A Fine Farewell

In perhaps his last project, Norway’s Sverre Fehn adds on to a building by his nineteenth-century predecessor.

If there’s truth to the maxim that the secret of a good collaboration is that one person does all the work, it’s especially the case when one of the partners has been dead for 143 years. So it was with Oslo’s National Museum of Architecture, which opened in March, a dialogue across time between ­Chris­tian Heinrich Grosch (1801–1865), widely regarded as Nor­way’s most significant nineteenth-century architect, and 1997 Pritzker Prize winner Sverre Fehn, the nation’s undisputed twentieth-century master.

The new museum, previously located in a too-small building on nearby Kongens gate, is housed in a landmarked 1828 neoclassical structure—the original headquarters of the Central Bank of Norway—designed by Grosch, which Fehn reconceived and enlarged by adding a glass exhibition pavilion. Appropriately, the debut show features more than 30 of Fehn’s projects distributed throughout the building’s gallery space, including his Nordic Pavilion for the Ven­ice Biennale, the Glacier Museum, and Villa Busk. An element of poignance permeates the exhibition: since the spring of 2006, the 83-year-old architect, who worked on the project from 1997 until 2005, has been confined to a nursing home (from which he issued final adjustments). With the possible exception of a chapel in southern Norway, the museum is the last of his designs to be built.

It is an elegant farewell in every respect. In the existing building Fehn introduced a café and bookstore, created research and art storage spaces, designed furniture for the renovated offices, and added exhibition galleries, including one in the original vault. “He was allowed to do absolutely everything,” senior architecture curator Ulf Grønvold says. Despite the increased program—in a compact 40,900 square feet, pavilion included—Fehn’s focus on clarifying and foregrounding Grosch’s forms and proportions, along with his use of simple, sturdy materials, has produced orderly, contemplative rooms well suited to their redefined roles.

Fehn’s adjoining contribution—a pristine structure compris­ed of little more than six-meter-high glass walls and four concrete columns supporting a concrete roof—incorporates many of the architect’s long-standing themes. The pavilion illustrates what Grønvold describes as “the great care Fehn takes to express the structure”; an interest in materiality that echoes Louis Kahn, a major influence on the architect; and most of all, his distinctive sensitivity to the relationship between a building and its site. The latter is most evident not in the pav­il­ion but in what surrounds it: a low concrete wall cut through in places to open the building to the street, surround­ing a narrow but inhabitable outdoor space. Since the wall’s inner surface can be used to exhibit weatherproof objects, a visitor looking outward from the building beholds a layered experience of artwork, people, glass, and beyond that, more artwork, wall, and neighborhood. Meanwhile, passersby see an intriguing architectural tableau—one that resembles a Modernist version of Oslo’s centuries-old walled Akershus fortress, a few blocks to the south.

Most impressive perhaps is the way Fehn’s design both respects and reinvigorates Grosch’s stolid old bank, calling to mind one of the architect’s best-known observations. “If you chase after the past, you will never catch up with it,” Fehn once said. “Only by manifesting the present can you make the past speak.”

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