Innovation in Scandinavia: Norwegian Wood

In his seminal “Towards a New Architecture,” the inimitable architect Le Corbusier delivered what is probably his most famous quote: “A house is a machine for living in.” What’s most striking about that idea is how often most of us forget it – we rarely think “machine” when we think of the buildings we inhabit. Such is the curse of architecture. When it works, it risks going unnoticed.

I imagine we’ll be reminded of Le Corbusier’s sentiment often over the next week as we, participants in the Chazen Innovation Tour of Scandinavia, march around Copenhagen and Stockholm in search of what drives design in what is decidedly one of the world’s most stylish and forward-thinking regions. More than that, we’ll be encouraged to expand that sentiment, to include not just houses but all buildings, to think not just about architecture but about design in general.

On tap for the Copenhagen leg of our journey are visits to BIG (one of the most exciting architects working today), Novo Nordisk, the Copenhagen Innovation Lab, and Designit; in Stockholm, we’ll visit Spotify, Ericsson and Skanska (and maybe one other). But we’ll also tour the cities, eat at their finest restaurants and get to experience the Scandinavian culture firsthand. We’ll all leave with a better understanding of how good design works, what it looks like and where it comes from. That is, we all leave, I hope, with a notion of how good design can make life more worth living.

With that quest in mind, and as a second-year unshackled by the burden of mid-semester exams, I decided to tack on a pre-Chazen excursion to Oslo, Norway. (I recommend that future Chazen-trippers, if they can, take advantage of the “extended” spring break, as well. It’s a luxury that shouldn’t be ignored.) Norway is not part of our official itinerary – Copenhagen and Stockholm are both better known as design centers. But if innovation is the charge, I didn’t want to skip the work of the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta – especially its relatively new opera house.

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The building – or, rather, the machine – opened in 2008, built on formerly flat industrial land that juts out into the fjord. It rises out of the water, a mound of glass and white-marble and oak. It foretells the area’s future – it was the first building to open as part of a rejuvenation of the area, and spillover is already in effect – as much as it recalls its history. Step inside and you’ll be delightfully overwhelmed by Norway’s favorite building material: wood. Wood is, simply, everywhere in this country. Sloping wooden beams hold up the Oslo airport, and it lines the walls and floors of even my budget-friendly hotel room. It’s warm and sturdy and striking to look at.

I bought tickets to the opera – Wagner’s Tristan og Isolde – and sauntered into Snohetta’s opera house – commissioned, of course, by the state – with a few hours to spare. I gawked at the oak “wave wall,” which wrapped the concert hall itself, and at the way the glass box framed views at the city and the surrounding hills. I investigated the pedestrian-friendly (though treacherous, slippery as it was from the day’s new snow) roof. I shot photographs of the Olafur Eliasson-designed interior cladding. And, of course, I studied the ubiquitous oak.

As the rest of the patrons trickled in, they were jubilant and talkative and fancy – this was, it was clear, an event. But most everyone focused less on the building’s details. To them, it was just a platform on which to place their cultural and social experience, a place to take in an opera. Surely, few of them would claim not to have noticed it, or say that their experience wasn’t impacted and enhanced by it. But the building in some ways seemed to disappear. Ah, to behold the power of a well-designed machine. ~Brandon Wall

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