Urban oasis

Oslo, Norway



img It was understood that the building would be a signpost for the future tradition of culture in the country.

—Craig Dykers, Snøhetta AS, Oslo, Norway

A century in the making, Oslo’s Opera House provides a new public space and a peek into the city’s future.

Case by Case: Innovation in Action

There's no denying the sheer splendor of the new Opera House in Oslo, Norway. But the high-profile construction project is more than just a pretty façade. Its innovative blend of beauty and utility is transforming the whole city.

The 38,500 square-meter (414,411 square-foot) structure sits perched on the innermost part of the Oslofjord, directly east of the city's main commercial center. And on any given afternoon, its sloped, marble roof attracts pedestrians, sunbathers and tourists.

The Norwegian government funded the NOK4.2 billion project with the goal of creating a new type of public space, says Tarald Lundevall, project manager at Snøhetta AS, the Oslo-based architectural firm behind the opera design.

Heralded as “Norway's cultural crown jewel,” the building is a powerful symbol of the forward movement of architecture and urbanization in the city. Plans are in place for new walkways that will reconnect the city to its waterfront, and the once-industrial area is being redeveloped for residential and commercial use.

At the heart of the neighborhood's renewal, the Opera House rises from the water—essentially connecting city and fjord, past and present.

60,000 tons

The amount of pollutants in the site's soil and under the water

“Since the Opera House is among the largest cultural projects ever built in Norway, it was understood that the building would be a signpost for the future tradition of culture in the country,” says Craig Dykers, senior partner and director at Snøhetta AS. “With such emphasis and care placed on the development of the design, the opera project has set a trend for government and public engagement in cultural endeavors in the future.”

Sound Barriers

The Opera House opened to the public on 12 April 2008 after more than a century of spirited discourse— much of which was tied to the fact that the project was government-subsidized.

“Political and logistical issues have dominated the debate, the most recent of these included the final choice for the site of the new opera house,” Mr. Dykers explains.

Although the government did consider other locations, including a former train station near the town hall, the waterfront site ultimately aligned with Oslo's vision for revitalizing the once-industrial banks of the fjord. The site had served as a harbor during the Viking period, was made into a logging yard more than a century ago and was most recently used to store shipping containers.

As the new millennium neared, the urgency surrounding the Opera House project increased—and so did its importance to the country.

“The government thought about what it should do for such an important point in history,” Mr. Lundevall says. “The expectations for this building were high. It was expected to symbolize Norwegian knowledge and the ability to do innovative things along with top functionality.”

The Trifecta

The project team focused on three design elements dubbed the wave wall, the factory and the carpet.

The building's foyer stretches from end to end, connecting the city to the waterfront along an undulating oak wall, or “wave wall.”

“Large, tilted white columns lean within the lobby, connecting the roof to the underwater foundations,” Mr. Lundevall explains.

Those foundations lay the groundwork for “the factory”—or main theater space—built 55 feet (17 meters) below the water level of the adjacent fjord. The previous infill of the site eased some potential construction woes, but came with its own set of issues.

“While the landfill made for easy excavation, its stability required careful testing to ensure the long-term viability of the soil,” Mr. Lundevall explains. “One significant challenge was the creation of a stable geometry for the sub-basements that could counteract the water pressure caused by the sea. Although the sub-stage is rectangular in plan, we proposed a circular diaphragm wall to withstand the water pressure effectively.”

Curtain Call

Construction started
February 2003

Construction completed
April 2008

NOK4.2 billion

Floor area
38,500 square meters (414,411 square feet)

Depth of stage below sea level
16 meters (52.5 feet)

Stones used in roof
Approximately 36,000

Above the factory, the overlay, or “the stone carpet,” ties the project site together. The sweeping surface serves as both a roof for the opera house and a public space that brings Oslo's residents to the water. Made up of 36,000 individual pieces of marble, the sloping roof is designed to demonstrate “the concept of togetherness, joint ownership, and easy and open access for all,” Mr. Lundevall says.

That invitation extends to some long-lost wildlife as well.

“The site for the new opera contained about 60,000 tons of pollutants in the soil and below the water,” explains Mr. Dykers. “In addition to creating the new opera, our task was to purify the soil and water, and return it to a more natural and healthy state. Most of these pollutants were contained and the remainder was carried off site and environmentally purified. Once construction was complete, bird and fish life that had been lost for a century returned to this part of the fjord.”

Democratic Debates

The opera's intricate design and high public profile prompted continuous discourse among the Snøhetta team members, which averaged around 20 over the course of eight years. Like the open, social nature of the design itself—and in many ways, Scandinavia's own socially democratic philosophies—Mr. Lundevall managed his project team with a light touch aimed at fostering an exchange of ideas.

“Most decisions were taken as a broad consensus,” and even when disagreements surfaced, Mr. Lundevall says he rarely dismissed ideas outright. Yet he acknowledges that democracy presented some challenges from a management perspective.

“It's a little more complicated to manage people when you have this open attitude where every person has his or her vote to say something,” he says.

Along with managing all those opinions, Mr. Lundevall was also in constant contact with the Norwegian government about the opera house's design.

“This has been one of the most publicly followed processes that Snøhetta has experienced,” he says, noting that the government's decision to fund the project ensured it would have a vocal and visible influence over it.

Under Pressure

The team felt strong government presence when selecting the marble for the roof. Some politicians pressed Mr. Lundevall and his team to use Norwegian stone based on a sentimental argument alone. But Mr. Lundevall believed all possibilities should be considered for the most public part of the building.

Following discussions with the Minister of Trade, the tender package was put out to the international market and followed the typical guidelines for evaluating offers from contractors, he says.

The team ultimately decided on Carrara marble from Italy for the primary roof as a nod to the historical roots of European and Western opera, which dates back to 15th century Venice. To add a local feel, Snøhetta did use Norwegian granite on the north wall of the structure.

Challenges also arose as Snøhetta aimed to keep the building's silhouette low so it wouldn't disturb the connection between Oslo's urban center and the new residential areas to the south and east of the opera building.



To accomplish this, the team relied on a blend of “old-fashioned hand drawing” and digital technology, Mr. Dykers explains. “The unusual ramp shapes were most efficiently analyzed in a 3-D model made on a computer.”

The basic layout of the stone was also done electronically so no four stones would meet at the same place—avoiding awkward joints.

“This huge ‘white carpet’ is geometrically extremely complicated—without modern digital technology, it would have been impossible to create,” Mr. Lundevall says.

As part of the process, each individual stone endured up to four different surface treatments before being placed within the roof, like pieces of a huge puzzle. When technology fell short, workers manipulated the stones on site.

Snøhetta also used 3-D techniques to design the auditorium, which was completed in partnership with acoustics engineers from Arup and the Norwegian office of Brekke Strand.

“In the main hall, the horseshoe that is ideal for sightlines is not ideal for acoustics, so a series of undulating shapes and folds helps control the acoustics,” Mr. Dykers says, adding that a glass chandelier doubles as an acoustic reflector in the room.

Future Perfect

Norway's capital city is only beginning to embrace the neo-urbanism embodied by the opera house's minimalist design. The structural innovation of the building challenged Mr. Lundevall in the sense that he was “designing into the unknown,” he says.

Steeped in a century of history, Mr. Lundevall had to sell the innovative— and therefore seemingly risky—elements of the project to ensure it lived up to the hype and met stakeholder expectations.

“You have to be willing to test out ideas and convince clients that it's worth both the money and the time to check out the solutions,” he says. “My role as project manager was, in many cases, to be the facilitator—not coming up with completely new ways of behavior or reestablishing the team the way we work, but rather convincing the client that proposals for combining techniques that have never been combined before was the way to go.”

The endless hours of meetings—not to mention the century-long delay—have paid off. The NOK4.2 billion project came in within budget and seems to be hitting all the right notes. On the heels of receiving the Culture Award at the World Architecture Festival in October 2008, the opera house won the 2009 Mies van der Rohe award, the European Union prize for contemporary architecture. —]enn Danko




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