A CONVERSATION BETWEEN KARL OTTO ELLEFSEN AND THOMAS MCQUILLAN
Oslo is a hybrid kind of place—poised in an unbalanced way between competing conceptual identities, caught in a perpetual search for a way to evolve. A capital city, it operates at a national level, providing a seat for government and a focus for the arts. But at the same time it remains comfortably small and intimate. It ranks 97th in size among European cities, and there are at least five hundred larger cities in the world. In many ways, conventional understandings of urban development are somehow out of scale for this small city.
But at about 500,000 inhabitants, its size belies the internal complexities that inform it. It is a city that despite its many plans has never been planned, that despite its monuments can not be called monumental, and despite its compact form exhibits no center. Oslo is a diffuse urban conglomeration, a city whose own image is constantly being deferred.
In investigating the options that are available to Oslo, it is perhaps the question of density that is the most central. Oslo is a highly unresolved urban form, technically advanced, but extremely loose in its configuration. With a density of about 1,140 inhabitants per square kilometer, it is more than twenty times less dense than Manhattan (at 24,200 / square kilometer) and more than ten times less dense than Tokyo (at 12,800 / square kilometer). In this way, it is a totally different kind of urban form, hosting an entirely different urban form of life.
It is sometimes called the 'blue/green city' in reference to its geographic position wedged between the mostly undeveloped expanse of water in the Oslo Fjord and an enormous national park. The Dutch architects MVRDV called it Pine City. But what are the real opportunities for this small city, and what sorts of challenges face it in a period of rapid growth? We spoke with Karl Otto Ellefsen, Dean of the Oslo School of Architecture and founder of its Institute for Urbanism.
TMQ: The city of Oslo is at a critical point in its urban history, in which a number of important areas are in the process of undergoing change. At the same time, there seems to be very little agreement about how the city should develop. You have recently distinguished between two models of urban development for Oslo: the compact and the scattered. Could you discuss these two models and what sort of implication they have?
KOE: Let me start by saying that both of these models are possible strategies for Oslo. The strategy for compactness, however, requires a much stricter and more focused regime of legislation and administration. This has been consistently successful in some European metropolitan areas, like in the Swedish towns, while in both Denmark and Germany—Berlin, for instance—we see this strictness disintegrating. Oslo, on the other hand, has always been characterized by spread development, so the adoption of a compact city strategy, in a move to create a more traditional centered structure in Oslo, works against the way the city has already grown. In this way, this model is less interesting and less descriptive of Oslo than the scattered.
TMQ: At the same time, it would seem that the kind of distributed urban network that characterizes Tokyo or Atlanta is largely missing from Oslo. Is the notion of dispersed growth really beneficial here?
KOE: Yes, it is true that these American and Japanese examples are not applicable to Oslo‹ the scale is just too different. But the Northern Italian situation does apply, with its concept of the citta diffusa. Take the situation in the Po valley, in the villages around Milan, and the way that they develop. Somebody who has grown up in one of these villages builds himself a garage, then a workshop, and maybe later a storage building, developing a business, hiring employees. A liberal attitude to building in these areas leads to the growth of a little node in a larger network. The situation in Oslo is comparable—people feel they have the right to build wherever they want—and this pattern of nodes grows up. This is strengthened by decentralized planning regulations. Norway and Italy resemble each other in this regard, perhaps more than any other European situation, in being this extreme. A citta diffusa situation is what exists in Oslo today, and this will probably continue. It has its positive and negative aspects, but it describes the situation today in Oslo very well.
TMQ: What are the implications of this situation for current planning?
KOE: The situation is very much the result of a decentralized decision-making process, which provides a great deal of freedom. But there are certain challenges which this system raises. The first is that the public sector, especially the planning authorities, have had to make a stark transition from the policies and models of social democracy to more liberalized systems. And while I have been hesitant about criticizing the public planning apparatus, it is obvious that they are still very much out of step with developments. They are now a mediating link between developers on the one hand and the political sector on the other, but their own awareness of their role is still very unclear. As interest in urbanity grows within the political sector (without that necessarily being accompanied by a growth in knowledge), the role of the public planners has become both extremely important but very ineffective. The second challenge is developing a clear policy of urban development in Oslo. The political situation in Oslo today is very unstable, which makes the development of a stable policy of development doubly important. But I don't necessarily mean that the development of a policy is the same as choosing a model for development. I don't think that models like the Compact City or the Citta Diffusa are policies—they are simply ways of initiating a discussion. The most important challenge facing Oslo now is the formation of clear political priorities.
TMQ: Of course, as a small city with a limited base of resources, the formation of clear political priorities is desirable. But how does this desire for clarity mesh with the notion of the citta diffusa?
KOE: There is no real need for clear visions or models for concrete future scenarios‹what is necessary is a good strategic understanding of the ways in which the public sector can work with urban development in a relatively new‹ at least for Oslo‹ liberal market economy. Interesting questions to be posed are of the following type: How can these public processes ensure transparency while also encouraging professional quality? What sort of guidelines do we need for spending public money on urban development? The real challenge of the citta diffusa is recognizing its presence and developing projects that can exploit the potential that it offers.
TMQ: How do you see the role of the Institute of Urbanism in the development of these urban policies?
KOE: There has been some talk recently about developing a sort of mediating role in which we could function as a link and a forum for the various participants in these processes to come together and become more productive. While I was initially interested in these ideas, I no longer feel that we can adopt that role. A more neutral agency such as Norsk Form would be better suited to create the forum itself, and to represent the mediating role. What is more important, rather, is that we practice a critical role, and participate within this forum.
We have some experience now with participating in large projects for the development of Oslo. We even did some major consultancy work for a short time. But this turned out to be quite difficult terrain, dotted with conflicts of interest, and counter to many of the basic academic ideals that we wanted to retain. Our task lies now in creating a critical discussion that links developers, the public sector and the academic world in a committed way, by developing an innovative and alternative mentality.