The cultural and millionaire conversion of Oslo

In its six free floors connected by escalators and with huge windows there are tables for cutting patterns and half a dozen sewing machines; 3D printers where a boy, one afternoon in November, made a snake and his friend a Star Wars helmet; cubicles that are closed with curtains to allow viewing of movies, as well as a large theater; sound recording studios and music rooms; rooms for gamers; an upholstered corner with fabric balls for babies to play; a bar where you can have a wine and another space reserved for coffee. In Oslo’s stunning new Deichman, the headquarters of the city’s public library network, which opened in June 2020, there’s a little bit of everything. Is there room to read? Yes, there are also reading and study corners and large areas with armchairs and benches where to recline, available for the nearly 6,000 visitors on average that this efficient building welcomes on weekdays (the cement with which it has been built reduced carbon emission until reaching only 20% of the usual value, its air conditioning is by underfloor heating), a figure that reaches 10,000 users on weekends, as clarified from the library. During the week the library is open until ten at night.

Users of the new headquarters of the public libraries in Oslo have large reading areas.

The total cost of the building was 2.6 billion NOK (252,664,000 euros). The entrance hall with its glass walls makes one think of a covered square protected from inclement weather, where parents with strollers, adolescents and the elderly enjoy a free, accessible and well-equipped public space, different from any other in the They normally offer in cities. “We always think of going beyond the functions of a library, we wanted it to be something new, abstract, spacious, a library of the future,” says Jonas Norsted from Atelier Oslo, a disciple of the veteran Svein Lund with whom he has worked on this project. “We thought of it not as a container for books but as a space for people, where workshops and meetings were held, even if it was crossed by citizens as a shortcut between streets. We did not want to make a place where they joke with you, but a meeting space ”.

Margarita Sandhal, 89, in an impeccable checked jacket and a flirty gray beret, clarifies while having tea and a sponge cake in the Deichman cafe that, although she had visited the new building on several occasions throughout this year , this is the first time he has approached to borrow a book, curiously from one of the most international Norwegian authors, Jø Nesbo. I had not frequented his work until now because “his novels drip blood.” The new book of stories that he takes home will be one of the seven titles a month that he reads on average, and that he usually picks up in his neighborhood library, one of the 22 with which this city of 697,000 inhabitants is equipped. As Oliver Møystad from Norla, the agency for the promotion of Norwegian literature abroad, points out, libraries in Oslo often serve as social centers and meeting places especially for young people – some venues have restricted access to adults and their patrons are exclusively teenagers—, something that strengthens the reading and book-related culture. On average, the new library processes 900 loans every day of the week and 1,500 on weekends, and these figures include books, movies and music. After the removal of some damaged copies, the entire collection of the Deichman was transferred to the new building in a move in which hundreds of schoolchildren participated with their backpacks full of books.

View of the interior of the Oslo Library headquarters.
View of the interior of the Oslo Library headquarters.

For Luis Callejas, Colombian architect of the LCLA office, the Deichman project reminds him, saving distances, of the network of libraries that was built in Medellín. “Their role goes further, they are more civic spaces than traditional libraries”, underlines this professor from the University of Oslo. Callejas frames the construction of the new library and the new headquarters of the Munch museum, designed by the Spanish Juan Herreros, within the urban shift that has moved the axis of the city towards the sea. A plan for the city that has not been without controversy and that the most critical voices describe as an example of a “culture of the nouveau riche.” One of the thorniest points has to do with the abandonment of the old buildings for which their future function has not yet been considered. Lund, the architect who captained the project for the new library, has been hired by the private investor who has kept the old Deichman, a 1933 building that for the moment, and without having been renovated yet, is used as the headquarters of exhibitions. “The displacement of the city towards that port converted into a promenade leaves a certain void, but these areas will evolve,” Lund pointed out in an interview in his study. “The change is related to the fact that the production center is no longer in the cities.” And this is by no means the first great displacement of Oslo, a city that grew on Mount Ekeberg until its inhabitants decided to go down and protect the port by building a castle and the wall. The change in the 21st century is not for a defensive reason, but it has also resulted in a constructive and urbanizing frenzy.

Recover and transform

In just two years, the three openings of the imposing Munch, the headquarters of the Oslo library network and the new building of the National Museum (whose inauguration is scheduled for next June) turn the Norwegian capital into the European city with the most energy and budget is committed to the renewal of its cultural infrastructures. The recovery and transformation of the port’s land and its industrial zone in the brand-new Bjørvika neighborhood began with the project of the opera designed by the Norwegian studio Snøhetta and inaugurated in 2007. This building made of marble stone and white granite and experimental geometry, whose roof It has become an unlikely and sophisticated promenade for the people of Huelva, it constitutes the cornerstone of the urban project that in just two decades has gone around the city. The exhibition on the Munch museum project in La Virreina de Barcelona shows this transformation. “In the eighties the dismantling of the port began, which was transferred to the open sea and the project of Fjord City, the search for contact with the fjord without any obstruction ”, explains the architect Juan Herreros over the phone. “The opera was the first great contest, a stone thrown across the barrier between the water and the city.”

View of the exterior of the Munch museum designed by Juan Herreros.
View of the exterior of the Munch museum designed by Juan Herreros.

Indeed, when the dazzling opera building opened its doors, you had to cross a highway to reach the edge of the sea on which the iconic building stands. This road, fundamental in the port’s transport chain and an essential artery for motorists in a capital that supports freezing temperatures in the winter months, was buried, and led to a drastic reduction in road traffic in the area. To this was added the expansion and overhaul of the railway station and in parallel the development of these sites was projected with the construction of the skyscrapers of the so-called Barcode district and the offices and luxury homes that have been built on the edge of the river. sea.

Vertical culture

The architecture competitions for the new library and the Munch museum were held simultaneously and by invitation. The projected buildings inevitably had to form a whole with the opera, and perhaps for this reason they renounced horizontality. Herreros explains that his vertical design of the museum somehow wants to claim that “tall buildings are not only offices, they can also house culture.” In the case of the new library, the project included two more buildings on the same lot: one dedicated to offices and another to student housing, in an attempt, say Lund and Norsted, to alleviate the deficit of affordable housing in the new area. The Munch, the Deichman and the opera propose, as Herreros points out, “a democratization of public space”, a radical opening of centers dedicated to culture whose doors are wide open to all creating new spaces for gathering and enjoyment .

One of the rooms of the new Munch.
One of the rooms of the new Munch. Einar Aslaksen

“After a tough and important debate about what we wanted to achieve, we started the opera project 20 years ago in the old wharf area. That was the beginning of the transformation and this year has been completed with the opening of the Munch museum and the new urban beach ”, explains by mail the councilor for culture of Oslo, Omar Samy Gamal, and cites Bilbao as one of the places that the Municipal authorities and planners visited, to see first-hand how the Guggenheim museum had allowed the reinvention of that city. “Next summer the new headquarters of the National Museum of Art will open next to the Nobel Peace Prize Center. And our city is already an example of how culture can direct urban development ”. What about the plans for the old buildings? “The discussion about the future of the old Munchmuseum is not over. And there has also been a lot of debate about the use of the National Museum building, owned by the State, whose collection is going to be transferred. Nothing has been decided yet, but these properties have great potential for the cultural scene in Oslo ”.

Back in the lively café on the Deichman, the octogenarian from Huesca Margarita Sandhal is proud of the new library, not the houses that have been built in the new neighborhood, which she visited but did not quite convince her. She puts Nesbo’s book in her bag and says goodbye with a single objection: the cake is unworthy, it is dry, and it should improve.

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The cultural and millionaire conversion of Oslo