Jørn Eriksson Oslo's new Barcode office and apartment area.

“It could be anywhere, really,” sighed Norwegian architect Kristin Jarmund, Hon. FAIA, whom I was recently following around Oslo, Norway, to become acquainted with her work. She was gesturing at the buildings that make up Barcode, a line of office and apartment buildings in the city’s harbor area. “The functions, the materials, the forms … it really has nothing to do with this landscape or this place.” I tried to quibble, because there are fine buildings by MVRDV (who also did the master plan with Oslo’s Dark Architects and A-Lab) and Snøhetta that are part of the row, but I could not really disagree. Oslo, a city shaped by its fjord and its harbor more strongly than most metropolises respond to their landscapes, is turning into the kind of place where you have to read the signs to figure out where you are.

From New York to San Francisco, and from Amsterdam to Sydney, waterfront rehabilitation is the greatest arena of urban development in the world today. It continues the conversion of industry-focused infrastructure into places for tourism, recreation, and living, often with a cultural bent. The last such building boom, which started in the 1990s, came out of the reuse and covering over of railroad yards, which in some forms continues to this day, with projects such as the developments around New York’s Penn Station and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. The newest urban explosion comes in the form of turning shipping areas into the playgrounds of the middle and upper classes. These old harbors had already been replaced by the upscaling and consolidation of harbors into container ports whose massive machines serve ever-bigger ships and thus had to be moved far away from dense population centers. This movement—of the existing harbors being abandoned by industry and subsequently being transformed by luxury interests—has already changed Hong Kong, Hamburg, Amsterdam, San Francisco, New York, and even Shenzhen, to name just a few, and continues now in smaller cities along rivers and canals.

courtesy SOM; Amtrak The redevelopment planned for Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.
Taras Vyshnya Syndey's redeveloped Barangaroo waterfront.

A walkthrough of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

One of the larger and most thoughtful such developments has been taking place over the last two decades in Oslo, and it raises the question of what kind of city comes out of these transformations. Even when a city with the best intentions and seemingly unlimited amounts of funds to invest—or to gain from its wealthy citizens and corporations—does just about everything right, it cannot seem to avoid an unbearable sameness. And this is a sameness that carries with it a tinge of classism: Nearly everything here looks and feels as though it were designed for the leisure class, even the spaces that are open to everybody.

The project, which officially launched in 2000, is called Fjord City and seeks to reclaim the former harbor bit by bit, both by tearing down or reusing industrial structures on the site and by removing the highways and access routes that cut the city off from the water. Though it started on the west side in the Filipstad and Tjuvholmen neighborhoods and is slowly making its way around in arc to the east, its most well-known and most successful monument is the centrally located Snøhetta-designed Opera House (2008). That building, with its angled and tilted planes that rise up out of the fjord to form a roof that is public space, does in fact both connect directly with the water and evoke the surrounding landscape. “I love the idea of skateboarders swooshing over ladies in evening dresses,” Jarmund says. Even when I visited on a drizzly day more than 10 years after the building opened, the Opera House’s site was occupied by sightseers and even a few swimmers.

Courtesy Oslo Kommune Oslo's Fjord City plan.
Courtesy The National Museum Oslo's new National Museum by Kleihues + Schuwerk.
Frank Bach Renzo Piano Building Workshop's Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art.

A walkthrough of Juan Herreros' Munch Museum.

Much less successful is Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA’s mess of already badly weathering wood and glass, with roofs desperately trying to evoke sails that houses—in two buildings, split for no apparent reason—the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. Even worse seems to be on the way with the Juan Herreros-designed Munch Museum—due to be completed next year— whose bent tower will loom over the eastern part of the harbor in a manner that recalls a failed office building or shrug of “meh,” rather than the artist’s famous angst. At least the last of the cultural monuments to dot the harbor’s arc, the new National Museum, designed by the German firm Kleihues + Schuwerk, will be relatively sedate, if monolithic, while its gray slate walls and glass skylight might, if you squint, bring to mind snow-covered mountains or foam-topped waves.

In between these markers are masses of the kind of low-rise, tightly packed residential buildings (with a few offices mixed in) that have become the bane of development in all places that authorities have been too scared to create the kind of differentiation and even conflict that makes cities lively. Yes, these structures preserve the city’s scale, but they also turn the whole waterfront into exactly the kind of residential pancake that has flipped Mission Bay in San Francisco and HafenCity in Hamburg, to name just two of the victims of this planning by default, into soulless banality. Only Vancouver, with its carefully placed, if not always beautiful, towers, seems to have escaped the notion that it is better not to make trouble.

Jonas Weinitschke The redeveloped HafenCity region in Hamburg, Germany.

The result is that the whole of Oslo’s harbor is now surrounded by a spreading cancer of expensive apartment buildings with ground floors housing equally pricey retail establishments and restaurants. Some of the individual buildings are better than others, but it does not matter. You are nowhere and everywhere, with only the water to turn to for relief. Just a few moments along the perambulation of the whole harbor offer respite, as when the original fort around which the city grew up intrudes, its walls carefully protected, or where a few industrial buildings have been embalmed and turned, at least for now, into food halls for the grazing hippoisie.

What works is the public space tying it all together. Designed by a variety of planners and anonymous members of Oslo’s urban design team, it consists of well-scaled, well-outfitted promenades and quays. A tramline will soon run along the whole of the harbor. Water is everywhere, rushing in streams, gathering in pools, and coursing between housing blocks to differentiate them from each other. It is that water, which acts as miniature versions of the streams that cut through the city from the surrounding hills and mountains, that makes you feel as if you are somewhere with a particular character and landscape.

Saiko3p Olso's 1950 City Hall, designed by Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson.

All of this means that the experience of the harbor is pleasant enough. You can get there easily. You can use the space and you get vistas. The city is not overwhelmed. There are some pieces of decent—and at least two pieces of great—architecture. (Although these two icons, the Opera House and Arnstein Arneberg’s and Magnus Poulsson’s 1950 City Hall, are separated by more than a half century.) Nonetheless, I could not help but wish for something that was Oslo and only Oslo, or even something that was just a little out of place, even just a little bit weird. Generic is not bad. It is merely a warm blanket of middle class values smothering the reality of all else. Oslo could have grown into a city of international quantity with the qualities of its landscape. So far, it is achieving the former, but not much of the latter.