In the Norwegian capital of Oslo, the historic neighbourhood of Bjørvika has been undergoing a major redevelopment project to become an urban and cultural hub in the centre of the city. By name, the former industrial port might not be familiar to visitors. But many will pass through it, spotting the funky architecture of the Barcode district when arriving into Oslo’s central train station or when visiting the Oslo Opera House.
On my very first visit to the city back in 2004, there wasn’t much worth seeing here. Plans for the development of the area were not approved until 2003 despite the initial vision of developing Oslo as a ‘fjord city’ beginning in the early eighties. So going back to explore the area in 2016 was like discovering a completely new city. Only its transformation is far from complete.
Historically Bjørvika has always been an important part of Oslo. The name meaning ‘City Bay’, represents its location at the point where the Akerselva river and Alna river meet the Oslofjord. The area was a busy trade port with a high population until the city was hit by the plague in the fourteenth century. As Oslo rebuilt itself following repeated fires and recessions, Bjørvika would eventually become the city’s harbour and one the major seaports of Norway.
By the twentieth century the area became increasingly industrialised and as the rest of Oslo developed, the port became more and more segregated, left as a shipyard separated behind a barrier of highways and railway lines. Plans to renew Oslo’s waterfront with the Fjord City (or Fjordbyen) initiative aimed to address this, by diversifying the area with business and office space alongside art centres, museums and public parks, to attract residents and visitors alike.
One of the first projects to be completed was the Oslo Opera house. After opening in 2008 the building has set the tone for the rest of the area’s redevelopment and has already become one of Oslo’s must-see visitor attractions. Home to the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, the building was not only designed for opera and art lovers, but as an inviting space open for public use. Architects Snøhetta had this in mind all along, creating a “social democratic monument” with it’s structure, reminiscent of an iceberg, encouraging visitors to roam around on the roof sloping down into the waters of the fjord below. Thanks to this the building has been received positively by citizens, giving the neighbourhood a head start in gaining local support and increasing traffic to the area.
The Barcode project however was not met with the same level of approval. The construction of the high rise office and apartment blocks has been the focus of much public debate. Unlike the architects of the opera house, the Barcode architects appear not to have had social sustainability or any of the other cultural goals of the Fjord City vision in mind. Instead the district was designed with the aim of attracting large private sector businesses but has been argued as failing to contribute to a just city .
Another public concern was the height of the buildings, which some believed threatened Oslo’s character as a ‘low-rise city with green open spaces’. Current plans to create more public parks and beaches attempt to address this, as does a ‘water promenade’ lining the entire port area, connecting the natural marine landscape to an otherwise urban environment.
Existing cultural institutions are also to be moved to Bjørvika, with the new locations for the The Munch museum and The Oslo Public library already being built. During a tour of the Opera house, while looking out from the windows over the construction site, our guide mentioned plans for a gondola going up the mountain side over to the east. I haven’t heard much further information on this, but seeing the area transform once again in the coming years is in itself an exciting prospect. The whole Fjord City project is due for completion by 2030.
Despite its criticisms, the current architectural designs and clustering of cultural institutions in the area in some ways helps to give Bjørvika its own distinctive image and urban brand, matching the vision of the neighbourhood as ‘a city within a city’. As one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, development in Oslo is considered essential. However I hope to see the renewal respect the ports industrial past, while remaining focused on following the kind of sustainable design that is typical of Norwegian architecture. How Bjørvika’s transformation will fit in with the rest of Oslo’s Sentrum borough, and the affect moving existing institutions will have on their former inner city locations, remains to be seen.
Here you can see a nice animated video of how the Bjørvika area will continue to be developed in the upcoming years. What are your thoughts about it?
Sources and further reading
-  Andersen, B and Gunnar Røe, P (2016), The social context and politics of large scale urban architecture: Investigating the design of Barcode, Oslo: http://eur.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/04/21/0969776416643751.abstract
- Bjørvik Utvikling (English site): http://www.bjorvikautvikling.no/english
- Bjørvik facts and history: http://www.bjorvikautvikling.no/toppmeny/english/facts-and-history
- Briers, C. Oslo Fjord City – Oslo’s strategic waterfront development: https://www.academia.edu/10217550/Oslo_Fjord_City_-_Oslos_strategic_waterfront_development
- Byutviklingsforvikling, 2010 (Norwegian): http://www.kunstkritikk.no/kritikk/byutviklingsforvikling/
- Oslo Hvn – About the Fjord City: http://www.oslohavn.no/en/fjord_city/about_the_fjord_city/
- Visit Oslo – Fjord City and Bjørvika: http://www.visitoslo.com/en/your-oslo/new-architecture/on-the-horizon/fjord-city-and-bjorvika/