Return to the Seaside
Oslo’s urban waterfront renaissance.
A decade ago, huge container boxes greeted cruise ship tourists when they disembarked at Oslo’s harbor. The port city still hummed with heavy logistics activity, and most of its cultural highlights lay tucked away in the city center.
Today, though, the waterfront hums to a different tune entirely. Colorful urban graffiti splashes across the old corn silos and factory buildings; trendy seaside restaurants continue to crop up in former industrial areas; and public inner-city beaches brim with ardent bathers braving the chilly Oslo Fjord.
This transformation is nothing short of an urban renaissance — and one that continues to redefine Oslo’s waterfront. By 2030, close to a dozen sections of the Norwegian capital will be revived into a vibrant harbor promenade bookended by the new Oslo Opera House, with the soon-to-be-built Munch Museum to the east and the recently erected Renzo Piano–designed Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art to the west. At the heart of this project, known as the Fjord City, is Oslo’s connection to the sea.
“Oslo is very progressive now,” says Erlend Møgard Larsen, one of the many grassroots cultural entrepreneurs redefining the area. “In the last 10 years, a lot has happened in this city.
“When I moved to Oslo in 1999, the only access to the water was Bygdøy,” he adds, referencing a popular bathing peninsula situated near the city center, “and I had to bike kilometers to get there.”
The start of Oslo’s waterfront revival came nearly 10 years ago in Bjørvika, an old industrial quay that used to house dreary cargo containers on the east side of town. Historically, it had always been an area of productivity — from a medieval Viking hub of transport when Bjørvika partly lay underwater, to a home for sawmills in the 19th century.
In the old days, this area was referred to as Waterland, Dutch for “the land in the water,” according to Erling Dokk Holm, a prominent Norwegian architect leading the Institute of Creativity and Innovation at the Kristiania University College in Oslo. But today, he says much of it is built on industrial waste.
Indeed, the area remained a semi-wasteland until the bright white architectural block housing the Opera House arose by the shoreline in 2008. Plans for a new, relocated Opera House dated back to 1982, when Oslo’s waterside revival first sparked from the community-sponsored idea competition known as “The City and the Fjord: Oslo Year 2000.” It was not until 1999, however, that Norwegian politicians were able to land on where to relocate the opera. In the end, the government made the bold decision to clear the motorway, railroads and industrial quay in Bjørvika, and thus began the actual work of developing nine kilometers of Oslo’s shoreline into the Fjord City.
Now halfway into the project, the new financial district’s skyline — dubbed the “Barcode” for its intentionally mismatched architecture resembling a linear 1D scan code — towers over Bjørvika. By 2020, the Munch Museum’s wave-shaped structure will bend gracefully over the fjord, flanked by the new main Deichman library.
The most recent development to the Fjord City, though, caters to the public’s seaside cravings: a series of inner-city water holes. Next door to Bjørvika lies a sprawling public beach at Sørenga, where summer guests stroll the weathered boardwalk fitted with a sunken seawater pool. The more adventurous swim laps in the roped sea lanes stretching across the open fjord. To the west, bathers can dive off the pier or wade in the small pebble oasis by the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Tjuvholmen, one of Oslo’s most exclusive residential neighborhoods.
The current architectural lineup is admittedly not what planners initially envisioned. The Opera House was originally supposed to be moved to the ritzy west side of Oslo, home to major cultural institutions such as the National Theater and the National Gallery. But Norwegian socialist politicians fought to have it instead relocated to the undeveloped area of Bjørvika, to balance the east-west social class division.
“Initially it was just a political vision, but it became this big urban project,” says Even Smith Wergeland, a professor at the The Oslo School of Architecture and Design specializing in historical urban planning. “(The opera) has been a big success in that it kick-started development. Bjørvika became a place in the city that didn’t exist before. Common to all this is about redefining the city’s connection to the water.”
“We are at a very interesting turning point right now,” adds Wergeland. “If we look at the vision from 1982, the contrast is huge. There is huge, expensive housing, and the question is if there is room for more grassroots (efforts) and small shops.”
The latest developments show there is. California-based artist Amy Franceschini and Norwegian Anne Beate Hovind, for example, have started a Slow Space artwork project in a desolate area surrounding the exhaust tower from the Oslo Fjord tunnel traffic. Here, a group of idealistic farmers, oven builders, astronomers, artists, soil scientists and bakers plan to cultivate a heritage grain field in a historically polluted part of the harbor — a statement in itself — and establish a public flatbread bakery, Bakehouse Bjørvika.
“This (Slow Space project) is proof that green urbanism is not just a buzzword, but also a political vision,” says Wergeland.
Another grassroots entrepreneur is Larsen, who boasts a decades-long background of cultural events tied to the sea. In 2014, he started the country’s largest public sauna, known as Salt, up in Bodø, just north of the Arctic Circle. Now, the relocated 100-seat wood-and-glass pyramid steams guests at Festningsallmenningen — located midway along Oslo’s harbor promenade. The midnight sun illuminates large panes of the cathedral-like sauna, with rows of wooden benches facing the Opera House to the east and the corn silos at Vippetangen to the west.
“Here is a picture of my Uncle Haakon,” Larsen quips, pointing to a faded black-and-white portrait in the corner of Naustet, a restored wood boathouse café next door to Salt.
He is of course talking about the late Norwegian King Haakon VII, a photo that Norwegians characteristically hung in their homes. Larsen has included it in Naustet’s nostalgic transformation from an old boathouse into a bespoke dual café-sauna opened this January. He enlisted Norwegian design firm Tidsrommet to furnish it with a variety of Formica kitchen tables, maroon Scandinavian mid-century sofas, vintage china and other kitsch paraphernalia. In the back, a limited 8-10 seating wood-burning sauna adjoins the intimate cafe serving typical Norwegian small dishes. The specialty here is a slow-cooked cheese spread called gomme on hearty baked bread, served with kettle-cooked black coffee from a tiny three-plate cooktop.
“This is the house where the adventures started for fishermen,” says Larsen, himself a descendant of cod and pollock fishermen from northern Norway. “The boathouse is where you had your first kiss or first smoke or anything else you weren’t supposed to do. It is the coast and the sea that built this country, not oil. It is the lifeblood of the whole country.”
He’s encouraged about the Fjord City reconnecting Oslo to the sea, so much so that he’s planned a next project along the harbor promenade: a 1,000-square-meter food court and culture center at Skur 40 (Shed #40) in Vippetangen, the former ferry terminal for the inner Oslo Fjord islands. This chunk of prime land, hidden in the shadows behind the historical Akershus Fortress, lays a short walk from Salt. Larsen came up with the idea of converting a former sugar storage shed from the 1970s into a food mecca for the public. The concept struck the interest of 2016 Norwegian chef of the year Heidi Bjerkan, who is also now also a partner on the project.
Kaja Skovborg-Hansen at Norwegian company Vippa has led the conversion of the huge, graffiti-covered shed into the envisioned cultural hotspot. Hansen says it has been important to keep the outer shell’s rawness to match the industrial nature of the area. The shed sits between a working crane and corn silo from the 1930s and Norway’s largest fish hall, Fiskehallen, which will for the first time open for direct sales to the public. Huge windows will be knocked out on either side of the metal box to allow for bright, seaside views. A rooftop garden planted on top will grow herbs and other edibles for the planned school kitchen. The food hall will host all types of cuisines, with a focus on locally sourced produce, pop-up indie restaurants, and concert happenings.
“This is to be an inclusive place for all,” says Hansen. “When people come here, they expect it to be a peaceful place to get away from the city.”
This ability to escape the city within the city itself had made Oslo quite unique. The compact hamlet of slightly more than half a million is bounded by protected mountain forests to the north and long stretches of coastline and inner coastal islands along the south, earning it the tourist renommé of “the blue and the green and city in between.” And though there are many more projects yet to be imagined, one thing is for certain: By the end of the next decade, the Fjord City will have made Oslo even bluer.
Valeria Criscione has experienced the Norwegian capital’s transformation firsthand as a freelancer and former Financial Times Oslo correspondent. Since moving to Norway in the early 1990s, she has contributed on politics, finance, travel, and culture for the major U.S. and European newspapers as well as radio and TV outlets.