New designs put a shine on old Oslo

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2012 - 12:15 PM

Norway's venerable ancient capital gets a face-lift with some iconic head-turning structures.

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The Oslo Opera House's slanting roof has become a public plaza.

Photo: KIN ODE, Star Tribune

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There still may be an Old Country throughout Norway, but not in its capital city, where new structures are not only cool, but iconic, and ancient neighborhoods are as heady as a shot of aquavit.

Consider the stunning Oslo Opera House. With its sharp angles of white marble and blue glass, it resembles the tip of an iceberg bobbing in the fjord. The building, which opened in 2008, seems like the icon destined to define modern Oslo, drawing comparisons to the distinctive sails of the Sydney Opera House.

Oh, but then you visit the engineering marvel of the Holmenkollen Ski Jump. The world's newest jump appears unsupported as it stretches into the sky, as slim and elegant as an egret's neck. Illuminated at night and visible from downtown, surely this is the icon destined to define modern Oslo.

Oslo, a city since 1048, is a mix of the venerable old and the cutting-edge new.

The yards-thick walls of the ancient Akershus Fortress look down on the chic restaurants of the Aker Brygge district -- including a huge T.G.I. Friday's that, to Americans, must be like Norwegians encountering the Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis. Lofoten Fiskerestaurant is considered one of the city's finest sources of seafood, yet offers lutefisk as a specialty from October through December. At state-of-the-art Holmenkollen, folklore has a place in a 22-foot statue of a troll lurking among a stand of pines at the foot of the jump.

Holmenkollen also is home to the world's oldest ski museum, covering more than 4,000 years of people schussing, exploring and competing on slats of wood.

A spacious viewing platform at the top affords a stunning vista of Oslo and islands dappling the fjord. An open field visible on Bygdøy, one of the larger islands, is part of the Royal Farm that the king and queen use as their summer residence. The city itself lies in a gentle bowl, and the roots of the name Oslo are in the word "meadow." It's all very bucolic.

The atmosphere at the top of the ski jump, however, is not. In fact, one of the notable design features is a permanent windscreen of steel mesh and glass panels that protects jumpers from the buffeting winds. Then the Danish architects took function and made it fantastical by illuminating the jump with lights that cast an otherworldly glow into the sky. On a hill that has hosted ski jump competitions since 1892, the rising beam is meant to symbolize "extending tradition."

A Fabergé egg

The Opera House, home to the opera and ballet companies, also melds the old and the new, incorporating the Norwegian love of nature.

Shipbuilders carved the dark oak balconies that curve around the auditorium and conjure the sense of sitting inside a tree, said artistic coordinator Paul Kirby. From the lobby, the ribbed walls of the theater represent its bark. The acoustics "are so good you can hear people breathing," he said. "It's sort of an opera cauldron, so intimate that the people in the seats have something to do with how the performance is going."

The house also acknowledges its status as a global destination: The back of each seat features a small screen that delivers subtitles in eight different languages.

Five years in the making, the Opera House is the largest cultural building constructed in Norway since the 14th century, when a cathedral was built in Trondheim. Snøhetta, the hot Oslo-based design firm now at work on a redesign of New York City's Times Square, finessed the controversial site on an industrial waterfront.

"It was like putting a Fabergé egg in the middle of a workbench," Kirby said, but the magnet effect has begun, with more museums and cultural venues moving to the area, thanks in part to the Opera House's slanting roof becoming a public plaza. Construction cranes dot the skyline. The commercial harbor is likely to be moved farther down the fjord.

There's still plenty of "old Oslo" to traverse, but the flashes of iconic design paint a tantalizing future.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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