(Norwegian) Cities on Water

Though not a part of the University of Minnesota’s Cites on Water study-abroad program, my sojourn– accompanied by fellow landscape architecture student Brendan– to Norway was very informative and inspiring as I continue on my path as a student of cultural landscapes.  Following nine weeks of programmed touring in the urban fabric of the Netherlands and Italy, the chance to get lost in one of the largest wildernesses in the world was one that I was glad to take.  Still, this trip bore a number of similarities to the previous two months.  World Heritage sites, cultural connections to water, and ecological design were predominant themes as we lighted out for the territories.

It is no wonder that the Norwegian settlers in America chose Minnesota as their home given the similarities in the landscape.  While the upper midwest has neither mountains or fjords, the pitched-roof houses positioned in the vortices of pines, lakes, and fields could be here or there.  More than half of the Norwegian immigrant population in the USA now resides in Minnesota with Minneapolis serving as a sort of cultural capital. Svein Nilsson, a Norwegian-American journalist wrote in Billed-Magazin in 1870,  “A newcomer from Norway who arrives here will be surprised indeed to find in the heart of the country, more than a thousand miles from his landing place, a town where language and way of life so unmistakably remind him of his native land.”

After a day exploring Oslo, we took the NSB Bergen Railway which passes through amazing scenery on its seven hour journey through some of the highest points in Europe. Passing through 113 tunnels, the Bergen Railway has been a marvel of engineering since it first opened in 1883.  A popular trek, visitors to Norway are exposed to a variety of landscapes on this 231 mile long trip.  This journey took us from the early spring of Oslo to the late winter high in the mountains surrounding Voss and eventually back into spring in Bergen.

The end of the line, Jens Zetlitz Monrad Kielland’s Bergen Station is exactly the sort of terminus such a trip deserves.  Arriving in Bergen, I was amazed at the nature all around. Surrounded by the Seven Mountains chain, and situated around the Byfjorden, Bergen has been continually occupied for almost one thousand years.  Now, with the most active port in Norway– though slightly less robust than the one I visited a few weeks ago in Rotterdam– Bergen is the second largest city in the country.  Despite the fires that destroyed most of Bergen in 1702, this remains the most wooden city in the world reflecting the wealth of timber resources and the continued cultural connection to traditional building techniques.

Located along the wharf, the Hanseatic buildings of Bryggen constitute the oldest part of the city and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.  Used by merchants for the storage and sales of sea products and cereals, Bergen uniquely demonstrates “the traces of social organization of space going back to the 14th century” according to UNESCO.

The real joy of the Bergen area though was, for me, the mountains that surround the city. It has been much too long since I’ve trekked across alpine crests and followed rock cairns to some incredible distant viewshed.   In Venice, I got lost in labyrinthine streets while in Norway I wandered aimlessly through massive expanses. Given that the sun in Bergen sets (at least while I was there) at 10:30pm and rises at 4am, there are ample opportunities to follow one’s feet off and on the beaten path.

In spite of the long days, the light in Norway has a unique, sort of ethereal quality that is subdued.  Though I studied the Venetian light for over a month without really understanding it, my exposure to Norway’s moods was instantly enlightening.

After a few days in Bergen, we rented a car to travel south to Rogaland where we could study the fjords, mountains, and beaches of the region.  Multiple ferry crossings and tunnels lie between Bergen and Sandnes.  The infrastructural investments in Norway to manage the copious amounts of water are spectacular.

I was amazed at the Norwegians’ investment in their transportation infrastructure. Tunnels punch through mountains like they are nothing.  The Bømlafjord Undersea Tunnel, at almost 1000 feet below sea level and nearly five miles long, has seen 4000 vehicles a day since it opened in 2001.  Many of these tunnels were constructed to connect tiny, remote villages to the larger cities of Sandnes and Stavanger.  It is fascinating that these dark tubes into the earth have become as much of an instrumental part of the Norwegian cultural landscape as the cliffs and mountains in the fjords.

My last day in Norway was spent in the Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park in Oslo. Covering eighty acres and displaying more than 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, this park is a frequently visited attraction.  Open since 1940, Vigelandsparken is part of the larger 32 hectare Frogner Park, the largest green space in Oslo.

I was overwhelmed by this park.  The geometries of the larger flower gardens and greens were effective on their own with long sightlines framed by diverse trees and bordered on all sides by hundreds of thousands of roses.  Beyond the romantic/naturalistic park, Vigeland’s 212 granite and bronze sculptures establish an impactful space. Depicting the journey of man from birth through death and the range of human emotions from love and devotion to hate and violence, these entities are at once reassuring and unnerving.

I was fortunate enough to have arrived at the Vigeland Sculpture Park before the crowds appeared.  It gave me an opportunity to study the space without interruption.  The stoic statues, frozen in moments of great sadness or apprehension or anger or elation surrounded me.  Alone, I felt some of these same emotions.  The most difficult thing for me there was realizing that every single one of these individuals was not alone.  They were a collective, a family.  Whether frowning or smiling, each sculpture was depicted as being with someone as they progressed through their lives.  Each was embracing another in eternal hugs.  As never before, I felt very alone.

After a little while, I was happy when some people started to show up.  As with many places, the living inhabitants of landscape insert life and energy into places and transform them into memorable and amazing spaces.

As my journey to Norway and Europe comes to a close, I am hopeful that somehow I will learn to design such as I’ve observed for people.  It would be a truly remarkable thing to be able to make spaces where people are inspired, where we can love one another, and where we can find ourselves.

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About matthewtraucht

Graduate school student at the University of Minnesota's College of Design pursuing a Master's of Landscape Architecture, class of 2013.
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