Jon Eikvar, Sven Erik Engebretsen. Onstad Kunstsenter – A mysterious plan

The archive holding the initial drawings for Henie Onstad Kunstsenter is lost, the only documents remaining are plans, an interview published in Byggekunst and some pictures. With only a few explanations about the design of the exhibitions rooms, the experimental plan appears like a mystery. The reasons that led the architects to the final design are left open to speculation.


Located among the landscape of Høvikodden, the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter is one of Norway’s most important cultural building of modern times. In 1962, the figure skater, actor and businesswoman, Sonja Henie, together with her husband Niels Onstad, an art collector, decided to make their art collection (one of the biggest in Norway) available to the public by building an art centre. An architectural competition was held because private commissioners have to use the competition form when the assignments have importance for the society. This art centre was important for the city of Oslo at the time: It had no museum for modern art. The City Hall of Bærum, understanding what a cultural centre of such importance would mean for the city, not only ceded the right terrain but also took care of urbanizing the surroundings. In the end, more than 90 designs were submitted for the competition and by proposing a building that unfolds across the landscape, Jon Eikvar and Svein Erik Engebretsen, two young Norwegian architects won. It was their first architectural assignments. The main form of the building might be the result of an interaction between function, flow and surroundings.

This art centre is not only devoted to the exhibition of works of art but is also involved in the research of all aspects of contemporary art. Its installations include a museum, a theatre, lecture and concert halls, a library, and study rooms. In response to the program, Jon Eikvar and Svein Erik Engebretsen designed the art centre as several concrete prisms all connected by the central hall. The final shape is an organism with volumes linked one to another and it gives a framework to the functions it holds.


Everything starts from the central staircase. It is the heart of the project and it has its own atmosphere. The daylight comes from the ceiling and is diffused by a grid of polyester sheets. A wooden circular staircase unfolds around the central transparent plastic tube screen of the elevator and the wooden wall creates a warm atmosphere. The staircase is surrounded by a bush-hammered concrete wall from where the beam system starts.


1 – Foyer / Forest


The beams system follows a centralized symmetry and is divided into 26 radii. In the foyer, the aluminium ceiling and stone floor layouts that spreads from the middle towards the rest of the building have a clear relation to the beam system by following the same radii. Concrete pillars are also oriented along these radii and highlight the geometric structure. Some pillars follow the Fibonacci curve, it underlines the work of geometry of the beam system. The foyer connects the rooms between them by centralizing the distribution and spreading in between the prisms. The reflection of the pillars on the ceiling and can remind a forest and the surrounding water.


Christian Norberg-Schulz, Norwegian architect, author and architectural theorist, about the geometry in the foyer :

“When you withdraw from the center, the form appears continually more free at the same time topologically refined bodies are becoming apparent. Therefore, not only a functioning and justified differentiation takes place but also a slow dissolvement of the geometric form and a complementarity increasing connection to the surrounding nature comes into being”.


2 – Prisms / Rocks

The exhibition rooms take the form of separate buildings volumes that have been placed between the radii of the beam system. The in-situ concrete prisms provide large and irregular exhibition rooms. Although they face the fjord, the architects decided to design these spaces with blind concrete walls to offer calm and contemplation to the visitor and allow them to focus on the exhibited works. They explained that the beautiful nature of Høvikodden would have distracted the visitor and that the view would be in competition with the exhibition. The exhibition spaces needed daylight, but the lateral light through the window wasn’t an option. The architects used the same ceiling design as in the staircase. Translucent domes on the roof and polyester grid diffuse light in a special way and the exhibition space adopts the appearance of a smooth and neutral surface. These bright and smooth interior of the volumes are very different from their shells: the concrete walls have a bush-hammered surface, and vertical lines were cast to add more texture and rhythm to the prisms in response to the landscape. Diffuse light, ceiling grid and irregular walls creates a non-oriented space that escapes from the centralized plan and provides a neutral room where one can focus on the exhibited works of art.


3 – Balcony / Waves

Unlike the exhibition rooms, the restaurant and the administration are completely open on the outside along a terrace. As the architects located the restaurant, offices, apartments, conference room, library, etc… to an area in where the topography of the land is quieter, it allowed a horizontal development of the building. The long concrete balcony and rooftop highlight this horizontality, and provide a large view on the coast. This topography allowed them to extend these functions with an outside auditorium and a terrace facing the Bærum marina.



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– Informes de la Construcción Vol. 21, no. 206 

– Byggekunst no. 51, 1969

– Norske Arkitekt Konkurranser  no. 105, 1964

Collage and drawings :

– Author (based on photography by Ørnelund Leif, Jon Eikvar and Svein Erik Engebretsen)