The city hall of Oslo was built between 1931 and 1950. It is one of the most monumental buildings in the Norwegian capital, and represents several cross-currents between late historicist and early modern architecture. It is also represents one of the longest building projects in modern Norwegian history. The following page gives a rapid overview of the development.
The city administration was previously housed in a purpose-built structure at the city's oldest square (Christiania Torv). The old city hall was built in the 1640s but ceased to be used for this purpose after the Swedish siege of 1716, most likely due war damage. A new building for the purpose was selected in the vicinity of the harbour, at the corner of Rådhusgata and Dronningens gate.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the premises were already deemed too small. However, a new city hall was given less priority than the other building projects of the day: royal palace, parliament, university, stock exchange etc. Plans for a new city hall began in 1824 but the project quickly stalled. Only in 1841 did the architect Christian Grosch deliver a proposal.
At this point, it was thought that the new building would lie approximately where the old central police station from 1866 at Møllergata is today, in the Hammersborg area. Grosch described the style as anglo-saxon or pre-gothic.
In 1862 it was decided to place the city hall next to the church of the holy trinity, not far from Grosch's proposed site. The plan came to nothing but was revived in 1894. Architect Bredo Greve won in a competition in 1897 with a renaissance-inspired proposal.
However, in 1905-06, new ideas began to emerge regarding the location. The Hammersborg idea was abandoned in favour of Vika, in tune with the emerging maritime identity of the city.
The project finally started to materialise after 1915 when an official decision was made to to place it in Vika. At the time, it was thought it would be ready for the city's 300 year anniversary in 1924. It was also decided to use the project as an opportunity to completely rebuild this slum-ridden part of town.
The architectural competition went through two stages, first in 1917 when initial proposals were delivered, and in 1918 when the final proposals were ready. The initial proposal by Arneberg and Poulsen entitled Vaar brought them to the final stage of the competition.
The main competitors were Bjercke and Eliassen, with a proposal called Hvelv & Bjelke. Both proposals were inspired by the recently built city hall in Stockholm. The architect of that project, as well as the architect of the city hall in Copenhagen, were present in the jury. The Stockholm city hall is still considered one of the best examples of nordic neo-baroque, one of the first self-conscious Scandinavian attempts at indigenous design. The style valued structural integrity, such as the use of exposed brick, and saw to local medieval and renaissance structures for inspiration.
Arnberg and Poulsen revised their initial proposal for the final decision in 1918 and presented an altered project entitled Dag. This is the project that officially won the commission. The new design is neo-gothic.
However, the architects had to wait 13 years before the foundation stone was laid. In the meantime, they worked on a number of revisions, in an effort to keep up with the shifting architectural trends. The basic design principles were changed multiple times, alternating between Italianate versions to the dominant late classical style of the 1920s.
The final version was published in 1931 and marks a radical departure though many features were still retained from previous schemes.
Construction began in February 1933 and the building was topped out by November 1936. The scaffolding was mostly down by 1940. However, The building was not ready for use before 1950, when it was officially inaugurated.
By the start of the 1930s, functionalism became the dominant style in Oslo, and the city hall has occasionally been interpreted as belonging to that movement. However, though it is streamlined in certain respects, the finished product retains an overall historicist theme. A possible functionalist precedent is the Hilversum city hall, by Dudok, in the Netherlands.
The facade facing the harbour takes the Doge’s palace in Venice, as the main source of inspiration, though this was more evident in earlier designs. As such, it follows the tradition established by the city halls of Copenhagen and Stockholm in drawing from Italian models. Italy has one of the longest traditions in Europe of civic representation, and had developed a well-established format for city hall design by the late medieval and renaissance period.
The northern facade may have been inspired by medieval cathedrals, which gives shape to the massive twin towers. A busy thoroughfare existed in front of the southern facade until the late 1980s when the entire area was pedestrianised.
For more information on historic Oslo, see my book, Det Tapte Kristiania.