Experiencing the Barcodes at the Human Scale

The ongoing redevelopment of Oslo’s waterfront, as part of the Fjord City masterplan, represents an unprecedented scale of redevelopment for the city. The Barcode, Bjørvika, is a particularly controversial element of the redevelopment, because it is high-rise and high-density. The primary justification for the dense massing of the blocks is based on a strategy of clustering as many people as possible in immediate proximity to the city centre and the major transport hub, Oslo Central Station (1). This aims to realise a sustainable vision for the future, reducing the city’s dependency on the car, by concentrating housing, jobs and amenities in areas accessible by public transport and by foot.

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Fig 1: The Barcode Development, Bjørvika. Source: http://mcrg.no/?page_id=5621 accessed 18.09.15

I was interested in interrogating what this level of density meant for human inhabitation at street level. In MVRDV’s masterplan for Bjørvika, made in collaboration with Dark and A-Lab,  they state that the Barcode masterplan will provide a “24 hour accessible, animated public zone”(2). The design guidelines for the Barcodes require that 50% of the horizontal surface of the site is green outdoor space(3), but on visiting the site it is clear that, with the height and depth of the towers, this provision creates only narrow gullies (Fig 2), which are uncomfortable for human occupation. The experience of the space is one of being dwarfed (Fig 3).

Public space layout

Fig 2: Narrow gullies sold as public space.


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Fig 3: The inhuman scale of the Barcodes. Spot the person!

Street furniture, landscape interventions and art installations fail to alleviate the sense of compression in the spaces. The environment lacks natural light and is also an uncomfortable physically, because of the wind generated by the tall buildings.

Landscape layout

Fig 4: Landscape interventions.

The main streets in Oslo successfully provide the ‘animated public zones’ that MVRDV claim the Barcodes can replicate (Fig 5), but in comparing the relationship between the scale of the street and the scale of the buildings in both cases (Fig 6), it seems unreasonable to envision that the spaces will operate in the same way. 


Fig 5: Karl Johans Gate, Oslo.

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Fig 6: Comparison of scale between the Barcodes and Karl Johans Gate.

The development would have to be reduced enormously to be in proportion with its public spaces (Fig 7).

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Fig 7: The Barcodes in better proportion with the public space.

The street level provides a claustrophobic experience, where inhabitants scuttle for shelter in the high-rises. This transfers the city’s activity to the vertical plane, within privately controlled complexes (Fig 8). The development excludes human activity at street level, risking the creation of a dead public zone.

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Fig 8: Vertical activity in the Barcode area and horizontal activity in the city.

MVRDV’s animated streetscape seems to be a fantasy of architectural rhetoric, immediately dispelled as a myth on visiting the site. The development treats people as storage items to be boxed up and stacked on shelves, stretching into the sky. For me, it makes little attempt to provide a socially sustainable development for Oslo and makes me question whether arguments in favour of density are thinly veiled excuses for a ‘neo-liberal frame of inter-urban competition, middle class consumption and place-marketing’(4).

1.Skrede, Joar, The issue of sustainable urban development in a neoliberal age, Vol.6 Nr.1 2013, Art. 4, 1 – 15
2. http://www.mvrdv.nl/projects/bjorvika-barcode accessed 18.09.15
3.http://www.mvrdv.nl/projects/bjorvika-barcode accessed 18.09.15
4. Skrede, Joar, The issue of sustainable urban development in a neoliberal age, Vol.6 Nr.1 2013, Art. 4, 1 – 15