Beyond Buildings


Bravo to Oslo

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The fat lady has sung, and she has won the Mies van der Rohe Award for Contemporary Architecture. It is not news that what is officially the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture for 2009 went to the Oslo Opera House, designed by Snøhetta. The arrival this week of the book documenting this year’s winners and runners-ups makes it clear: this was the best building for that award.


Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House. Photo: Erik Berg
Does that mean that it was the best building completed during the biennium leading up to the award in the European Union, the criteria by which the prize is given? Yes, if you look for buildings to provide an integrated and balanced response to complex functional and contextual conditions in the form of a well-composed, well-detailed package that, to really drive it home, also provides a strong image on the exterior and beautiful spaces on the interior. The fulfillment of such requirements is the hallmark of the some of the better winners of recent years, such as OMA’s Dutch Embassy in Berlin in 2005 or the MUSAC in 2007.  


The Oslo Opera House is a human-made iceberg crashing into the harbor of this rather drab city. Sheathed in a quarry’s worth of Italian marble and providing public spaces all the way around and over its jutting forms, the building houses an elegant foyer and a cocoon-like main hall of surprising intimacy. Its technical provisions are unsurpassed. Only the whole back of the building, which faces away from the downtown area, is rather banal in its appearance and large for its site. You don’t have to photograph that side, however, nor will many people see it. The Opera House is the perfect object for the early 21st century.


As a former two-time member of the Mies van der Rohe Award jury (2003 and 2005), I think I recognize the thinking that went into this award, while not being able to help wondering about some of the other candidates, such as Coop Himmel(b)lau’s BMW Welt in Munich, or my own favorite, Neutelings Riedijk’s Media Museum in Hilversum, the Netherlands, neither of which even made it to the finalist list.  I also know the negotiations that go on between different jury members and the countries they represent.  On the other hand, one of the great things about this jury is that they actually travel to see the five to eight finalists, so they have a decent sense of how the structures actually perform in real life.

BMW Welt, Munich

Media Museum, the Netherlands


I can only lament, as all juries do, the fact that a social housing scheme never wins, despite the plethora of such structures in the EU and the presence of a few of them among the semi-finalists. The inclusion of the Tramway Terminal in Nice, France, by Marc Barani as one of the finalists points to a serious consideration of infrastructure, while the fact that a small gym in Croatia, designed by Studio Up, won the award for Emerging Architect gives me hope that the newer countries in the EU will someday take their place in the European pantheon.


But in the end: Wow. What great stuff, all of the finalists and those under consideration. I would venture that almost every one of them is better—and I say this with excuses to American architects—than what we have built in this country in the past few years. Not to mention that our government, about the size of the EU, but with much more coherence, could not even fathom instituting such an award to promote public awareness of good architecture. Here’s an idea: maybe we could have a competition for the worst building of the past two years with government money, and get the Tea Party to pay for it? I am sad to say that this might be more in keeping with the state of our culture.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.