Mind & Matter


Oslo’s Waterfront “Carpet”

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Oslo Opera House, by Snøhetta. Photo by author.


When a city supports a significant public work of architecture, it invites new perceptions as a tourist destination. If the work is particularly influential, the city’s image can be reshaped.

One widely publicized example is Oslo’s Opera House, designed by local firm Snøhetta. Located in a dramatic waterfront setting on the Bjørvika Peninsula, the building has garnered praise from the public and critics alike. While on a recent lecture tour in Oslo, I decided to pay a visit to the celebrated structure.

The first impression of the opera is a memorable one—with sweeping, angular white slopes crashing into Oslo Fjord. In fact, one’s first impression of the building is mostly this tilted ground plane (or roof)—as opposed to the enclosed spaces within.

Clad in Italian La Facciata marble, this “fifth facade” operates as a public plaza, a synthetic beach, an amphitheater for outdoor summer concerts, and an artificial mountain with a great view of the city. Conceived as a “carpet” in the spirit of welcoming the city to musical events, the sculpted ground plane is one of the great success stories of the building, as it unites architecture, urban design, and landscaping. In terms of materiality, the flamed-finish of the stone provides good traction; meanwhile, the designers revealed the beauty of the stone in polished details where slippage is unlikely to occur. Even drainage is handled with cleverly-placed, faceted trenches.

Now two years old, Snøhetta’s building is experiencing predictable staining from pollution, and the locals are grumbling. However, the stone carpet provides a long-wearing surface that may simply require a more frequent cleaning regimen.

With the public visibly traversing the structure during all hours of the day, it is easy to see that the building is already beloved. In an era of increased interest in building rooftops (and primarily green roofs), the Oslo Opera House demonstrates the efficacy of the fifth facade in making architecture accessible.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.