a new entrance to the building. Upstairs, three floors of offices remain. Downstairs, the building is open and bright, ideal, Christensen says, for a variety of public programs: a café, a museum, or a memorial to the 2011 attack.

Rather than start from scratch, Superunion proposes to look to the past to solve the problems of the present. While Christensen is careful to observe that this plan prioritizes public use of the much-trafficked area over regimented security systems, Superunion's proposal leverages what had, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, seemed like susceptibility, turning it into something more positive: openness and a place to honor the tragedy itself.

After all, these buildings' demolition comes with a cost, says Christensen, higher, even, than the $2.6 billion price tag on a new government quarter.

"I think we're losing the area's original intent: When this complex was built in the 60s, it was the establishment of social democracy," he says. "It was part of the historical development of the nation. At that time, you could see the openness of society in the area. You could walk through it. Now things are very closed. It's going to be even more of a dead area without the public spaces that were intended to be there."

· Oslo coverage [Curbed]
· The Architect's City archive [Curbed]