Itinerary 3 . Scandinavia . Oct 17 - 23

Sunday, October 17, 2010

After two starts, am finally on a plane to Scandinavia. Ryanair, one of the low-cost carriers in Europe, uses a number of smaller airports away from primary cities, and boards/disembarks on tarmacs, even for 737s. This was the case for my flight from Paris Beauvais airport (50 miles from Paris) to Oslo, Norway. Having missed this flight 2 days ago because a security line attendant mistook my saying ‘Oslo’ for ‘Glasgow’ (a much later flight) and indicated I needed to wait, I booked today’s flight and returned to Paris by bus, losing another 140 Euros and two days off my Scandinavian itinerary. That puts Copenhagen off to a later single city excursion if it’ll fit somewhere. Missing a flight is not a good feeling, but missing one while watching your plane push back is a worse one.

So far, I’ve been lucky to have established contacts in each of the places I’ve visited, and Oslo is no exception. Aicha, who I met earlier in Paris put me in touch with her cousin, Adam, who lives in Oslo. Adam has been a huge assist, providing tips via email, and even lining up a possible visit for me to the offices of Snohetta, one of the firms I’d hoped to visit and interview. Having also lost the cost of two nights booked at Oslo hotels, I’ve decided to pre-book only the first night from now on (a gamble probably worth taking in late October in Scandinavia). Since Oslo Rygge Airport is also a secondary (and distant) one, the train ride into center city will put me at my hotel somewhere around 8pm. I’d hoped to see a little daylight today since this may be an abbreviated stop due to my compressed schedule. The plan is to visit Snohetta’s offices on Monday after seeing their recently-completed Oslo Opera House project, then possibly David Adjaye’s Nobel Peace Center on Tuesday before getting on a train to Stockholm later Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on what presents itself. In between, I’ll go looking for trouble. Maybe I’ll do some yak tipping.

Helsinki, Finland has been added to the itinerary because I was able to book a direct flight back to Paris on EasyJet, the other main low-cost carrier. Really hate the prospect of getting so close to St. Petersburg, Russia (a ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki), but I am without a Russian visa. I will be checking on the possibility of some sort of limited guided tour of St. Pete from Helsinki for those without visas, if such a thing exists.

In Stockholm, I’m excited to see Erik Gunnar Asplund’s 1928 Stockholm Public Library, a building I remember writing about at Illinois. In Helsinki, Alvar Alto rules of course, and his 1971 Finlandia Hall will be a major stop.

Good news from flight deck:  it’s a balmy 8 degrees C, or 58 F in Oslo, an encouraging sign counter to my worries that this excursion might amount to a ‘cold, gray, lonely slog through Scandinavia’  At 5:53, we are beginning our descent.  Peace, out!

Oslo Streetscape

Oslo is the smallest of the large cities visited so far, with a population of somewhere in the area of a half million, but still almost a tenth of the country’s population. Like Amsterdam, Oslo is a harbor city but not so dominated by water, with the main harbor leading to a bigger harbor, then to the North Sea. Downtown and Central Station lie on the Southern edge of the original city, with the train station and the Royal Palace (still today the official residence of the King and Queen of Norway) serving as bookends to the 1-1/2 mile long Karl Johan’s Gate (street), a cobblestoned pedestrian mall of upscale everything. Oslo is not without its urban vices, primarily prostitution and drug dealing, but seemingly without the violence, and it reminds me somewhat of another Scandinavian city—Minneapolis.  Like Amsterdam, Oslo has a very efficient streetcar and subway system that, once understanding that all roads lead to and from Central Station, is easy to navigate.  Unlike the grittier Amsterdam, Oslo's system seems to operate on more of an honor system for getting on/off.
I’m much indebted to Aicha’s cousin Adam.  As an independent writer and artist, his days are his own, and he was able to provide a considerable amount of time showing me some of the city’s highlights and how to get around the city. His contact to an architect friend, Erik, led to a visit to the offices of Snohetta and an interview with one of the partners there.  For all of its recent notoriety, the firm’s offices, located in an industrial area at the lower tip of a peninsula along the harbor, seem unpretentious and laid back. The kind of inviting studio I would imagine its employees find it easy to come to work to each morning. It’s kind of hard to imagine what the culture of its New York city office, opened three years ago, must be like.

Oslo's 'Central' Park

Karl Johan's Gate (Street), Oslo

Oslo opera House  - 2005 [Snohetta]  
'The Edge of the World' - Sloping Marble Roof Peak - Oslo Opera House

The recently-completed Oslo Opera House (2005) is one of the latest big projects by Snohetta, a firm of about 80 currently in its Oslo headquarters. Established in Oslo about 19 years ago, this then tiny shop of 5 or so people came to prominence in 1994 when it won an open international competition for a new central library in Alexandria, Egypt, a city made famous by its ancient bibliotheque. I’d seen the Opera building in photographs and was impressed with its scale if not so much its form. As a performing arts center, it is somewhat reminiscent of the Krannert Center at the university of Illinois with its towering main hall components expressed at the exterior. Being no expert on the building type, I can only assume certain formulaic rules (not a bad thing in this case) might have been applied to both. The Oslo facility though, is more self-contained in the exterior grouping of its massing elements, and does not to me engender the same emotive response as Max Abramowitz’s 1969 masterpiece in Urbana.
A striking (and controversial) design element of the Oslo Opera House is its inclusion of a very visible and publicly-accessible sloping roof above the center’s interior circulation spaces. The roof is finished in Italian marble with a smooth cobble-textured finish (for slip-resistence) and extends from drainage troughs at public entry levels to a peak at a slope appearing to be at least 5:12, well greater than American building codes for public access of 1:12, and equivalent to a simple residential roof pitch. It was explained to me at the architect’s offices that this space is used for outdoor gatherings (essentially as an amphitheater) in good weather, and while safety was a concern, this was ultimately seen to be a good use of the roof space. Stepped troughs at the roof’s perimeters are smartly included as both an egress and safety measure. While somewhat gingerly making my way on foot around a performance hall massing, the high point of the sloping roof, with its marble layering appeared, similar to an infinity pool. The whitish-gray marble (giving the building's faceted surface the appearance of an iceberg) disappearing as if over a cliff against an equally whitish-gray Nordic sky created a surreal ‘edge of the world’ sense as figures in silhouette stood in the distance. I could imagine the array of visual experiences here at times when the sky is brilliant blue, or at sunset, but somehow the melancholy Scandinavian sky this day seemed appropriate. Understanding as an architect that our buildings can sometimes produce fortuitous but unintended ‘places’ such as this, I asked back at Snohetta’s offices if such was the case here, with the response being that this was in fact a planned element. Of course I knew what the response would be before I asked the question.

White Marble Sloping Roof

At the interior, soaring public spaces around the main performance halls provide just the right scaling for lingering before and after performances, as well as the visitor experience, a trend in public venue design where this facility probably has an edge over the Krannert Center. The interior material palette is simultaneously coldish and inviting, with white-painted walls and angled columns, white marble floors, and green-tinted glazing with stainless steel sockets balanced off by honey-finished wood bulkheads and outer finish at a dramatic spiraling ramp.   Support spaces (restrooms, coatrooms, etc.) are efficiently and appropriately located at spaces under the lower points of the sloping roof/terrace.

Oslo Opera House Main Entry Area

Lobby and Stairs to Performance Halls

For a relatively small city, Oslo at its edges lacks walkability (probably typical of industrial harbor cities), and the opera House, located somewhat off the center city is accessed on foot from the city by an unfortunate elevated walkway across a major vehicular artery to its waterfront site. Ultimately though, if you are building an opera house in a city of major waterways, how do you not make full use of it in your siting?  Only time will tell if the Oslo Opera House maintains a position among the most discussed and studied facilities of its type. An impressive piece of work, yes, but probably not more so than many others of the genre in the long run.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 - 3:31 PM
Sitting at the Track 12 platform at Oslo Central Station waiting on the 3:49 to Stockholm. This begins the second of three stops in Scandinavia and the first by train. It’ll be a long, slow trek to Stockholm (6-1/2 hours) since this is not a fast train, putting me there a little after 10 tonight. Luckily, I’m staying a short walk from Stockholm Central Station and hopefully will be able to quickly check in and crash.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 10:15 PM
Stockholm, while interesting also, is maybe a little of a letdown in some respects, but only in that I had such high expectations and impressions of it. I guess I had in mind the imagined city of Miles Davis' 'Dear Old Stockholm'.  Not the most visually pristine of places despite my expert photography, and the people I spoke to seem to be weary of it in cold weather.  The main building I came here to see, The Stockholm Public Library didn't disappoint, at least from the interior. Somehow, they've allowed crappy one-story retail to be built at the street around its perimter on both sides of it's corner location.  Met an interesting Congolian in a pub downtown who apparently is the grandson of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese freedom fighter from the 50s/60s who wrote 'Congo, My Country' and was assasinated.  There we discussed, along with two Egyptian ex-pats, what makes Stockholm good and not so good.  The pub was full of Africans and Arabs, and a smattering of presumed ethnic Swedes.

Above and Below:  Central Stockholm


Stockholm Public Library 
Interior View - Stockholm Public Library

Sometimes a photograph enhances the reality of its subject, and other times the opposite is true. The former is the case with Erik Gunnar Asplunds 1928 Stockholm Public Library.  Having seen countless photos of this building in texts, my impressions of it were of a building in a large public square, standing unbothered by adjacent buildings, and dominating its surroundings. While a relatively well-preserved facility, It’s difficult to appreciate from a visual standpoint this facility's standing in architectural annals without considering what makes it a truly timeless piece of modern (some say neoclassical) architecture. Like Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, the Stockholm library is at first encounter a disappointment. Situated at the foot of a bluff near the corner on which it sits, the building’s site appears to have been carved out of the edge of the bluff, necessitating a raised main floor and half submerged lower levels which, in and of itself is not a negative. What's obvious is that all of the tricks of professional architectural photography have been employed to enhance what is in fact an architecturally notable building, but not one that at its exterior is particularly impressive.  The primary sin of its conservators is allowing for the low-slung one level retail (including no kidding -- a Seven-Eleven store) jammed into the sloping edeges of the site around both street corners. Whether or not this is an original feature is inconsequential -- It is baffling as to why a city so rich in historical architecture would allow for this. Any argument that this was a necessary consequense of a tricky site falls on deaf ears here, in that the the outer storefront walls might have served (and possibly did at one point) as retaining walls to a raised yard where the roofs of the retail space currently are. Perhaps a city as rich in such history is not as attuned to the necessities for preservation and context as cities lacking in quantity and stature in their historical buidlidngs collection. From all appearances, this was possibly a 1970’s response, and presumably would not occur as a response in Stockholm today.
Only when you endeavor to read its details, workmanship and spatial relationships do you begin to understand what gives the building its standing in architectural history. While generally impressive in this regard at its exterior as well, the real appreciation of the place comes from seeing its interior. Except for a too heavily-stippeld ceiling transitioning to the rotunda (hey, it was 1928!) the interior is a treat to be in.  Asplund here exhibits the skill, both from a spatial standpoint and in regard to mastery of detail – of Wright, Mackintosh, and Dudok. Wandering through the rotunda’s three levels, I repeatedly encountered fine details that would easily be missed if not looking for them.

Central Reading Room, Stockholm Public Library

Main Entrance with Unfortunately Placed Low-end  Retail

Thursday, October 21, 2010
6:15 pm
‘There’s something rotten in Denmark’, so the quote goes. Suddenly the landscape is intermittently white as the fast train from Stockholm speeds toward Malmo, Sweden before a short trip into Copenhagen. This is the first snow I’ve seen and it’s not a particularly welcome sight. Copenhagen and Malmo are part of the same metropolitan area, separated by a bridge over the Oresund Strait -- a kind of twin cities straddling international borders. The Danish Krone and the Swedish Krona separated by 20 minutes. Copenhagen, by far the larger of the two, is where I’ll sleep tonight, at ‘The Square’ Hotel near Tivoli Garden and Central Station (The name of all center city train stations in Scandinavia and Holland it seems). The last of the daylight has just disappeared and once again my timing leaves no room for figuring out the lay of the land before nightfall. Looking forward to some Danish grub, whatever that might be, as I see what the big ‘C’ is like on a Thursday night. Maybe I’ll do some caribou-tipping.
Time and logistics got in the way of Helsinki again. When I booked a flight from Helsinki to Paris for the 24th, my assumption was that getting to Helsinki by train from Stockholm was as straightforward as getting to Stockholm from Oslo (they appear to be the same distance on a map). What I didn’t know was that the fastest way there is a 13 hour overnight ferry ride across the Baltic Sea. A train would take 28 hours, so the off again-on again trip to Helsinki is off again. I abandoned my one-way flight (and 150 more Euros) from Helsinki back to Paris and scheduled one from Copenhagen to Paris instead.  My hunch is that Copenhagen will be more interesting anyway.
7:33 PM.  
The snow has given way to a light rain as the train nears Malmo and it’s 45 degrees F in Copenhagen. Should arrive there in about a half hour from now.

Copenhagen Grand Square

Friday, October 22, 2010
11:16 AM
The light snow last night gave way to rain by the time I reached Copenhagen.  This morning brings a beautiful Fall day, with bright blue skies and 45 degress f.  Of the big four Scandinavian cities, Copenhagen may in relative terms boast the least-beautiful women, but is the most visually interesting in almost every other respect. My first impression was not so great as I emerged from the Central Train Station last night to a light rain and the site of brightly lit signs reading “I’m Lovin’ it!” (McDonald’s), Burger King, Hard Rock CafĂ©, and every other manner of commercial clutter typical around train stations.  After coffee this morning, I set out on foot for the Dansk Design Center, a pocket museum devoted to the advancement of Danish design.  After that a quick trip through the impressive, but uninteresting Tivoli Gardens, a family-themed amusement center today all decked out for Halloween.  With 7-plus hours until my flight, I took advantage of the weather to photograph the city.  Like so many European cities, Copenhagen boasts long, segmented cobblestoned pedestrian malls, with chic shops, cafes and bars along each side. Where this city appears to stand apart is its incorporation of irregular public 'squares' punctuating the main pedestrian mall every 5 blocks or so.

Public Square, Copenhagen

Copenhagen City Hall


Garden Circle and Monument, Central Copenhagen

RealDania Headquarters, Copenhagen

Friday, October 22nd, 2010.
4:45 pm
On a train back to Sweden, this time to Malmo to see Santiago Calatrava’s ‘Turning Torso’ tower. With a flight to Paris in under 2 hours, it’ll be a quick stop. The trip across the Oresund Strait -- a tiny thing on a map but an immense body of water in reality -- is approximately 25 minutes.

7:02 pm
Sitting on a Norwegian Airlines jet waiting to take off from Copenhagen Kastrup Airport for Paris after completing my Scandinavian excursion. When you arrive out of breath at your empty gate to the sound of the attendant calling your name as you round the corner, you know you are cutting it close. That was the result of my deciding to take a taxi into Malmo to get a quick look at the ‘Turning Torso’ tower I mentioned earlier. The Copenhagen airport was another 20 minutes from the Malmo train station, but I decided to chance it. I’ve got a death wish like that. I could see the tower in the distance from the train station, so I asked a taxi driver, in my best Swedish, how long it would take him to get there. 10-12 minutes, he said, so of course it took 18. The driver agreed to wait while I snapped photos, even offering to take a dramatic shot up the tower with me in the foreground. It was amusing watching him lying on the ground attempting the shot with my pocket camera (I was afraid to let him use my D90). It had been a flat-out gorgeous blue-sky day in Copenhagen, but by the time I got to Malmo, it was 5:30 pm and overcast, not the greatest backdrop for architectural photography.

Turning Torso Tower - Malmo, Sweden - 2005
Santiago Calatrava, Architect

Base of Turning Torso Tower and Adjacent Gallery


Turning Torso Tower, Malmo, Sweden

Malmo, Sweden

1 comment:

  1. Enjoying the post! Keep it up.