At once a cultural destination and municipal park

Photo: Jiri Havran
Photo: Jiri Havran

Often compared to an iceberg because of the way it seemingly juts out of the Oslo Fjord, the marble-clad Oslo Opera House in Norway is as white as an iceberg but the comparison ends there. Looking at this remarkable structure (or if you’re lucky enough, actually visiting it) won’t leave you cold. In fact, people are having the opposite reaction, particularly locals who already view the Opera House as a national monument. It is, in fact, a testament to the successful blending of creative architectural design and public input that results in a facility that is at once a cultural destination and municipal park.

Built between 2004 and 2007, the final design for the Opera House – created by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta – is the result of a lengthy competition in which the government accepted more than 350 entries and invited the public to help select the architect. More than 70,000 people offered their opinions on the look and function of the facility, finally choosing Snøhetta’s concept.

As explained by the firm, the design is made up of three, basic elements or sections: “The wave wall,” which is the oak-clad, interior wall that is the dominant feature of the lobby; “The Factory,” which consists of the various offices, work spaces and staging areas (more than 1,000 rooms in all) that are in operation year-round; and “The Carpet,” which acts as both the roof of the Opera House and a public open space where residents and tourists are encouraged to congregate. According to Snøhetta: “The competition brief stated that the Opera House should be of high architectural quality and should be monumental in its expression. One idea stood out as a legitimization of this monumentality: The concept of togetherness, joint ownership, easy and open access for all. To achieve a monumentality based on these notions, we wished to make the Opera House accessible in the widest possible sense, by laying out a ‘carpet’ of horizontal and sloping surfaces on top of the building.”

Photo: Gerald Zugman
Photo: Gerald Zugman

That carpet consists of hand-cut, Italian marble (La Facciata), which was chosen because it retains its brilliance and color even when wet. The slabs form a complex, non-repetitive “pattern” of cuts, ledges and textures that were created in collaboration with local artists and create a playful series of shadows throughout the day. (Much of the interior detailing was designed with the help of local artists as well.) Additionally, much of the stone cladding that is in constant contact with water (the building is anchored to bedrock) is a Norwegian granite known as “Ice Green.”

From the ground (or sea level, really), the roof slopes steeply up, providing an expansive walkway around high glass windows through which visitors can glimpse the interior foyer before reaching the peak of the building for spectacular vistas of the city of Oslo. On a sunny day, it is said that one can find hundreds of people milling about roof/plaza’s 205,000 square feet. This is absolute verification of the irresistible public appeal of the facility.

The Oslo Opera House is the centerpiece of an ambitious urban renewal project in Oslo that calls for redirecting traffic in this area of the city to a tunnel beneath the fjord, while the streets around the facility are restored into a pedestrian plaza. This renewal will only help to draw more attention to a landmark that already should be considered among the great music halls of modern architectural design.

Norwegian government

Project Team:
Snøhetta AS (architect)
Reinersten Engineering (structural eng.)
NGI (geological engineer)
Arup Acoustics (acoustics)
Brekke & Strand Akustikk (acoustics)
Veidekke (construction)
Theatre Projects Consultants (theatre design)

$687 million (approx.)

205,000 square feet

The building’s envelope consists of steel and glass, as well as the marble roofscape, which forms a large public space and is the defining characteristic of the Opera House.

In 2008, when we first launched Masonry Design as a print publication, I would write an article for each issue about a unique masonry structure in another country. I thought I would give these older articles new life by posting them here. This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue.