Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Core-ten and Concrete

A handicapped ramp turned public plaza at Schandorffsgate in Oslo. 

Oslo in the Autumn

Early Autumn in Norway finds a lot of colors - the most dreary of places on a dreary day can be beautiful. Above is an old cemetery for statesmen found while rambling around northern-central Oslo. 

Eventually the cold and wind take over and the city cleans up the leaves, leaving people trying harder to keep some color around. A small testament here to the either the huge consistency of taste in Norway, or perhaps to the limited variety for cold weather plants - at the city flower market, everyone is selling and buying heather now. A couple months ago, this plaza was covered in juniper and other evergreen shrubs. 

Monday, October 25, 2010


I've been doing research over the past few months, trying to understand what aspects deter (or can help) residents to identify with urban spaces. A weekend walk through of Oslo reminded me of a larger problem - the city, much as any other in the globalizing world, seems to have an identity crisis of it's own. Now instead of asking how we can identify space in a city as "our own", I ask instead, what are cities defining themselves as? What is Oslo?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Un-learning, Re-learning

It's been more than a year now since I left the U.S., and I realize I have come to take a lot of aspects of my 'new' surroundings for granted as 'normal'. It is interesting how one begins to forget the differences, or simply assimilates new phenomena over time in a different place. In this regard, I find that Norway sometimes deceives me. 

I remember in my first impressions of the country being rather surprised that things don't look much different here than in many parts of the U.S. Most houses are made of wood, apartment blocks still follow modernism, a large percentage of people drive (compared to the rest of Europe) because the towns and cities are relatively low density and subject to sprawl (where geography allows). The culture can seem peculiarly shy, or keeping to small circles of friends but having lived in New York the anonymity does not seem so new (when do city dwellers ever meet their neighbors anyways?).

Despite many apparent similarities, there are, of course, differences - even when masked in subtleties. These differences become all the more important entering the second year in this country - as I attempt to insert myself into the legal system here obstacles continue to appear reminding me that I am not from here and that I do not always have the most clear or complete understanding of my surroundings that I was used to in the U.S. - from social situations that are at the easy end to adjust to, to navigating the infrastructure I interact with every day to various degrees of success. 

A very humbling experience yesterday brought this to light when, despite 13 years of holding a driver's license in the U.S., I managed to fail the practical driving exam in Norway. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the major fault in the exam was a matter I find to be a shining example of the very subtle differences between the countries. In Norway, a driver does not stop at an intersection - rather they slow down and apply a 'right hand rule' for determining the right of way. Having been explained this rule, and thinking I had understood it I realized to be a very different from practicing it. I find it simple enough to watch to your right as you drive and allow people to go in front of you, but when I approach and intersection it is too bred into me to stop and wait for the traffic to clear before continuing. Maybe it can be the fault of having been a New Yorker (or Bostonian for that matter), or maybe it's simply coming from the U.S. Directly or indirectly, we are taught not to trust other drivers and we operate in a system with limits to prevent interaction when possible. I certainly don't have the experience to judge if one of these is somehow better than the other, but I find it to be potentially an interesting commentary on the link between very basic infrastructure (form and rules) and culture.

Image found in Norwegian traffic discussion thread: 


Tuesday, September 28, 2010


A recent visit to Zurich and a fieldtrip regarding the Norwegian 'cultural landscape' in Trondheim before that have me thinking about waterfronts. The greater Zurich area has developed seemingly all the land around Lake Zurich, leaving the hills and mountains beyond open for farming and nature. To compensate, waterside promenades and public spaces abound. Trondheim holds an industrial waterfront with sprawl going into the hills around the fjord, yet controversy has arisen over potential building on "the last remaining opening to the fjord." The landscape there might be held open simply for the 'view' - as the reality of residents accessing the fjord from that land is rather small. 

Zurich Area:

Trondheim Area:

Friday, September 10, 2010

A narrative

Trying something a little different here, comments welcome - am keeping my eyes open for an outlet where I might be able to publish this/later work.. 

It has been a few weeks now since I moved here - to Oslo, to Tøyen. At the grocery store (the larger option in the neighborhood boasting lower prices) the woman in line in front of me wears a burqa. It is a common sight here and I am getting used to it, but I cannot help myself from wondering about her. Where is she from, how long has she been in Norway, does she speak the language, what will she be making for dinner? The differences between us seem accentuated by this one, highly symbolic piece of clothing. We leave the store with our bags and walk in the same direction for a bit, until she turns down a street consistently peppered with various others donning hijab and headscarves. I continue to my own rented apartment.

At my front door, I greet my neighbor on his way out but still in his business-casual dress from the workday. Our building is an old one - solid, possessing character. The apartments inside have been recently renovated to achieve a clean and modern look - energy saving appliances and all. When I take out the trash in the evenings, I must unlock a massive gate leading to the courtyard - a modestly sized space with potted plants and views to greener neighboring lawns. A small table and some potted plants render asphalt plot as cozy. From this space I have coffee and waffles and watch more neighbors come and go. I cannot but acknowledge that we are all the same - young professionals seeking reasonable rent and comfortable rooms. There are no burqas or bright headscarves in my building.

I remember back to the realtor's showing of my apartment. We had arrived a little late and there was a room full of visitors who were just leaving. My boyfriend was the only native Norwegian entering a room that well displayed the diversity that the city of Oslo hosts. Tøyen after all, is known for being multicultural - and for having cheap rent compared to similarly central neighborhoods. The well dressed realtor did little to hide his eagerness to speak to us, and it was shortly after the door closed on the last other visitor that we were informally offered the apartment. This approach was not overly surprising - we had sensed similar interest at previous showings and had already turned down one apartment despite the tight market. It seemed to follow as we are a clean, polite young couple with good educations, a steady income, and the added benefit of northern European genes. 

A week after accepting the apartment we read in the local newspaper that young adults from minority backgrounds and students are having excessive difficulties in the rental market. I think back to our visits to other apartments and realize that our demographic is the competition in this market. Not yet established enough to buy, still saving and unwilling to spend too much on rent thereby drawn into neighborhoods characterized by increasing disparity and change. I think again of the woman in the burqa and my architect's mind is drawn to the long block of lesser kept modernist housing where she turned. Those blocks have few balconies and no coutyards - that era of Oslo housing in these parts focused on function - quantity over quality. I do not know how big or light her apartment is, or when it was last renovated. It is certain that, unlike the pattern of residents found in my building, those of neighboring buildings are not all the same. Only a few blocks separate us, we are one community yet we share little beyond the sidewalks and buried infrastructure.

Going back to the gate on my building's courtyard, I wonder why it is locked. Why are other members of the community invited to share 'our' communal space? I walk down local streets where the only trees and greenery to be glimpsed is tucked behind other buildings, locked within large gates, buried in courtyards. While I appreciate that my back window has a view of some trees, I fear that it is unfair to the rest of the community. Some others have no yards by their homes; others have more beautiful ones than mine. I pay more and more attention to the individual people in my community and I wonder just how different are our parallel and adjacent lives. 

Mostly, I am quiet in public though I make a point of smiling to the people I pass on my street. At our subway stop, diverse visitors and tourists often ask me for directions - I respond to them as best I can. In stores, I greet shopkeepers and rehearse well practiced phrases hoping not to be caught off-guard with questions outside of the routine. Even though I too, am shut out of the locked courtyards in the district of Gamle Oslo, I feel somehow integrated into this disconnected community. By all outside appearances having fair skin and blue eyes I am typically mistaken for Norwegian, but - as is revealed by the color of my passport and my difficulty pronouncing ø, æ, and å's in conversation - in actuality, I am just another immigrant here.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Forefront, fjord-front

The forefront of sustainable development? Or, just a shiny new front along the water for the city of Oslo.. A couple shots of the ongoing construction towards a new city area - somewhere on the other side of the railroad tracks building after building is being built on what is likely newly filled land from the fjord-front. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Intentional and Unintentional Skate-park

A bit of a throw back, both in place and in line of thought, but I have not stopped thinking about landscape architecture over the past year outside of the profession. Back in Trondheim, in the neighborhood of Rosenborg, there is a public plaza designed - at least in part - to accommodate skate boarders. This area provoked me in particular after having proposed skate parks/plazas to New York clients, who time after time turned down the idea after much consideration on the basis of liability risks and insurance costs.

The theme of this dialogue goes along with many conversations in playground design in the US - how much protection do children at play really need? Do we as designers aim to accommodate the desires of the end user (the child), or do we serve the client and become a slave to the product lines touting "safety" while knowing that the users may very well 'misuse' the elements in the end.

I feel that this plaza space tells the story well - designers cannot guarantee the use and misuse of their spaces, but they can try.

The plaza, the skaters. Variations of smooth and rough paving designate well where the skaters can go at ease.
The elements - benches, steps, plinths - aesthetic choices, or skating intrigue, or both?

The metal edge here allows skating without damaging the corner of the stone. However the light color choice of the stone and the courses of fieldstone imply that perhaps this wasn't originally intended as a skate-element.

Detail of steel edge and skate board marks.

If the squared off stone pieces were not exactly intended for skating, then these rounded elements definitely were not. Despite the soft edge and slightly rough paving, the shape clearly did not work to dissuade skaters from it.

While many see skating and such marks as a form of vandalism or disrespect to a space, I found myself appreciating them. This plaza is in an area with various sports fields, and is seldomly crossed otherwise. In this event the skaters have claimed the space as their own and allowed their marks to dually show its use, declaring themselves as a community. Skating is announced as a sport requiring a 'field', just as the adjacent basketball courts and soccer courts which were planned for. Perhaps the plaza wasn't exactly supposed to be a skate-park, but clearly there was a need for one in the area and this design serves the purpose - intentionally or unintentionally.

Friday, August 20, 2010


I read a blog a few weeks ago wherein the author held a firm stance that it is impossible to go 'off the grid' in this day and age (http://www.infrastructurist.com/2010/07/29/is-it-possible-to-go-truly-off-the-grid-a-guest-post/). It was a good reminder of everything 'the grid' encompasses, and the fact that whether we realize it or not, we are all connected. There are services we share as a society - whether you are living 'remotely' in the countryside off a long driveway or in a dense city where you see your neighbors every day. What strikes me as interesting is that with all we share, why is it so difficult for western society to identify with the concept of communal resources. Is it because our electric wires and sewer systems are buried underground, or is it simply that the road has been there so long we forget that it belongs to all of us? 

Now that I am returning to city life I will continue to ponder this and wonder how it is that we designers might be able to exploit the communal-ity of infrastructure and help residents understand the connections that make their (local) world work. And further, to help us remember that the most important systems we need to deliver the resources we live from are not only the man-made technological ones, but also those natural ones which we so often take for granted. 

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Forces II

Last week I went to visit a glacier, or at least a small leg of one. Svartisen is the second largest ice mass in Norway, one of the largest in Europe and while I (rightfully) expected to be impressed by the glacier itself, I could never have imagined the incredible workings of it seen on the way. I am convinced that this hike was the best experiential lesson one could have in geology. 

It is difficult to travel through Norway and not recognize that the country has been shaped by glaciers. The steep cliffs and uneven coastline quickly signal that this place did not geologically form quite in the same way or at the same time as the larger part of Europe or North America. However, it was not until arriving by boat into area cleared by a glacier within the last 100 years that I truly understood how this intense natural process works. The glacier scrapes away earth and bedrock, leaving a series of vast, uneven masses. 

Scale - there is a 6'-2" Norwegian in the photo above.

Given time after the glacier passes, water runs over the newly exposed rock surfaces, smoothing and eroding areas forming puddles, streams, and pools. Sediment turns into soil and slowly birds and insects return and the wind carries seeds which develops vegetation.

Given enough time, soil and vegetation cumulate and become the more typical landscape that Norway is noted for.

Oh, and before I forget.. Here is that little glacier arm that has caused (and continues) all of this-

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Forces of Nature

This was a tree which once stood strong in a forest. Its former part of the forest has been cleared in a way that no machinery ever could.

Last winter, the (now) seemingly gentle waterfall in the picture above began to freeze. Ice collected and created a type of dam which lasted until a warm day in April. With temperatures around 70 degrees (F), the waterfall gained power from the melting snow at its source. Simultaneously, the ice dam weakened in the sun until the water was able to explosively push through. The power from it prevented the water volume from following the usual river path (which curves to the right of this photo). The rush of the water alone, with the debris and rock carried by it, shredded trees and a telephone pole in its new path. The result was stunning in the demonstration of shear force.

These photos were taken in June, and under the soil there were still mounds of ice and snow amongst the forest debris. (Virvasdalen, Nordland, Norway)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Natural Reclamation

A little eerie, but somehow simultaneously heartwarming and reassuring - the land in this picture was a major highway just 20 years ago. In fact, this stretch used to be part of the E6 - the only main traffic route through northern Norway - where it crosses the arctic circle. 

On top of the harsh weather conditions associated with this latitude (there were still spots of snow in mid June), this area also falls on a mountain at rather high altitude for Norway. The tree line in Norway is low - falling around 300 m (or 1200') above sea level for the south, and becoming much lower (down to 100m or lower) as one progresses to the north. The remaining barren landscape exposes the ground to strong winds and snow drifts through the roughly 6 month winter, so locating (and maintaining) road and rail lines becomes a difficult task. In some sections near here, long sheds have been built over the railway to shelter from intense winter drifting. The area is also bisected by many streams which ebb and rage during periods of snow melt, threatening complete wash-outs for the line of infrastructure. After repeated washouts and snow problems, it was determined to move the highway and the Polarsirkelensenteret (arctic tourist visitor's center) east of the original location. 

Landscape at 66.56 degrees latitude with arctic circle center and markers.

Today the vacated highway is being reclaimed by the nature around it - and quite rapidly at that. The open landscape and former infrastructure is open to hikers (and grouse hunters) who can actively see the restoration of habitat taking place. We found a nest of eggs from a bird known in Norwegian as Heilo - the Eurasian Golden Plover (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurasian_Golden_Plover) - camouflaged but out in the open landscape maybe 15 feet off the old road - the current infrastructure far beyond. 


The train crossed our path before our return to the visitor's center - allowing an informative shot of the infrastructure - the rail line following the river, with the current highway in the background. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Taming Wilderness

Over an hours drive from the nearest city, about 5 kilometers on a windy uphill path from the highway and across a couple rivers in Nordland lie a series of farms which were established in the 1830s. Making the hike up from the E6, on what is now a series of decently marked paths in part of Friluftsliv (or outdoor, literally 'free air <=leisure> life') tourism, makes one wonder how and why these farms were ever founded and maintained up until the 1970s. 

(Bredek farm is top, center in the distance)

The answer turned out to be fairly simple - at the time, the farmland in the valley served by roads was running short, so farmers were forced upland and into remote areas to establish fields and grazing pastures. Along with this, I can only imagine, came a heavily work-ridden life removed from society around. The alternative option or next step in this migration turned out to be the expensive and arduous move to America where accessible, flat land was still plentiful. 

Above is one of the first fields found on approach to Bredek. The stone wall is as old as the cultivation - having been built from the rock found when clearing the land. The full farm follows, with much of the older equipment still intact - from wooden sickles to steel wood stoves which must have been hauled to the site. The farm's environment and site is exquisite in nature with the views to the mountains, shelter from strong winds, natural water sources and constant reassuring sounds of a nearby waterfall and the woods full of birds and wildlife. 

Two-thirds of the way back, spotting the highway and railroad infrastructure below, the remoteness really sank in.

The concept of living off the land, and the very real proof that this earth does not hold the capacity for everyone to do just that today. The need for cities and densities becomes clear, but how do we reconcile this with man's desire for space and yearning for natural surroundings. My very presence in this place seems to bring the story full circle without quite answering any of the questions. Settlers moved from Europe to the New World for land and opportunities, built cities far removed from farming sensibilities and nature, and bred a generation of assorted urbanites - some of whom, like myself, now seek a break from the stifling city life to better reflect on its problems only to find that perhaps we simply end up back where we started.

Friday, June 25, 2010


A trip and several hiking tours up north have had me thinking a lot about wilderness - those natural areas still untouched by man, and how such a landscape transforms slowly over time once we drag our infrastructural entourage through an area. It seems fairly evident how humans change nature when we tread over it, but I also wonder how it changes us. I find more and more of my observances here in Norway certainly reflect some societal practices that have been created and or adapted over time as an effect of the local natural world. My next few posts will delve into this theme of man vs. nature (or is it man in nature, or nature around man, or just nature alone?).

One of the introductions that many foreigners get to Norwegian culture is a saying: "There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing." While one might laugh it away the first couple times they hear it touted, there is definitely something to it. I'm not sure that I've been anywhere else in the world where a cold, rainy day would be so quickly deemed appropriate for a long hike, yet here I find myself again and again encouraged to layer up and head outside despite (or perhaps in spite of) the weather.

All fashion morals aside, last week I donned a full (borrowed) rain outfit for a leisurely stroll in some hills around the Rana and Saltfjellet areas. While the look isn't one I would have tried out in New York, here it works - in the least saving one from cooping themselves up inside for weeks in the name of bad weather.

Hiking comfortably in the rain also makes it possible to experience some ecologies that go unseen on dryer days.

Giant ant mound