There is a new big white thing by the fjord in Bjørvika bay. It speaks to us, loud and immediate. What is it? What world is it a part of? The city? The water? The teeming city life? David Greene has examined a number of curious facts about the building that seem interesting to a day-tripper. The postcards with pictures of the new landmark. The architects’ story of the concept behind it all. The overwhelmingly positive public response. The building glitters in the sunlight, tugging at what we thought we knew about architecture.

“Dewar’s Lane”, pencil drawing, 1936. L.S. Lowry, 1887–1976. Photo: opera roof looking east. Photo: Hélène Binet

I can only offer you this essay as the souvenir of a day-tripper, but perhaps this is how this edifice is perceived, by and large, used in brief moments of time, a location for a wedding maybe, for an advert for a lurid brand of chocolates, itself like an advert, like a flash, a message on a phone. Unless, that is, you go to use the auditorium, to be more than a tourist. Then you are not content to only wander, stare and take a snapshot to provide evidence that you have been there, climbed the hill and sat where the water laps alarmingly against the white stone beach.

The Opera quickly appeared on souvenir postcards.

An urban condenser? From the opera roof, July 2008. Photo: SDE

Water-beach-white-hill-island: That is how this object speaks to the tourist at first; it communicates instantly, like all good landmarks. We have to access it from the city by a tiny bridge, or is it a gang plank, which makes it so like a moored boat. I was told that this fragile under-designed connection is deliberate. My own view is that, although I can understand the idea, it would have been better to see the hill as something growing out of the city, more of a peninsula than an island, but that is only the opinion of a day-tripper. Can we leave it as an open question? Island or pier?

Curious fact: There were 250 entries to the competition for an opera house to be built on the seafront of the Oslo fjord. A monumental building which would be the foundation for the urban development of the Bjørvika area of the capital, it should be a landmark! The presence of so many postcards of this “house” in the shops testifies to its success, if not as a landmark, then as a sign, signifying that Oslo is a cultural place. We knew that already. However, now it can also become a destination. Is it a new sign for Oslo, a brand object whose value can only be judged by the number of postcards it appears on, so it can join that library of images of man-made landmarks destined to be a screen-saver or bumper-sticker? I guess there is no escape from this fate.

It is a strange thing, flying from London across the North Sea to look at an Opera House. Opera is perhaps one of the most extraordinary artistic achievements of Western culture. The plane that carries me there, is an equally extraordinary, but technical achievement, the text messages, emails and phone calls that brought me here, equally so. Yet the house, the house for opera, which unlike the plane relies on both technical and artistic brilliance, stands motionless and still against this other restless world of information, images, words, transport, and even so this building is also a part of this complicated network of signs, objects and events. All I can give you, is a nervous, twitchy version of this wonderful object; no, I deliberately don’t call it architecture, because it is clearly trying to escape from the conventions of that category into something else, not sculpture, not architecture, not landscape…

"…No, I deliberately don’t call it architecture, because it is clearly trying to escape from the conventions of that category into something else, not sculpture, not architecture, not landscape…"

Is it an example of that idea, “the urban condenser” whatever that was or is? Can we even say that this object, this sort of hill that rises from water and city, is urban? It clearly rejects all the neurotic consumerist paraphernalia of the urban, and presents to us, as we emerge from the station, a beautiful pristine fragmented slope pierced by various “rocks”. Its white stone surfaces are clearly unencumbered by any of the commercial baggage that comes with the modern urban; noise, light, images are all absent. It collides the silence and emptiness of De Chirico’s city scenes with the angular geometry of cubism.

“Gare Montparnasse”, The Melancholy of Departure, 1914. Giorgio de Chirico, 1888–1978. Wikimedia

It clearly also rejects and opposes the permanently open networks and possibilities of the modern city. As an opera house it was effectively closed at the time of my visit, except for coffees and light snacks lunches for tourists like myself. So although my hosts took me on an exhaustive and fascinating walk around the building, it was a tour of a building, deserted except for the presence of some technicians massaging the most amazing machinery of illusions. How can such a space remain unused, this visitor wonders, why isn’t it a 24 hour island? I am sorry, Oslo; it may be a regrettable fact of the modern world, but there is no reason at all why these extraordinary performance spaces should not be offering stuff to see and hear every day of the year.

Curious fact: The architects present us with three distinct conceptual parts to this object, the Wave, the Factory and the Carpet.

The conceptual elements of the opera building: “The Wave”. Ill.: SnøhettaThe conceptual elements of the opera building: “The Carpet”. Ill.: SnøhettaThe conceptual elements of the opera building: “The Factory”. Ill.: Snøhetta

They seem at pains to keep these parts formally separate; yet the auditorium, this vital space, the destination of every opera lover, remains without a concept, without a word. It is as if this important room remains conceptually silent, its very dark and traditional presence is at odds with the sense in which the project as a whole tries to be an adventure into the social possibilities of architecture. Or is it supposed to be a kind of relic, lodged in the maniacal equipment of the other performance spaces, practice spaces and technical rooms? Because in comparison, it is such a tiny room. Yes, there are some extraordinary achievements in this room, in particular the curtain, the woodwork and the quite amazing exterior wrapping of what must surely be the heart of an opera house. Called “the Wave” this wrapping is a most beautiful wooden surface of varying thickness, yet this musical nest, this room, this focal point, is remarkable for the lack of imagination that has been expended on it. The frozen oak wave flows around the nest, it is sublime, but its interior is curiously bland; and worse still: Can we ask how comfortable the seats are? After all, we sit to listen and watch, losing ourselves in the performance. I wonder what that means, listen and watch, watch and listen – watch the LCD’s on the rear of the seat in front? Why do I think that more imagination and design innovation has been expended in the toilets than in the auditorium?

Curious fact: As in the example of the auditorium, there is no word that I can find for the foyer within the architects conceptual organisation, so the foyer space is read as a leftover space, a gap between the wave, the carpet and the factory. Can we call it a gap? Probably not. The idea of collision between a factory, a marble carpet and a wave sets the imagination racing, a crash of different time scales, weights and densities, machine and stone. If this was the case, then why isn’t its formal expression more daring and dissonant? We may need a new word for foyer, because ”foyer” fails to describe the way these spaces now are and will be used, this building is a destination, this building is a postcard, this foyer is an internal plaza, it is busy, restless, useful. Is it big enough? Probably not, only time will tell. Time, that word again…

Curious fact: Carpet, Factory and Wave. But for a minute, let us not indulge the architects; if it is a carpet, then we might remove it. If it is a wave, then a wave exists only for a moment, if it is a factory, then what is it making? Does the meaning of these words get transformed into a more poetic reading in this object by the materials they are made of? Of these three conceptual elements, the carpet is the most effective: dangerous and challenging to any idea of what a building, or the surface of the city, might be; when I asked about the safety issues of this beautiful surface, I was reminded that a walk up a mountain is more fraught with danger. Can this mountain remain so clean in the future? Your writer hikes upon this landscape, occasionally turning to look back at the water. He is haunted by a question. Where does this hill lead? If we skateboard, walk, cycle to the highest points, what do we see at the end of our journey? He remembers and feels like Caspar David Friedrich’s wanderer, but what do we or he see? Ask the architect…? The factory is hidden in a somewhat drab architectural language, yet in the context of the architect’s concept, “factory” is enticing. Walking around its interior landscape, the contents of the factory are stunning, both technically, spatially and aesthetically; presenting us with another world. Could we imagine a more extreme expression of this factory? I think we should, and that it should have been visible from everywhere. It recalls that seminal project, Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace” where the architecture is the machinery of effects. Fun Palace makes no claim to be architecture in the way that this “machine” does, but the possibility of an architecture which can collage the ancient weight of marble and wood with the technical modernity of the apparatus of illusions, perhaps deserves a more potent expression.

Cedric Price: “Fun Palace”, project for East London, 1961. From _Cedric Price. Works II_. AA Publications 1984

Curious fact: 20,000 visitors went to the exhibition of competition entries. It would seem that even prior to its construction, the project had a large audience. Somewhere, at some time, John Cage reminded us: “Theatre takes place all the time; wherever one is, and art simply facilitates this…” Should we consider how this object facilitates theatre, and that particular branch of theatre, opera? Should we consider to what extent it facilitates the theatre of the everyday, the casual meeting place, the point from which we can navigate around the city? Will it – this, shall we say “boat” – like so many edifices that become the brand image of a city, be consumed by its success? Will the bars and cafes expand and consume the object with their trivia? Is it fortunate or unfortunate that this writer saw this building in charming and erudite company? We all know that what we feel about what we see, is affected by who we are with, and also the weather – it was such a perfect day-tripper sunny day with a fresh breeze blowing off the water; off the plane and train and out into the sunshine and to this hulk, families with buggies struggling to the summit. The writer tries to imagine it on a rainy day, a winter’s day, an autumn evening. There are not many buildings that you first experience by walking on the roof. Even more unusual is a building that you could say had no roof. I join the tourists cruising through the foyer in search of a souvenir, the operafoyer space that in London has become a nano-shopping mall; culture is another shopping opportunity, who needs opera when you can by the DVD? But of course, that is why we need this building. That is why Oslo must keep its whiteness white, Lowry-slender figures silhouetted against the marble, clambering over the roof that isn’t a roof and isn’t a park but a surface. Keep its interior free from the clutter of commerce, so that it can command a position of resistance to the culture of consumption and expendability, as do all good landmarks.

"Keep its interior free from the clutter of commerce, so that it can command a position of resistance to the culture of consumption and expendability, as do all good landmarks."

“The wanderer above the sea of fog”, 1818. Caspar David Friedrich, 1774–1840. WikimediaBurning shed. Photo: DG

“On the sands, Berwick”, 1959. L.S. Lowry, 1887–1976. From“Hairy coat” from David Greenes L.A.W.U.N.* Project #20, AA London 2008. Textile sculptor Rowan Mersh designed a full-scale prototype of Greene’s audio visual piece “The World’s Last Hardware Event”, 1967, which imagines a world where man can wander, carrying his architecture in his pocket. Photo: AA

The opera roof. Photo: Ivan Brodey

As I try to finish this essay, in the corner of the room a screen flickers pictures to me from China, of another new landmark, a “bird’s nest”. Staring into the evening sky in London I see the same moon that hovers over the water next to this Oslo object, this object that probably is even whiter under the moon’s light and more lyrical then than glinting in the sunlight, even more evoking the atmosphere of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, sitting ghostly like a stranded whale on the edge of the city. Yet as I think of this picture, I recall that other kind of operatic event, the rock concert, an event which is at its most alive in the darkness. The architecture of these operas is of a different kind, and not rooted in any geographical sense, but strangely enough, as the writer was shown round the technical spaces of the object in Oslo, he was reminded of all that temporary portable equipment associated with the rock show; fleeting constructions a true brand architecture, unlike this object, which hopefully can resist time like the landscapes it alludes to. Certainly the object’s geometry does not pander to a desire for spectacle. This boulder in the water has a dignified presence; nevertheless, maybe bits of it should have been able to change with time, and that this fact should have its formal expression, because it will have to change in the end, as does everything, even the landscape. But this is a Question that this writer asks of all objects that call themselves architecture.

See the presentation of the Oslo Opera by Snøhetta here.

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