Roads to the Mountain

As Norway's National Tourist Routes programme turns twenty and its second cycle of projects gets underway, we look at its early years and where the road goes from here.

Vertigo inducing viewing platforms, long empty mountain roads, valley passes far from the world, and some of the funkiest toilet facilities in the northern hemisphere. These are some elements of Norway's National Tourist Route's (NTR) programme that has emerged as a fully formed network across the country over the last fifteen years.

The NTR programme, begun as a series of four pilots in 1997, has been an influential incubator for the country’s architectural scene, and particularly for a generation of architects coming of age in the 1980’s and ‘90’s. The programme, which launched a first ten year cycle, commissioned projects through the 2000’s which have enabled this generation to cut their teeth on more experimental work, which otherwise would have been difficult to come by. It has also brought Peter Zumthor to Norway, with two completed projects, including the recent 2016 the Allmannajuvet Zinc Mine Museum in Western Norway’s Sauda municipality, in the making for sixteen-years. And in the last eighteen months a second ten-year cycle of projects has been instigated. Eight finalist practices, whittled down from over 300 hundred applications, are in the early stages of preparing designs to be gradually rolled out over the next few years. Included in these finalists are some of Trondheim’s young generation practices; TYIN Tegnestue, and Brendeland & Kristoffesen, as well as NTNY graduates (though Oslo domiciled) Rever og Drage (Foxes and Dragons.)

Los Vegaskjelet - Carl Viggi Holmbakk's early 1997 viewing point
pilot project- Photo Werner Harstad

Water light – Photo OL

The programme, which at its inception was underscored by a strong architectural emphasis, has also changed. During its twenty-year history, projects gradually gravitated towards a more pronounced focus on appearance and spectacle. And in recent years the programme has been critiqued by some of those within Norway’s architectural scene. Despite this, the programme is recognised as having provided space for Norwegian architects to grow and experiment, helping several generations of practitioners and the profession in putting Norway’s young community on the international radar.

Possibly the best known projects internationally, are the series of Juvet projects on the Trolstigen route, by the projects first architects, Jensen & Skodvin Architects (JSA) in Western Norway's More og Romsdal county, less than an hour from the ocean.

While neither the first nor the most recent project of JSA’s long term involvement in the roads programme, their Juvet related projects are well known, and have done much to burnish the studio’s reputation since completion in the late naughties.

Café in winter, micro-hotel in summer – Photo's JSA/OL

I was reminded when I visited Juvet after many years of looking at photos of the different parts of the project of the difference between the image and thing itself; the map is not the territory. The first segment of work at Juvet, the Gubrandsjuvet walkway bridge, and the adjacent café, sitting over a cascading river that long ago carved its runaway passage into bare sparkling rock, is still an elemental encounter. JSA, who have built a reputation on the poetry and poetics of building, are masters of the sensuous. With the walkway lodged upon the plunging rock, dropping precipitously down to the rushing, curdling river below, they reinforce this sensibility of the sensuous, here underpinning the structural with the sculptural. On the walkway, I can’t help reading it as a relatively early hybrid art-architecture, or even a land art project. As I look over the edges of the delicately engineered bridge, with its sinuous filigree steel railings crossing the physical environment, the blue of rushing water is ice clear. In the café, vertical granite blocks, interlace and hold the curtain walls, as the river tumbles fast and furious the far side of the glass.

When put to Børre Skodvin, the art/architecture interpretation is comprehensively, if diplomatically, rejected “you can look at it that way. We didn’t think of it like that. We were doing something quite programmatic. All of it”, he adds, “the viewing platform, parking area and café; which may appear to be different parts, were done sequentially, with new architectural ideas introduced.  It was about elaborating on what we were to do for the function, which would appear in form and intention…which is beyond what you’d find in more regular projects.”

Juvet ceremony building – up close and far Photo’s OL

Five minute’s walk away is the Juvet Landscape Hotel, the next piece in the sequence, made up of delicately positioned micro-huts, comprising slatted timber and glass, half-hidden within the pine-heavy, moss encrusted rock hillsides. All three are instances of Jensen & Skodvin’s exploration of ‘topographic sustainability’ where building and structure touch and co-exist with the natural world in ways that begin to uncover a partial, at least, reconciliation between nature and culture. As I walked away from the Landscape micro-hotels, I couldn’t help wonder at the emphasis on landscape in the name, which in my mind became a clue into understanding how this element of JSA’s work was as much about land art and land sculpture as it is architecture, ignoring Skodvin’s protestations in preference for my own errant poetry. Juvet also illustrates how much granite hewn Norway is terrain that cannot be razed and levelled; rock boulders, steep ridges, and walls of forest all militate against the sort of architectural orthodoxy that has become prevalent across both urban morphologies and much of more easily accessible ground sites.

By comparison, the more recent ceremony building, a Brettstapel encased barn standing on open ground, less than five hundred yards away, felt less thought through; its ceiling framework, a chaotic and confused spill of jenga beams. Like all their more sensuous projects, the now well established Jensen and Skodvin have pursued the subtleties in their making of the sensuality, an approach which more or less disappeared as newer, younger practices began to appear on the Norwegian scene.  If JSA have hewn close to a favoured inland topography; of boulders, moss, the verticality of wooded tree trunks, younger generation architects have been drawn to a dramatic gesture and simple metaphor. Topographically, the closest example is up the road a few kilometres, at the Geiranger viewing point over a cliff like rock face, and valley far below Here another Oslo practice, Reuilf Ramstad Arkiteker had completed one of several of his NTR projects integrating parking facilities with a sharp angled restaurant and rest rooms. The roof-line mountain metaphor deployed by Ramstad here, has become a favourite for practices. A short distance from the car-park, Ramstad’s viewing platform provides panoramic views over the valley and the roads giddy hairpin bends up to Geiranger itself. Ramstad, a mid-nineties generation practice who hit their stride in the early 2000’s, has an architectural language and style which is overly dramatic, reminiscent of his generational peers across the sea, the Danish New Pragmatists, who never missed the chance for eye catching statements. It is a world away from JSA’s work, and has brought droves of tourists streaming up to Geiranger to look out at the mind-stunning view.

Geiranger viewing point – Photo's Oliver Lowenstein

That Juvet is well known internationally is a far cry from the NTR’s beginnings. Jensen & Skodvin were part of the nineties Oslo-centric scene which also included the ex-dean of Oslo architecture school, Karl Otto Ellefsen, and architect Carl Vigge Holmbakk, as well as artist Knut Wold. The initial discussions about a first pilot project began around 1994 and envisaged Sverre Fehn – who, according to Wold, was ‘very interested’ but then too busy – and a first competition was run in 1995, and won by Jensen & Skodvin. The immediate priority was on improving tourist facilities, which Karl Otto Ellefsen described as ‘dire.’ “In the eighties the tourist projects which road planners did were technically so bad, with the worst kind of architecture. We recognised this problem and helped pilot the first project, at Sognefjellet,” with both JSA and Wold. Four sites were initially chosen, and worked on for the next three years. Wold was brought in as art director, while his own stone sculpture was transported to Sognefjellet, high in the pass, the first art piece of the project, alongside JSA’s first pilot project, Liasanden parking facilities - see the Wold feature for more in-depth exploration of this project. JSA also completed the first viewing platform on a second of the pilot routes, Gamle Strynefellsvegan, while Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk’s first NTR projects were finished on the other two pilot routes, the Helgelandsksten and Hardanger roads. Both practices have since continued with the largest number of projects for all the architects, Hølmbakk is slated to complete an ambitious bridge structure in 2023, the programme’s current end date.

Rope Park - Liasanden parking area – Photo JSA
Sunlight at viewing point - Sohlbergplassen - Photo Carl-Viggo Hølmbakk

Early discussions about a full programme, including setting up a permanent NTR team working from within the National Roads Programme Administration Home Road and Transport Department began soon after the success of the pilots. With the millennium approaching the late nineties was a good time to be starting a major national project in any wealthy country. In Norway two large scale and successful national projects, 1994’s Hamar Winter Olympics and the opening of Oslo’s new Gardermoen airport four years later, helped the road programmes momentum. As well as publically successful, as architecture both constructions were well received, which helped NTR be defined and understood early on as an architectural project. “The early NTR group sought therefore to fulfil this architectural mandate,” says Skodvin. Led by road engineer, Jan Andresen, from within the Road and Transport Department, the small NTR programme team was to enjoy close support from politicians, particularly in the early years.

The full scale first cycle ten year programme was given the parliamentary green light in 1998. With eighteen routes across Norway’s south-west, the western Atlantic coastal regions and the far north were eventually chosen in 2004, and although adding architectural, and, at times, art installations and sculptures, proceeded in fits and starts, by the end of the decade a host of projects were complete. Many of the current generation of young Norwegian architects were interviewed to participate in these early projects, with those making the final list delivering projects from the mid 2000s up to the present day. Both JSA and Carl-Viggo Hølmbakk received further commissions, including Hølmbakk's 2006 visitor centre for Rondane, both a national park and Norway’s best-known mountain, sitting south of the Trolstigen route. Also south of Trolstigen are a concentration of the routes, the Gaularfjellet, Aurlandsfjellet, and the Hardanger plateau roads. Of these three, Gaularfjellet is an example of a route only now beginning to receive the NTR treatment, when Oslo’s Code Arkitektur completed a dramatic and dramatically engineered viewing platform last year. By contrast the Hardanger route includes an early work, Tordis Hoem’s Steinstøberget a modest pull over stopping space, benches and shelter, and 3RW’s Susanne Puchberger’s Herieane service building playfully mixes locally sourced diamond cut shale, and bright yellow doors. Further north JarmundVisgnæs Arkitektur, Snøhetta and Tromso’s 70 Degree’s North on the Lofoten Islands, while Code again installed an earlier and less architecturally showy viewing platform further into the High North, not so far from Tromso. In Vardø, even further on the North Eastern Arctic edge of Norway, Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgoeis were brought together for the Steilneset Memorial: To the Victims of the Finnmark Witchcraft Trials installations in 2013. From Vardø itself, rather amazingly, Biotope, the first and so far only Norwegian – and indeed the world’s - practice dedicated to ornithology and architecture, have designed one of their birding hides, for observing the rich migratory arrivals and departures of birds out on the edge of this northern Arctic outpost.  Like all these projects, the Biotope and Zumthor/Bourgeois collaboration’s aim is primarily economic, drawing the tourist Krone to these sparsely populated, and otherwise out of the way, parts of the country. Vardø, for example, has been experiencing a small-scale upswing in its fortunes, partially, though not only, attributable to the Zumthor effect coming to town.

3RW's Herieane toilet halt in Varanger – Photo 3RW
One of Biotope's bird watching hides. Photo - Biotope

The idea of approaching Peter Zumthor originated around 2001/2002, according to Wold, with “the idea of finding a foreign architect.” It was in 2001/2002, when the Sauda zinc mine was first mooted, and it was decided that if a speculative foreign architect were to be brought in, it would be there at Sauda. “That was the site. I wrote him a letter and showed him the project. He knew about Skodvin and Jensen.” The relationship with Zumthor, already known for the intensity of commitment – and time – he brought to projects, helped raise the programme profile internationally. However, it was only in the late naughties that promoting and publicising the work it began to grind into action, very different to today.

Upping the spectacular ante - Todd Saunders and Willie Somerson's Stegastein 2006 viewing platform

By this time, the mid 2000’s, the original architectural emphasis had slipped down NTR’s priority list. Gradually, through the 2000’s, architectural significance was beginning to morph into something different; event architecture. A particular threshold was the Todd Saunders and Willie Somerson’s Stegastein 2006 viewing platform, an audacious and  photogenic piece of engineering, it considerably upped the spectacular ante. Tantalising images sped round the world and appeared across features and articles. It has continued to be the go-to image for many general features. The obvious drama of the tourist routes landscapes, the plunging ravines and valley depths and the grandeur of the mountains, had always been ripe for sensationalising, but had been held in check by a shared belief in the architectural dimension. The programme had arrived at a fork in the road; having let spectacle in, the need to outmatch the previous project was too hard to resist, pulling the programme on towards the next dramatic episode.  Appearance and the image began to take precedence.

In 2010 the NTR travelled to the Shanghai Expo, playing their part in the country’s wider pitch to the world. Playing its part, press coverage ramped up, feeding the drama further. A tension in the programme, the need for the next spectacular project, became more pronounced. Budgets increased, though for some observers the individuality of the early projects was being replaced by what increasingly felt like a tick list template; the parking facilities, the grand view and the toilets trope or cliché became the fall-back idea for National Tourist Route projects right across the country. This certainly felt the case when later the same day after visiting Juvet, I stopped at Ghilardi + Hellsten’s recently opened project on the Atlantic coast-road. The rest room, restaurant and parking boxes were all ticked. From outside the external rhythm of the façade belied a rather drab, dark restaurant and toilet built into the side of a low grassy ridge on tiny Elshuysøya island, with next to no natural sunlight inside. Outside a pathway deck round the rocky outcrop has also been constructed, completing the template as a viewing promenade. A project such as this felt vulnerable to Skodvin’s observation of its evolution. “It’s veered away from the other experiences of life. The smell of the forest, the small little things.”

Elshuysøya island parking, walkway and restaurant stop – Photo OL
Indeed, the claim that the programme has lost its creative way, bringing on critiques of various hues, particularly the reliance on big eye-watering landscape vistas, which for some commentators simplifies nature down to picture postcard level. “Which it isn’t, nature is a process,” according to Ingerid Helsing, editor of Arkitektur N, the main Norwegian architecture magazine. “They could consider ways of exploring nature and ecology, like the Swedish Naturum nature centre networks do.”

That’s only part of a green critique which hones in on a road network which essentially supports fossil fuelled travel. In oil rich, hydro-powered Norway, these arguments don’t get you very far, particularly given the sheer distances between places. But there’s no denying that the National Routes Programme can’t easily be characterised as any kind of sustainable project, even as it facilitates human’s getting up close to ‘nature.’ In the high summer season 2500 cars pass Trolstigen and Geiranger daily. In 2012, according to Wikipedia, 160,000 travelled the route, up from 144, 000 in 2008. At times some of the architects have come with project ideas, which connect more closely to sustainability aims. 70 Degrees North’s Gisle Lokke’s Grunnfør cycle shelters in the Northern Lofoten islands, the foot bridges which are for walkers and mountain hiking, are in their way, a form of sustainable project, while Biotope have developed a wholly original approach to applying architecture to apprehending the natural world. In the main the routes it’s difficult to dispute the routes bring more travel and co2 emissions – despite Norway being the country where electric vehicle ownership is growing at the fastest rate of any country worldwide. Helsing and others also underline the sentimentality and romanticism of the picture postcard view, echoing wider critiques of Norway’s nineteenth century National Romanticism movement, which used a comparable rosy view of the country for political ends. This said, for visitors, romantic or otherwise, it is hard to get away from the sheer overwhelming emotional charge that being in the Norwegian landscape can produce.

70 Degree's North – Grunnfør Bicycle shelter – Photos 70 Degree North

For his part, Wold acknowledges there have been arguments about these points. He agrees that there could be different approaches to apprehending the natural world, noting that whatever the set brief, it is the architects who submit the eventual design ideas. “We argue, but on the other hand have had to rely on the architects. It’s not always that easy. We are reliant on the architect. On these matters, could they have been done in different ways? I’m sure their criticisms are right in those ways.” As to the formulaic template, Wold again notes that the programme is dependent on what the architects bring to the table, and that, as he points out that “there are pragmatic things needing to be done.”

Not only this but issues, not so apparent early on, like tourist numbers, have been increasingly impinging on the programme’s focus. “Some of these places have required large car parks, people have been falling off the edge at one site. Three people have died. There are so many buses coming to the sites.” The rise in visitor numbers of those visiting tells the same story. Where twenty years ago the Norwegian team visited Switzerland for ideas and advice, now other countries, for instance Iceland, to help with strategic infrastructure decisions regarding rising visitor numbers

There is surely some hope and cause for optimism, however, that the new round of architects will breathe fresh life into the programme. Some of the practices have been given new sites in areas hitherto unexplored by the NTR, Mo i Rana, an industrial town half way between Trondheim and Bodo, for instance, which may spur new ideas and directions. The new cycle is also opening the terrain to a new generation of younger architects, the new Trondheim generation, though also to Oslo architects, for instance, HaugenZohar Arkitekter , If the new second cycle architects just beginning are given the space to explore and deliver new ideas and ways of doing architecture they could well precipitate significant renewal, taking the programme down less travelled roads.