Blakstad and Munthe-Kaas. Kunstnernes Hus – A Symbiotic Architecture

Kunstnernes Hus was not built in a day. An elaborative and extensive design process eventually made the house what it is: a building representing a classical discourse in Norwegian architecture and a breakthrough for functionalism in Norway. In the instance of Kunstnernes Hus, neoclassicism presents itself as a transition between national romanticism and functionalism. The design and even the competition can be seen as a careful attempt of combining traits of classical architecture together with functional ideologies.

In 1909, artists such as Erik Werenskiold and Edvard Munch hosted fundraising events, desperate for a house where exhibitions could be organised. Earlier, art exhibitions were mostly drawn up in collaboration with other non-art related institutes – art lottery, markets and other festive events took place in the city centre to raise money to realise this ambition. Suitably, two years later a site at Rosenkrantzgaten became free, however there was not enough money to buy the plot so a large portion had to be funded through loans. An architectural competition was organised for the site and Eunar Oscar Schou, well known at the time for his design of the National Scene in Bergen, won the contest. Sadly, the building of the house was interrupted by the First World War and the subsequent inflation made it impossible to further finance the project. Eventually the site was sold to Det Nye Teater.

 

Arbeiderbladet, 24th June, 1929

 

New hope arose almost a decade later, where some land became free at Wergelandsveien following the acquisition of the site by the artist board, a considerable competition was held, where more than sixty proposals were introduced. The members of the jury set up several restrictions concerning the functionality of the building and its relation to the city. A simple monumentality should characterise the house, without losing link to the public. Every step of the competition was followed carefully and examined by the local newspapers. Elaborate discussions were led concerning the style and its relevance to Norwegian cultural history. The old generation of architects criticised the new architecture: it was cold, impersonal, unanimous and equal to stagnation. The young architects replied with a call for freedom.

The clash between the old and the new generation dominated the period when the architectural competition was announced. The former generation was still bonded to national romanticism and honoured the values and traditions of Norway. The young architects, in search for an identity, were influenced by the post-war inventions, functionalism and modernity. On the other hand, they wanted to purify their ideas by returning to the origins of architecture. These two influences determined the whole competition and eventually the final design. The struggle to find an architectural identity is illustrated through the two competition proposals for Kunstneres Hus, by the team of young architects Gudolf Blakstad and Herman Munthe-Kaas. In 1928, the jury elected their neoclassic project Felix as winner of the architectural competition of the Kunstnernes Hus.

 

Facade Felix – Gudolf Blakstad and Herman Munthe-Kaas

 

Felix was a design based on classical order, symmetry and strict rhythm. It intended to impress the people and create a certain feeling of astonishment to express the relevance of the house. This is even more emphasised by the sense of gravity. With its clear basement, neat rows of windows, strong cornice and the emblem on top; one could almost imagine an odd version of an Italian palazzo. A bourgeois square is introduced by four small pedestals. The whole composition of the house feels rather rigid and pompous.

 

Facade Nu – Gudolf Blakstad and Herman Munthe-Kaas

 

In contrast to Felix, for their second competition entry, Blakstad and Munthe-Kaas proposed a functionalist project called Nu. It represents the modern time with its new technologies and convictions. The façade was influenced by openness, structural honesty and clarity. Several elements according to the functionalist canon, like the ribbon windows or the sunshades, are implemented to define the façade. The circulation is placed on the left side, creating space for an open floor plan. The overall feeling is still somewhat clumsy and uncontrolled.

 

Facade Kunstnernes Hus – Gudolf Blakstad and Herman Munthe-Kaas

The final design was eventually a blend of the two projects. The strict rhythm of the Felix project is still visible. However, the closeness is now replaced by an open and more collective ground floor. The canopy, which felt a bit arbitrary at first, is now one clear gesture connecting this ground floor to its environment. Together with the ribbon windows, now located lower, a spacious and open lobby is created. The central circulation is kept and is made clear by a big window in the façade. All the elements are organised by symmetry along the vertical axis making the hierarchy and composition clear. Despite these several gestures, one still reads the building as a whole. The result is a façade that finds a balance between the ordering principles of classical antiquity and the clarity and openness of functional tendencies.

The consolidation of the two-different architectural style creates exhibition spaces that are meaningful and functional on the inside. This is contrary to functionalist galleries or museums where the architecture of the inner spaces was often insignificant, and reduced to the simple function of housing art. One could think of the typical white cubes. Instead of dissolving into white canvasses, the architecture takes specific shapes supporting the art pieces within. One could observe that both projects, each as a reproduction of a certain style, where rather poor and empty. It’s only by merging the two that the project gained significance.

Facade Felix – Facade Kunstnernes Hus – Facade Nu

Subsequently, the house expels a controlled monumentality by the sense of gravity, rhythm, symmetry and balance between the elements; without losing its link with the public, due to its clarity and openness. The house reveals a significance towards the city, while remaining serene and not taking up more attention than necessary. This keeps the artist and art as main focus of the house.

The stratification and layering resulting from the combination of neoclassicism and functionalism brings a certain richness and depth into the project. With this, it becomes more difficult to categorise the building to a certain time or period in architectural history. Instead, there arises a uniqueness, which makes this building meaningful, and therefore still successful today.

 

 

 


 

Bibliography:

Gjessing, Steinar, Olga Schmedling, Ingeborg Glambek, and Karin Hellandsjø. 1980. Kunstnernes Hus, 1930-1980. Oslo: Kunstnernes Hus.

Norberg-Schulz, Christian. 1966. “Fra Klassisisme Til Funksjonalisme”. Byggekunst1 (48): 13. https://arkitektur-n.no/artikler/fra-klassisisme-til-funksjonalisme.

Solheim, Geir, and Asle Eriksen. 2001. Kunstnernes Hus, Wegelandsveien 17, Oslo : Rehabilitering. Oslo: Statsbygg.

Johnsen, Espen. 2006. “Å Nyansere Norsk Modernisme”. Nordisk Arkitekturforskning 19 (1): 27-33.

Curtis Anderson, Robert. 2010. The Invention Of Architectural Tradition In Norway : As Exemplified By The Work Of Gudolf Blakstad And Herman Munthe-Kaas. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller.

“Kunstnernes Hus”. 1929. Arbeidersbladet, no. 1: 1. https://www.nb.no/items/8fac5f02b6a2a685985b91af65d9a52c?page=0&searchText=arbeiderbladet%20kunstnernes%20hus.

 


 

Illustrations:

National Library of Norway:
Arbeidersbladet, 24th June, 1929

Studiesalen i Nasjonalmuseet – Arkitektur:
Facade Felix – Gudolf Blakstad and Herman Munthe-Kaas
Facade Nu – Gudolf Blakstad and Herman Munthe-Kaas
Facade Kunstnernes Hus – Gudolf Blakstad and Herman Munthe-Kaas

All digital drawings are made by the author.