Oslo Opera House: a space for the people?

by Stian Karlsen

Across the world, and in Europe especially, we have seen a trend where the waterfronts have been reconnected to the cities again. From being neighborhoods of the more dubious kind, reserved for port workers, industry and fishermen, they’re now seen as valuable space with high property prices but also public spaces. The Fjord City of Oslo waterfront project is extremely ambitious, seeking to be much more than a property project but reconnecting the city to the fjord, historically used for shipbuilding and port activities and the major highway crossing the city.

The centerpiece of this development is the recently built Norwegian Opera House and Ballet. Winner of Culture Building of the year at the World Architecture festival in 2009 in Barcelona, this is Norway’s first purpose built Opera House. In a consensus-oriented country like Norway, where everyone wants their say, it has taken several decades from the first plans of building an opera house until it was built. The city of Oslo have a historical sociopolitical divide between east and west, and you would be surprised how many years was spent battling out on which side of the river that divides the city the Opera House was to be built. In the end what saved the project from another decade of stalemate, was the decision by national government of building a tunnel under the fjord removing the highway from the surface. This opened up for what is Europe’s biggest redevelopment on the waterfront of Oslo, and what is a jewel of an opera house.

Much has been written about the Bilbao effect, but there is no doubt that the Opera House in Oslo has completely changed the dynamic of the City of Oslo. A building reflecting both the egalitarianism typical of Scandinavia, the roof of the building now functions as a public square, and the wealthy nation with no expenses spared on the building. It has become one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country, one of the most photographed monuments in Oslo, and what used to be the seediest area of the city now attracts the highest property prices in the country.

The Norwegian Opera House sparked Europe’s most expensive city rejuvenation,  in time we will know if it has been one for the people of Oslo or just for tourists and bankers.