Oslo City Hall & Akershus Castle – Rooms are monuments

As the ultimate display of power, great buildings have a major role in shaping national identity.  For a young nation like Norway, the natural process of finding an architectural language to convey political ambitions could appear imposed and artificial.
Due to some common elements that allow a comparison between them, the Oslo City Hall and the Akershus Castle, even if built in very distant periods, can both be read as laboratories for finding a Norwegian architectural vocabulary.

Norway was finally declared as an independent nation in 1905 and in 1915 its capital city was still missing a representative building.  In 1918 Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson began the project of the Oslo City Hall, a process that lasted until the opening in 1950.  In 1895 the first archeological examination of the Akershus fortress started. It was undertaken as a national building project considered fundamental to understanding Oslo’s medieval heritage. In parallel to developing the design for the city hall, Arneberg was also appointed to complete the restoration project of the Akershus fortress in 1930, which was lead by different architects through the previous years.

Although both projects were worked on simultaneously by Arneberg, this is not enough to allow a comparison between the two. What is of interest is to study them both as representative buildings developed during the early years of Norway’s independence. The Oslo City Hall was a response to the need to define the nation modern identity, while the Akershus fortress was needed to find a great model in history.

Looking at both projects archive material, the precision in the detail is well documented. Pieces of furniture are represented in scale 1:1, plans and sections are followed by an obsessive research of the image of the building with perspective illustrations. The internal decoration is surprisingly never documented in an accurate and technical manner. Given the huge amount of detail of the decorative elements on the walls of the Rådhus and the Fortress, we expect to find studies of the patterns and colors, but evidence of the thought behind these elements can be found only in the watercolored perspectives of the main hall.

The spaces are then described through a subjective point of view, where the vision and the narrative are the focus, and the decorations set the tone for the scene.

The restoration of the banqueting hall of the Akershus Castle, which is located in the higher level of the North wing, started under the supervision Holger Sinding- Larsen. His work, even if not completed, was more a reconstruction rather then a restoration, introducing elements, like the wooden roof structure, which were hybrid elements, almost a collage of foreign medieval traditions with Norwegian architecture.
When Arneberg was handed the project in 1930, he had to work with the previous restoration and developed the project in accordance with the newly built elements as well as the medieval remains that were still untouched.

When studying Arneberg’s early sketches of the banqueting hall, it becomes apparent that he took great care to draw and understand the existing architecture prior to designing the furniture and decorations. In his sketches, the walls are blank, the pavement is lightly outlined to give an impression of the space, while the ceiling is well detailed. In later drawings, Arneberg includes the design of the furniture but the walls are still represented by the architect as generically decorated with tapestry and paintings. Identifying the elements that recur in all the different stages with their variations, we can understand what Arneberg was looking for when composing the image of the banqueting hall. The color scheme was fixed between a deep red and a blue-green, and tapestry or textile decorations were supposed to be the main element on the walls.

The final pattern design, even if it seems to be reminiscing of past decorative tradition, is drawn probably in situ by artisans, mocking tapestry in simple geometric forms painted directly on the wall. The elements decided by Arneberg can be recognized in the final result, but the way they are developed appears to be rough and oversimplified.


Interrupted by the Second World War, the process of construction of the Oslo City Hall left the internal decoration as the final step. Arneberg and Poulsson assigned to multiple Norwegian artists the external and interior decoration, creating a collaborative environment between arts. The huge tiled pavement was already there when Alf Rolfsen and Henrik Sørensen started to work on the murals of the main hall, which was considered the “city’s great common room”. The frescos are the most eye-catching feature of the hall, working with the great dimensions of the room as a magnifier. While Sørensen’s work on the South Wall, “Work, Administration, Celebration”, is a festive representation of community life, Rolfsen’s murals narrate historical moments on the East and West walls, as the “Occupation Frieze” and the “St Hallvard” scene, on the North Wall the cultural activity of the nation was shown.

But as the hall its described as a stue, or common room, for the city, we can see that some scaled-up decorative elements where used to give the visitor the feeling of the room as a whole, harmonic space. The grey scale pavement seems almost like a carpet, and suggest the space in which a crowd should stay. Looking again at the walls, what brings together and compose the paintings as a whole surface is the pattern composition designed by Alf Rolfsen.

The pattern can be read in two different layers. The first layer is formed by the geometric and abstract lines of the pattern. A grid is rotated following the angle of the staircase on the West wall, forming a parallelogram as the base element. On the inside the decoration varies from one wall to the other. On the West wall, the pattern merges into the “St Hallvard” mural, giving the illusion of being generated from it, and projecting towards the South wall. On this area the parallelogram is decorated with a composition of inclined lines and triangular shapes, giving it a dynamic feature. On the East side, the patterns follow the rhythm of the doors of the upper level, working with architecture rather than defining it. While between the openings the same grid is used, above them the design changes completely, and a series of perpendicular lines define the grid in which the parallelogram are distributed. Here the pattern appears to be more stable, pointing towards the ceiling when above the doors, and featuring circular shapes with lines generated by them inside the inclined grid, which mirrors the East wall.

Layered above this composition of base pattern, we can recognize the second one. A series of parallelograms, inclined again following the angle of the stairs, defines the areas of color distribution by hue. The colors are used as a way to affect the perception of the hall, that seems to move beyond its strict geometry, projecting in an almost elastic way towards the windows facing the fjord.

Filling up the space between the frescoes with pattern elements, allows the artist to add complexity to the spatial feature of the walls, and the results develop an ambiguity between the domestic feel of the room and the monumentality of a town hall.

When we compare the Akershus Banquet Hall and the Central Hall of the City Hall, the relation between them is certainly the one between a workshop and a final proposal. In the Akershus Castle restoration, Arneberg develops the ability to manage different influences and figures, more like a director than a designer, and the room is the ideal setting to this condition. When it came to the City Hall project, where the actors involved were multiple, from different artists to the incumbent historical events, his ability lead to a result that feels surprisingly harmonious despite its great complexity.