lunes, 11 de abril de 2011

Renaissance Oslo

The renaissance city was very different from the medieval town, which preceded it. For one thing, Oslo had a new name: Christiania. The location too was new. In 1624, the city was transported west across the bay. 

Before 1624, Oslo was a northern backwater, with a lonely church still clinging to existence in the shape of the pre-gothic cathedral, and a few “renaissance” houses had scarcely propped up amid the general landscape of old log cabins.

The great fire of 1624 obliterated most of the wooden town, a town which had burned down many times before. What was new this time, however, was the order of the king not to rebuild on the old site. Instead, the order was to build across the bay under cover of the medieval fortress, Akershus. That way, the city would improve its defences. The town inhabitants grudgingly obeyed.  

Akershus itself had been spruced up with new renaissance towers since work began in 1593, and the new fortress reached its first stage of completion in 1604. Work on improved battlements continued into the first half of the new century. The conversion was constrained by cost and, accordingly, the structure was left in a half medieval state. Still, sleepy Oslo was taking its first steps out of its medieval past. 

1624 was an opportunity for the new town to follow suit. It was to be renamed according to the wishes of the king Christian IV and to follow the renaissance principles cherished by him. No winding alleys or hidden nooks was to be found in the new town of Christiania.

The new streets, therefore, followed a strict rectangular grid and were unusually wide, measuring 15 metres across. A ban was simultaneously imposed on pure wood construction. The new town would be of brick, though half-timbered houses would be tolerated for builders of modest means. 

Half-timbered would be the method of choice for most houses in town for next two hundred years, and would give Christiania, uniquely for a Norwegian town, a character much like North-German or Danish towns. Nonetheless, a few illegal wooden houses were also initially built.

Running from the soon-to-be-established port in the east to the upper town in the west ran three long streets. Seven streets ran from south to north, where they were cut short by large mounds, which formed a c-shaped defensive ring around the only part of town that could be approached by land.

King’s Street appears to be Christiania’s principal street, though it was no wider than the rest of the streets in the city. For most visitors, it would be the first street they encountered after entering the principal of the three town gates.

Another anomaly in the symmetry of the town plan is the site of the town square. Instead of locating it centrally at the junction of King’s Street, the square was situated towards a corner in the north-west of the city.

This is especially odd as the larger and more attractive plots were established in the east, close to the harbour. The west had smaller plots and the upper city seems to have be intended as a poor mans quarter. However, the site does make some sense given the fact that is the tallest point in town.

Some of the oldest buildings in Oslo can still be seen on this site. One still bears the inscription of 1626, and was built by one of the leading figures in town. The original town hall, just across the road still stands as well, though its transformations and restorations have been more dramatic. The church, which also was situated on the square failed to last the century and succumbed to fire in 1686.

Most of the principal residences in town, however, faced the harbour in the east. A principal feature of the new style was Dutch-inspired gable fronts. The residence at the town square with the inscription of 1626 had swung ornaments in sandstone. Most other buildings, however, were of a simpler shape, usually with a stepped gable. The town hall had a tower, and so too had at least one of the principal residences.

A canal, on Dutch and Danish models, was attempted in order to link the harbour and the town square, but the attempt was abandoned and the trench later filled in. Apparently, Norwegian granite wasn’t quite amenable to the job.

All in all, the town remained quaint but modest. Small, unplanned satellite towns of simple wooden huts soon clustered outside the defensive works, to the west, north and east of town. The population, however, did not expand much beyond the 3000 or so souls that had inhabited the old town of Oslo.
Besides, there is little to suggest in the town plan that ambitions ran higher than other cities established by the king Christian IV during the same period, such as Christianstad in southern Sweden or Gluckstadt in Northern Germany.

The legacy of the town planned in the time of Christian IV, however, still remains. The grid forms the basis of Oslo’s central area now known as Kvadraturen. Most of the street names have changed, though Kings Street still exists.

The buildings in the area are predominantly from the late 1800s when growth reached explosive levels and the area became a residential-free downtown. Nonetheless, a few 17th century houses occasionally crop up amid their larger neighbours, especially around the old town square and City Hall Street and Queen’s street, the latter originally facing the harbour. 

They are the distant reminders of the 17th century renaissance town.    

For more info, click here. 

For more information about historic Oslo, buy my book, Det Tapte Kristiania, here.

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