The smartest city in the world

In October 2017 the High North Centre for Business and Governance at Nord University Business School organized a tour for Russian businessmen to the north of Norway. The group visiting the town of Bodø was accompanied by Marina Nikiforova, a correspondent for Project Baltia.


Almost entirely destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, Bodø was rebuilt during the postwar years. But now, in line with Norway’s policy of decentralization, the town is undergoing rapid modernization, in spite of its geographical position north of the Arctic Circle. The second largest city-commune in Norway (according to Wikipedia, the town has a population of 51 000), today Bodø is one of the fastest-growing population centres in the country.

The objectives are clear: first, to make Bodø attractive from the point of view of work, study, and leisure – and thus to prevent its inhabitants migrating to Oslo; and secondly, to improve transport infrastructure in order to attract an influx of new citizens. However, it may turn out that the above ‘attractiveness’ is achieved not by building on local identity, but by artificially grafting on the ‘blessings of globalization’.

In listing the town’s new architectural offerings, we should begin with its new symbol – Stormen, a group of buildings consisting of a library and concert hall. In 2008 the municipality of Bodø and the National Association of Norwegian Architects announced a competition to create a new cultural centre in the very heart of the town, near the harbour. The building was to fill the last ‘gap’ left by the WWII bombing and thus complete the town’s rebuilding. The competition was won by the small British firm DRDH, which defeated designs by C.F. Møller, Medplan, General Architecture, Langdon Reis Zahn, and Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter.

In order to fit their project into the urban grid, DRDH broke the cultural centre up into two buildings with a public space between them. Both structures are made from precast concrete with a high concentration of marble and are faced with local white stone. The volumes of different heights (inspired by the alabaster sculptures of Eduardo Chillida) create the impression of a ‘city of towers’ within the larger city. This approach allows Stormen to enter into dialogue with two other new buildings in the centre of Bodø – the black high-rise of the Radisson Hotel and the white high-rise of the Scandic Havet Hotel. Both the latter would stick out from the urban panorama were Stormen not to serve as an intermediary link between them and the surrounding buildings, connecting the hotels’ silhouettes with the town’s panorama.

Of the two buildings, the 6300-square-metre library stands closer to the embankment. Its main façade is monumental and rhythmic, while the shape of its roof is a reference to the Greek portico, leaving the viewer in no doubt that what he is looking at is the town’s new acropolis. In the interior of the library the architects have made extensive use of wood, turning this ‘temple of knowledge’ into a cozy place. Wood lines the key element in the interior – the staircase (symbolizing ascent), which links all three levels. An important quality of the interior is transparency: from almost any point inside the library it is possible to see the harbour, the sea, and the mountains on the horizon.

The concert hall is set further back within the built-up area. It is larger and higher than the library, so, when seen from the embankment, its volume seems to peek out of the surrounding development. With a floor area of 11 200 square metres, the hall houses three auditoria, each of which has its own character. The principal hall has 920 seats and combines the acoustic qualities of a concert hall with the visual ones of a theatre. The two smaller halls are sunk below ground. One is intended for various theatre productions; the other is more like a trendy music club. As with the library, the interiors of the concert hall are characterized by the use of wood and maximum transparency.

Importantly, Stormen has helped popularize Norwegian contemporary art. The library includes a project by artist Anne Katrine Dolven consisting of four elements situated either inside the building or immediately outside it. The first object stands in front of the library’s main façade and consists of an 18-metre-high lantern of a design which is typical of the region. The lantern lights up when someone steps on the pedal at its base; at the same time this activates a ‘sound collage’ consisting of the voices of inhabitants of Bodø recorded in 2014. The next object is a granite stone in the atrium of the children’s library. The stone was brought from the nearby mountains; the voices which come out of it tell Norwegian fairy tales and sing old Lapp songs. Then, in the library’s large hall there are 272 landscapes from North Norway. Finally, at the entrance to the library we see an enlarged, 20-square-metre 100-year-old photograph showing an elderly couple from Nordland. All four parts of the project include authentic elements which reinforce the link between the modern building and history, the past, and the site’s genealogy.

At first sight, it might seem that the architects have achieved extreme precision in tackling both the architectural and urban-planning challenges: the buildings’ floor plans fit tidily into the urban tissue, their volumes are commensurate with their surroundings, but their architectural image does not ‘outshout’ the surrounding buildings. However, the new cultural centre has not met with universal approval. The greatest cause for concern has been Stormen’s similarity to Bauhaus architecture: “The Germans almost entirely destroyed our town and now their architecture will complete what was begun then,” noted one local. And indeed the ease with which Stormen enters into dialogue with its context may be called ‘opportunism’, a quality which is inherent in the International Style with its rejection of orientation on any kind of cultural specificity. What we see in Bodø is part of a more global process of architecture being ‘imported’ into Norway: the Dutch architects MVRDV are building Barcode, a business quarter, in Oslo, and in the same city Spaniard Juan Herreros is creating the Munch Museum, while Renzo Piano is designing the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art; Peter Zumthor of Switzerland has designed a museum in Sauda; and the American Steven Holl has designed another museum in Hamari. Improved by these undoubtedly interesting and high-quality foreign-designed buildings, Norway is in danger of losing its ‘Norwegianness’.

In one way or another, this is an activation of the ‘Bilbao effect’: Stormen has become an irreplaceable part of Bodø’s shorefront and an important attraction for tourists. The streets around Stormen have been repaired and the municipality also has plans to upgrade the entire embankment, including a shopping centre alongside the harbour and a museum on the water. The world has every reason to see Stormen as part of “Bodø’s entering a new era”.

The new era needs witnesses, so new educational institutions “which children will enjoy visiting” are being built here. Bodø’s intermediate school was erected in 2015 to a design which was a collaboration between Bølgeblikk and KVADRAT arkitekter. The large atrium situated where the building turns is open to the town. Interestingly, this atrium is an undisguised recollection of the library at Stormen, but slightly adapted to meet the needs of children and teenagers. There is the same pure white colour, the same wooden inserts to create a feeling of coziness, and the same openness. Finally, there is the same staircase dominating the interior – this time, admittedly, in combination with a recreational amphitheatre. The interior is given a playful quality by wooden geometrical figures floating in space. Outside the main entrance is a sculpture by Irene Nordli.

For students on the periphery of the town a modern campus for Nord University has been built. Everything said above about the interiors of the two buildings above applies to the internal spaces of this campus too, except that here brick has been used instead of wood.

Another important example of contemporary architecture in Bodø is the reconstruction of Nordland Hospital. A glass mansard has been built onto the historical hospital building, which was erected in the 1960s, and cladding of light-coloured granite has been added. In addition, two new blocks have been built to house laboratories and a medical centre. Inside, at the line where the old and new buildings meet, there is an ‘atrium-street’ with a recreational function linking all the hospital’s sections. Here too recourse has been had to contemporary art: at the entrance to the hospital we are met by androgynous faceless creatures made from stone (the work of the artists Inghild Karlsen and Bo Blstor) and the sterile interior is diluted with a series of striking art objects. The exterior of the renovated hospital, meanwhile, gives rise to numerous questions: the historical block is literally squashed by the parallelepiped of the contemporary addition; this is extremely symbolical, given the ambitious plans the town has to build a Smart City with a total area of more than 13 square kilometres.

It is not difficult to identify features which Bodø’s contemporary buildings have in common: the ubiquitous presence of the colour white; the abundance of open spaces, panoramic windows, and recreational zones; and, of course, contemporary art inside and out.

Let us return to the Smart City. The ‘smartest city in the world’, as the authors call their project, will house retail, business, and residential functions. The design work is being carried out under the slogan ‘New city – new airport’. Again, the intention is progressive: Bodø does indeed need a powerful transport hub combining a road and railway and air and aquatic routes; the town’s old airport is situated two kilometres from Bodø and the noise it makes overshadows residents’ daily lives. Ecology, resource-saving, extreme regard for safety, and the reduction of the role of private in favour of public transport: all this is very good, but at the end of the day there is a risk that identity and culture too will survive only on postcards and in tourist brochures, while the residents of the ‘smartest city’ will be those strange creatures whom we met on the way to the hospital. Smart City, we have to suppose, will annihilate everything that is human.

And yet the residents of Bodø are truly proud of their history. For instance, the town takes good care of the houses that survived the WWII bombings; each house carries a plaque giving the year of its construction. At the same time, discussion is underway concerning a new building for an old museum – a ‘case’ for the ship Anna Karoline, which is the only well-preserved Norwegian jekt (a type of wooden freight sailing ship used in Norway until the end of the first half of the 20th century). The most recent design for the museum is the work of Rintala Eggertsson Architects. The modest three-part building on the shore of Lake Bodø will fit into both the landscape and the shoreline and expresses the idea of Scandinavian style much more clearly than the above buildings.

Did Bodø originally have an identity? Unquestionably, the town is like many other small towns in Northern Norway. However, comfort, compactness, and closeness to nature are what express the spirit of the settlement which existed here a century ago, and this is why Bodø is considered the most attractive town in Norway. It is precisely these qualities that it is in danger of losing if it headlessly pursues the fashion for creating a clichéd smart city. What remains to be seen is whether identity is something for which global society has any need…


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Opening Week of the 5th Architecture Biennale will take place from September 11th – 15th, 2019 in multiple venues in the heart of Tallinn. Dedicated to the theme “Beauty Matters: The Resurgence of Beauty”, the international architecture festival, organised by the Estonian Centre for Architecture and curated by Dr. Yael Reisner, celebrates the aesthetic experience in architecture, after almost 80 years of cultural bias.

The only foreigner to take part in the series of architecture talks entitled ‘Genius loci’ (organized by Project Baltia and the ‘Novaya Gollandiya: cultural urbanization’ project) was the Finnish theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa. Russian readers know Pallasmaa from his book ‘The thinking hand. Existential and embodied wisdom in architecture’, which is now a bibliographical rarity. Here Marina Nikiforova talks to Finland’s principal architect-thinker.

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