This weekend in Oslo there was Open House, a part of the Oslo Triennale arrangement (http://oslotriennale.com/en) starting off about three months of various events on, in and about architecture. There where a lot of buildings open to the public, but none sparked so much conversation and interest as the Høy-blokken. The tower, that housed the ministry of justice, the police department and the prime ministers offices, has been empty since 2011 when a bomb exploded in its vicinity. Several other government buildings around that area were damaged and this brought about the relocation of about 2000 work places.
In the aftermath of the first assessments of damage and possibilities of rehabilitation it was decided to make a new master-plan for the whole government quarter. This process is on-going, the first results of which where laid out in June. The first proposed concepts that have been reviewed as favorable in terms of feasibility and economics have foreseen the replacement of the H-block, the Y block (see picture below), as well as other smaller buildings in the vicinity with new buildings. Nothing has been decided as the work is on-going but the future of the H-block is uncertain.
It was built in the late fifties, finished in 1958 and is a part of the aforementioned government quarter in the city of Oslo. Its architect Erling Viksjø was inspired by Le Corbusier, notable in the pilotis of the groundfloor, where one could originally drive through the building (closed in the early seventies and eventually the whole ground floor was built in) and the roof-scape had some withdrawn organic volumes (much like Unité d’Habitation), also these were built over in the late eighties, an extension not worth mentioning (lets say the difference in quality between the original and the two top floors completed in 1990 are staggering).
The old cafeteria space
Above and below; the gutted out office floors
The concrete used in the building, naturbetong patented by the architect, was made by a method of placing gravel with pebbles from the river in the scaffolding. The concrete was then pumped in, binding the stones and afterwards the hardened concrete was pressure sanded to reveal the imbedded round pebbles, creating a homogeneous surface. The way you make these pebbles visible, by cutting through the concrete (pavement tiles of terrazzo) or pressure sanding it making parts visible to reveal patterns (integrated art) binds the art incorporated in the building to the architecture in a very holistic manner. Several local and international artists (including Picasso, see images below) worked on the impressive murals in the main staircase. This method, somewhat reminiscent of the concrete texture at the Barbican was pioneered here and then used in other projects after the success of the H-block. The building is really a gesamtkunstwerk, reminiscent also of Industrial Trade School and School of Art and Design, another Brute (see; https://socialskillsarchive.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/brute/)
The different ways of expressing the colours and texture of the pebbles imbedded in the naturbetong, seen here in the floor tiles on the ground floor.
The cleaning out or the process of rehabilitation started a year ago and visiting the building in this state of undress, one can also truly see its material qualities as well as the organizational and logistical challenges present. Gutted like this the office floors are spacious and airy (see images above, the offices had two windows per office), but the main stair has the feel of a fire escape and feels rather minuscule in such a structure. But there is no doubt that this is an Icon, an important figure in the history of Oslo. It contains immense value within with its art and spatial quality. This cleaning has shown its original form and stripping the later additions off as well would restore its original quality. It is clear that re-fitting the governmental facilities into the structure will not be an easy feat with today´s requirements but considering tearing it down seems like the result of a rather simplistic logic, one that only takes economy into account rather then culture and leads to an impoverishment in the urban landscape. The H-block has a lot of history, some of it may be painful, but it is a survivor, a tall beautiful one.
The ground floor entrance, the gate to the left is where you could once drive through