Oslo City Hall

July 27, 2015.  Can’t say I ever imagined that visiting a City Hall would my idea of a good time.  I tend to associate these bastions of government with painfully boring legal stuff like filing property taxes or renewing my driver’s license.  But one rainy summer day, we ran out of things to do during a deluge and decided to check out Oslo’s Rådhus (pronounced “ROAD-hoose,” meaning Council House), the equivalent of its City Hall.

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Mayor Hieronymus Heyerdahl launched the fundraising campaign for a new Oslo City Hall in 1914, but the foundation stone wouldn’t be laid until 1931. During the intervening years, architectural competition winners Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson cycled through eight different design drafts, which included more historical styles such as Renaissance and Gothic, before settling on the Socialist style known in Europe as Functionalism.

Its massive, rather brooding bulk had always turned us off a bit and made us question Rick’s Steves’ ranking of it as a “most recommended sight” — surely too much aquavit or too little sunlight must’ve clouded Rick’s usually impeccable judgement on this occasion.  So with low expectations, we headed over to the harbor, where the Rådhus’s blocky twin towers dominate the skyline and waterfront.

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The spartan, pared-down design of Functionlism (called Art Moderne or Constructivism in the U.S.) reflects the austerity of the era. An entire slum known as Vika had to be torn down and its residents relocated to new urban housing to accommodate the enormous City Hall and its environs.

Pretty gardens and fountains dot the landscape surrounding the City Hall, probably in an effort to soften the intimidating hulk of the spare brick building, which squats squarely in the city center like a meaty bulldog guarding its hoard.  I have to be honest and say that at first glance, fascism seems to have been the guiding hand during the design process, because the entire look and feel of the hard-edge, colossal structure says, “The State is watching over you.”

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Six sculptures elevate common tradesmen to works of art. During the economic hardship and social unrest of the times, the goal was to diffuse the threat of revolution and inspire disparate social classes to work together in harmony to create a better life.

While walking by the building during her visit, my niece compared it to a big, faceless factory.  Turns out, her assessment isn’t so very far from the mark.  Most of the Rådhus was completed during the 1930s, when the Labor Party ruled Norway.  Decorative tile friezes portraying different occupations and six bayside bronze statues of idealized laborers testify to the architects and artists’ desire to portray the noble working class toiling together for the good of society and the State.

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The artwork combines folk art with the bright colors and impressionistic and cubist techniques of Matisse, Cézanne, and Picasso in a stylistic blend called Socialist Realism, which idealizes the working class.

Inside, while the political theme is similar, the decorative style — a riot of lively, colorful murals and mosaics — is a fortunate departure from the oppressive, staid exterior.  Add a lot of “Huzzah, Norway!” storylines that capture cultural traditions and folklore, and you’ve got yourself a real visual party.  According to our excellent tour guide, the competition held for embellishing the interior of the Main Hall resulted in so many fabulous designs that the jury expanded the decorative plan to allow more artists to showcase their work.

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A set of fake organ pipes in the Main Hall not only hints to Norway’s rich musical heritage but also slyly enhances the sense that visitors are entering a sacred “Church of State.”

In total, 18 different artists contributed paintings and sculptures to the Main Hall and other chambers, with potters, weavers, tile-workers, and other craftsmen and women pitching in.  The result is pretty fantastic, creating an overall temple-like feel that makes sense when you consider that in most countries with socialist histories, the State replaced the Church as the protector of the people.

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The Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony is held in the Main Hall each year on December 10th, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.

The hallowed Main Hall holds several particularly awe-inspiring murals.  The first, a giant oil painting depicting “The Nation at Work and Play,” shows poor, downtrodden countryfolk being educated, employed, housed, and healed via State-run institutions. Opposite, a fresco represents the pillars of Norwegian identity — fishing, forestry, and industry — flanked on either end by explorer Fridtjof Nansen and playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, both of whom won Nobel prizes.

But perhaps my favorite mural is the one that runs along the east side, which depicts Norway during the Nazi Occupation.  It’s actually quite moving, showing German bombers over Oslo; Norwegian men fleeing to the mountains on cross-country skis to organize a resistance movement; Nazi dismantlement of cultural and artistic institutions; Norwegian prison camps and brutal executions; and the first Constitution Day after the end of World War II.  I’ll admit the story brought a tear to the eye of most everyone in our tour group and reminded us why City Hall wasn’t finished until 1950.

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The Oslo City Seal on City Hall shows St. Hallvard with his millstone, the three arrows that killed him, and the pregnant woman — apparently clothed here for propriety’s sake.

One more mural in the Main Hall bears mention here: that of the Story of St. Hallvard.  I’ve long wondered why the City Seal rather disturbingly shows a seated king with his foot resting on a naked pregnant woman.  Well I got my answer at City Hall, where another fresco tells the tale.

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Alf Rolfsen’s fresco portrays not only the legend of St. Hallvard, but also modern Oslo arising out of the mists of history.
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Yes, that’s right. St. Hallvard and the naked pregnant lady make many appearances on manhole covers.

According to legend, Hallvard was the son of a rich nobleman and had quite a reputation as a decent guy.  One day, a pregnant starving woman stole food from the market, and when the merchants gave chase to execute her, she ran to Hallvard for help.  He carried her away in his boat, but the men followed and shot him with three arrows.  When they got close enough to realize who they’d killed, they panicked and hung a millstone around Hallvard’s neck, then threw him in the ocean.  But the next day, he popped back up, despite the millstone still attached.  Other miracles ensued, and soon Hallvard was canonized as the patron saint of Oslo.

Our tour continued with a walkthrough of several more rooms containing absolutely stunning murals and tapestries by other famous Norwegian artists.  Two of my favorites were the Festival Gallery — which flaunted not only cubist visions of Norwegian forests and shipyards by Axel Revold, but also a beautiful view of the waterfront from the windows — and the East Gallery, in which every square inch was covered in jaw-dropping Per Krogh paintings that resembled incredibly vibrant, larger-than-life book illustrations.

The Banqueting Hall was also a big crowd pleaser, both because of the fun subject matter (a naked romp on the beach) and the fresco artist’s adolescently entertaining name (Willi Midelfart).  Diners here are treated to two portraits of the current king and queen, controversial for their modernity (some say ugliness — I’m talking about the painter’s style, not the Royal Couple, who are purportedly quite lovely both inside and out).

Our next stop took us to the “The Munch Room,” where Edvard Munch’s vivid painting “Life” (also called “The Tree of Life”) presides over civil marriage ceremonies today.  We also paid tribute to the Council Chambers, where the number of seats on Oslo’s City Council was recently increased from 58 to 59 to avoid tie votes (having eight different political parties can make things a bit dicey.)  But the grand finale to our visit was the opportunity to climb the bell tower, get a birds-eye view of the harbor, listen to a live Carillon concert, and watch the musician pound away at the rather bizarre instrument controlling the ringing.

Upon completing our tour, we wandered outside in the freezing drizzle and admired the beautiful swan fountain and the remarkable wood carvings of Dagfin Werenskiold that embellish the covered walkway along the back of City Hall (or maybe it’s the front, depending upon your perspective.)  Our final conclusion?  Rick is always right — City Hall is well worth a trip and could conceivably be a highlight that I now place on my personal guided tours for friends and family.  Aren’t you excited?

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