Oslo District Court Does Not Stop Demolition of Y-blokka

‘The state has gotten permission to exercise complete discretion in any planning case, and that’s scary’, says Gisle Løkken, president of the National Association of Norwegian Architects.

Gisle Løkken, president of the National Association of Norwegian Architects (NAL). Photo: Erik Burås

In February this year, the National Trust of Norway and the National Association of Norwegian Architects (NAL) filed a lawsuit against the Norwegian state. Pointing out case processing errors, they wanted the entire zoning plan and basis for the demolition of the Y-blokka complex rejected as invalid. At the end of March, the parties convened in the Oslo District Court to consider a temporary ban on the demolition given that the main proceedings in the trial are scheduled for the autumn. On 7 April, the Oslo District Court ruled that no such temporary ban will be issued.

“It is, of course, a very sad day. The fact that one of the country’s most important cultural monuments is managed in this way is a tragedy,” Gisle Løkken, president of the National Association of Norwegian Architects, told Kunstkritikk.

In a press release, the Oslo District Court wrote that it is not likely that the state zoning plan or framework permit, which forms the basis for the demolition, are invalid. The court considers the decision to be within the limits of the law and judges that the case has been correctly processed.

“The state has gotten permission to exercise complete discretion in any planning case, and that’s scary. This is a political decision that was made in 2014. Since then, all due process and planning work has in practice been abolished. As a democracy, we cannot live with having the state able to override planning processes. This is a critical issue,” said Løkken.

According to the newspaper Dagbladet, demolition can start on 15 April. Pål Weiby, who is head of communications at Statsbygg, Norway’s public-sector construction and property management advisor, told the newspaper that the demolition process has already begun, but nothing irreversible has been done. First of all, Statsbygg will secure and remove the sandblasted murals by Carl Nesjar and Pablo Picasso in order to integrate them into the new Government Quarter. Weiby estimates that the Y-blokka will be demolished “ten to twelve months” from now.

No shock to lose

“With this ruling, we can continue the efforts to build a new, open, and green Government Quarter. I am pleased with that, even if it means that the Y-blokka has to give way,” stated Minister of Local Government and Modernisation Nikolai Astrup in a press release.

Responding to the press release, associate professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design,

Even Smith Wergeland told Kunstkritikk that “right from the outset, the political processes have all been about removing the building without actually looking into what the building could have been used for.” As part of Superunion Architects, Smith Wergeland contributed to the exhibition We Are Living on a Star at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in 2014, with a project on reusing the Y-blokka. The project proposed opening up the area under the building and rehabilitating Arne Garborg’s Square.

Commenting on the current plan for the new Government Quarter, Smith Wergeland said that “much of the criticism levelled against the Y-blokka building is that it is too cramped, but the area will get even more cramped with the new government district, which is significantly larger in volume, and even if you remove the Y-blokka you’ll still face the same security dilemma as before.” He continued, “I don’t think it will be possible to create a vibrant, living urban space while also increasing the scope and scale of the buildings and retaining government functions that involve a lot of security measures in the centre of the city. That’s perhaps the one thing I’m most critical of.”

Smith Wergeland doesn’t think the conservation campaign has completely failed, however: “The politicians have stuck to their guns all the time, and whenever you struggle to preserve cultural heritage, you often lose, so that’s not very shocking. Concrete architecture of this kind struggles to achieve strong popular appeal. But the campaign has been active throughout the period, highlighting many different issues and angles that include the building’s cultural and historical value, the environmental aspect, the lack of genuinely democratic processes, and the question of participation. Over time, it succeeded in attracting quite a few people. You’ll have to go far back to find a rescue campaign that has aroused similar commitment.”

Løkken informed Kunstkritikk that the NAL and the National Trust of Norway are considering launching an appeal after Easter. As yet, main proceedings of the trial are scheduled for 25–31 August 2020. “We will have to consider whether there will be a trial in August, given that the building it’s all about is likely to have been demolished by then,” he concluded.

The Y-blokka building in the Oslo government quarter, circa 1970. Photo: Teigens Fotoatelier.