Forgetting About History: Demolishing Old, Building New
“History is one of the central pillars upon which a sense of place is based. Cities are cascaded sets of landscapes created at different moments of history. The strongest sense of place may thus occur in places that are able to preserve these different layers.” 1
- A. Herzog, Return to the Center, Culture, Public Space, and City-Building in a Global Era, University of Texas Press 2006, p. 8.
It seems that the idea standing behind current urban planning in Oslo is to re-write history, partially forget it, disconnect it, or annihilate it. And I’m not only talking about a long list of buildings that have been demolished or ‘re-structured’, starting from the famous Y-blokka (with disconnected Picasso mural that will be adjusted in the new building) through earlier examples from the 50s onwards like Militærhospitalet, Skansen restaurant, Det engelske kvarter, Hammersborg skole, Dronningens gate 15 (the first building of the parliament), Mariboe-gården (Prinsens gate 20) to Ekely (a house where Edward Munch used to live and work for almost 30 years). I guess the list could be longer. The building of the old library has been sold (Det Gamle Biblioteket at Hammersborg). What are the plans connected to Nasjonalgalleriet, and the old Munch Museum at Tøyen is a bit unclear. Parts of the city like Vålerenga, Rodeløkken, Telthusbakken where original buildings have been modernized and preserved are rather an exception than a rule (to mention for instance demolished Enerhaugen as an example). But I’m thinking parallelly about something else.
Taking a walk in any of the major European cities is its own history lesson. Buildings, streets and parks communicate different styles and periods; they can be signs of wealth or poverty, political control or power, days of glory or shame. Various parts of town change according to ethnic influences they had in the past and have in the present. The layering of the tissues of a city can be both patchy, as is often the case in eastern European cities like Sofia, Timisoara, where various layers harshly communicate their difference, or more integrated (think the crystal pyramid in the Parisian Louvre or the Punta della Dogana renovation by Tadao Ando in Venice), but it often remains visible, readable to the naked eye. And one of the most challenging aspects of urban planning these days is to find a balance between preserving, restoring, and maintaining, while adjusting and building new.
A walk around Oslo is enough to realize that something has happened to these layers – as if time either got frozen or lost. At least at some parts of the city. Bjørvika quarter serves as an interesting case study. For sure many open spots where people can meet with an access to water should be noticed as a very positive thing, but the message emanating from the surrounding architecture; a line of buildings competing with each other, plus a broken coast line feels pretty confusing. 1 Everything here is not only new, it is ultra-hyper-new as if communicating: who cares about history when the future is already here? Any horizon view from any point in the city leaves no doubt; Oslo is a huge construction site and building projects are literally everywhere. A dream city for architects with new urban ideas, every architect in the world is hustling for a piece of this future city.
- Bjørvika was originally an open bay with a clear line and a water mirror. While a neighboring Sørenga part, originally one meter high and not predicted as a building place, was set in the middle of the water surface. Thus the clear arch linking Bjørvika with the older part of the city has gone.
Will Bradley in his essay The Rendering of Modern Life, made a witty and highly ironic analysis of the future Oslo and its inhabitants based on architectural renderings showing some cultural institutions and sports venues but mostly housing projects. The perspective gained from those pictures makes the reader laugh and cry at the same time. Rendering visions say something about architecture, but they say even more about how architects imagine future Oslo’s inhabitants. Who are they?
For them, it’s always Sunday. They can always hang out as they are gentlemen and ladies of leisure, dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. They all have perfect sporty bodies as they like healthy activities. They are families; their children fly kites. They have one little obsession; balloons, and it is not because of any particular practical or rational reason, but because for them, the sky’s the limit. All glimmers and glitters in this glamorous aesthetic.
Architecture is glamour and they are glamour
through glamour they belong to the space
and space belongs to them.
Or no, actually they don’t belong to the space; they own it.
The world belongs to them.
And as Bradley accurately points out, all of the people of the future are white, only white, exceptionally white. This stands at odds with Oslo’s reality, but I would remark, only to some extent. Contemporary Oslo already has something in common with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis 3 (1927) vision.
- Metropolis is a German expressionist science-fiction film set in a futuristic urban dystopia. The Metropolis city is divided into two parts; while the dark underground part is filled with huge pieces of machinery that is served by the physical workers making the city actually function, on the sunny part on the ground the elites lead a more relaxed and pleasurable life.
Economic inequalities and 76,4%
All utopian ideas, even the most surrealistic, usually have some connection to the real world. Let’s consider why those imagined future Oslo inhabitants don’t work. Maybe it’s because someone else is working for them? Or maybe, they are rich and don’t have to work? Or maybe additionally, they own a property? The latter is not the rendering.
According to Morgenbladet's article, Life On The Outside of The Property Market 4 that quotes the official 2020 data from Statistics Norway (statistik sentralbyrå), 76,4% of people living in Norway own a flat (property). And while Norwegian readers just smoothly move to the next sentence, all the rest of the world's readers double-check it. The number 76,4 % explains well why Amal, one of the people in the reportage who rents a flat, says that there is a lot of shame connected to admitting that you rent a flat rather than own it.
- Livet på utsiden av boligboblen, Nr. 33 27. Aug-2.sep.2021
As a white immigrant without an economically privileged background who cannot afford to buy a flat, I can not only confirm that there is shame connected with renting, I would go further and say that if you admit to renting a flat, the reactions can quite simply be called contempt. As my Norwegian friend explained it to me; If you are in your 30s in Norway and you still don’t own a flat, it means that something is wrong with you. This explanation actually made perfect sense during one of the private meetings when I said that I’m renting a flat, and as a response, I heard; Ohh, you are smart, but actually not that smart. Or when I was waiting for my application at UDI (The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration) to be processed and a lady in between the lines said; Norway is an expensive country, you need to be rich to live here.
The message reads; if you are an immigrant, you are welcome as long as you have the money, or if you take a job nobody else wants (for example, picking the infamous strawberries). If you have a nice job, for example as an academic, there might always be a doubt as to whether you are contributing enough to Norwegian society. 5
- In 2021 Cecilie Hellestveit - a layer and researcher attracted attention dividing academics working in Norway for Norwegian and foreign further expressing her doubts that foreign researchers might not be interested in contributing to the Norwegian society, and the lack of "public intellectuals" can be partly explained by the fact that more academic positions go to foreign researchers. For those opinions mostly published and discussed in Morgenbladet Cecilie Hellestveit was awarded the Khrono prize Name of the Year in academia, which caused many strong reactions.
Perhaps harvesting strawberries is a better contribution. And while architects and designers have a vision for the future inhabitants of Oslo, so too do the real estate owners have a vision of the actual people to whom they are renting flats. The picture coming to light from Finn advertisements and conversations with owners is not particularly uplifting. But, why am I making the connections between economic inequality and the subjects of owners, renters, workers and public space? To explain this, I have to return to the concept of glamour and public space as an arena for encountering differences.
Glamour: Better Than Average
“… “sense of place” is, at best, a vague notion, difficult to measure, and highly subjective. Yet, seemingly everyone would agree that cities with meaningful spaces are more stimulating than those that are homogeneous. One can point to the importance of individual sensibility as a factor in creating a sense of place.” 6
- A. Herzog, Return to the Center. Culture, Public Space, and City-Building in a Global Era, University of Texas Press 2006, p.7.
I previously wrote that Arbeidersamfunnets plass is an ordinary place. But, the role of public places is not to emanate glamour, coolness, or anything else, but to simply be public – that is, to be open and accessible, that is perhaps ordinary. Why glamour then? When glamour becomes the norm, then what is normal, average and real becomes unnecessary, uninteresting, or not good enough.
Glamour is a magical term not only because of its early association with witches or the era of golden cinema, but it has become so magically connected with capitalism that it has almost become a natural element in any product – from cosmetics, clothes, and mobile phones to architecture and real estate prospects in particular. I’m thinking of glamour as a phenomenon, agency, and practice. Glamour creates the impression of attraction or fascination, making things or people look particularly luxurious or elegant. Glamour intensifies reality. Glamour makes reality look better. And for products to be sold – especially expensive products such as apartments – it is smart to make them look better than they really are. Or better yet, when the apartments themselves make reality and make people look and feel better. Glamour, manifested through products, creates identity and functions as a value. People don’t just buy apartments as a place to live. In purchasing apartments, they are also obtaining an identity, a story of who they are and how they are perceived in the social hierarchy (Stovner and Frogner belong to different worlds). If you buy a certain kind of property, you are ‘someone.’ Congratulations, you have ‘alt på stell’! You have ‘made it.’ Glamour creates a category of belonging and identification. Glamour is expected and wanted. Glamour dictates the norm.
That’s why when you don’t own a flat, you are not that smart.
And because glamour has become a norm, it is no longer recognized as glamour. Who wants just the reality, if it can be a glamorous reality? It seems that the glamorous real estate imaginations and fantasies are affecting not only public spaces, but also human minds and perceptions as they set the norm.
In a place where being privileged is a norm,
being just fine is wrong,
and being underprivileged feels very wrong.
Let’s remember that public space remains central to political and social life in cities, as areas like streets, squares, and parks are places for protesting, socializing, and encountering differences. Again: encountering differences. In Hanna Arendt’s writing, public space occurs as a sphere intrinsically connected to people. It serves as a common ground on which people can be seen and heard. I would like to emphasize the words ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ (and not for instance ‘what is visible’, or ‘what is said in public). ‘Seen’ and ‘heard’ stress the activity of the subject — the privilege and burden of the subject to be active, to actually see and hear, and to think critically. Reality is clarified only through the sharing of thoughts with people who hold different perspectives. But for that, we need places where differences can meet. Without a common ground, what dominates political conversation are feelings, desires, and fears. The real exchange of views does not happen on social media walls in our algorithmically controlled bubbles (even if it does take a lot of energy, time, and emotion). It does not happen during a fancy dinner when someone expresses concern about climate change and others nod their heads while sipping wine.
Glamorous Minds Versus Unglamorous Spaces
Arbeidersamfunnets plass – let’s say it – The Workers Square, mirrors current changes and challenges that are both symbolic and literal in Oslo, and perhaps in many other Norwegian cities. As architects envision a future populace of homogenous, successful people who don’t have to work, I would remark that Oslo already bears signs of Metropolis, and certain segments of the population will very likely never meet. 7 Or if they do, it is not as equal partners in the formation of society. Kids from Oslo West and Oslo East could possibly have a chance to exchange their opinions during their studies, but as Aurora Berg's research proves, the ones born on the eastern side will most likely never get there. 8 Perhaps a bit earlier, maybe during holidays spent sharing a cabin? Sounds rather unlikely. Then somehow during the hikes they could possibly take together as they attend the same interest clubs? Again, unlikely. One doesn’t have to be a particularly serious sociologist to notice who delivers pizza on a Foodora bike, who works on the construction scaffoldings, who is cleaning Oslo’s streets or driving city buses.
- For instance, in Maria Lavik’s book Vi, dei fattige, 2021 focused on child’s poverty in contemporary Norway, what seems to be common to children raised in low income families are often such factors like single parents with a minority background.
- A new research conducted by sociologist Aurora Berg shows that the pupils from Oslo West are almost never advised by professional councilors to take a vocational subject education, they are just ‘naturally’ encouraged to study, while the opposite situation refers to the East part of the town. (Arbeiderklassen, Cappelen Damm 2021) What does it look like in percentage? Data from 2019/202 show that those who chose vocational subjects were 4% from Oslo Vest, 31% from the center, and 65 % from the East.
I’m thinking here with empathy and sympathy of stories told by Camara Lundestad Joof (Eg snakkar om det heile tida, 2018), Abid Raja (Min skyld, 2021) or Zeshan Shakar (Tante Ulrikkes Vei 2017, Gul bok 2021), but what I actually read from them is that yes, they are touching, personal, emotional, honest, important, and multilayered but also and foremost exceptional. They stand behind their texts as successful people in their chosen careers; personal stories are rarely – if ever – written, told and heard from a perspective of a failure. And as I read them, at the same time I wonder; how many stories and voices will never be heard? How many stories are told with no one listening? I look at Arbeidersamfunnets plass as both a symbolic and real place where these untold stories could potentially be heard. The existence of these kinds of ordinary and unglamorous places also shape minds, perceptions, norms, and expectations. And in reality, they are still places for meetings – the unglamorous ones.
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
–Mending Wall, Robert Frost
Viel Bjerkeset Andersen, an artist who made the sculptures for the Arbeiersamfunnets plass renovation plan, talks about the situation at the square from 2021 here; Audio nr 11; https://www.fotobokfestivaloslo.no/audio/
Zofia Cielatkowska is a philosopher and independent researcher, curator, and art critic. She holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and works across the fields of visual culture, feminist art history, contemporary French thought, Norwegian contemporary art, and environmental humanities. She publishes in various art magazines (Kunstkritikk, Hyperallergic, Tique Art, etc.). Cielatkowska is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT), and The Norwegian Critics’ Association (Norsk kritikerlag). She lives in Oslo, Norway. More at: https://zofiacielatkowska.