The invisible architect – Sverre Poulsen as an everyday hero

Picture from Poulsen from a NTH year album

On top of Grefsenkollen, a prominent hill in Oslo, there is a 94-year-old restaurant with a famous view over the city. While Grefsenkollen restaurant lives on, its architect has remained relatively unknown, even though he had his own practice and designed several buildings many pass daily. Who was Sverre Poulsen?

 

 

Image 1. NAL’s rather empty record card on Sverre Poulsen

Life in a Summary

Searching for information on the internet gives a rather thin amount of results. The association of Norwegian architects, NAL, keeps a record card of its architects and as such, there’s also a card on Poulsen. Upon seeing the summary of his career in just two pages, one can see there is not a big difference to the resources on the internet. It is rather telling that even Riksarkivet confused him with Sverre Pedersen, another Norwegian architect.  

Poulsen was born 31st October, 1892 in Seljord.2 He was married to Bergliot Schjelderup and was likely the first Norwegian to top the Matterhorn in 1920. His neighbour while living in Ekely was Edvard Munch.7 After a career as an architect with his own practise, he died 23rd September 1987, in Oslo.7 

Studies

Poulsen began studying architecture at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim in 1911 and graduated in 1915.3 He had two additional semesters at the Christiania Art Academy and a 1½ years’ stay in Europe and the USA from 1920-21.2

Other than the NAL record card, there are only two documents regarding Poulsen available in the architectural archive of the National Museum. Included in this is his diploma work from 1915, four drawings for a proposed library and festivity building.

Drawing from Poulsen's diploma work, showing a view drawing of a proposed library and festivity building.

Image 2. Proposed library and festivity building from Poulsen’s 1915 diploma work.

Career

The decade prior to founding his own practice was spent in private and public spheres. He worked as an assistant at Ole Sverre’s practice for 1,5 years in Oslo, after which he worked at the Oslo Boligdirektoratet, from 1916 to 1925. Poulsen founded his own practice after receiving the Grefsenkollen commission in 1925.3

During his career, Poulsen had several positions of trust. He was the subject editor of Byggekunst (1927-29), the main editor (1930-32), and the secretary in NAL (1931-32). The Norwegian architects’ trip to the Netherlands led into enormous excitement for Dutch architect, Willem Marinus Dudok, among young Norwegian architects. Sverre Poulsen was one of the participants on this trip, and continued correspondence with the Dutch architect following the trip.5

Byggekunst of 1931, name of main editor Sverre Poulsen highlighted

Image 3. Cover of the collection of Byggekunst’s volume1931, Poulson’s name is highlighted by author.

Grefsenkollen restaurant, with its laft construction and national romantic style, was an anomaly in his career. Poulsen’s later works were stylistically and functionally different. While the majority of his works are functionalist housing projects, Gulsrud kirke (1931), Gråkammen tennisclub (1935), Folkedal school (1948), and Havningberg chapel (1949) gave Poulsen a chance to design other building types. Despite the more-than-two-decades in difference between Grefsenkollen restaurant and Havningberg chapel, there are similarities in the traditional use of wood in them.8 One can see from Poulsen’s diploma work that he had a classical education at NTH, and changed his style along with the trends of the time. In addition to his diploma work, the National Museum’s archives holds his purchased entry to Majorstua Sørkedalsveien tenancy building competition in 1936, displaying the types of buildings Sverre Poulsen had spent most of his career on.

Axonometric view of Poulsen's competition entry in Majorstua

Image 4. Axonometric view of Poulsen’s Majorstua competition entry “rus i urbe”.

While the aforementioned competition was not successful, he was the architect behind several large housing blocks. There’s variety in their designs; among others, he’s designed the large Folkvang A/S in Sandaker (1932-33), several lamella houses in Majorstua and point houses in Marienlyst, but also smaller-scale row houses in Sletta, Ullevål Hageby (1959-60).2,9

Axonometric simplified examples of some of the building types Poulsen did in his career

Image 5. Examples of the different scales and footprints projects by Sverre Poulsen had. 1. Gråkammen tennisclub ca. 1935 // 2. Villa at Dalheimveien 9 1932 // 3. Grefsenkollen sportstue 1925-1927 // 4. Kirkeveien 104 1036 // 5. Blindernveien 2 1958 // 6. Folkvang A/S 1932-3

Now, 88 years after the publication of that yearbook, there’s only one finished villa in his name, advocate Puntervold’s villa on Dalheimveien 9 from 1932.2 This could be either a discrepancy in records or that both quotes are from the time around the villa at Bekkelaget. There is also a third possibility: while he didn’t win the competition in Majorstua, the jury thanked his proposal of two-storied apartments for the feeling that they were a one-family house in a block of flats.11

Picture showing two-storied apartments in Poulson's Majorstua competition entry

Image 6. Two drawings from Poulsen’s two-storied apartments in the Majorstua competition entry.

Conclusion

To return to the curious lack of information on Poulsen’s life, the simple conclusion is that he never designed anything deemed important enough to remember. The Oslo City Hall was designed by ten years older, almost-namesake, Magnus Poulsson and Arnestein Arneberg and Villa Stenersen by 8 years younger Arne Korsmo. Whatever the reason, be it the years at the Boligdirektoratet, lack of opportunity, or lack of interest, Sverre Poulsen ended up being an invisible architect. One may pass his works in Oslo, but wouldnt even think to consider who designed the building. They are just normal housing blocks, after all.

Most of Poulsen’s buildings have been added to the yellow list of protected buildings by byantikvaren.12 These buildings are not protected by law, but are on the city’s list of important buildings. In the case of changes to these buildings, byantikvaren will give an advisory statement before a building permit is given. As an example, the two point houses in Blindernveien 2 and 4 are excellent examples of 50s functionalism and have most of the original elements intact.10

Despite the fact there are very few search results for Poulsen on the internet, one could argue he isn’t as forgotten as he could have been. There is one Wikipedia page, his work is recognized in the yellow list of protected buildings, and his name is connected to the addresses of the buildings on the internet. It is at least possible to find him.

As there will never be a complete history of Sverre Poulsen’s life, he is best judged by his work. He seemed to be the antithesis of a starchitect, as he was simply an everyday architect. The intention of this text is not to elevate these kinds of architects into starchitects, but to make us more conscious about the built environment experience daily. Appreciating the everyday aspects of architecture may give us a greater appreciation to the work these ‘invisible architects’ do.

Locations of buildings designed by Sverre Poulsen shown as coloured dots around map of Oslo

Image 7. Sverre Poulson’s buildings shown over a map of Oslo. 1. Grefsenkollen sportstue 1925-27 2. Gulsrud church 1931 3. Villa at Dalheimveien 9 1932 4. Folkvang A/S 1932-33 5. Gråkammen tennisclub ca. 1935 6. Drammensveien 116 ca. 1935 7. Kirkeveien 104, 106, 108, 110 1936 8. Suhms gate 18, 20 1937 9. Harald Hårfagres gate 10,12 1938 10. Folkedal school 1948 11. Havningberg chapel 1949 12. Sletta lamella houses ca. 1954 13. Blindernveien 2, 4 1958 14. Sletta rowhouses 1959-60

 

 

Sources

1. “Historien”, last modified 2017, https://www.grefsenkollen.no/om-grefsenkollen/.
2. “Sverre Poulsen”, Jens Christian Eldal, last modified November 20, 2014, https://nkl.snl.no/Sverre_Poulsen/.
3. NAL Archive
4. Georg Brochmann. Vi fra Norges Tekniske Høyskole. De ti første kullene 1910–1919. Stavanger: Dreyers forlag, 1933, 86, https://www.nb.no/items/932bc8e2982eab7462d03d7de6cc2f43?page=93/.
5. Trond L. Schøning, Det Norske Hus, (Bergen: Universitetet i Bergen, 2001, 57, archived july 18, 2011 at Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20110718005339/http://www.ub.uib.no/elpub/2001/h/520001/Hovedoppgave.pdf/.
6. Evelyne Andreson, Lars Erik Nordland, “Det gode liv”, Byggekust no.7 (1989): 484, https://arkitektur-n.no/artikler/det-gode-liv/.
7. “Sverre Poulsen”, last modified May 8, 2021, https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sverre_Poulsen/.
8. “Hamningberg kirke”, Jari Inge, last modified October 14, 2016, https://travel-finnmark.no/batsfjord-hamningberg-kirke-church/.
9. “Tilbygg Nils Bays vei”, Tove Manskow, last modified November 10, 2021, https://toveomanskow.wordpress.com/portfolio-2/tilbygg-nils-bays-vei/.
10. “Byantikvarens Gule liste”, Erik Bolstad, last modified June 8, 2020, https://blindernveien.no/om/arkitekturen/.
11. Byggekunst, volume 1937, 225–26.
12. Yellow list, Oslo municipality, last modified November 10, 2021, https://od2.pbe.oslo.kommune.no/kart/?mode=gulliste/.

Images

Featured image. Georg Brochmann. Vi fra Norges Tekniske Høyskole. De ti første kullene 1910–1919. Stavanger: Dreyers forlag, 1933, 86, https://www.nb.no/items/932bc8e2982eab7462d03d7de6cc2f43?page=93/.
1. National Museum archive
2. National Museum archive
3. Byggekunst, volume 1931, p. 1, picture edited by the author
4. National Museum archive
5. Illustration made by the author
6. Byggekunst, volume 1937, p. 226, cropped by the author
7. Illustration made by the author