Add to this the fact that the roads programme has been a great incubator for Norway’s young, vibrant architectural scene – which is respected for its daring and imagination across Europe – and for anyone heading north this summer, with design leanings or simply curious, a road trip beckons. Vertigo-inducing viewing platforms, island-hopping bridges, and some of the funkiest toilet facilities in the northern hemisphere: these are just a sample of the design flourishes that Norway’s National Tourist Routes programme (NTR) has introduced across the country over the past 15 years.
This is a far cry from the NTR’s beginnings. The first pilot project by the then young – and today highly respected – firm of Jensen & Skodvin Architects (JSA) was completed in western Norway in 1997. Aimed at drawing tourists into the stunning, if rarely visited, landscape through appealing roadside architecture, a full programme was subsequently launched, with 18 routes across Norway’s south, its coastal regions and the far north eventually chosen in 2004. The pieces were primarily architectural, though in places, art installations and sculptures were also introduced, and by the end of the decade a host of impressive works were adding roadside lustre to the grandeur of Norway’s geography. A programme of rest stops, viewing platforms, bridges, walkways and restaurants was rolled out, with some jaw-dropping moments such as Tommie Wilhelmsen and Todd Saunders’ Aurland lookout.
Prior to the programme the roads were in remote and sparsely populated parts of the country and only lightly used, all but empty for mile upon mile. But with the gradual creation of NTR’s network, traffic has increased, with tourists arriving from all over the world.
The routes still number 18, but other buildings and features have been added, with a tranche of new projects opening over summer 2016. These include the by-now familiar fare of hiking paths, rest areas, toilets and viewing platforms mainly in the south of the country, such as at Skjervsfossen, Hardanger, designed by Fortunen Architects and opened in May. More dramatically, Code Arkitektur has just completed an ambitious viewing point with the concrete ramp jutting over the vast Utsikten valley on the Gaularfjellet route. There are new artists’ works as well, such as Jan Freuchen’s columnar sculpture installation, which marks a walk at Vevang, on the Atlantic Road route.
More viewing platforms, walkways and rest rooms are due to open around the country in the next year, and the programme now has its own showcase, the Travel Museum in Balestrand.
The most eagerly awaited of these new projects is the Allmannajuvet Zinc Mine Museum in western Norway’s Sauda municipality, designed by cult Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. On the edge of a steep ravine, the small museum will draw fans of architecture, as well as general tourists, when it opens in September.
These current projects mark the end of the NTR’s first cycle, which began in 2004, but already the programme has instigated a fresh 10-year cycle, with ambitious plans. Eight finalist practices, whittled down from over 300 applications, are preparing designs that will be rolled out in the coming years. They include a new wave of internationally recognised young Norwegian studios, such as Trondheim’s TYIN Tegnestue – the only Scandinavian practice invited to this years’ Venice Biennale – and Rever og Drage.
My own experience of the tourist routes was during a recent visit to the western county of Møre og Romsdal, when I took in the Geiranger and Atlantic Road routes. I travelled up into the Trollstigen (the Trolls’ path) and on to the Geiranger pass route. Beginning as a relatively tranquil valley road, this soon morphed into a switchback climb through a giddy series of hairpin bends to the Trollstigen viewing point, complemented by a sharp-angled, glacier-like restaurant and rest rooms, by Oslo office Reilf Ramstad.
A few miles further along the Geiranger road were the Gudbrandsjuvet bridge and cafe and, five minute’s walk away is the Juvet Landscape Hotel, a series of delicately positioned micro-huts, all slatted timber and glass, half-hidden within the pine-heavy, moss-encrusted rock hillsides. It’s by JSA, which describes this atmospheric work as “topographic sustainability”, and whose story continues to shadow the roads programme. It has a new events building at Juvet, a variation on the Norwegian log cabin, and last year overhauled the Sognefjellshytta restaurant and roadside ski lodge at the highest point on the Sognefjellet route, 1,400 metres above sea level in a lattice of timber and glass.
By way of contrast, and less than a couple of hours away, is the Atlantic Ocean Road, which includes a dramatic string of bridges leapfrogging across the Hustadvika islands. As with the interior’s roads, these eight swooping and curving bridges are impressive feats of engineering, creating a necklace connecting to the mainland peninsula. Fully exposed to the elements, this is a wild part of the coast on a stormy day. But the day I went the sun was high and the wind was still. We stopped at another recently completed building, a rather drab and dark restaurant and toilet built into the side of a low grassy ridge on tiny Elshuysoya island, with almost no sunlight inside.
After this brief stop I could understand reports of disappointment at recent projects, including this latest one. Still, if the second-cycle architects just beginning are given the space to deliver, they could take the programme down new and exciting roads. One thing’s for sure, the landscape and elements are on their side.
Oliver Lowenstein edits the cultural magazine Fourth Door Review