Emil Victor Langlet. Norwegian Parliament – Dissecting the Expression of a Nation

Stortinget, the national parliament, is one of the most iconic buildings in Oslo. However, not everyone knows its controversial history.

Actually, the building which today stands in the middle of Oslo’s main road, wasn’t the winner of the architectural competition that meant to give the city its parliament building. This raises the question: What were the factors that led to the built project being chosen over the competition’s actual winner? To answer this, we have to look at not only the building’s historical context, but also at the history of democracy in architecture.


Historical Context

With the growing number of parliament’s representatives during the first half of the nineteenth century, after the signature of the Norwegian Constitution, it became clear there was a need for an appropriate parliament building.[1] The first project proposal for the building appears in 1836.[2] It would be followed up by others that were designed through the years, presenting different styles, shapes and even different plots in the city, until the government announced an open architectural competition to settle the building in 1856.[3] The lower part of the castle’s park and the plot at Prestegate/Karl Johans Gate were selected as the two possible places of previously discussed ones between the parliament and the government.[4]

The first round of debate took long to reach its conclusion because it had been given a low priority in the city’s future development plans: Other buildings were considered to be more crucial in order to build up the image of a capital city that could represent the recently formed Norwegian nation.[5] This seems to be quite a strange argument, since parliament buildings can be considered the perfect expression of national identity, as their architecture has always been used to showcase the status of existing and developing democracies.[6]

The chosen proposal from the competition was a neo-Gothic building with high arches, tower and spires on Karl Johans Gate,  designed by the two German architects Heinrich Ernst Schirmer and Wilhem von Hanno.[7]

 

 

IMG.1 – Heinrich Ernst Schirmer and Wilhem von Hanno’s project’s facade, 1856 (Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections)

 

IMG.2 – Heinrich Ernst Schirmer and Wilhem von Hanno’s project’s plan 1856




However, before the project was sent for a formal approval, another proposal, contrasting in shape and style was presented by the Swedish architect, Emil Victor Langlet who had recently arrived to Norway after his study tour in Italy. Despite being out of the competition’s deadline, the H shaped building, with a round shape in the middle facing the garden, was considered a valid option and ended up being the approved and executed project.[8]

 

IMG.3 – Emil Victor Langlet’s project’s facade, 1860

 

IMG.4 – Emil Victor Langlet´s project´s plans, 1860



The debate of representation through architectural style

After the creation of the Irish Parliament, during the rise of the neo-classical architecture in the eighteenth century, classical elements, forms and compositions became the dominant architectural language for the monumental parliament buildings. This ties with the fact that it dates back to the Pnyx of Athens, the origin of democracy, and even the amphitheaters of Rome. Architectural style was understood as the physical expression of the values of this time, a reference to the origins of democracy itself.[9]

Nonetheless, a strong Gothic influence was still present in determined places, since historical styles were chosen as a way to reflect meaningful and local historical background:[10] for instance, the “mother of parliaments”, in London, displays a neo-Gothic expression, that draws back on England’s strong gothic tradition, even though it has a Classic symmetrical plan.[11]

IMG.5 – Palace of Westminster, the “mother of parliaments”, London (Photograph of: Alvesgaspar, December 2007)


On the other hand, When Schirmer’s and Von Hanno’s proposal was analyzed, the strong German Gothic style it displayed was questioned, on the basis that it made the building resemble a church. This raised some uncertainty amongst the members of the parliament, who ended up finding it inadequate to express their future building in that way.[12]

 

 

IMG.6 – Heinrich Ernst Schirmer and Wilhem von Hanno’s project, 1857 (Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections)



The two main reasons behind the will to a build with a modern design were then layed out: on one hand, the need for an adequate relationship between architectural language and function, on the other, the idea that Norway, as a young nation, lacked the historical background to support a neo-Gothic or even a neo-Classic style as a national expression,[13] for it had recently established its national identity:

“National identity… is not a natural attribute that precedes statehood but a process that must be cultivated for a long time after a regime has gained political power.”[14]

– Lawrence Vale

 

But how could a building not express a consolidated identity, but instead open the doors to the development of a new one?

For instance, in terms of volumetry it strongly resembles with Bernini’s unbuilt facade of the Louvre in Paris.[15]

 

 

IMG.7 – Stortinget’s Facade (Author’s drawing)

IMG.8 – Bernini´s facade for the Louvre in Paris, 1665

In fact, Langlet’s facade reveals that he resorts to an historicist style, joining different elements from different ages into one single building.[16] The building’s composition is made through ideas that were used in classical architecture.

 

IMG.9 – Stortinget’s plan and facade show an evident classical symmetrical composition. [17]

 

IMG.10 – “If we look at the multi-angled semicircle as an isolated building element, it also suggests a link with church architecture, particularly the round baptisteries which can be seen in Florence.” [18] (in the right, Battistero di San Giovanni, Florence, 1059/1128 picture by: Christopher Kaetz, 9 September 2004)

 

IMG.11 – The way that the Stortinget’s windows divide themselves into smaller ones as they go up create three different levels in the central shape. “It was probably this tripartite division that made contemporary critics compare the Parliament building with the Colosseum in Rome, where the three classical orders of pillars stand on top of each other and divide the façade into three levels.”[19] (in the right, Colosseum of Rome, 70-80 AD, picture by: Alessandroferri, 29 March 2008)

On the other hand, the elements that give expression to the building are strong references to a Romanesque medieval style.[20]

 

IMG.12 – The way that the bricks are displayed to draw the portals and windows create this idea of multiple depths, similar to how medieval portals used to have multiple arches. (on the right, The Basilica of St.Trophime, Arles, France, 12th century, picture by: Hans Peter Schaefer, 23 June 2012)

 

 

IMG.13 – The central shape’s windows in the middle level reveal a arch that is divided by two smaller arches with a column in the middle. (on the right, Abbey of Sant’Antimo, central Italy, 11th century, picture by: Jaqen, 24 March 2007)

 

IMG.14 – The precense of machicolations resemble the crowning of a medieval fortress wall. (on the right, Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy, 1499, picture by: Jakub Hałun, 25 July 2011)

 

IMG.15 – Similarly to the example on the right, the facade’s back plan is marked by the precense of arcades. (on the right, Pisa Cathedral, Pisa, Italy, 1092, picture by: H005, 22 July 2009)


Langlet’s building, by not having a singular and clear historicist reference,[21] by being in a way open for multiple interpretations, offered, besides the modern design, a possibility for the creation of a new and unique identity, instead of becoming a displaced reference to a non-existent national historical context.

 

References

[1] HVATTUM, Mari, Striden om stortingsbygningen, in Stortingbygningen 150 år, to arkitektkonkurranser, Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, 2016, page 11

[2] HVATTUM, Mari, Striden om stortingsbygningen, in Stortingbygningen 150 år, to arkitektkonkurranser, Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, 2016, page 11

[3] HVATTUM, Mari, Striden om stortingsbygningen, in, Stortingbygningen 150 år, to arkitektkonkurranser, Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, 2016, page 11

[4] HVATTUM, Mari, Striden om stortingsbygningen, in Stortingbygningen 150 år, to arkitektkonkurranser, Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, 2016, page 12

[5] TORKJELSSON, Eivind, The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, Oslo, The Storting’s Administration, 2014, page 6

[6] SUDJIC, Deyan, and JONES, Helen, Architecture and Democracy, 2001, page 20

[7] TORKJELSSON, Eivind, The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, Oslo, The Storting’s Administration, 2014, page 6

[8] TORKJELSSON, Eivind, The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, Oslo, The Storting’s Administration, 2014, page 6

[9] SUDJIC, Deyan, and JONES, Helen, Architecture and Democracy, 2001, page 20

[10] SUDJIC, Deyan, and JONES, Helen, Architecture and Democracy, 2001, page 20

[11] SUDJIC, Deyan, and JONES, Helen, Architecture and Democracy, 2001, page 21

[12] HVATTUM, Mari, Striden om stortingsbygningen, in Stortingbygningen 150 år, to arkitektkonkurranser, Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, 2016, page 14

[13] HVATTUM, Mari, Striden om stortingsbygningen, in Stortingbygningen 150 år, to arkitektkonkurranser, Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, 2016, page 13

[14] Lawrence Vale, in SUDJIC, Deyan, and JONES, Helen, Architecture and Democracy, 2001, page 43

[15] TORKJELSSON, Eivind, The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, Oslo, The Storting’s Administration, 2014, page 8

[16] The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, 2014, page 7

[17] The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, 2014, page 8

[18] The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, 2014, page 8

[19] The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, 2014, page 8

[20] The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, 2014, page 8

[21] HVATTUM, Mari, Striden om stortingsbygningen, in Stortingbygningen 150 år, to arkitektkonkurranser, Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, 2016, page 14

Bibliography:

  • ASTRUP, Birgit, Stortingsbyggnaden i Oslo, Oslo, Foreningen til norske fortidsminnesmerkers bevaring, 1973
  • HVATTUM, Mari, Debatten om Stortingsbygningen 1836-1866, Oslo, Pax Forlag A/S, 2016
  • HVATTUM, Mari, Striden om stortingsbygningen, in Stortingbygningen 150 år, to arkitektkonkurranser, Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, 2016
  • LYSNE, Ole Knagenhjelm, “En nutids-skabning”: striden om stortingbygningen 1835-1860, Oslo, AHO, 2014
  • SUDJIC, Deyan, and JONES, Helen, Architecture and Democracy, London, Laurance King, 2001
  • TORKJELSSON, Eivind, The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, Oslo, The Storting’s Administration, 2014
  • Der viktigste rommet I verden, Oslo, Norske arkitekters landsforbund, 2016

Webography

  • https://www.stortinget.no/en/In-English/About-the-Storting/News-archive/Front-page-news/2015-2016/the-storting-buildings-150th-anniversary/, last visited in 01/10/2018

Picture’s Source

  • Featured Image (Photograph of Stortinget, Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections, between 1945 and 1955):  http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/object/NAMF.00549.002
  • IMG1: http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/object/NMK.2011.0012.002
  • IMG2: LYSNE, Ole Knagenhjelm, “En nutids-skabning”: striden om stortingbygningen 1835-1860, Oslo, AHO, 2014
  • IMG3: LYSNE, Ole Knagenhjelm, “En nutids-skabning”: striden om stortingbygningen 1835-1860, Oslo, AHO, 2014
  • IMG4: LYSNE, Ole Knagenhjelm, “En nutids-skabning”: striden om stortingbygningen 1835-1860, Oslo, AHO, 2014
  • IMG5: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:London_Parliament_2007-1.jpg
  • IMG6: http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/object/NMK.2011.0012.003
  • IMG7: Author’s drawing
  • IMG8: TORKJELSSON, Eivind, The Storting: Art and Architecture, Eivind Torkjelsson, Oslo, The Storting’s Administration, 2014
  • IMG9: Author’s drawing + LYSNE, Ole Knagenhjelm, “En nutids-skabning”: striden om stortingbygningen 1835-1860, Oslo, AHO, 2014
  • IMG10: Author’s drawing + https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Florence_Baptistry.jpg
  • IMG11: Author’s drawing + https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colosseo_2008.jpg
  • IMG12: Author’s drawing + https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arles_kirche_st_trophime_fassade.jpg
  • IMG13: Author’s drawing + https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AbbaziaSAntimoPanorama.jpg
  • IMG14: Author’s drawing + https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20110725_Castello_Sforzesco_Milan_5557.jpg
  • IMG15: Author’s drawing + https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duomo_di_Pisa_Front_Facade_2009.jpg