Just a Building

In his day, Erling Viksjø, architect of the Oslo Government District, was called a “bulldozer” and an “enemy of culture.” Today, his own legacy is facing demolition.

The Y-blokka in Oslo’s Government Quarter, 1969. Photo: Teigens Fotoatelier.

In the final week of June 2011, a celebratory toast (frugally executed in coffee) rang out in the prime minister’s office at the top of the Høyblokka (High-Rise) building in Oslo. Since 2008, the Directorate for Cultural Heritage in Norway (Riksantikvaren) had been working on its master plan for preserving the most important cultural monuments and properties of the Norwegian state. Now, all parties in the state administration were in agreement: after the summer holidays, the Høyblokka and the adjoining Y-blokka – “the breakthrough of modernism” in Norway and “the nation’s most important symbolic building” – would be officially listed, thereby ensuring their preservation. One month later, on 22 July, terrorist Anders Behring Breivik parked a car bomb outside Høyblokka. The explosion killed eight people and injured many more. After the attack, the work on listing and preserving the two buildings was put on hold.

Clean-up efforts in the Government Quarter began very quickly. Even though Statsbygg (Norway’s public-sector construction and property management advisor) reported major damage to the buildings’ windows, light walls, and interiors, the load-bearing structure was still intact. The art ​​was not destroyed, nor was the buildings’ cultural value. Both buildings could be repaired, but the price would be high. On 25 May 2014, following several rounds of public investigations, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and then-Minister of Local Government Jan Tore Sanner announced their decision: the Høyblokka building would be allowed to stay, the Y-blokka had to go.

Since then, the debate on whether or not to preserve the Y-blokka building has raged in many places. Professional institutions such as the Directorate for Cultural Heritage and the Byantikvaren (The Cultural Heritage Management Office in Oslo) have recommended preserving the building, while the National Trust of Norway (Fortidsminneforeningen) and the National Association of Norwegian Architects have spearheaded the protests and lodged formal complaints. Executives at Nasjonalmuseet have written opinion pieces, and the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter has arranged protest rallies which specifically focus on preserving Pablo Picasso’s murals. In addition to international players, a relatively unified Norwegian arts and culture scene has objected to the demolition of the Y-blokka. On 13 February this year, an estimated three thousand protesters showed up for a benefit concert and the largest protest rally to date.

A security risk

Envisioned as an extension of the Høyblokka, the Y-blokka was designed in the early 1950s by architect Erling Viksjø (1910–71) and completed in 1969. Together, the buildings form a totality, an integrated complex characterised by contrasts. Whereas the clean-cut Høyblokka directs the eye upwards, the curved walls of the Y-blokka suggest strong horizontal and circular movements which embraces the entire square.

In addition to accommodating the government’s need for more space, Viksjø wanted to clean up what he regarded as a chaotic urban area. In the 1950s, he demolished the old Empire Quarter to make room for the Høyblokka, and with the plans for Y-blokka in place, the square known as Arne Garborgs Plass, just north of the government buildings, was next in line. “The relationship between the Trinity Church and the Deichman Library is a particular eyesore,” Viksjø told the architecture journal Byggekunst in 1959, outlining how he would separate the neo-Gothic church and the neoclassical library by inserting one of the Y-shaped arms between them, thereby solving this “clash of styles.” Two streets passed between the two buildings and the building site, however, as did the main fire station’s emergency route; additionally, Viksjø had to bury the streets under a huge lid of concrete to make the site level. The Y-blokka’s intervention in the cityscape has been criticised ever since the 1950s, and following the terrorist attack, the security risk posed by the concrete tunnel has become the government’s strongest argument for its demolition.

Towers in the park

“Erling Viksjø’s work on the Government District must be seen in the light of the interwar period and the growing tendency, reaching back to the late 1930s, to give art more of a starring role in modernist architecture,” says Espen Johnsen, professor of art history at the University of Oslo. He believes the rough and brutal nature of the buildings differentiates them from contemporaneous trends in the Nordic countries. In Sweden, architects endeavoured to soften modernism, creating an aesthetic that was accessible, familiar, and widely relatable. Viksjø’s early draft for Høyblokka followed this trail after the war, but he increasingly attached himself to the French avant-garde represented by figures such as Le Corbusier and Jean Dubuffet. “It was all about creating a building for the future and a new form of monumentality where art is integrated into the architecture,” says Johnsen.

In the 1920s, Corbusier developed the idea of ​​free-standing high-rise buildings surrounded by parkland, most radically expressed by his provocative Plan Voisin, which aimed to modernise the old, cramped, and dirty neighbourhoods of Paris.

The Y-blokka in Oslo’s Government Quarter, 1969 or 1970. Photo: Teigens Fotoatelier.

Viksjø’s combination of a high-rise complemented by a lower and more sculptural building also recalls the 1952 UN building in New York, on which Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer were consulting architects. Like Niemeyer’s Ministry of Education and Health Building in Rio de Janeiro (1943), the Høyblokken stands on so-called pilotis, concrete columns pulled in underneath the façade so that no walls support the structure. This gives the house a light, floating feel and allows traffic to pass openly and freely through the building’s ground floor. The Y-blokka’s façade is pulled back in a similar fashion, and Viksjø gave both buildings an open floor plan as well as horizontal “ribbon windows” modelled on Le Courbusier’s ideas.

Like Le Corbusier, Viksjø was interested in contemporary art, and in 1955 he began planning the decoration of the Høyblokka building. Through the visual artist and illustrator Kai Fjell, he came into contact with a generation of young artists who worked with abstracted imagery that was considered controversial at the time: Inger Sitter (1929–2015), Carl Nesjar (1920–2015), Tore Haaland (1918–2005), and Odd Tandberg (1924–2017).

Entering a new age

Viksjø’s approach to the Government District also has points in common with the manifesto published in 1943 by architectural historian Siegfried Gideion, artist Fernand Leger, and architect Josep Lluís. ‘Nine Points on Monumentality’ is a critique of architectural historicism/eclecticism and popular taste. People need vital symbols, the authors claim, but such monuments must acknowledge “the creative forces of our period.” According to the manifesto, architects must collaborate with artists, experiment with modern technology and materials, and create buildings where art is integrated into architecture.

Throughout the 1950s, Viksjø collaborated with engineer Sverre Jystad on creating surface effects in concrete. By adding river gravel and pebbles to the cement, and then sandblasting and ‘digging’ these pebbles to the surface, the concrete took on a rough texture which lent itself to making reliefs and patterns. Jystad and Viksjø patented the technique, calling it “natural concrete,” and the artists invited to create new works for Høyblokka were given the task of further experimenting with the material. One of those artists was Nesjar. In a 1959 issue of Byggekunst, he compared the sandblasting of natural concrete with “engraving” lines and surfaces directly onto the wall. “It is possible to achieve an astonishing variety of visual expression,” Nesjar said, but the work must be done quickly and without pause. At Høyblokka, he worked between eight and fourteen hours in a row.

In addition to the Norwegian artists, Viksjø wanted to collaborate with Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). The idea of having a foreign artist decorate Norway’s government building was not uncontroversial, and the decision was criticised in Norwegian newspapers. Picasso was not easy to reach, but Nesjar managed to set up a meeting in Cannes in 1957, and when he showed photographs of the new technique, Picasso was supposedly besides himself with excitement.

Carl Nesjar sandblasting Picasso’s The Beach onto the walls of Høyblokka, ca. 1959.

Nesjar sandblasted several images by Picasso, including The Beach and Satyr and Faun (both 1957), onto the walls of the staircase of Høyblokka, and their meeting in Cannes would mark the beginning of sixteen years of collaboration. The art and the building that housed it were both well received in their day. In Byggekunst, architect Erik Rolfsen praised the building’s position within the overall urban landscape: “Here we see a carefully thought-out work of architecture of the highest calibre.” The commissioning of art for the building also marked a change in direction within Norwegian art. As art historian Hans-Jakob Brun writes in Norges Kunsthistorie. Inn i en ny tid (Norwegian Art History: Into a New Age, 1983), “the growth of Norwegian non-figurative painting is closely associated with the decoration of architecture in the 1950s.”

Built as a sculpture

When Viksjø returned to the Government District to build the Y-blokka in 1967, only new works by Nesjar and Picasso were commissioned. Nesjar did Picasso’s The Seagull by the building’s entrance, and The Fishermen on the end wall facing out towards Akersgata. Viksjø also wanted to imbue the building itself with sculptural qualities, and arches and circular shapes recur throughout. The “conch shell staircase,” an upward spiral in the building’s centre, is illuminated by a circular skylight. Viewed from above, it echoes the concrete deck outside the Deichman library, where an elegant aperture accommodates the tunnels’ ventilation system. Yet another semi-circle opens up in the concrete above the main fire station, giving passersby a chance to look at the traffic rushing by.

“Like Corbusier, Viksjø reacts against what we call ‘system architecture’ and High Modernism as it manifests itself in the US, with smooth materials and a super-finish architecture,” says Johnsen, who points to the church in Ronchamp (1955) and its sculptural nature as a precursor of Y-blokka.

The Y-shaped UNESCO building in Paris from 1958 is another reference. Viksjø completed his design of Y-blokka that same year, but he made it heavier, lower and wider, giving the building a more varied surface with a “natural concrete” façade and teak window frames. Construction did not begin until ten years later, however. By then, sculptural architecture had already been established in Norway, including the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø (1965) and the Kirkelandet church in Kristiansund (1964).

Tromsdalen Church, also known as the Arctic Cathedral, ca. 1966.

Apart from the ongoing discussion about the Arne Garborg Plass, Y-blokka did not meet with critical public response. Yet, the idea of ​​the architect as a sovereign arbiter of form came under pressure during the mid-60s. The use of natural concrete and the harsh modernist aesthetic had already reached a saturation point verging on fatigue, and supplanting old neighbourhoods was considered a mistake. When Norsk Arkitekturmuseum (the Norwegian Museum of Architecture, now part of Nasjonalmuseet) presented the exhibition Arkitekt Erling Viksjø in the autumn of 1999, the museum’s director, Ulf Grønvold, stated that it was time to look at the era with fresh eyes. Even so, the exhibition was not well received by critics, and Viksjø’s abilities as an urban planner came under particular scrutiny. Jan Carlsen wrote of “Y-blokka’s occupation of the urban space,” while Lasse Midttun associated the natural concrete with military installations. In the newspaper Morgenbladet, he described Viksjø’s buildings as elitist and unwelcoming, inscribing the architecture into the post-war political climate, where “a feeble parliament” sat on the sideline while the Labour Party’s majority governments cooperated with industry and trade unions. “This system has, with some exaggeration, been referred to as a co-operative state,” said Midttun, “[a] state in which power bypasses the parliament and democratic elections to find other avenues. The architect of this state was Erling Viksjø.”

After 22 July 2011

The explosion on 22 July left a huge crater and massive material damage in the heart of Oslo, and parts of the Government District have been closed to traffic ever since. “No matter what we ultimately decide to do, I’m absolutely certain that things are not going to look the way they used to. We cannot rule out the possibility that the most badly damaged buildings will have to be demolished,” said then-Minister of Renewal and Administration Rigmor Aasrud to the Norwegian News Agency (NTB) in October 2011.

Debate on whether to preserve the buildings intensified, and when Aasrud referred to the Høyblokka as “just a building” one month later, she triggered an avalanche of comments. The building had taken on new symbolic value after the terrorist attack – partly as a site of remembrance, and partly due to its resilience – but the Y-blokka building tended to be overlooked.

The following year, the government commissioned a review of three options for the Government District: to preserve and rebuild the buildings as they were before 22 July; to demolish everything and build something new; or a combination of conservation and demolition. Simultaneously, the government laid down an important precondition for the work: the ministries were to be centralised, and the same area had to accommodate far more staff than before.

A review was presented in 2013 which recommended tearing down the Høyblokka and Y-blokka while preserving the sandblasted art. In May 2014, compromise was reached whereby Høyblokka would be preserved along with Nesjar’s and Picasso’s murals, which would be and installed elsewhere; the Y-blokka would be replaced with a new government park.

“I am both relieved and happy that the decision to preserve the Høyblokka was finally chosen,” said then-head of the Directorate for Cultural Heritage in Norway, Jørn Holme, to NTB. He accepted that the Y-blokka had to be demolished for security reasons. “We can and should live with that,” Holme said.

Team Urbis’ winning proposal for the new Government Quarter, 2018. Foto: Team Urbis/Statsbygg.

Debate has since centred on the Y-blokka, but several things have changed. The projected need for offices has been scaled down, and the tunnel underneath the Y-blokka is to be lowered and reinforced. Moreover, reusing concrete buildings has become recognised as climate-friendly. In 2016, the head of the Directorate for Cultural Heritage proposed that only the building’s northern wing should be demolished; others wish to leave this section empty, or for it to be used differently, while students at the School of Architecture have submitted drafts of how the building could be repurposed.

“The work on the Government District is subject to a regulation plan that gives the government full control of the project, limiting the influence of other authorities,” according to Lisbeth Halseth from the architectural firm LPO, which took part in the review process in 2013.

“When I read the 2017 regulation plan, I discovered that no proper assessment of a possible preservation of the Y-blokka had ever been made. Quite the contrary: all the work done after 2013 has assumed as a given that the Y-blokka is to be demolished, and the government has never considered preserving it.» The National Trust of Norway and the National Association of Norwegian Architects have asserted that this is a procedural error, but no official bodies have upheld the complainants’ claims.

According to the government, the Y-blokka is a security risk and impedes free movement across Arne Garborgs Plass. “The time has come to implement the decision,” Nikolai Astrup, minister for Local Government and Modernisation, stated in the newspaper Aftenposten on 30 January this year.

On 13 February, the National Trust of Norway and the National Association of Norwegian Architects, together with the organisations Støtteaksjonen for bevaring av Y-blokka (Support Campaign for Preserving the Y-block) and Oslo Arkitektforening (The Oslo Architect Association), announced that they will sue the Norwegian state. The demolition of the Y-blokk is temporarily put on hold.

Erling Viksjø, sketch of the Government Quarter, ca. 1958.