Adding Trauma to Trauma

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, preparations to tear down the iconic Y-blokka in Oslo continue. That can’t possibly be good for our democracy or our public health.

The interior of the Y-blokka, showing Pablo Picasso and Carl Nesjar’s The Seagull. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet/ Bjørn Winsnes (1969–70).

The resistance against tearing down the Y-blokka (Y-block) in Oslo’s Government Quarter is strong, having grown into an actual movement with its own signature colour (orange), its own pins, bags, cufflinks, and earrings. To date, more than 32,000 people have signed a petition against the demolition, and a number of protest rallies of varying scale have been held. Notably, there is great resistance to the plans among professional communities, specifically among artists, art historians, architects, and other cultural workers. The National Museum of Norway and the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter are among the institutions which have actively resisted the plans for demolition. In addition, the Byantikvaren (Oslo Municipality Directorate for Cultural Heritage) has appealed to the Norwegian parliament in front of hundreds of protesters. In mid-February, a large protest concert was held outside the Y-blokka, featuring Norwegian artists such as Lars Lillo-Stenberg, Ravi, Elvira Nikolaisen, and former Minister of Culture Åse Kleveland.

On 12 March, the National Association of Norwegian Architects (NAL) and Fortidsminneforeningen (National Trust of Norway) filed a civil lawsuit against the state, as represented by the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation. The lawsuit concerns the “invalidity of the state regulation plan and framework permit for the demolition of the Y-blokka.” Contrary to the government’s claims, the plaintiffs do not believe that a thorough process has been undertaken, ensuring that everyone has been heard. They express concern not only for Norway as a cultural nation, but also for the current state of its democracy and the rule of law. In a press release, attorney Berit Reiss-Andersen said the lawsuit points to “serious procedural errors and misuse of law in the planning process and decisions that underlie the demolition permit.” A court hearing is scheduled for 25 and 26 March, where the issue of a temporary injunction to stop the demolition of the Y-blokka will be addressed. A ruling is expected before Easter.

The iconic spiral staircase in the Y-blokka. The press has been denied access recently. Photo taken on 9 March 2020 by Mari Viksjø Grøstad, grandchild of the building’s architect Erling Viksjø.

Thus far, however, neither professional nor emotional arguments for the preservation of architect Erling Viksjø’s work have hit home. Despite being notified of an upcoming lawsuit, the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation, represented by Minister Nikolai Astrup, sent a letter to Statsbygg, Norway’s public-sector construction and property management advisor, dated 26 February, stating that Statsbygg could begin the process of preparing for demolition. Since then, a tall fence has sprung up around the building and Statsbygg has now presented some very intricate and resource-intensive plans on how it will carve out The Fishermen and The Gull, the two large Picasso works that are an integral part of the building, and which are, according to the overall plans, to be preserved and incorporated into a planned new government building.

According to the newspaper Aftenposten, Statsbygg estimates that it will take ten to twelve months to demolish the Y-blokka. No one knows how long we will have to live with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, but if some of the most pessimistic projections are to be believed, it may last about that long too. If the authorities actually complete the demolition of the Y-blokka during our current, highly exceptional times – a time so deeply infused with uncertainty and insecurity – they will truly be adding yet another trauma to the existing national trauma associated with the Government Quarter: the terrorist attack on 22 July 2011, in which eight people were killed by a car bomb before the terrorist went on, two hours later, to kill another sixty-nine people in a shooting massacre on Utøya Island, most of them young people. Many have pointed out that tearing down the Y-blokka could exacerbate that trauma because it can be seen to complete the destruction begun by the terrorist; they suggest that the building should be preserved as a memorial instead.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has closed down many companies entirely, Statsbygg is among those enterprises that are continuing their operations largely unaffected, with the exception of some additional infection control measures. In this context, it is treating the task of demolishing the Y-blokka as any other assignment. But this is not any old building site. The Y-blokka is of great symbolic significance, and the fight against its demolition touches on correspondingly grand issues concerning values and ethics. The Y-blokka is intricately linked to Norwegian cultural heritage and world heritage, architectural history, and art history; it is associated with Norwegian post-war democracy and the Gerhardsen era and, importantly, it was left virtually undamaged after the bombing in 2011. Moreover, the arguments against demolition are not just about preserving important cultural values, but also about environmental issues: it is more climate-friendly to restore the building than to build a new one.

Now that many are in quarantine, or even sick, and forming large assemblies is forbidden due to the danger of infection, opponents of the demolition plans are largely prevented from taking advantage of the last bastions of democracy: popular protests and civil disobedience. The opportunity to go out onto the streets and protest, to shackle oneself to buildings or equipment, to put one’s own body in the way of initiatives that are perceived as wrong or unjust, is a crucial part of a functioning democracy; such methods are also historically proven as very effective, and popular protest movements have driven much political change. Therefore, the current situation easily creates the impression that the state is taking advantage of current circumstances to forge ahead while its opponents are down. Tearing down the Y-blokka while a state of emergency is in effect and people are prevented from resisting will weaken public confidence not only in the authorities, but in democracy itself. Many will see the demolition of the Y-blokka as an act of betrayal in any case, but there can be little doubt that it will be even worse if the demolition goes ahead while the population is in such a vulnerable situation.

Perhaps the demolition can be postponed or at best stopped by means of the legal system, as the National Trust of Norway and NAL hope. But if the Norwegian authorities take democracy and public health seriously, they should at least give people peace of mind as long as the pandemic rages. If not, the new Government Quarter will stand as a deeper wound than even the fiercest opponents of the demolition could possibly have imagined.

Tone Viksjø, daughter of architect Erling Viksjø, photographed in the Y-blokka on 9 March 2020. Photo: Mari Viksjø Grøstad.