Darkening of Arts

Cleaning the Oslo Opera House


Oslo Opera House

Having a birthday in the Information Age is, as a Norwegian friend might say, “not easy.” At least, so the director of Den Norske Opera & Ballett, residing in the Oslo Opera House (Operahuset), seemed to feel as the building reached its five-year anniversary on Friday.

A stunning realization of Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta’s concept, the 2008 venue struggles with its own popularity. As View & News from Norway reports, operating systems have been strained with demand, and the public has voiced frustration over ticket shortages, even with an impressive 220 performances per season scheduled.

Oslo Opera House SlopeDen Norske Opera now faces staff cuts as its budget groans under the pressure of pension costs and, especially, continuing maintenance issues. Like the city itself, which in the past five years has taken on the “never finished” character of major cities worldwide – never finished with road and building construction and repair, sewer and electrical work, traffic problems, crime – the Oslo Opera House promises to be an eternal investment.

Rising in differential geometric planes from the shore at the head of the Oslo Fjord, the building nestles like a low-lying glacier against the renovating Bjørvika neighborhood and the hills beyond. The sides, roof, and plaza in front form a vast public space that Oslo residents and visitors enjoy especially in summer, when the sun beams down on the open area and breezes come in from the harbor. As articulated in Snøhetta’s project description, envisioning a truly “monumental” building in the Nordic aesthetic required attention to both communalism and interconnection of land, sea, and cityscape:

One idea stood out as a legitimation of this monumentality: The concept of togetherness, joint ownership, easy and open access for all…. we wished to make the opera accessible in the widest possible sense, by laying out a ‘carpet’ of horizontal and sloping surfaces on top of the building…. Monumentality is achieved through horizontal extension and not verticality.

Opera House Wave WallInside, the wooden “wave wall” ripples to mark the building’s extension beyond the shoreline into the harbor: “the meeting between land and sea, Norway and the world, art and everyday life.” This unifying ideal thrills the heart of the artist who seeks to connect to the public and draw them into the world of vision.

In 2010, a glass and steel sculpture by Italian artist Monica Bonvincini, “She Lies,” took up residence off the harbor side of the Opera House. Turning slowly with the movement of the water, the piece reinterprets Romantic German painter Casper David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer (“The Sea of Ice,” depicting a shipwreck in a frozen landscape) with a contemporary environmental concern: “The work visually represents in a striking way the outline of an iceberg, because of global warming, washing up in the Oslo Fjord” (quoted by Élisabeth Lebovici in the French blog Le Beau Vice; my translation).

The result of the full symbiosis of egalitarianism, functionality, and various symbolisms is a dramatic, even breath-taking constructed landscape. Clad in white marble that gleams in the summer sun to the point of requiring sunblock and shades (“The opera can make you snow-blind,” proclaimed an early NRK story), the Oslo Opera House evokes the nation’s spectacular glacial peaks and plateaus – the emblem of a country whose mountains, fjords, and cities inspire the collective imagination.

She LiesThat is, as long as the marble stays white.

It doesn’t – and therein lies Operahuset‘s most notable feature to the pragmatic Norwegian media.

As U.S. writer and ecologist Stewart Brand pointed out in “The Romance of Maintenance” – part 5 of a BBC TV series based on his How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built – it is in the nature of buildings to require upkeep: “There is no material, no design that can long survive the accumulated effects of neglect.” Yet Brand would agree that choices at the outset have considerable impact on the challenges of a facility’s cleaning and repair.

With the Opera House, the verticality of aesthetic apparently won over the horizontal interaction with nature and humans. Despite objections by many Norwegians (69% polled by newspaper Aftenposten), the Italian Carrara marble emerged victorious over native granite. And even in 2007, before the building’s opening, the frosty foyer began to stain – calling to mind “yellow snow” more than pristine Arctic vistas.

It’s a little embarrassing for eternal monuments to begin to yellow as soon as they appear. Five years later, no one is completely certain of the cause. Speculation by builders, stone workers, and geologists has ranged from the presence of pyrite in the marble (largely discounted); to the effect of moisture on the stone; to a chemical reaction between the stone and the mortar used, the substrate soil, or something unknown.

Opera House in WinterA U.S. architect friend once detailed for me the dangers of blithely favoring aesthetics. During the 1990s, designers of a Northeast urban post office wanted stone tiles that worked well in a structure in the Southwest – which receives nowhere near the rain or snow of the Northeast.

The tiles, it turned out, were not absorbent, producing a frequently slick floor. A boon for local personal injury lawyers and janitors, perhaps, but not for customers or for the U.S. Postal Service.

In addition to the special problems of the marble, the Oslo Opera House regularly faces other challenges in its encounter with the sea, the city, and everyday human life. Algae stains from the harbor and coffee and cigarette stains from visitors contribute to the yearly cleaning toll.

A Day at the OperaWith over a million people clambering over the structure – strolling the ramps, resting on the roof, sitting on the wall, even bicycling – dirt and litter are inevitable. Pollution from Oslo’s growing traffic darkens the building with grime, which cannot be cleaned off during the long, frigid winter. Seeds transferred from the treads of shoes, foraging birds, and wind take root between the plates and need to be rooted out as they grow.

Thus, to maintain the beauty that is part of its draw, the Opera House requires a significant maintenance and cleaning budget. It has one – NOK 20 million a year (over US $3 million) – that is not meeting the facility’s demands.

“She Lies” becomes a remarkably apropos symbol in the ongoing jostling of budget, aesthetic, and maintenance priorities that arise from the building’s interaction with its environment – not least because of Bonvincini’s own interrogation of the architectural world.

Opera with Construction

The trials of the Opera House call to mind one closer to home. My state of Pennsylvania boasts one of the great architectural treasures and maintenance issues in the history of building: Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1930s house Fallingwater, in the Laurel Highlands of the Allegheny Mountains.

Like Snøhetta, Wright sought an aesthetic unity of nature and human life. He placed the contracted home of Pittsburgh’s Kaufman family not overlooking the Bear Run waterfall, as they expected – but directly on top of it.

Now a National Historic Landmark hailed uncritically by visitors who don’t have to fight mold (the owner reportedly nicknamed it “Rising Mildew”), Fallingwater’s history of reinforcements, repairs, and renovations stands as its own monument to the need to balance vision with practicality. Though the stubbornness of the engineer-contractor in reinforcing the house’s cantilevered concrete floors with steel – without Wright’s knowledge and despite his objection – may have ensured its existence into the 1990s, the cost for renovations alone stood at US $11.9 million in 2009.

Living entities, buildings like Fallingwater and the Oslo Opera House require constant support. What they receive in the partnership will vary with national economic and cultural climates. Nevertheless, they stand as potent symbols of the visionary and the mundane: the necessary aspiration and ideals that drive humankind and the tedious, recurrent, costly tasks required for progress.

Each side will sometimes need reminding of the necessity of this symmetry, and of learning, with the buildings, how to respond to the greatest challenge for us all: time.

Opera House Inside