INVISIBLE CONTEXTS

A CONVERSATION BETWEEN GRO BONESMO AND THOMAS MCQUILLAN

The contemporary city is in motion. Instead of providing a stable background for the intensity and mobility of urban life as it traditionally has, it has increasingly become a sign itself of this mobility. Throughout the histories of cities, powerful elites have fostered the development of the city as a way of manifesting their control of its spaces. And the plans that have been laid down as their guiding frameworks have reflected the central principles of this control: order, homogeneity, classification. And even though the old structures of power have effectively disintegrated in the face of an increasingly capital-based and informationally-indexed global market environment, a new set of agents has replaced them. The city is no longer the domain of the king, the mayor or the council; it is now almost entirely the result of a distributed network of commercial entities and forces: shopping malls, media and telecommunications companies, health care, and tourism.

Oslo is also subject to these forces, and a large degree of its recent development is guided by them. But there is a special kind of resistance here, a quagmire that fells large projects in mid stride, deferring or transforming them. In this way, urban configurations in Oslo are highly ingrained with the struggle of their materialization. Every major urban project in Oslo is a 'failure', even though many of these failures have become prized and popular parts of this city.

Perhaps its history has shaped its present form. It was originally founded at the base of the Ekeberg Hills on the eastern side of the bay. After eleven major fires, the city was relocated by force across the bay, and staked out as a newer, less flammable and more defendable grid city, and renamed for its new protector Christian IV: Christiania. But this new, closed city would have no truck with the itinerant inhabitants that surrounded it, and could not control the growth of their shanty towns, which established a morphology that is still at work today despite decades of demolition.

For many of its inhabitants, Oslo remains a classic and stable urban form, but for the sharp-eyed observer, Oslo is awash in the multiplicity and juxtaposition of its planning gestures. Working at an urban scale in Oslo is quite literally a work in invisible contexts: of unrealized plans, conflicting interests and pervasive bureaucracy. Understanding these silent but powerful influences is Oslo's greatest challenge, and a key to allowing it to become a more performative, productive place.

The Dutch architects OMA and their Norwegian associates Space Group are at work with plans for a major redevelopment in the center of Oslo. We spoke with Gro Bonesmo of Space Group about working with these silent contexts, and about the frictions of the Oslo process.

TMQ: Recently, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and Space Group won the competition for a new library and urban plan at Oslo's Town Hall Square. The project has generated a lot of controversy, both politically and professionally. Would you outline the way that you approached the project, and issues that you worked with?

GB: Initially, we saw the project as something hybrid, something multiple and complex—somehow between two states: neither a masterplan nor an isolated building project. And this is something that OMA has a tradition of working with, this middle state that we call a 'compact urban plan', which acts on the one hand as a planning tool while on the other hand attains a relatively high degree of architectonic specificity.

At the same time, it was clear that the project wasn't realizable in one go, despite the clients' hopes to the contrary, and the way the competition was framed. This is a site, very centrally placed in Oslo, that has been more or less abandoned for the last thirty years, used as a parking lot. The only reason that something was happening now was the result of a political decision to insert a cultural program here: the Deichmanske Library. This, of course, is a well known strategy for urban development—take for example the Tate or the Pompidou Center. But Oslo has never built anything of this scale from scratch before, and it was obvious that there were going to be a lot of changes underway.

So we focused on this particular part of the brief, the library itself, thinking: well, this is going to be realized in any case, and we can consider this the stable point in an otherwise quite malleable complex. We developed an idea of this building as an 'urban organizer', that could respond to the patterns of circulation that we had observed the site could host—I mean, there weren't really any existing uses of the site, but we tried to understand how adjacent movements could be extended into the site, and tap into the various sides of the site. And from this, the three 'courts' arose, that could accept these three other programs: housing, offices and a hotel.

From this, work on the performative, architectonic level started. Since we were convinced that the library was the stable core of the project, it was important that it should never end up looking unfinished or uncompleted— which by the way is exactly what happened with the original Deichmanske building. By working with a continuous roof that defined the cultural programs, this part could be completed as an entity, independently of whether one, two or three of the subsidiary programs were executed, and that there would still be a clear situational concept that would work in these contexts.

TMQ: But the question of context has come back to bite you in unexpected ways?

GB: Yes, this is the ironic part of the whole process. The three courts were thus an attempt to weave in different contexts independently of each other, extending contexts like the Aker Brygge and Vika areas and the City Hall Square into the competition areas. And these three moves would be seen not only temporally or programmatically but also in relation to architectural language. The idea was to develop a very operational, flexible and realistic plan for both the physical and political contexts, by reading the forces at work in both. But both of these aspects have proved very challenging, and there has been a lot of criticism about the way the project 'fits' in the context. So the tool that we considered flexible and contextual (in both political and physical senses) did not have the effect that we thought it would.

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OMA/Space Group: First prize entry for an invited competion (currently under negotiation) for a new multi-use development, including a city library, housing, commercial space, and a Nobel Museum; site plan Model Detail of library Sectional detail of library