The Ornamental Potential of Concrete

Elkemhuset, designed by architect Erling Viksjø, is a remarkable building for its experimental use of material. When its construction was initiated in the 1960s the use of aluminium as a facade material and silicon metal as an aggregate in concrete was considered pioneering within Europe.1

 

Erling Viksjø´s work stands out through the intense and experimental use of “Naturbetong”, a material he developed together with his associate engineer Sverre Jystad. Its constructive characteristics and surface texture define most of Viksjø´s buildings. They allowed him to treat the concrete in countless ways. Decorations were often sandblasted directly into the surface. The artworks in his projects often were influenced and created in close cooperations with painters and sculptors like Carl Nesjar, Odd Tandberg or even Pablo Picasso.2 The Regjeringskvartalet in Oslo with its famous mural “The Fisherman” drawn by Picasso and executed by Nesjar, is only one of many examples.

 

South Facade of Elkemhuset in the late autumn sun (Photo taken by the author)

 

Viksjø‘s passion for experimenting with material continues in Elkemhuset. After winning the competition to build the project in 1959 he changed the concept of the building on the request of the client Elektrokemisk A/S. Elkem got more and more involved in the aluminium industry and wanted this to be represented in their headquarters architecture.3 Inspired by North American architecture, where aluminium as a facade material was common, Viksjø introduced an aluminium curtain-wall facade to the design, replacing the previously proposed load-bearing facade in Naturbetong.4

 

Left: Facade detail (Drawing by Erling Viksjø Arkitekt M. N. A. L., The National Museum – Architecture, Oslo)
Right: Metal concrete panel and aluminium strukture (Photo taken by the author)

 

But not only the constructive aspect of the building changed. To fit his client’s needs he adapted the agragates used in the Naturbetong. The panels completing the aluminium facade as well as large parts of the interior design are executed in a special mixture of metal concrete. A material he developed together with Odd Tandberg exclusively for this project. Instead of using pebble as aggregates he inserted big flakes of silicon metal into the concrete. A material of which Elkem is until today one of the biggest producers in the world.5 Usually used in the electronics industry it was opportune to work with silicon as an aggregate for many reasons. Since Elkem produced it, it was probably cheap to get. It does not oxidize which is an important factor if you want to put it in the concrete. But last and maybe most important is the symbolical value. By inserting the silicon metal into the concrete Viksjø manages to enrich the base material with meaning. Not by treating it physically as he often did it before, but by complementing it through contrast. Together with the shiny metal, the flat concrete panels become ornaments, manifesting Elkem and its core business through architecture.

 

Metal concrete panels in the facade and detail of silicon metal flakes in the concrete (Photos taken by the author)

 

When the sun is standing low above Frognerparken in Majorstuen and shines on the south facade of Elkemhuset, the metal concrete panels start to shimmer, reflecting and resonating with the park and adding a unique character to the building. Framed by a rim of Naturbeton and raised above the ground, lying on six concrete columns this composition is creating a special atmosphere around it. A huge sculptural wall, an artwork made by artist Odd Tandberg transport this atmosphere onto the sloping square in front of Elkemhuset, connecting the Frognerparken with the ground floor. The wall is made out of conglo concrete, a mixture of rocks in different sizes and tonalities, bound in concrete. The wall continues from the outside into the foyer, separating the reception and exhibition space from the canteen. It carries on further inside and encloses the atrium garden connected to the canteen.6

 

Conglo concrete wall by Odd tandberg, connecting the Frognerparken with the ground floor (Photos taken by the author)

 

Only the two top floors of the eight-story building were used by Elektrokemisk A/S as their headquarter. On the sixth floor, the companies own generous foyer with a reception and a two-story high ceiling was located. The room is surrounded by offices and meeting rooms.7

 

After its construction, the floors two to six of Elkemhuset were rented out to various companies. They contain office and meeting rooms aligned to the outside of the building. Inside is a core with bathrooms and technical facilities as well as staircase and elevators. (Drawings by Erling Viksjø Arkitekt M. N. A. L., The National Museum – Architecture, Oslo)

 

The seventh floor contained the boardroom and dining room praised by Hallvard Trohaug for its striking spatial qualities. The architect and art historian calls it “one of the most impressive rooms in modern Norwegian architecture”.8 As well as the Foyer this room is decorated with artworks by Odd Tandberg and provides an excellent view over Frognerparken. Originally encircled by a roof terrace today it is partially overbuilt due to the extensive rebuilding and rehabilitation activities in 1989 by the new owner Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon.9

 

On the sixth floor the companies own generous foyer with a reception and a two-story high ceiling was located. (Drawings by Erling Viksjø Arkitekt M. N. A. L., The National Museum – Architecture, Oslo)

 

In many ways, Elkemhuset is an exception among Erling Viksjø´s projects. The aluminium facade and its deep volume distinguish it from the rest of his buildings. However, Elkemhuset is clearly recognizable as one of Viksjø´s works. The creative and innovative use of concrete and the will to shape the material in a certain way to fit the client’s needs are one of the most impressive demonstrations of Erling Viksjø´s ability to work with concrete.

 

The composition of concrete, glass and aluminium (Photo taken by the author)

 

1   Norske Arkitekters Landsforbund. “Elkemhuset.” Byggekunst, 1966, 22-28.
2   Langdalen, Erik Fenstad, Andrea Pinochet, and Léa-Catherine Szacka. Concrete Oslo. Oslo: Oslo School of Architecture and Design and Torpedo Press, 2018.
3   Norske Arkitekters Landsforbund. “Elkemhuset.” Byggekunst, 1966, 22-28.
4   Trohaug, Hallvard, and Norsk Arkitekturmuseum. Arkitekt Erling Viksjø. Oslo: Norsk Arkitekturmuseum, 1999.
5   Norske Arkitekters Landsforbund. “Elkemhuset.” Byggekunst, 1966, 22-28
6   Trohaug, Hallvard, and Norsk Arkitekturmuseum. Arkitekt Erling Viksjø. Oslo: Norsk Arkitekturmuseum, 1999.
7   Trohaug, Hallvard, and Norsk Arkitekturmuseum. Arkitekt Erling Viksjø. Oslo: Norsk Arkitekturmuseum, 1999.
8   Trohaug, Hallvard, and Norsk Arkitekturmuseum. Arkitekt Erling Viksjø. Oslo: Norsk Arkitekturmuseum, 1999.
9   Griebenow, Berit. Erling Viksjøs Høyblokk: Et Gesamtkunstwerk? Oslo: Universitetet I Oslo, 2014, 64-65.