Hidden Exteriors

By Michal Piotr Starzynski and Edyta Filipczak

Our exploration focuses on Damstredet as a precious and under appreciated place. Damstredet is made up of diverse hidden exteriors that we consider as an inventory to be defined and described. Our goal is to find these spots—which consist of various walls, edges, squares, paths, and physical elements that create a unique and complex character. Some qualities are not precisely measurable, in which case we will describe what we find interesting. Hidden exteriors are more detailed relations between spaces that are not obvious at first glance. These are the spaces that we like.


Damstredet 20. Photo by authors

Some spaces give one the feeling of peace and calm. At Damstredet, we refocus our concentration many times: from the feeling of being in an interior volume between the facades to small details of the fountain faucet to considering the underground water system that passes beneath the bench we sit on. When we first experience these spaces we automatically try to understand their spatial rules, but then, our consciousness connects with the surrounding and we become enmeshed in it.

This essay consists of a detailed plan and section, as well as photos and a physical model, that emphasize the variation in levels that create the described spaces. We focus on exterior small-scale places. We name them, describe what makes them particular, and then dissect the inventory to understand what can be applied elsewhere.

When researching the area, we read that Damstredet, as a part of the Bergfjerdingen settlement, was one of the oldest and steepest areas in Oslo. It dates back to the 18th century, when it was illegally developed as a suburb of Christiania by low-income workers who couldnt afford to buy a flat in the center of the city. By that time, wooden constructions had been banned within the boundaries of the city. 

On Damstredet, craftsmen constructed small, simple, single or double-story wooden houses that were adjusted to the topography and neighbourhood conditions. Beginning in 1801, shifts in industrialization significantly increased the number of people in the city. The growth in the number of inhabitants – from 9 000 to 230 000 over one hundred years – had a noticeable impact on Damstredet. The working-class families who lived there were forced to share the space – in one case, with 14 inhabitants in a house of 35 square meters. This density, along with the poor living conditions during the cholera epidemic in 1833, resulted in the death of every sixth resident.

Hidden exterior. Damstredet, 1957. Photo by Omtvedt Petter

The dense and intuitive organization of buildings remained, even after this dark period. Diverse volumes, materials, and spaces between buildings eventually attracted local artists to move there. They perceived Damstredet as an idyllic environment to live and work in. Ole Meyer, a sculptor, and Henrik Wergeland, a well-known writer, had a significant impact on this space. Their work recreating, updating, and developing already existing spaces, was something that has kept the area well-preserved and adjusted to fire restrictions. It is because of the gentle care of its inhabitants that Bergfjerdingen, along with many small suburban areas, has not been demolished. 


Situation. Drawing by authors

In order to describe one of the organic spaces between the buildings, we have focused on the area which stretches from Damstredet 5 and 7 to Damstredet 20 and 22 on the opposite side of the street. The elevation varies from 26 to 34 meters above sea level, creating very steep conditions for development. When approaching the site from the south or north, one might notice how the gutter merges with pavement, leaving a narrow void between them. This gap serves as a path, leading to the entrances of Damstredet 20 and 22. On the left, walking from the south, one can see a 2 meter high stone wall that works as a podium for garden-like space in front of Damstredet 7. With its eastern exposure, it is a perfect spot to sit and have a morning coffee.

Further down, at Damstredet 22, we capture the north facade facing a narrowing square with a fountain surrounded by plants, a small tree, and domestic things scattered about. The exterior of the house feels domestic. The facade of Damstredet 22 is a perfect square, spanning 5.2 meters in both width and height. The central axis of this facade touches the left top corner of the fountain, located 6.5 meters. It is unlikely that these spatial, almost mathematical gestures, have ever been planned. They are more likely a result of the circumstances and subjective decisions by residents. However, these circumstances and subjective decisions have lead to a rich local environment. Facing east from Damstredet 22 there have two paths to follow, a small, dark street or the main road going steeply down.

Plan. Drawing by authors



Section. Drawing by authors

Model made by authors

There are likely many, equally complex, hidden exteriors around Oslo. Our question is: how can we make use of them, and learn from their qualities, as architects? The types and qualities are infinite, thus the emotions and experiences that one can have differ from each other. It does not have to be the historic fabric or complex topography  that make this quality of type of condition. When care is present in small details, and the freedom of everyday life takes control, peace and joy appear in the little things.

Exterior details. Damstredet, 1976. Author unknown