Trolltun Borretslag – Bøler’s Outcast?

For more than fifty years, artists have lived and worked at Trolltun Borretslag, an artist community built after WW2 in Bøler in Oslo. The postwar period in Norway was defined by economic scarcity, as well as a lack of resources and housing. So the question is: why build houses for artists? And most of all: how does this low rise, low density housing make sense in a time that was characterized by the opposite?


Artist housing in Norway after WW2

Trygve Nilsen, “the father of the Oslo Housing and Savings Society (OBOS)”  took the initiative to build the first Norwegian artist housing with public support. His inspiration to do so came from the Danish artist city Artisthusene in Utterslev Mose, Copenhagen (1940).

After the liberation in May 1945, kulturgruppa wrote a letter containing the following demands: first, to protect cultural carriers and second, better housing for intellectual workers. This could have influenced the building of artist housing in Norway.

An earlier example for artist housing in Oslo is Ekely, which was built in the 1950s consisted of 44 houses. Edvard Munch famously lived there and, in his will, left 20 million NOK to the kommune to build artist housing that would fulfil his “dream of belonging to a community for artists.”1

Boligsaken: The Housing Cause

After WW2, demographic change and a growing social awareness resulted in a political and architectural interest to provide affordable, hygienic, and comfortable living space to the growing urban population, especially the working class.

                                  1 (Bøler 1957)                                                                                2 (Bøler 1980-85) 

Before WW2, a cooperative investment project called egne hjem (homestead) was realized. After the war, these were replaced by cooperative organizations which were formed to finance and build large-scale residential complexes. They set standards for housing, hired architects to design solutions and contracted to have them built. This resulted in entire drabantbyer, or satellite cities, being built in the outskirts of Oslo.2

The land of farmers was expropriated to provide space for new building sites. In just a few years, more than 10,000 people moved to Bøler. As with many satellite cites, it was soon characterized by high rise, high density buildings. Bøler was known as a modern district with water closets and good light and air conditions—everything that the modern man desired.3

Light, Air, Sun For Everyone

Dark, narrow buildings, smoking stoves, large families crammed together in tiny spaces, and communal toilets in the backyard were the typical conditions of a city dweller at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, the urgent housing issue was preoccupying visionary urban planners and architects across Europe, such as Le Corbusier and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

                   3 (Bølerlia 1956)                                        4  (Bølerlia 1957)                                             5 (Bølerlia 1959)

The idea was to make light, air and sun for everyone” accessible – good architecture at the lowest cost and in the shortest time possible.4

This period also led to an increased awareness of the residentsphysical and emotional needs in Norway. As mentioned, satellite cities were built in the outskirts of Oslo. The relationship to nature and, importantly, the view from your own home into nature, was decisive.

Large apartment buildings were oriented to provide sunlight to the residents, as natural light was now considered an important factor in wellbeing. The apartments were ideally oriented with the kitchen facing east, for morning light, and the living room to the west, for evening light. Main features of the buildings were large windows and balconies.

The idea of collective living and the importance of community were also integrated in these modern high-rises. Conversely, privacy was another important aspect – providing separate sleeping quarters for parents and children. Most buildings also had a limited number of apartments adjoining each staircase. In your own apartment, you should feel as if you were in your own home with a view of the countryside.

The result of these ideas were often monolithic, homogenous, high-rise-high-density apartment complexes, made out of concrete.5

And Trolltun Borettslag?

Trolltun Borettslag is located in the eastern part of Bøler, framed by trees, and also using wood framing. The area consists of five rows of houses with a total of 32 artist apartments.

                                                                                            6 (siteplan Bøler)

Every apartment has three to four rooms (69-85sqm), a studio (29-34sqm), and a laundry and drying room in the basement with additional cellar spaces.6 

                                                                                              7 (groundfloor + section)

How can these small wooden row houses be understood in this period? At first glance, the tall concrete blocks and the low wooden houses appear as opposites – the materiality, size, form, expression, and number of residents could not be any more different. 

                                                                                        8 (sykline Bøler)

But do they really have nothing in common? 

The architect of the artist housing, Helge B. Thams, was also strongly influenced by the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) – the idea of creating buildings without chic, without decoration. Yet Thams wanted to reference Norwegian building traditions.7


                                                                                          9 (north facade)

Rationality, a direct relation to nature, adjustment to the environment, and the natural use of materials were the main goals. The outer walls were constructed of wood, with mineral wool mats and external wood paneling.

A strong sense of privacy was established by the rowhouse design. Each unit had a private entrance, private garden, and separated rooms for specific functions. 

                                                                  10 (nature)                                                                                  11 (privacy) 

The artist houses needed large studios with natural light. Due to their need large spaces, artist housing was costly and often became too expensive for the artists they were meant for. To avoid vacancy, the Oslo kommune found a financial alternative, where the artists would pay with works of art instead of money. 

To lower the cost of Trolltun Borettslag, the planned balconies were not built. The use of wood, a relatively cheap building material, also helped keep the tight budget.8

As in the skyscrapers, the rowhouses are about community. It was thought that the artists should have the feeling of belonging there. The high and low rise buildings share a number of goals, but the means of achieving these goals are very different.

Not only is the supposed outcast, Trolltun Borettslag, more like his neighbours than expected, but it was also ahead of its time. In 1973 the Norwegian parliament recommended building small residential houses again instead of large apartment blocks.9

              12 (atelier)                                       13  (construction)                                               14 (community)

Photos / Illustrations
Featured image: Nina Schyberg Olsen
1. photographer: Widerøes Flyveselskap / Tveit-Hansen. (20.09.2021)
2. photographer: -. (20.09.2021)
3. photographer: Dagbladet. (20.09.2021)
4. photographer: Delphin, Rigmor Dahl. (20.09.2021)
5. photographer: Teigens Fotoatelier, (20.09.2021)
6. Katharina Wiedwald
7. Katharina Wiedwald
8. Katharina Wiedwald
9. Helle Benedicte Berg. Kunstnerhus - Trolltun borettslag 1959-2009 - historien til kunstnerhusene på Bøler. (Oslo: Gaidaros, 2009), 49
10. Berg. Kunstnerhus - Trolltun borettslag, 42 
11. Berg. Kunstnerhus - Trolltun borettslag, 73
12. photographer: Marius Wang
13. photographer: -. (20.09.2021)
14. Berg. Kunstnerhus - Trolltun borettslag, 92

1. Helle Benedicte Berg. Kunstnerhus - Trolltun borettslag 1959-2009 - historien til kunstnerhusene på Bøler. (Oslo: Gaidaros, 2009), 33-36
2. Ulf Grønvold. Hundre års nasjonsbygging: arkitektur og samfunn 1905 - 2005. Oslo: Pax forlag, 2005
3. Berg. Kunstnerhus - Trolltun borettslag, 36
4. Christina Petrick-Löhr. "Licht, Luft und Sonne für ALLE!", Die Welt, January 10, 2019. (09.11.2021)
5. Tassilo Letzel. "Le Corbusier. 5 x Unité d'Habitation", baunetz, October 9, 2019. (8.11.2021)
6. Berg. Kunstnerhus - Trolltun borettslag, 48
7. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Neue Sachlichkeit",
8. Berg. Kunstnerhus - Trolltun borettslag, 34
9. Wikipedia. "Norwegian Architecture", (08.11.2021)