Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Norwegian facelift of historic proportions

OSLO/RECLAIMING THE SEA. He might be stretching it a bit, but when the politician responsible for urban development in Oslo’s City Hall tries to describe the ongoing transformation of his city he digs deep in history.
“This is the biggest change of Oslo since 1624”, says Bård Folke Fredriksen, Commissioner for Urban Development in Oslo’s city government.
When he looks out the window of his tenth floor office in one of the towers of Oslo’s characteristic City Hall, Bård Folke Fredriksen (right) can see the changes taking place.
Oslo is reconnecting with the sea in a monumental waterfront development called Fjord City, a project that will completely change the face of the Norwegian capital. A decade or two from now, when the project is completed, Oslo will finally live up to its motto: “The Blue and the Green, the City in Between”.
Today most of the city center is separated from the blue waters of the Oslo Fjord by a stretch of dismal infrastructure that forms a barrier between urban life and the seafront.
Norway’s busiest highway (left) cuts right through the city center along the waterfront. Old port areas take up much of the rest of what is the face of Oslo.
Plans for the new Fjord City were first drawn almost 30 years ago, in the early 1980’s, and parts of the waterfront have already been transformed into pleasant new city districts. But the really big changes will be set in motion later this year, when the first part of the main waterfront highway is moved into a new tunnel under the waters of Bjørvika right in the city center.
Next to the iconic new Opera House, a celebrated architectural sensation, construction will begin on new residential areas. The highway will be torn down as soon as the tunnel is completed, and the new city district will be connected to the old center.
The Bjørvika development, one of a series of developments that form the Fjord City, will be right next to the historic center of the 1000-year old Norwegian capital.
This is where the great change took place in 1624, when the original city was destroyed in a fire and the King of Denmark, who ruled Norway at the time, decided to move the capital across the waters of Bjørvika to a new site further west along the fjord.
“The main driving force behind this development is the fact that Oslo is growing very quickly. We must secure that the city can house as much 200,000 more residents in the next 20 years. And that comes on top of a growth of 100,000 residents in the past 12 years”, says Bård Folke Fredriksen in the City Hall.
The city of Oslo now has a population of 585,000. The Fjord City developments with its 9,000 homes will not fill all needs for new housing, but this is where the symbolic change of Oslo is taking place.
After looking at a number of European waterfront developments lately, I’m tempted to say that no other city will go through a facelift comparable to Oslo’s.
The Fjord City project will not only change the physical image of Oslo in a dramatic way. It will also make the city a world class cultural attraction with several new institutions set to follow the Opera down to the waterfront in planned new architectural masterpieces. There will be more about that in later reports.
The video below will give you an idea of what this Oslo of the future will look like.
The frosting on the cake, Bård Folke Fredriksen says (using a similar Norwegian metaphoric expression), is that Oslo with the new development will get a 10 km long waterfront promenade linking the different parts of the Fjord City, from east to west.
“You will be able to go for a walk, fish and swim in the fjord. There will also be many open urban spaces leading down from the city to the new waterfront.”
As the construction at Bjørvika now gets under way, the vision of the Fjord City becomes more real for Oslo’s residents. There is a sometimes heated debate going on, mostly about details in the project. A later report will look more at that.
Stein Kolstø, the city’s project manager for the Fjord City development, has lived with the planned transformation of Oslo for decades. I meet him and his colleagues at the city’s Agency for Planning and Building Services for a comprehensive look at the changes brought forward by the Fjord City plans.
“This is very valuable land, both because it’s so near the city center, but also because it’s near the nature of the Fjord landscape. And it’s facing south. This closeness to the city center is something I think sets this project apart from other waterfront developments in Europe”, says Stein Kolstø.
Closest in comparison comes HafenCity in Hamburg, says Kolstø, a project that has been covered in this blog.
All existing port activities along the Oslo waterfront will be moved to a new terminal called Sydhavna (Southern Harbour) on the eastern edge of the Fjord City project. Construction of the new, modern port facility is financed by the sale of land to the developers of Fjord City.
The revamp of Oslo’s waterfront actually began in the 1980’s with Aker Brygge, a commercial and residential district near City Hall. It was completed in 1992 and has since been a popular meeting place with its bars and restaurants.
Near Aker Brygge, a small new development called Tjuvholmen (right) is nearing completion. Dominated by exclusive residential buildings, Tjuvholmen’s main draw will be a new art museum designed by world famous Italian architect Renzo Piano. There will be more on Tjuvholmen and Piano’s creation in later reports.
Filipstad, a large port facility to the west of Tjuvholmen, will be the last of Fjord City segments to be developed with residential, commercial and extensive park areas.
But for now all eyes are on Bjørvika, with some 5,000 homes and 20,000 workplaces the center of Fjord City.
The water of the fjord is now clean, since polluted sediments have been removed. Lobster has returned and city center beaches will be part of the future urban landscape.
In the era of sustainable urban development, Bjørvika’s main asset will be its location just a short walk from Norway’s most important public transportation hub – Oslo’s Central Station. Trains, subways, streetcars and buses – all meet here. The developments of the Fjord City will also be served by a new street car service.
A geothermal system using seawater will heat houses in Bjørvika through a district heating system.
Standing on the roof of the Opera house, you can only imagine the change this part of Oslo will go through the next 10-15 years.
To your right all you see is remaining containers from the port activities soon to be moved. To your left are some of the first buildings in the area – the so called “barcode” high rises (left) in the Opera block. When the highway is gone, these buildings while line the Queen Eufemia Street, the main boulevard through the new Oslo.
Stein Kolstø has been part of this vision from the beginning. The idea of a total makeover of the whole waterfront was there right from the start. But back then the challenge was to convince decision makers of the brilliance of the plan.
“This was a terrible place”, Kolstø says while pointing at Bjørvika on a map.
“Imagine standing there and trying to explain what a paradise it would become if only billions where invested.”

This is the first in a series of reports on the Fjord City development in Oslo.

Copyright: MIR Visuals
An aerial view of Bjørvika as it will look in the future.

The "barcode" buildings; where the new Oslo begins.

Copyright: Oslo Waterfront Planning Office
A map of central Oslo showing the Fjord City developments in yellow.

This video from the City of Oslo shows what the Bjørvika development will look like in the future. It’s in Norwegian, but here is a short recap:
The tour begins on the hill top Ekeberg park, overlooking Bjørvika and the city center. From here there will be a cableway to the new district in the future.
Much of the tour in the clip is focused on future parks and urban spaces, an effort from the city to calm fears that the area will be dominated by big buildings blocking the views.
Below you can see a photo of what Bjørvika looks like today.

Bjørvika today, a dismal old port facility ready for a total makeover.