Crisis and Opportunity: Restrictions on Post-War Building

Three responses to the regulations: shrinking, reusing, overlaying.

 

As a result of its dispersed population and relatively poor economic standing, Norwegian architecture was not dictated by the stylistic changes that governed the architecture of continental Europe. Architectural innovation in Norway was typically seen through small developments of the building plan. Changes were gradual and took place over generations, as the construction of housing and development of cities was relatively slow.

When Le Corbusier visited Norway, he described the traditional wooden houses as modernist structures – they were honest, economical, and clear.1 This is a valued architectural heritage in Norway, one that came to fruition in the modern era. Architects like Knut Knutsen, Sverre Fehn, and Arne Korsmo were responsible for translating this rich tradition into the post-war era.

 

Plan Development Over Time
Diagram by Christian Norberg-Schulz and Gunnar Bugge, 1990

 

After the second world war, a large part of the building mass around Europe had been destroyed. In 1945 nations began the task of rebuilding. The Norwegian government planned to build 100,000 housing units in the following five years, but building materials were scarce and labor was in short supply.2 The Ministry of Housing established regulations to ensure the most economical use of materials and labor while providing citizens with a large amount of housing in a relatively short time-frame. The construction of detached homes within densely populated areas was prohibited, and when these homes were allowed, they were restricted to 100m2. The regulations encouraged the use of lightweight structures that employed 48x98mm wood framing, rather than the more traditional log construction that was still popular within the region. Flat roofs – which were popular elsewhere – were not permitted, as the tar paper used to seal them was unavailable.3

The rationing of materials between 1945 and 1960 contributed to tendencies that were already in placemodest building, and care in the planning and execution of construction. To abide by the new restrictions, many architects employed innovative construction techniques and focused their efforts on economizing the building plan. A small minority of architects working at the time used the regulations as a creative restriction. Highly influenced by international modernist movements, these architects circumvented the rules and would push the perceived boundaries of the Nordic tradition. Three of these projects will be discussed.

Planetveien 12, 1955
Arne Korsmo

Overlaying

Planetveien 12 was the personal residence and project of Arne and Grete Korsmo. Retractable stairs, beds, removable walls, and movable cushions create the space at Planetveien. 100 cushions sit in a first-floor living area—the way in which they are arranged describes the event happening that day. Film screening, dinner, performance, work meeting. The moveable staircase also gives a clue to the day’s events: when raised, the staircase denies access to the upper floor completely. These objects are “Mekano” objects – their design implies the engagement of the user. Without its objects, Planetveien is an empty grid.

 

Planetveien 12, Cushions and Stairs
Images by Author

Mekano kits contained various sized aluminum strips, nuts, and bolts. The toys provided a simple, replicable unit, which could be used to build an endless variety of structures. Korsmo argues that using this method for building would result in a less passive relationship between the users of the space, and the space itself.4

With Planetveien, Korsmo sought an alternative to the economization of the building plan. He created open spaces that could have overlapping functions, rather than individual areas with specific programs. This multi-purpose method requires fewer distinct rooms, resulting in less space, material, and labor.

Planetveien 12, Bedroom/Office
Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections

Portør Summerhouse, 1949
Knut Knutsen

Re-using

The “nearly invisible”5 summerhouse in Portør is an unexpectedly iconic work. The rocky surroundings are echoed in the house, with its peaking rooflines and asymmetrical forms.6 Found and discarded materials are configured into two main areas. A semi-exterior corridor connects the two masses. The scarcity of the post-war period is reflected here: both in the re-use of materials and in elements like the corridor. Knutsen considers which elements are essential to the house, and removes all else.

Portør Summerhouse
Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections

The isolated location of the summerhouse required that all materials arrive by boat. This exaggerated the restrictions put in place by the government and forced Knutsen to consider the value of each material used. He often used objects already on site, such as large rocks and trees, to form space. The crescent shape of the house meets a similarly curved rock-face to create a courtyard. Collected materials are what dictate much of the form and detailing of the cabin, resulting in a collaged building inextricably tied to its site.

 

Portør House
Image by Author

Villa Schreiner, 1961
Sverre Fehn

Shrinking

Villa Schreiner, Floor Plan
Image by Author

The furnishings in Villa Schreiner set the scale of the home. From a photograph the furnishings look relatively standard – 2.4m ceilings and compact rooms give the illusion that this is a typical, even spacious home. Books on the wall and other purchased objects look out of scale at Villa Schreiner. All of the furniture in the house is about 80% the size of standard pieces. Like at Planetveien, foldable, moveable, and nesting pieces are used to maximize the area. The dining area consists of a brick bench (provided by the backside of a fireplace), a table, and four chairs. The chairs and bench can nest within the table to clear space when not in use. The brick fireplace also extends on its front side to provide seating in the living room. All other load-bearing columns are pushed outside to allow floor-to-ceiling glass to wrap the house. This extends the rooms beyond their square footage. 

Villa Schreiner, Dining Area
Photo by Per Berntsen

Conclusion

Regulations were gradually lifted – by the mid-1950s some elements such as flat roofs were allowed, and by 1960 the regulations were dissolved completely. Nevertheless, building moderately in Norway did not begin with these regulations, and it would not end by their dissolution. This tradition would continue to influence building practices even into the oil-era that began in the 1970s.

By way of the restrictions, the architecture industry in Norway was agitated. New problems meant new solutions, and many architects worked to solve these problems with unique and sophisticated techniques. The response to these regulations contributed many works which now make up a large part of Norway’s architectural canon. During this time, architects engaged with an international community of designers – influenced by, but also influencing these figures in a way that would curve the perception of the Norwegian building tradition.

 

Endnotes


1 Le Corbusier, Le Corbusier by the Sea, National Museum of Architecture: Villa Stenersen, Oslo, Norway.
2 Barbara Elisabeth Ascher, Built Rationally! Design approaches to housing within the limits of scarcity (Oslo, archiDOCT, 2013), 26.
3 Elisabeth Torstrup, Planetveien 12 (London, Artifice Books, 2014), 97-101.
4 Ibid.
5 Translation of excerpts from B.E. Knutsen, A.s. Tvedten, Knut Knutsen. 1903-1969, Oslo 1982, 37.
6 Ibid.

Image Citations
1 Villa Schreiner, 1968. ©DEXTRA Photo, Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections.
2 Plan Development Over Time, 1990. Christian Norberg-Schulz and Gunnar Bugge.
3 Planetveien 12, First Floor Plan. Image created by Author
4 Planetveien 12, Cushions and Staircase. Image created by Author
5 Planetveien 12, Bedroom/Office, 1955. ©Teigens Fotoatelier. Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections
6 Arkitekt Knut Knutsens eget sommerhus, 1950. Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections.
7 Portør House. Image created by Author.
8 Villa Schreiner, Dining Chair and Floor Plan. Image created by Author. 
9 Villa Schreiner, 1968. Per Berntsen, Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections.