Only a handful of individuals were as influential as Christian Norberg-Schulz in shaping Western architectural theory during the so-called post-modern period of the 1970s. Although as a young architect he distinguished himself as a leader of Norway’s burgeoning Modernist movement, it was his writings, not his designs, which won him international renown. As a consequence, his buildings have not received serious scholarly attention.
Yet, his architectural designs offer important clues about Norberg-Schulz’s thinking. Jorge Otero-Pailos analyses Christian Norberg-Schulz’s own house at Planetveien from 1955.
Christian Norberg-Schulz´s own house at Planetveien 14 (Oslo, 1955), was part of a three row house development designed in collaboration with Arne Korsmo. Norberg-Schulz began designs for his own house at the age of 26, shortly after becoming a junior partner to Arne Korsmo (1900-1968). The house was part of a new private suburban development to be built in phases on the slopes of Vettakollen, with striking views down the valley of the Oslo fjord, and on the very edge of the Nordmarka nature preserve. Out of the ten houses planned in Vettakollen, only the first three were built; Norberg-Schulz’s and Korsmo’s residences, as well as a third unit for the original owner of the land.
The site was not far from Korsmo’s earlier Havna allé development (1930-32), which had gained him international recognition for its various innovations, such as introducing concrete construction to the single family housing market, and advancing an audacious functionalist aesthetic of flat roofs, interpenetrating platonic volumes, and bold colours.
Korsmo and Norberg-Schulz saw the Vettakollen development as an opportunity to rethink the suburban house type in the context of post-war technical and social developments. They proposed to challenge the typology of the detached single-family house with a master plan that grouped residences in clusters. Neither architect ever clearly stated their sources of inspiration for this radical shift in approach. Korsmo’s 1949 Fulbright study trip to the United States, and specifically the architecture he saw in Los Angeles, is often vaguely invoked as an influential reference.1 This is an important clue, since almost all modern houses in Los Angeles are detached from one another. The notable exceptions are the houses that Rudolph M. Schindler (1887-1953) built at King’s Road in 1922. Like the Planetveien project, the King’s Road complex comprised three attached units opening onto private gardens: One for the Schindlers, another for the Chace family, and a third unit to be rented out. It is more than likely that Korsmo either visited or learned about the Schindler houses while in California. They were strategically placed one block away from Irving Gill’s famous Walter L. Dodge House (1914-1916, demolished 1970), making the street a regular stop of any architect’s tour of the city. In addition, Schindler used his house as a centre of architectural and social activity, where he often held public lectures and debates, and habitually received visiting international architects. Moreover, Korsmo was an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), and would have been drawn by extension to Schindler who had been his right hand man in California during the late 1910s and early 1920s.
The anecdotal clues that Schindler might have inspired the Planetveien houses are confirmed by the most important documents in this story: the houses themselves. Their attached configuration, the modular grid used to lay them out, the construction method, and the materials employed, all point unequivocally to Schindler. The houses were strung in a row according to a strict four-foot module, forming a continuous bar 176 feet long and 16 feet wide. The backyard edge of this long rectangle bisected three squares with 24-foot sides, which were offset from each other such as to form three “L”-shaped units in plan. From the concrete foundations rose a wooden frame made of two by six-inch cruciform posts, fitted with mortise-and-tenon joints, four feet on centre, onto a base sill. Korsmo and Norberg-Schulz carefully drew how each post was to be individually hewn to a specific profile to accommodate different types of infill, either white “Eternit” rigid asbestos panels or “Thermopane” double glazed windows. These materials were at the leading edge of construction technology in the mid-1950s, and both companies used the Planetveien houses in their promotional literature.
These up-to-the-minute cladding and glazing systems contrasted with the traditional timber frame on which they were mounted. Norberg-Schulz and Korsmo derived their wooden construction system and proportional system directly from Schindler’s “space reference frame” (1933), which was the first instance of a modern wooden panel-post system based on a four-foot module.2
Schindler argued that the four-foot system allowed components to be easily subdivided or multiplied to accommodate the dimensions of most residential elements such as door height (six feet eight inches, or 1 2/3 units), and ceiling heights (eight feet or two units). More importantly for our discussion, Schindler’s justification for using a four-foot module was not just a matter of construction efficiency. He argued that it was a system of visual organisation, meant to facilitate the recognition of the house’s patterning. Schindler justified the four-foot module as a dimension “small enough” for an architect to carry it “palpably in his mind in order to be able to deal with space forms easily but accurately in his imagination.”3
Norberg-Schulz and Korsmo appropriated the four-foot module as a dimensional scale to organise the visual perception of spatial order. Their design development drawings show that they began by laying out a timber frame structure on a strict four-foot grid, replicating Schindler’s drawings for “Schindler shelters.”
Upon measuring the house as built, one is struck by the fact that it is entirely dimensioned in feet and inches. This is an oddity in a country that has used the metric system since a 1941 law passed by the German occupation authorities abolished the use of imperial units. The peculiar dimensioning reveals the degree to which the carpenter’s praxis held sway over every structural decision. Indeed, the carpentry trade was the only trade in Norway’s construction industry that resisted the metric system. To this day, they take their measurements in inches, or tomme.
But even this does not explain the decision to use an extremely traditional method for fitting the wooden members together with mortise-and-tenon joints.
The structure’s labour-intensive joinery seems antiquated considering that in 1948, Olav Selvaag began importing and commercialising the American balloon frame system in Norway, a system which relied on nails instead of fitted joints, and used only standardised lumber sections. Should Norberg-Schulz and Korsmo really have wanted to build more industrial houses, they had the means at their disposal to do so. If the choice of how to detail the wood was not made with technical expediency in mind, then we must read it as a theoretical statement about how buildings should be built. In fact, designing the house influenced Norberg-Schulz’s thinking about architecture considerably. He began developing an interest in Norwegian traditional post-and-beam wood construction and, with his friend Gunnar Bugge, started to systematically document Norway´s stave churches. When he started teaching in Trondheim in 1956, he recruited students to draw the buildings, and their wooden details. Norberg-Schulz famously began his lecture term on the history of architecture with a visit to Oslo’s Folk Museum, which houses a collection of traditional wooden buildings. His first gesture when appointed Editor-in-Chief of Byggekunst, Norway’s premier journal of contemporary architecture, in 1963 was to include a section with his measured drawings and photographs of traditional Norwegian churches and farmhouses. Rather idealistically, Norberg-Schulz identified these historic methods of wood construction with an “authentic” traditional lifestyle, which he saw as self-contained and wholesome. The purpose of architecture, he asserted again and again with unwavering belief, was to help people experience the unity of “man,” culture and nature. For him, traditional Norwegian wood construction techniques represented that unity. In the Planetveien houses, the choice to use traditional details for the assembly of the wood indicates a conscious attempt to link these very modern buildings to a romantic notion of an “authentic” building culture and, by extension, to an ancestral Norwegian identity. This intention was further underscored by Norberg-Schulz’s choice of Norwegian pine for the structure of his house. Korsmo used American Oregon pine in his unit, a superior grade of wood, but too expensive and “foreign” for Norberg-Schulz.
Despite the endorsement of traditional construction expressed in the Planetveien houses, Norberg-Schulz recognized that these labour intensive building techniques would eventually succumb to the constraints of the post-war economy. There was a need, he thought, to find new ways to create the feeling of “authenticity” and “belonging” that he associated with traditional construction as an expression of “man’s” familiarity with his culture and environment. He published the collection of traditional Norwegian post-and-beam wood buildings with the intention that they “may inspire the architects of today to solve their problems with the same respect for nature, man and culture as the anonymous masters of the past.”4 For him, the ultimate purpose of Modern architecture was the same as that of traditional buildings. It was only that the means to achieve that goal had changed. But what exactly were the new tools of the Modern architect?
Norberg-Schulz’s first articulation of an answer to this question can be found in Planetveien 14. In addition to detailing the house with traditional joinery, he began exploring how to create an experience of familiarity with one’s surroundings through other more modern means: visual organisation. Here is where Schindler’s theories about the four-foot module became important. Schindler maintained that four feet was a small enough dimension to be easily apprehensible as a visual module, something that everyone could “take away” in their mind as a tool to visually organise the “chaotic” environments of the modern world. Thus, Schindler claimed that the four-foot module was an “experiential frame,” which could help people to become familiar with their milieu.
Korsmo, whose compulsive obsession was to appear at the forefront of Norwegian Modernism, accepted the wooden structure so long as Schindler’s system appeared avant-gardiste. During his travels in California in 1949, Korsmo had also become familiar with John Entenza’s Case Study House Program, which promoted houses that might function as industrial prototypes for suburban development. Significantly, the first of the houses to be completed, Julius Ralph Davidson’s Case Study House #11 (1946), used post-and-beam wood construction. But in 1953, as Korsmo and Norberg-Schulz designed their house, Schindler’s death pushed the California master into the past. The young American architects working in Korsmo’s office brought reports of the new direction of the Case Study House program to use steel in suburban construction.5 At least since Mies chose a steel-frame structure on a three meter module (roughly ten feet) for the design of his 1927 Weissenhof apartment house at the Stuttgart Werkbund Exhibition, architects had viewed the steel house as the sine qua non for making the leap from one-off prototypes to the much anticipated (and endlessly deferred) full industrialisation of residential construction. Entenza’s Arts and Architecture magazine fetishised the steel frame with stylised photographs that documented the erection of the skeletal structure for each of the eight steel houses. Among these, images of the steel frame in Charles and Ray Eames’ house #9 (1949) and Craig Ellwood’s house #16 (1951) were the most widely circulated.
In response to this new trend, Korsmo and Norberg-Schulz attempted to pass off the Planetveien houses as prototypes of steel buildings by introducing a two-storey structure, made with nine three-inch square steel columns, within the houses’ main living area. The fact that the steel was an afterthought is evident in pencil sketches on the construction document set, which show Korsmo and Norberg-Schulz pondering alternative schemes, with the columns either outside or inside the wooden envelope.6
They struggled to make the steel columns align with the four-foot timber module. The logical move in a steel framed house would have been to place the columns in the same plane as the envelope, as in the Eames’ Case Study House #9. But this option was not possible, given that it had already been decided that the structure would be timber. They settled for offsetting the steel three inches inward, spacing the steel columns an awkward 11 feet and 7 inches (or an even stranger 3,53 meters).
Through the careful selection of images for publication in Byggekunst, Norberg-Schulz and Korsmo succeeded in portraying what was essentially a wooden exo-skeleton as a steel skeleton. An axonometric diagram of the steel, and a photograph of a preliminary full size mock up of a welded corner suggest the idea of a steel house.
But upon closer inspection, this photograph actually tells a completely different story. The steel column is severed and appears to float before a wooden structure which anchors it in place. Even though the structural lumber clearly supports the “decorative” steel, critics continue to describe the house as a steel structural frame on a 12-foot module, when in fact this is neither the true module (four feet) nor the actual distance between columns (11 feet 7 inches). The houses are commonly regarded as a Norwegian contribution to the 1950s international conversation about the industrialisation of residential construction that had been initiated in California, and even go as far as to claim that the treatment of the steel is Miesian.7 But Mies would never have aligned a column with a wall’s long axis, nor placed a freestanding column in the centre of a square.
Now if we focus our attention on the central column, a series of important questions open up, that will help us to better understand Norberg-Schulz’s thinking about visual perception. The central column could not be justified in purely structural terms. In fact, in his own house, Korsmo removed it, considering it an obstruction to the flowing continuity of space in the sunken living room.8
Norberg-Schulz was less interested in building construction than in constructing visual perception. For him, the steel also posed a problem, but of a different visual sort: it interfered with the visual apprehension of Schindler’s four foot module, and liquidated the “perceptual structure” of the wooden post-and-beam system. The challenge he faced was how to turn the steel into the new visual structure for the house.
Norberg-Schulz considered this question as a Fulbright scholar at Harvard University in 1952 and 1953. Schindler’s notion of visual perception was essentially additive. The four-foot module was meant to function as a visual ruler for viewers to measure the room, add its units, and form a mental image of its geometry. But the distance between steel columns was supposedly too large to function effectively as the visual unit of such an additive process. Was it possible to perceive geometric shapes through other non-additive visual means? Norberg-Schulz found an alternative theory of vision in the writings of Rudolf Arnheim (b. 1904), an influential Gestalt psychologist and art critic. Arnheim maintained that vision was a sensory process of pattern recognition, which was determined by the whole structure of the thing being looked upon, and not by the sum of its parts. “[…A]ny visual pattern,” stated Arnheim, “appears as an organized whole, in which some predominant elements determine the overall shape and the direction of the main axes, while others have subordinate functions.”9 Norberg-Schulz embraced this Gestalt theory and began to think of vision as pattern recognition. What did this mean for the design of his house? He felt that in order for the steel frame to appear as an organised visual whole he needed to establish a “predominant element.” This was the critical function of the central column: to serve as the focal point, “gathering” the subordinate corner columns into main axes, and establishing the overall square shape of the room.
The discovery made in trying to resolve the perceptual problem of his house was the foundation for his famous first book Intentions in Architecture (1963). In it, Norberg-Schulz returned to Arnheim to support his theory of visual perception as pattern recognition. What is striking is that he illustrated his text with the same square diagram that generated the plan of Planetveien 14.
His description of the experience of pattern recognition evokes the description of his house:
“[…T]he square has a centre which, although invisible, may play an important role in perception. We see that a point that is placed in this centre acquires a completely different character from a point placed somewhere else within the square. We may conclude that the area of the square has not a uniform character, but is structured by a ‘skeleton’ of lines and points.”10
We can now better understand what Norberg-Schulz meant when he described the steel at Planetveien 14 as a “structural skeleton.” Its “structural” function did not concern the transfer of loads, but rather the organization of visual perception. It was a perceptual device meant to aid in the recognition of a clear geometric pattern within the vaguely defined “topological” shape of the house’s wooden envelope.11
This is why Norberg-Schulz emphasised the central column by cutting back the floor to the second-storey in alignment with the roof overhang that ran across the back façade. This move put the full double height of the steel assembly on display. To create the illusion that the steel was primary, Norberg-Schulz painted it red (the same red as Elwood used in the Case Study House #16), making it stand out against the white walls of the house. By contrast, the structural lumber was camouflaged or neutralised with white paint. Every photograph taken of the interior obsessively framed the central column in the foreground, playing up its deictic role as evidence of the steel’s structural primacy.
Indeed, every design move was focused on translating the steel into an image of structure, a visual game which aimed to invert the steel’s secondary status with regard to the lumber structure.
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss Norberg-Schulz’s entire career as a thinker. But the interpretation of Planetveien 14 in relation to his later writings illuminates important clues about Norberg-Schulz’s thinking process, which deserve mention. Significantly, in an important one-page manuscript entitled “Landskap og Menneskeverk; mitt Forsøk,” Norberg-Schulz drew the plan of the steel frame at Planetveien 14 to diagram his theory of “the architectural totality.”12 Each of the four corners of the square represented one of the “dimensions” of architecture: task, form, technique, and place. This document, as many of Norberg-Schulz’s other manuscripts, reveals that he was what Arnheim would call a “visual thinker.”13 That is to say, he believed that the test of integrity (or truthfulness) for a theory was whether it could be diagrammed into a visual pattern.
The square diagram led him to a question that would captivate him for life: what did the central position of the square represent in theoretical terms? We mentioned that, in his house, the central column was meant as a visual “gathering” device that optically “pulled” the four corners of the room into the image of a square. Norberg-Schulz searched for a theoretical equivalent to the central column in two subsequent books, Existence, Space and Architecture (1971), and Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (1980). Like Intentions in Architecture, both of these books are square in format, which denotes the tenet of “visual thinking” that all expressions of the same idea (in buildings or books) must share the same visual structure. More importantly, the “structural skeleton” of a square appears prominently in both books.14
Existence, Space and Architecture presented the square as the organising principle for buildings that achieved “strong centres,” robust enough to “gather” the marginal elements into a “centering” visual composition. Then, in a leap of logic inspired by “visual thinking,” he equated physical space with mental concepts, and claimed that centering visual compositions “proved” that his theory of architecture could also be “visualised” as a strong “centering image,” which “gathered” the diffuse concepts structuring the built environment (task, form, technique, and place) into an image of the “architectural totality.”15 Norberg-Schulz used various terms to describe the square “centering image,” which was the crux of his theory. Most famously, he used the term “genius loci.” In the book so entitled, he described architectural design as the visual process of scanning the natural and built environments for diffuse visual patterns (topologies), and translating them into geometric diagrams, which were then meant to serve as the organisational basis for the building’s spatial and “conceptual” arrangement. For Norberg-Schulz, the square diagram was both the “structural skeleton” of his house and the schema of his theory of architecture. To his mind, theory and practice were united in a common “origin,” a visual pattern, in which he claimed to have finally found the unity of “man, nature, and culture.”
Contrary to Norberg-Schulz’s claims about the “originality” of visual patterns, the history of Planetveien 14 demonstrates that its design did not come from an a priori archetypal image. Rather, the idea of a visual “structural skeleton” was a post-rationalisation. Norberg-Schulz started with the intention to build himself a Modern Norwegian home that he could point to in associating himself with the image of the Modern Norwegian Architect. But as he designed, he recognised that the conditions of building production were changing, and that the discursive terms used to associate Modern homes with national identity were evolving. In anticipation of his intended audience’s reception, he recalibrated how he represented the building in publications, choosing to show the steel instead of the wood. His strategy entailed concealing important aspects of the building. By bringing these omissions into the light, we can more fully reconstruct Norberg-Schulz’s theoretical edifice, and clearly appreciate its unstable foundations.
Planetveien 14 is a unique post-war Modern building which is critical to our understanding of Norberg-Schulz’s architectural theory. The fact that it shares attributes with his later theoretical writings suggests that Norberg-Schulz helped perpetuate important tenets of modernist discourse regarding vision well into the so-called “post-modern” period of the 1970s. In its design we witness one of the more sophisticated post-war attempts to deploy vision as a lingua franca capable of uniting architectural theory and practice. The fact that this building has not been recognised as a milestone in Norberg-Schulz’s intellectual development, speaks volumes about the unfortunate state of architectural history today, which has yet to take the built intellectual achievements of architects seriously and critically in their own terms. This building illuminates the ways in which Modern architects developed ideas by interpreting and re-interpreting their own work in light of concepts poached from other disciplines. In the case of Norberg-Schulz, who was obsessed with the intellectual pursuit of “being at home,” it is critical to understand how his own residences served as laboratories for his experiments in “dwelling,” and how these buildings functioned as filters through which he interpreted (and misinterpreted) theories such as Gestalt psychology, and much later phenomenology. It is not by accident that Genius Loci, a paean to intimacy as the antidote to Modernity’s “alienation,” opens with Norberg-Schulz’s picture of his second home in Oslo.
Norberg-Schulz was obsessed with “picturing” his environment be it through photographs, buildings, or writings. His work was meant to challenge the traditional boundaries separating intellectual from aesthetic practices. Planetveien 14 was important in this sense, for Norberg-Schulz, as an example of the unity of concept and physical artefact in a common visual pattern. In his later books, Norberg-Schulz argued that this visual pattern was the “origin” and source of all architecture. My analysis of the design of Planetveien 14 suggests the contrary: the steel “structural skeleton” that came to represent Norberg-Schulz’s visual diagram of architecture was not the origin of the house. Rather, the diagram was a retroactive attempt to visually reinterpret the building with the intention of bringing it up to date with developments in architectural discourse. The fact that the history of Planetveien 14 casts doubt on Norberg-Schulz’s later theory of architecture’s origin, is one possible explanation why his disciples have so far refused to look at it.
Arne Korsmo was a Fulbright scholar in 1949. During his stay in North America, Korsmo studied visual perception of form and color with Gyorgy Kepes and Josef Albers at MIT. See Christian Norberg-Schulz, Arne Korsmo, (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, distributed by Oxford University Press, 1986). ↩
The “space reference frame” on a four-foot module was specifically developed for wood construction. See ''Schindler-Shelters,'' in American Architect, v. 146 (May 1935), 70-72. Schindler was dissatisfied with the larger five-foot module he used in earlier experiments with concrete construction, such as the Neal Garrett’s patented concrete shell construction system, which he used in the suburban housing designs for the Sustenance Homesteads division of the US Department of Interior (1933). See Jin-Ho Park, ''An Integral Approach to Design Strategies and Construction Systems: R.M. Schindler's 'Schindler Shelters','' in Journal of Architectural Education, n. 2, v. 58 (November 2004), 29-38. ↩
Rudolph Schindler as quoted in Jin-Ho Park’s careful study of the “space reference frame” entitled “An Integral Approach to Design Strategies and Construction Systems: R.M. Schindler's “Schindler Shelters”,” in Journal of Architectural Education, n. 2, v. 58 (November 2004), 29-38. ↩
Christian Norberg-Schulz and Gunnar Bugge, Stav og Laft i Norge, (Oslo: Byggekunst and Norske Arkitekters Landsforbund, 1969), 5. This book assembled the collection of insets of traditional post and beam wooden buildings previously published in Byggekunst. ↩
Odd Østbye, interview with the author, Oslo, May 3, 2004. ↩
Norberg-Schulz and Korsmo, Construction Document set for Row Houses at Planetveien (1954), collection of the Norwegian Museum of Architecture. ↩
The Miesian hypothesis is put forward in Ulf Grønvold, “En Søken etter mening: Et snitt gjennom Christian Norberg-Schulz' ulike karrierer,” in Byggekunst, n. 6, v. 68 (1986), p 323. A more plausible source for the design of the steel was Craig Ellwood’s Case Study House #16, which was the first to replace H-section columns with more economical square columns such as those used in the Planetveien houses. Norberg-Schulz and Korsmo even imitated Ellwood’s hybrid steel and wood system in their second storey floor, where steel girders made with six inch I-sections carried two inch by eight inch wooden joists. ↩
Korsmo’s living room illustrated his “erector-set” theory. He placed movable furniture to encourage residents to continuously transform their environment. Korsmo’s theory was contemporaneous with a number of other attempts by CIAM architects to create a “participatory” architecture. ↩
Rudolf Arnheim, ''The Gestalt Theory of Expression,'' in Psychological Review, n. 3, v. 56 (May 1949), 163. ↩
Christian Norberg-Schulz, Intentions in Architecture, (Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1965), 46. ↩
Topology is a mathematical field of study concerned with those properties that an object retains under deformation - specifically, bending, stretching and squeezing, but not breaking or tearing. Norberg-Schulz described visual perception as a mental process of “forming” vague topologies into clearly defined “structural skeletons.” See: Ibid., 45-46. ↩
This undated manuscript, now held by his widow Anna María Norberg-Schulz, was written in preparation for Christian Norberg-Schulz’s article ''Il Paesaggio e L'Opera dell'Uomo (The Landscape is the Work of Man),'' in Edilizia Moderna, n. 87-88 (1966), 63-77. ↩
Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969). ↩
See Christian Norberg-Schulz, Existence, Space and Architecture, (New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1971), 65; and Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 169. ↩
Norberg-Schulz’s thinking of environments as visual patterns that could be grasped as images was derived from Kevin Lynch’s ground-breaking book The Image of the City, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press and Harvard University Press, 1960). Norberg-Schulz first referred to this environmental image as a “genius loci” in Existence, Space and Architecture, 27. ↩
The research for this article was made possible by grants from the American Scandinavian Foundation, and the MIT Lawrence B. Anderson Documentation Award. I would also like to thank the Norwegian Architecture Museum, especially Ulf Grønvold, Eva E. Madshus, and Birgitte Sauge, for facilitating my work in the archives, and to Janusz Dylla for his assistance in the field. I am particularly indebted to Anna Maria Norberg-Schulz for granting me generous access to her home and late husband’s private documents. Lastly, I am grateful to Øyvind and Anna-Maija Isachsen, the current owner of Planetveien 14, for restoring the building, and allowing me to document it. A version of this article was presented at the 2006 Sverre Fehn Symposium in Hamar, Norway.