There is a history behind every building project. Sometimes this history is long and complicated and has many protagonists. Contributors have come and gone, and left their more or less distinct traces.

One of the many important contributors to the story of the new opera house is Anne Enger, former leader of the Centre Party and Minister of Culture 1997-1999. The decision to build an opera house was voted through Parliament during her time in office, and Arkitektur N asked: How did it come to be, and why is it built where it is?

"The Centre government headed by prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik that came to power after the general election in 1997, after the Norwegians had voted no to EU-membership and the defeat of the Labour Party, was a small miracle," says Anne Enger. "That’s where it started. The Christian Democratic Party had done well in the elections and Bondevik became Prime Minister. The Centre Party came second; I was party leader and could in effect choose any office.

Anne Enger was minister of culture from 1997-1999, when Parliament voted to build the opera house in Bjørvika.

The opera foyer with open galleries. Photo: Hélène Binet

I chose the Ministry of Culture. Why? I have always been interested in supporting and developing some of the countering forces in society, and for me culture is one of the conduits of those forces. That’s why I chose that department. I was determined to make the opera happen – and in the governmental declaration for that coalition government we negotiated a commitment to an Opera Report, meaning a Report concerning an opera house. The aim was a building. From there you could develop opera and ballet further as art forms.

"It was individual enthusiasts – former minister Lars Roar Langslet, opera manager Bjørn Simensen and others – who had the first idea of a new building. Strong cultural personalities and certain politicians, combined with a strong professional lobby at the opera and their ­audience, the opera lovers. You might say that opera is an elitist art form. But Norway is supposed to be a nation of culture, and particularly in a time flush with money from oil I thought we have to be able to realise a cultural building like this. Any cultural nation has to have a proper opera house.

"When you enter a ministry as a new minister, all sheets are actually blank. But the civil service threw themselves into the task at hand, and I was able to give it political weight. So instead of a Report we proposed a Bill in June 1998. In this Bill, three locations were considered for a new opera house: Vestbanen, the site including the protected decommissioned railway station, state owned and ready for development; Bjørvika, where both ownership and ground conditions were unclear, and redeve­lopment of the existing Youngstorget premises. Our conclusion in the Bill was Vestbanen.

"The debate showed a clear majority for a new opera house, but no agreement on the location."

"In June 1998 Parliament debated the Bill. It was a real downer. The debate showed a clear majority for a new opera house, but no agreement on the location. In the ministry, we were not really prepared to consider anything else than Vestbanen at the time. The Labour Party and the Socialist Left wanted to place the building in Bjørvika, whilst the Conservative Party and the centre coalition wanted it to go to Vestbanen. The Bjørvika alternative was only possible with a new traffic solution with a price tag of 2,8 billion kroner, as well as a more expensive building and the unclear ownership and ground conditions. This made the building of an opera house dependent on a host of other considerations. So the opera enthusiasts wanted the Vestbanen location, whilst the main motivation behind Bjørvika was to speed up urban development.

"But then the Bill wasn’t passed. The next day I went down to the opera, to meet with all the enthusiasts. I had no intention of giving up, but I was anxious as I walked up the grand stair – after all, it hadn’t been passed. But I was greeted with open arms, and the warm reception made me even more determined to see this through. Within a week, the ministry had started work on a new Bill.

"The solution was found in the fact that there was a majority in Parliament in favour of an opera house, even if we couldn’t agree where it should be. So we assembled an interdepartmental working group with representatives of seven or eight ministries. In their meetings, this group extracted a new possibility: The key was to be found in what I called a “footprint master plan”, which limited the project to just the one site in Bjørvika, making it independent of the planning of the rest of the urban development in that area and of the complicated traffic situation. And so we presented Parliament with a new Bill. Two Bills within a year, that is an achievement in itself! We proposed the Vestbanen site again, but this time we also proposed a subsidiary site in Bjørvika. This was the solution; it finally gave a majority for the Bill in June 1999. Without this detour there would have been no majority. And I will be bold enough to suggest that the Labour Party would never have proposed Bjørvika themselves, even if they had been in office. We could never have gained a majority for Vestbanen. The Centre Party would never have supported Bjørvika as a main alternative, but we could agree to it as a subsidiary alternative based on that limited “footprint planning”. It was simply a clever bit of political craftsmanship, with good professional input and the help of some strong supporters. But it was a bold move to pass it. There were many unknown factors in the project.

IHA/EBM: Is it common to assemble inter-ministerial groups like in this case?

AE: Yes, it is quite common. But the timing, and the broad approach, the pressure and the will to find a solution were particular to this group.

Architecture as a political showcase

IHA/EBM: There are many examples around the world of buildings that are both located and designed for political reasons, both by political groups and by single politicians. From the Great Pyramid of Cheops to for example the social housing construction in Vienna in the 1980’s and -90’s, where the mayor’s name was engraved on a brass plaque hanging next to the front entrance to every new building project, making architectonic innovation a symbol of political determination and a manifest ability to act. But there are no Norwegian politicians who have made a point of a personal association with the new opera house? Perhaps that was never possible, as the project spanned several governments?

AE: As a politician, you have to lift the building beyond your own thoughts. But of course – when the building was finished, I said to ­Bondevik: “This is the work of our Centre government!” But we could never have done it alone.

IHA/EBM: So you took the responsibility, but not the credit? Despite the fact that you had actually found quite unusual ways of doing things, and maybe didn’t have to be quite so modest?

AE: Perhaps not. But the mechanisms here in Norway are a bit different than in other areas of the world. My view is that I have contributed during my lap of the relay. But there are many other crucial contributions, and it would be wrong of me to suddenly appear now and claim that I did it. And it would have been very uncharacteristic for a Norwegian…

IHA/EBM: Why don’t Norwegian politicians attach personal prestige to significant building projects?

AE: Firstly, it may be the case that the authorities in most parts of this country are not really aware of the real importance of a splendid building. There is a tendency to ask: “Shouldn’t we rather be building nursing homes?” Also, we don’t really have a very conscious relation to the connections between architecture and politics. There is no great awareness of the fact that architecture is one of the building blocks of society. Secondly, politics is also about individuals, and any need they may have to associate themselves with prestigious projects is up to them. And it is a fact that the credit for the realisation of this project goes to a lot of people. Opera manager Bjørn Simensen, Odd Einar Dørum of the Liberal Party, Kjell Magne Bondevik, my successors as Ministers of Culture Valgerd Svarstad Haugland and Trond Giske. There are many people who deserve praise for their considerable and sustained efforts.

IHA/EBM: But even if you don’t want to put forth individuals, you might have used the opera house to promote Centre coalition policies? After all, the building is a manifestation of a cultural policy, and at the same time makes it very obvious that architecture also has political intentions? And if you put these two together, surely you get a political tool with real potential?

AE: That is an interesting angle. But the way I see it, this building has been willed into being by a few determined enthusiasts. It was a conscious effort to showcase Norway as a cultural nation, and I think it has succeeded! Even if it belongs with the exceptions rather than the rule. There are certain things I am proud of having done as a politician: The EU vote; the ordination of Gunnar Stålsett as Bishop of Oslo, with ­everything that meant for the church’s view on homosexuality, for example; and then there is the opera. The passing of the Opera Bill was not that popular at the time. It did not happen by popular demand. But then the building rises out of the dust, and people embrace it as if it was something they have yearned for! That is nothing short of a marvel.

"The passing of the Opera Bill was not that popular at the time."

The people’s judgement

IHA/EBM: People seem to greet this building with an enthusiasm that no one was really prepared for. But you could perhaps have predicted some of this interest when the projects submitted for the open international design competition were exhibited in an old hangar at the former airport at Fornebu. Busloads of citizens queued for hours in the rain in order to take part in the fantasy of what this building could be. Could you say that this cleared a mental site in the collective consciousness of the capital?

AE: As a politician, you quickly become aware that what normal people are presented with in the media are the single stunts. The passing of the Opera Bill, the design competition, the exhibition. The single episodes. The fact that I was quoted in the press as having said the building should be “monumental but modest”. That provoked big reactions, amongst architects as well. The discussions around the choice of the marble. Those are the things people notice. In that sense, you could write the history of the opera project as the history of a series of stunts, and the exhibition is one of them.

Projects from the international competition: "MIA", by Alsop og Störmer, purchased. Photo: StatsbyggProjects from the international competition: "STORSTUEN", by Stein Halvorsen sivilarkitekt MNAL, prize winner. Photo: StatsbyggProjects from the international competition: "000306", by prof. Meinhard von Gerkan, honourable mention. Photo: Statsbygg

Many people wanted to see the competition entries. From the queue  for the exhibition at Fornebu, 2000. Photo: Jon Hauge/Scanpix

AE: But now this glorious building is there, and something new opens up. This could herald a new golden age for architecture in Norway. Snøhetta has also had a particular ability to “sell” the project – in many ways, Kjetil Thorsen has described the Norwegian popular soul in his many stories of the opera. The roof and its accessibility, is a fundamentally democratic gesture. We can now point to that roof and its popular reception in many other contexts. If you can make the popular majority love a gift like this building, it does something to our self-image. We grow as a cultural nation.

Architecture and politics: A common cause?

IHA/EBM: The opera building has been described as “generous”, probably thanks to the roof. It has made room for something else, something more than its original intended function. For something more than opera: this is an architecture that speaks to the whole community. A new public space, in fact. And of course it is particularly in the design of our public spaces that architecture and politics come into contact. In addition, politics are manifest in the programming of what is built, in both the financial and functional priorities in a project.

AE: You mean architecture has room for politics? Yes, I suppose it has.

IHA/EBM: At the same time, this political space is a space which is not protected by any building regulations. There is no requirement for a discussion of the political dimension of a project, even in large building projects where the architectural qualities, or the lack of them, affect a lot of people.

AE: But aren’t architects just happy to avoid political meddling?

IHA/EBM: I am sure many of us are. But most architects are not so happy when the lack of discussion in a project means that the political space of negotiation is suddenly closed to professional input. Many architects have experienced that if they achieve something in a project, it has been despite, not because of, the framework of rules and regulations.

AE: What you are talking about is maybe the everyday buildings. But in this project there was an international design competition. The site was decided. So were the cost- and area outlines. And in the same way as for the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994, we established a number of monitoring groups to avoid overruns. The client- and user involvement was organised through a steering committee from the Ministry, the Opera and Statsbygg, who followed the process closely. There were both users and professionals at those tables, as well as politicians, participating in the many conversations around both planning and building. But that may not really answer your question...

IHA/EBM: Yes, but the question is how you move on from there, how you summarise the experience of all those participants for the benefit of other projects. Are there any plans for a kind of public or political learning process?

AE: Probably. But if what you are suggesting is a greater participation from national politicians in the details of various building projects, I think the distance is too great. It is natural to establish committees and groups that can contribute within a certain framework. And it is natural to have involvement, debates and understanding before important decisions are made.

Artistic freedom versus social responsibility?

IHA/EBM: If you look at a project like the youth centre at Bekkestua outside Oslo (Brøgger og Reine Arkitektur AS), it involved local politicians, architects and users sitting down together and discussing a common intention with the building. In today’s planning, there is a tendency to think of a building as a commodity, as a certain number of square metres with a number of specified technical installations. It may seem as if it was only Snøhetta who were thinking about the design of the opera as a political issue. Not even the competition jury mentioned the democratic aspect of the accessible roof; they talked about the relationship with the fjord and the space of the landscape. But it would be very straightforward to base a building on a set of political intentions, and make those intentions the basis for the architects’ work. Do you think the opera has informed anything in that regard?

AE: I am not sure I follow you. It is interesting that you seem to want to include politicians in the process. I could be with you if I happened to like that particular politician. But that might not be the case. So perhaps it is unavoidable that the architects have to take the main responsibility in developing the place for architecture in a space of political action into something more active.

IHA/EBM: You mean there should be a limit to the responsibility we place on politicians?

AE: Yes. For me, the architect is an artist as well, and needs to have artistic freedom in the interpretation of a brief. Architecture is also an art. You can see it very clearly in the opera. And all of a sudden you want to combine this with a political framework? I am surprised that you are willing to give up artistic freedom for architects just like that.

IHA/EBM: We probably have an idealistic view of politics. What we are talking about is the general political or social dimension of architecture, which you find in the aim or the intentions of architecture, not about letting single politicians decide the detailed design of a building. Most client organisations, public or private, do not consider how the aim of their building relates to the aims of society in a larger context. All too often they reduce their interest to the financial side. But if politicians paid attention to the possibilities that lie in the political dimension of architecture, they could get involved with the programming of important projects, or place more precise demands on those who build, developers or large organisations. Take the development of the rest of Bjørvika Bay for example, a development with huge consequences for society, but where the political will behind it is well nigh invisible. It doesn’t take much. It’s a case of pausing to think. Of forcing people who are given great opportunities by society to answer a few more questions before they get to make money.

"Most client organisations, public or private, do not consider how the aim of their building relates to the aims of society in a larger context."

AE: To return to the opera building: We had no idea this was possible. This building has become something way beyond what I could have imagined. You would probably be surprised by the respect politicians have for other professionals. In combination with politics, which after all is a kind of professional craft, you may go further in developing the framework for a project, but we should not get involved in the details. And I think you should be happy that we are not.

IHA/EBM: Well, yes, but we are not talking about the details, we are talking about the aims. A building has an aim, an intention that goes beyond the purely practical. We think one should extend the dialogue around these aims a little further into the planning process. You might achieve more than you thought possible. The production of buildings affects many important areas of society, often areas where big words are bandied about: Sustainability, democracy, universal access. Architects can meet a lot of these challenges, but the politicians have to make more of an effort to make it happen.

AE: I’m afraid the opera would never be here today if we had had a greater degree of political participation in the design. The opera building is a work of art, which we could not and should not get involved in beyond making the necessary decisions, agree on the outline conditions and organising good participation processes.

But I have to say I have not given this intersection between politics and architecture that much thought. As I mentioned I think it is high time that we turn our attention to developing and building up Norway as a cultural nation: It is a continual part of constructing a nation, and at this moment we can even afford it. So of course one should consider the development of society in all communal projects, buildings as well.

"So of course one should consider the development of society in all communal projects, buildings as well."

IHA/EBM: And doesn’t that mean that we have to extend the responsibility for this construction? Not just leave it to the architects? We need politicians who dare to say things like “sustainability” and really take the consequence of the aims they set. Architects cannot carry this load by themselves. And this has nothing to do with a limitation of artistic freedom; it has to do with the conditions architects have to work within. Both developers and architects need to be faced with tougher demands. And politicians are in a position to do something about that.

AE: Yes, and I think politicians and decision makers are already doing that. But there needs to be a greater consciousness of this. I think we need a little revolution in this area…

IHA/EBM: Nothing less.

AE: No. The politicians that make the decision to build are not sufficiently aware of the potential. But how can they get an idea of what they could achieve – and how?

IHA/EBM: And how do you increase this awareness?

AE: You just have to say it enough times.

The main entrance to the new opera. Photo: Jiri Havran

Towards a cultural nation

IHA/EBM: In the case of the development of Bjørvika in particular, it is easy to loose heart in the face of the blatant hegemony market forces have been given in urban development in Oslo. Where is the human will behind the development of Bjørvika? Who is it that wants something, beyond the realisation of financial values? Because it is only when you can see that will, that there can be a possibility to affect it. Otherwise the economic arguments will rule all decisions. Of course, we regularly try to explain architecture with reference to economic arguments; we describe architectural quality and spectacular design as something that “adds value”, for example. But this just reinforces that everything is tied in with economy. How can you actually make it visible what the will of society is in a given development?

AE: Economy is just a question of how you put the numbers together. I agree with the frustration about how the development in Bjørvika is panning out. The situation needs more debate, a greater openness and involvement. And let me add an obvious thing: Politicians are elected by the people, and are answerable to the people at every election, and are judged on their programmes. It is not accidental that market forces hold such sway over people’s lives today. Democracy is a challenge, particularly for those who try to hold long-term views! So we need a greater awareness; we need to create meeting places for politics and architecture. If you look at the process of the opera project, there has been a whole string of such meeting places. That is what we should learn from for future projects.

"We need a greater awareness; we need to create meeting places for politics and architecture."

The opera building site. Photo: Statsbygg"The Slave Choir". Volunteers from everyone who worked on the project singing at the opening gala. Photo: Erik BergThe opening night, 12th April 2008. Photo: Eirik Berg

IHA/EBM: Do we need a cultivation of Norway?

AE: That is a contentious word, it makes it too easy to pass simple judgements on other people. But everyone has a need for, or a wish for, something.

IHA/EBM: You mean that cultivation, as a project, would meet with objections?

AE: I think many people would be positive to the notion of a “cultural nation”; many people are concerned with cultural issues. But if you are speaking in a public space, your message is received by a lot of different people. You have to be aware that you might offend some. And in Norway, you are not supposed to make yourself out to be better than anyone else.

IHA/EBM: Isn’t that a good thing in a democracy?

AE: Yes. But the agenda is to a great extent decided by the media. This flattens the political debate. The question is how to create meeting places where you can retain the depth of the discussion. The House of Literature in Oslo has been a successful example, in its field.

IHA/EBM: You mean we need a “House of Politics”?

AE: The House of Politics is Parliament.

IHA/EBM: So how about a “House of Architecture”?

AE: Maybe a combination. The opera could be a place like that. The architecture is part of the meeting. And there is no doubt that the experiences we have made with the opera can help make other projects better.