The evolution of Norwegian architecture

For several hundred years, Norway was governed from Denmark, resulting in limited expansion of an economic upper class. Norway’s distinctive architectural history reflects historical developments in this sparsely populated country on the northern edge of Europe.

Somewhat over 1,000 years ago Norway’s petty kingdoms were assembled into a single realm, which shortly thereafter was converted to Christianity. This brought Norway into the cultural sphere of greater Europe, with its tradition of stonework architecture. In Trondheim, the oldest Gothic cathedral in the Nordic countries, Nidaros Cathedral, was constructed at the burial site of St. Olav. Many smaller stone churches were erected throughout the country, usually in Roman style.

Easy access to high-quality timber has given Norway a tradition of building in wood that stretches far back in time. Today, too, many of Norway’s most interesting new buildings are made of wood, reflecting the strong appeal that this material continues to hold for Norwegian designers and builders.

In the early Middle Ages many communities throughout northern Europe erected wooden churches on posts buried in the ground. In Norway, these constructions were ultimately refined into the exceptional stave churches known today. There are 28 well-preserved stave churches in the country while practically none remain in the rest of Europe. These religious structures comprise Norway’s most important contribution to world architectural history. The Stave Church at Urnes has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The general technique of lafting, building with logs, became very advanced in Norway, and there has been much geographical variation. Traditional Norwegian farms consisted of numerous wooden buildings of assorted sizes, each with a specific function. These buildings are clustered together in different ways in different parts of the country.

Norway has a long coastline protected by rocky islands and skerries. Fishing communities exhibiting another characteristic form of wood construction grew up along the coast throughout the Middle Ages. The Bryggen Wharf in Bergen, for example, consists of a row of narrow wooden structures lining the quayside. This building pattern originated with the German Hanseatic merchants who used the site as the hub for their local activities. In the 17th century, the (Danish) king founded several new cities in Norway. Two of these, Kongsberg and Røros, were established to support mining operations. Kongsberg was given an ambitious Baroque-style church, while Røros exhibits charming, low-slung wooden buildings. Both the entire centre of Røros and the Bryggen Wharf have been placed on the World Heritage List.

Important architectural movements elsewhere in the world often arrived late and exerted a limited impact on Norwegian building. Some, however, have left their mark, such as the Baroque-inspired Barony Rosendal overlooking the Kvinnherad Fjord and the Rococo-style wooden country mansion in Bergen known as Damsgård.
Norway’s union with Denmark was dissolved in 1814, and Oslo (then called Christiania) became the capital. Architect Christian H. Grosch designed the oldest parts of the University of Oslo, the Oslo Stock Exchange, the former Central Bank of Norway and numerous other Oslo buildings as well as nearly 70 churches around the country. With industrialization in the mid-1800s came a surge in population, particularly in Oslo.
As the 20th century began, Norwegian architects took inspiration from popular notions in their effort to create a national architecture. When the city of Ålesund burned down in 1904, it was quickly rebuilt in the Art Nouveau (Jugend) style.

The 1930s, when functionalism dominated, was a strong period for Norwegian architecture, but it is only in recent decades that Norwegian architects have truly achieved international renown.

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Nidaros CathedralPhoto: (c)  Jiri Havran / Arkitekturmuseet

Bryggen in BergenPhoto: (c)  Jiri Havran / Arkitekturmuseet

Jugend-style in ÅlesundPhoto: (c)  Jiri Havran / Arkitekturmuseet

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