When 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic in late August to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City, it was perhaps the most high-profile case yet of “flight shame,” a growing movement of people avoiding air travel and the greenhouse gas emissions that come with taking planes.
As it happens, this was also the year I challenged myself to travel less and use as little resources as possible when I do. So when I was planning my visit to the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale this fall, I had just the opportunity to walk the talk—especially given the show’s theme of “degrowth”, exploring architectural alternatives that promote human and ecological flourishing instead of infinite economic expansion.
Getting to Oslo from London, where I’m based, is quickest by plane, just about two hours flying over the North Sea. My alternative journey would certainly be longer and more complicated, traversing more of Europe. But what was supposed to be four trains and one ferry ended up being nine trains and one ferry, making for a total one-way trip duration of 45 hours.
At one point, we were forced out of the overnight train from Hamburg to Copenhagen because the toilets weren’t working and told to meet a new train at another station. Two maddeningly slow local trains—and 2.5 hours—later we found ourselves back on the very same train. (And the toilets were still broken!)
Five minutes later, we were traipsing across the railway tracks of a tiny station on the Danish border clambering aboard yet another train. I spent the rest of the night perched on a folding seat with no arm rests.
As I emerged from my arduous trek and into a few days spent exploring the Triennale, it became apparent that the event was both ambitious in scope yet remarkably practical and locally engaged.
The main exhibition in Oslo’s National Museum - Architecture, converted from a former 19th-century bank, examined the potential for change on an individual, collective, and systemic level through books, magazines, films, models, games, and more.
I learned about how moving houses across land and sea was commonplace in Norway in the first part of the 20th century (a practice that could be revived as a way to avoid building new houses); touched fiberboard made from pine needles, a veneer from heirloom corn husks, and bricks from mashed-up aggregate; played a board game called Bartertown, where I imagined a future world without money; explored a bio-waste power plant; read about a bio-brick made of straw and clay, designed to return to the earth when no longer needed.
The more immersive strand of the Triennale, an audio walk called Place Listening that was curated by urban researcher Cecilie Sachs Olsen with artist Nina Lund Westerdahl, took people across the city. Participants were asked simple questions—e.g. “Did we feel safe in this part of the city?”, “Why was play always designated to specific areas?”, ‘Had we ever been discriminated against?”—and then told to stand in different parts of the street corresponding with a “yes” or “no” answer.
At various points, we were asked to walk backwards, hold hands with our neighbors, and dance in a big square. It wasn’t life-changing, but it made the larger point that not everything has to be about the brain and work; we can also play to discover and imagine what more or different things to ask for from our cities.
Another highlight was an immersive theater experience by German multimedia collective Rimini Protokoll. Held in Oslo’s National Theatre, Society Under Construction divided the audience into groups and took them from one section of the stage to another to learn about real events in the construction world by participating in an enactment of those scenarios.
That’s how I found myself putting money on a Berlin real estate deal with the help of an investment consultant, and then helping a Romanian construction worker lay bricks while he talked about illegal employment practices. Perhaps most memorable was listening to Alfredo di Mauro, the man who designed the smoke extraction system for Berlin’s new and still unfinished Brandenburg Airport, talk about how his ventilation system has been blamed for the delay and, as a result, he hasn’t worked since and stands to go bankrupt.
What made this piece so powerful was that the protagonists were real people and not actors—that was the real Alfredo di Mauro—and their anger at this global and impenetrable web of exploited, underpaid labor, plus the lack of accountability for international investors, consortiums, and suppliers, was sorely palpable.
With the proliferation of design fairs around the world, I’ve also become uncomfortable thinking about all the waste created with each temporary production. So it was impressive to see the Triennale organizers make an effort on that front.
No plastic folders or USB sticks were handed out to the press or the public. The tote bags we received were pre-used. Transportation for press tours was provided through electric buses. The show’s two London-based curators, Maria Smith and Phineas Harper, also traveled to Oslo and back by train and said it was an “easy” decision.
“As citizens our focus should be on demanding political and economic change rather than agonizing over paper cups,” they wrote in an email after we all got back. “However, flying less, [or] adopting a plant-based diet, is an example of where individuals can make a difference.”
Their decision to skip flying was also made easier by the fact that airports are deeply unpleasant places—in the curators’ words, “mazes of duty-free concessions squeezing passengers through the bowels of Ray-Ban and Toblerone hell” and “sphincters of invasive fear-mongering security checks, pat-downs, and X-ray scans bottlenecking travelers into relentless queues”. I couldn’t have put it better.
Now that I’ve been to Oslo by train, would I do it again?
The answer is: Yes, but with some caveats.
Spending more time on the road, so to speak, than in my destination (two days of travel each way for three days at the Triennale) certainly didn’t feel effective or efficient. Trains broke down, got delayed, and changed platforms at zero notice, making for a stressful travel experience, especially when I was trying to make tight connections.
Privatization and the fragmentation of longer train services mean you can no longer do many long overnight stretches on a single train. And when that service still exists, it is basic and prone to problems. The train ticket costs several times what I would have spent on a plane ticket, something that is only possible because the aviation industry currently enjoys huge subsidies. By the time I started the journey home I must admit I felt a little fatigued and even bored by the whole thing, and just wanted the journey to go faster.
But on the other hand, this trip, and other long train trips I’ve done this year, have also altered my mindset. I no longer expect to get where I want to go quickly, and, as a result, I try to make more of the time I have at my destination as it feels hard-earned.
And then there is the bonus of taking in sights that I would have missed in the sealed cabin of a plane, like Santiago Calatrava’s soaring train station in Liège, Belgium, and the magnificent gothic cathedral next to the train station in Cologne, Germany. In Smith and Harper’s case, there was “drinking tea in the famous Rosarium, an ornamental public rose garden in Gothenburg” during a changeover.
Finally, because traveling slowly is more often a shared experience, I’ve had more chats with strangers during this trip than I’ve had in a long time. And that brings me back to the Triennale, which is ultimately about sharing—of resources, materials, and knowledge, of stories and new visions.
My takeaway is that in the future, there doesn’t have to be just one way to travel, but people need to be shown what they might do instead, or at least inspired to imagine the alternatives.
“Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth”, curated by Matthew Dalziel, Phineas Harper, Cecilie Sachs Olsen, and Maria Smith, closes on November 24.
Disclosure: The writer’s travel to the event was provided by Visit Norway. The itinerary was selected by the writer and all opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.