It has been three years since the terrorist attacks, but we are not done talking about the Oslo Government Quarter. At a public debate at the Oslo House of Literature in April, Arkitektur N asked, “Where in the on-going processes of deciding the future of the Government Quarter, is there room for democratic contributions?”
In this interview, Jorge Otero-Pailos and Reinhard Kropf talk about monuments and preservation, and perhaps we reach the outline of a useful answer to the question.

So, it seems like Erling Viksjø’s Government building from 1958, threatened by demolition after the 2011 bombing, will survive after all. The fate of his adjacent Y-block is still uncertain, but looks less promising. Architects and conservationists have delivered their pleas for preserving the buildings and their priceless modern artworks, the bureaucrats are mulling over the recent expert reports, the public commissioners are choosing the handful of teams who will be allowed to produce proposals for a master plan and overall strategy for the project. Progress is slow, and at each step of the way some kind of objection is raised. Uncertainty still dominates, and with is lingers a kind of discomfort that seems to weigh on everyone involved in the process.

From the exhibition “Høyblokka Revisited”, 2014. From the project “Hope-Faith-Trust” by Luismi Romero, Madrid.

“Where in the on-going processes of deciding the future of the Government Quarter, is there room for democratic contributions?” Arkitektur N, Arkitektnytt and 0047 asked at a public debate in April.1 The question is not an easy one, it was not answered in the debate and we still don’t have an answer. The question of democratic contributions throws the relationship between architecture and politics sharply into focus. For what is the democratic potential of architecture? How can the state provide good examples of this? And if we can’t respond to the terror attacks of the 22nd July 2011 by conceiving of a democratic architecture here, in the middle of Oslo, for the government of one of the safest and richest societies in the modern world, what will that say about the democratic potential of architecture?

A main issue in the discussion of the Oslo government buildings has been whether to demolish the two deserted, bombed-out central buildings or whether to preserve them and try to make use of them. It seems a straightforward question, whether you are for or against preservation – the buildings are still standing, and clearly something needs to be done about them. But again, it’s not that simple. Because what, really, is it that you want to preserve? Or demolish? An out-dated and ruined structure? A symbol? Of what? Is there general agreement as to what the 1958 Government building represents, for example? Clearly not. Does that affect the positions taken for or against preservation? Of course it does. So perhaps that is what we need to discuss first, to reach some agreement about what this building is, or could be, before we determine whether to tear down or to build?

“Could it be that what we call a monument, is in fact public discourse?” asked Jorge Otero-Pailos in a roundtable discussion on experimental preservation during the architecture biennale in Venice in June, where Reinhard Kropf, partner in Helen & Hard, was one of the participants. This insightful formulation lights the fuse for a whole new and different way to discuss the Oslo Government Quarter. Because all of a sudden, the monument is no longer a thing, no longer just a built object with some inherent or objectively measured antiquarian significance – rather, the most interesting subject for public discourse is the value that the object might have, which makes it monumental. The monument becomes a narrative. And a narrative, in contrast to a concrete, built structure, can be shaped by everyone. So Otero-Pailos’ question opens a possible space for genuine participation, for democracy, which no one so far has discovered.

Arkitektur N asked him to expand. What consequences could this framing of the monument have for the preservation debate, for example in the case of the Oslo Government Quarter, and what other possibilities does such a definition offer?

“Monuments are things we chose in order to help us face the future and transition into it.” Jorge Otero-Pailos

Jorge Otero-Pailos: Think about it this way: Most of the structures that we call monuments were not originally intended as such. The Eiffel Tower, for example, was supposed to be dismantled after the Exposition Universelle of 1889. But it was so popular that a huge public debate started about whether to preserve it or not. Everyone knows who won: the French decided to keep it. Why? Because they could not imagine the future of Paris without it. That is what I mean when I say that monuments are a form of public discourse concerned with choosing, that is creating, the future. But of course the future is a great unknown and the source of a lot of anxiety, both at a personal level and at a collective cultural level. Monuments are things we chose in order to help us face the future and transition into it. They give us certainty about the future. That’s why I call them Transitional Cultural Objects. But a monument only becomes a Transitional Cultural Object when we all say: Yes, we need that in order to transition, to move forward as a culture.

Nobody knows what the future is, but when we start public discussions about whether or not something is a monument we are essentially engaging in a collective act of imagining the future. The monument functions like a landmark, a stable point from which to map out the unknown territory of the future. Monuments help us imagine the future realistically, as something that is already contained and constrained by the world we live in, they keep us from falling into the trap of imagining the future as a frictionless realm, as a repository for any and all unrealizable fantasies.

Nobody can unilaterally say which object will serve as a monument in this way, not even an institution, not even a government. It’s a cultural discussion. And such discussions take time, and they are difficult, but eventually they help us discover and come to grips with what objects we need in order to survive culturally. That’s why I think Reinhard’s work is so important. Helen & Hard architects are very good at identifying relevant on-going cultural discussions and participating in them in the way architects do: through design. They introduce small tactical design acts on existing buildings or sites that influence the conversation.

Jorge Otero-Pailos working on the project “The Ethics of Dust”, 2009.

Einar Bjarki Malmquist: That discussion is crucial. It even enables you to discuss the “we”. Who really has the arguments or input into the discussion? Because if you conceptualise it beforehand, you have already defined the “we”.

JOP: Right. Who gets to participate in the discussion of what monument to chose? One of the problems we have now is that preservation is so institutionalised, and people feel like they don’t have a say. We have to find ways to broaden the discussion, to bring it out of the closed conference rooms of government institutions, out of UNESCO, and into the streets! Institutions are not willing or able to effectively participate in these discussions.

Ingerid Helsing Almaas: Why is that?

JOP: I don’t have an exact answer, but I can sketch out a few reasons. They’re too slow and have difficulty catching up to current cultural conversations. They’re also not really open to public opinion. UNESCO, for instance, is very top down and expert-driven. They also function according to 19th century criteria for determining what is and is not a monument, such as “historic significance,” which is important, of course, but not the only reason why monuments are chosen by the public. When the Eiffel Tower was chosen, it was not historic at all. Also, in the end, people have to want the monument. One can’t be forced to desire something. I suppose one can be persuaded. But government institutions are not very good at persuasion. Marketers, on the other hand, are.

“We have to bring preservation out of the closed conference rooms of ­government institutions, out of UNESCO, and into the streets!” Jorge Otero-Pailos

IHA: I’m interested because in a social democracy, in a welfare state, like the Norwegian state, the trust in institutions is enormous. As a middle-class professional, I trust institutions with my life, every day, and I pay them half of my income on the trust that they will provide for me and my family, in every way. But of course there are a lot of things that those institutions can never deliver.

JOP: They can’t deliver desire. The speed and the manner in which public discourse happens is much greater now than it used to be, and people’s desires and interests are articulated in new ways, through social media for example. Institutions are really not set up to respond fast enough, nor do they really listen. They tend to think of social media as chatter.

IHA: And as a form of reaction, not as a valid formulation of a demand or a potential programme for action, a place where ideas can come from.

JOP: And the institutions work very top-down, so if somebody from the top doesn’t order it, it doesn‘t get done.

What is value?

The monument expresses shared values. Throughout history, the creation of monuments has happened in different ways, but usually through a ruler installing a physical symbol of their power – from statues of historical or mythical figures to temples or triumphal arches. But how to decide upon and construct a monument to democracy?

EBM: Perhaps the easiest way of doing something like that is when there is no interest. You can see it in the case of Y-blokka for example, that the lack of interest in that building, it’s perceived lower value, in a way clears the field. You are free to suggest pretty much anything.

IHA: But maybe you could say something about that, Reinhard… About the insertion of value.

Reinhard Kropf in conversation at Project Baltia, 2013.

Reinhard Kropf: What is interesting in this discussion is how these kinds of processes are usually done: First there is a political decision to call in an expert, who does some kind of research, and comes up with a report and advice as to what should be done with the building. This is the opposite of bringing the discussion to the street – you give the experts and specialists the only voice. Whereas there is a possibility to really propose a different way to make a public building, and the government quarter is a unique opportunity to do just that.

And I think preservation introduces another pace, a different kind of reality, which is not like the bureaucratic or developer-driven reality in which normal building projects are unfolding. And that gives the possibility of another kind of reflection, a discussion of what we want with this building, and why we want it, what we want to keep, what we want to transform, and how.

The Høyblokka Revisited exhibition was such a good starting point for that.2 That is the way to do it. And preservation is an interesting trigger for discussing values, and the building is something to gather the discussion around.

JOP: This question of value is really important. Reinhard, you’ve been working with the idea of “waste” and looking at how and why government institutions say, “that building has no value.”

RK: That’s a good point. What really makes waste? Sociologist Nikolas Luhmann says that it happens by exclusion, by saying: This has no value, as it happened in this case with the Government quarter. And by making this absolute differentiation, you diminish the complexity of the issue, and the building becomes waste. It is a kind of discrimination. So what you propose with the exhibition, a delay, is an opportunity to include more possibilities. And in our experience, the most inspiring moments in preservation are when these other values slowly emerge. When somebody sees something that you haven’t seen before.

IHA: Value is something everyone can discuss, as a public issue. And only then the experts can come in and solve all the technical and other issues that are not meant to be decided democratically, and eventually make it a beautiful building… But: The assignment of values has to happen prior to that. And it can happen by very unorganised processes. Like our exhibition project. Or some of the projects Helen & Hard have been involved in. There is no room for such processes in the ordinary planning bureaucracy.

EBM: And you could then more easily introduce different concepts into the same project. One of the assumptions in deciding to destroy Y-blokka, for example, is that it cannot be preserved in the same way as Høyblokka, for the same purpose. But if we introduce Reinhard’s approach, you start by looking at the circumstances, the opinions, the possibilities… and maybe that building can transform into something that Høyblokka is not, but that we still want or even need.

“You need something that everyone can gather around, can kind of play with, or interact with. And that is a fantastic possibility with preservation.” Reinhard Kropf

The former Tou Brewery, transformed into a cultural centre through years of unpaid work by local enthusiasts.

From Tou Brewery. Siv Helene Stangeland from Helen & Hard throws a sponsored sofa out of the café.

Can we gather around the past?

A building project involving an existing building, then, offers a very particular set of possibilities, different from a new building, and the design process has to be handled accordingly.

IHA: Is it your experience, Reinhard, that it’s easier to initiate and work with different kinds of processes when there are existing buildings involved? Call them monuments or not?

RK: Yes. Absolutely. It has always been our experience with participatory processes that you need something that everyone can gather around, can kind of play with, or interact with. And that is a fantastic possibility with preservation, because it is centred on a building, which has an aura, a story, or many stories, and allows different associations.

Michel Serres, the philosopher, has this idea of an object which is not really an object, but which kind of collects a group and gets everyone involved. A quasi-object, an object of discussion. It’s the same kind of concept. But the specialists and politicians involved there have a heavy predefined agenda, and think they know the routine. You can maybe manipulate it a bit, but more often than not the outcome is fixed. Our experience with preservation is that you somehow can sidestep these conventional routines, it opens a free space.

IHA: Is this also because of the status we give the past? The building is there, it’s physical, we obviously have to take account of its physical presence, but would you say we also have a tendency to nostalgia, to value the past over the present?

JOP: It would be crazy to say that monuments have nothing to do with the past. But it is even crazier to think that they have nothing to do with the future. To some architects, those trained as historians especially, the past seems more real and more worthy of our investment than the future. But to others, the technophiles for instance, the future seems more real and worth their time. The interesting thing is that both need monuments. How else to imagine the past and the future of cities?

IHA: It’s easy to see how we individually are attached to objects from the past, or objects that represent an idea of the past. But this does manifest itself culturally or communally as well? We do, after all, have shared attachments, things that have value for many people?

And the fact that Reinhard can say so unequivocally that discursive processes are easier when there is something to gather round, seems to suggest that there is a level of agreement about the value of the past?

JOP: Well, I’m not sure it is agreement. I think it is shared concern for a thing, shared investment in it. Value is something that can only be determined in a marketplace. But what is the marketplace where the value of the past or the future is established?

RK: The quasi-object is an initiator, a catalyst or trigger… But in the Tou Brewery project, for example, the factory didn’t have much value in the beginning, its value increased slowly. Normal people came in and took part, and suddenly there was a beautiful development with extreme learning, which went through different phases, and discovered new values. In the end it became institutionalised – the municipality bought the building and now it’s kind of organised. It lost a lot of quality in some way, but on the other side it is in safe hands. And for me it was in the end the project we are most proud of, even though it’s not like a typical architectural project.

I think maybe it’s too much to expect something like that to happen in the case of Regjeringskvartalet, in this kind of building, because of the property value and the complexities involved, money and time and so on… But if it were possible, it would be an amazing statement, something Norway could be proud of for many many years, a real statement.

EBM: A real monument to democracy.

Tou Brewery, Stavanger, 2005. Children from the local kindergarten lay flooring tiles.

Tou Brewery, Stavanger, 2005. Local school kids make ceiling panels from discarded wool.

“Preservation is a different way to interact with the building. It’s just about going into a mode of travelling, or of an erotic or poetic encounter…” Reinhard Kropf

Monument and meaning – room for democracy?

JOP: One of the things that made your brewery project possible was that there was no consensus as to what the meaning of that building was. Whereas the Viksjø building is overdetermined with meaning. The problem is people confuse monuments with buildings that are over-saturated with meaning. But they are not the same thing.

IHA: It already was a monument, even before the bombing.

JOP: Maybe, but maybe not. What is a monument, after all? We need to open the question for debate, to have discussions that can question our assumptions, and perhaps ascribe new meanings to the structure. Maybe it can become something else? Like the beehive project Arkitektur N did with Eriksen Skajaa for example – why not? Let’s talk about it.

IHA: The democratic potential is in that communal assignment of meaning, of value, and in the attempt to agree on something as a basis for action.

JOP: And the answer is always tentative. Never finite. If they put a plaque on the building that says the building is a monument to this or that, then it’s done. The discussion is over.

IHA: Architects in Norway have not actually been helping in this process, because they have acted as if the meaning of the building is already fixed. And as if its value is in the qualities of that particular building style, in the materiality and in the status of Picasso and the other artworks in the building… It very much appears as if to most architects, this building represents a fixed idea of certain qualities that need to be “preserved”. And it has not been presented as a stage for anything new, but as something that needs to be retained, wrapped up and put aside.

EBM: It’s difficult to understand why this happens, but I’m sure that at least for some of the people involved in the process so far, this was pure rhetoric. They were worried that the building was going to be torn down, and in that situation you start to support people you don’t necessarily agree with – you become conservative despite yourself, only to delay…

JOP: But that’s ok. There’s no discussion of that sort without compromise.

EBM: But how do you then not close the possibility of an approach like Reinhard’s? A listening approach? A revaluation?

JOP: That’s a good question. I don’t know. But I do think that you have to move from your ideal position. You have ideas and ethics, and I’m not saying that you compromise them in any way, but such discussions help you evolve in your own convictions. You might start thinking you know what architectural solutions express your ethics, but it might be that somebody else’s solution actually falls within what you find acceptable. That doesn’t make you change your politics; it means that you enter into politics.

“The aim is not only to make a decision. It is to make a good decision. And in the right way.” Ingerid Helsing Almaas

The value of not deciding – eroticism and poetry

In contrast to the conventional architectural project, which seemingly is based in the realisation of a particular definite idea, the presence of an existing building makes discussions, even compromises, into triggers of creativity.

RK: Certain things become possible if you do not take positions immediately. I agree completely that the architects have not been helping in the case of Regjeringskvartalet. You may think a compromise is something in-between, a weakened or unsatisfactory idea. You wouldn’t, for instance, get a politician saying: Let’s not make a decision, but let’s start a process. Let’s see how this works out.

But the interesting thing with preservation is something that it is a different way to interact with the building. It is not about the argument, it’s not about establishing what is of value and what is not of value – it’s just about going into a mode of travelling, or of an erotic or poetic encounter… Where you are genuinely interested but you don’t really know what it is about. And you enjoy it.

And that is something that is not within the realm of politics, of urban planning, or of architecture, because there it’s always about the concept, it’s about making a decision, and then you fight and then you win.

EBM: Reinhard, in this setting, is really Medieval. He bypasses the modern urge to close things early. A Mediaeval constructive practise is one where your don’t know where the roof is going to be, but you are in a meeting, and you decide things, and you go out there and you don’t even know what you’ve decided because you don’t have any drawings. But you have some kind of coherent sense of the situation. And what is beautiful about it is that it bypasses this urge to close a decision.

IHA: The aim is not only to make a decision. It is to make a good decision. And in the right way. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said after the bombing and the terrorist killings: More openness, more democracy, more love. An open discussion of common values would be a good way to start working with something that is, unquestionably, so much more than a building. That is where there is room for democracy.

  1. See the details of the debate event here and the streaming of the debate here. 

  2. Høyblokka Revisited – Open Call for Ideas and Visions. An initiative by 0047 Oslo and Arkitektur N.
    With the events of 22 July the main government building, Høyblokka, became a national symbol. In December 2011, Arkitektur N, the Norwegian Review of Architecture, took a stance against this polarization: “It is our social ideals we need to work with, not just in some architectural form, but in how we move forward, how we treat the Government Building”, said Einar Bjarki Malmquist. “This excludes neither demolition nor restoration of all or part of the building. But it excludes a decision taken on purely practical or economic grounds.”
    Arkitektur N and 0047 invited architects, artists and the general public to sketch their respective visions for the government district. The result was exhibited at 0047 in the exhibition “Høyblokka Revisited” from 27th March to 11th May 2014. See the exhibited projects here. A selection of the projects was also published in Arkitektur N no. 4-2014. 

Ingerid Helsing Almaas is an architect MNAL and editor-in-chief of Arkitektur N.
Einar Bjarki Malmquist is an architect MNAL and an editor in Arkitektur N.
This discussion took place in connection with the 2014 Architecture Biennale in Venice, where Jorge Otero-Pailos launched the book Preservation is Overtaking Us with a roundtable discussion entitled “Experimental Preservation”. Reinhard Kropf was one of the panelists.
Kolhaas, Rem: Preservation is Overtaking Us. With a supplement by Jorge Otero-Pailos. GSAPP Books, 2014. 104 pages.

See the presentation of Høyblokka Revisited here.