When bathed in low northern sunlight, Oslo’s new opera house looks like a fragment of iceberg that has drifted into the Oslofjord. Clad and paved in white marble where it faces the water and silver aluminium elsewhere, the building aspires to be as much landscape as architecture. Using non-orthogonal geometries, the white surfaces and angled glazing provide a glacier-like impression with circulation drawn along the inclines and through the crevices to arrive at the dramatic foyer. Just as Snøhetta’s Alexandria library developed a formal language from Egyptian iconography, here at home the architects look to northern landscapes for inspiration.
The use of irregular forms and complex geometries allows the building to disguise the fly tower. Unlike many modern opera houses where the bulk of backstage facilities dwarfs the public areas, here the tower is subsumed into the mass of the building as the tip of the iceberg. Metaphors aside, the quality of public spaces is the great strength of the scheme, not least the broad marble terraces that slide down into the sea and rise to form a roof promenade.
The all-consuming whiteness of the exterior ill-prepares visitors for the dramatic display of timber finishes within. Opera goers pass beneath a low entry gateway into a lofty circulation space lined by tilting oak walls and huge diagonal columns. The external paving extends inside, reflecting sunlight onto the timber walls and through a glazed art screen based on the crystalline structure of snow.
The generosity of the public spaces alone makes the opera house a worth a visit – the ticket office, bookshop and cafes form discrete areas set back from the routes around the base of the auditorium, while a wide ramp takes ticket holders to the upper terraces and their seats. At each level a circular timber-lined gallery overlooks the foyer and out to the water – promenading opera goers can enjoy the bustle below and the lights reflected on the fjord. The circulation routes were lined in Estonian oak by local shipbuilding joiners, achieving a high quality of finish and providing employment in an industry in recession.
The auditorium is an atmospheric horseshoe-shaped volume with walls and seat backs also oak-lined, now stained dark brown in contrast to the orange fabrics. A circular cast glass rooflight over the auditorium suggests a full moon, a parallel of Snøhetta’s sun god imagery at Alexandria. Its signature is clear in the way the circle dissolves into a semi-oval and then to an irregular and fractured iceberg, expressing a dialogue between programme and place.
The materiality of the opera house anchors it in Nordic traditions. The copious use of timber owes a debt to Aalto, especially his 1937 Paris Expo pavilion, while the planes of angled stonework suggest Sverre Fehn’s Norwegian Glacier Museum of 1990. Snøhetta knowledgeably exploits this interface between cultural and physical place, using construction to express the tectonic potential within the brief.
While few recent buildings in Oslo seem to address sustainability (the country has too much natural gas and oil for that) the opera house features some innovations, not least the protective solar screens. The transient problem of solar gain on the highly-glazed south and west foyer facades is met by dynamic rather than fixed shading. Although in winter the building benefits from daytime heating, the summer sun poses a particular difficulty. The perimeter shading screens track the sun’s path and, comprising a network of micro-photovoltaic panels, also generate electricity.
With generous foyers and wide promenades intended not just for those who can afford to buy tickets, the building is proving effective in promoting social interaction. Moreover, positioning the costume and set studios behind large glass walls to the waterside terraces provides passers-by with the chance to engage with the making of opera. Questions of security and privacy which bedevil much British architecture seem of little concern in Norway.
While the opera house is a major addition to the Oslo waterfront, it remains to be stitched into the urban network. There is a plan to bury the six-lane highway that separates it from the city centre beneath a new park. While this would certainly improve matters, in many respects Snøhetta’s building works best as an off-shore iceberg and to surround it with other structures would undermine its necessary isolation.
First published in AT187, April 2008