Gigantic exception to the no outward display of riches rule

Abu Dhabi Model Economies: As resplendent as Oslo's opera house is, it servers a practical purpose: the redevelopment of Norway's waterfront.
The Oslo Opera House is an architectural marvel and a safe place to put your hat. Vegard Giskehaug for The National
The Oslo Opera House is an architectural marvel and a safe place to put your hat. Vegard Giskehaug for The National

There are few outward signs of Norway's sudden wealth in Oslo.

Few cranes dominate the skyline, nor do tall towers pierce the clouds or large cars choke the roads. There has been much construction of shopping malls, but otherwise the landscape is much the same as it has been for 20 years, with the most popular transport via the trams that rumble up and down the hills.

No outward display of riches seems to be the Norwegian way.

At least, that is until you take a small ferry from Oslo's Aker Brygge. As you cross the corner to Oslofjord, there, suddenly rising from the sea like Atlantis, is a large marble and glass building shaped like a pyramid on the tilt. This is the Oslo Opera House, home to the country's theatre and ballet companies.

At the turn of the millennium, perhaps for once unshackled by guilt or restraint, the Norwegians agreed after a long debate in parliament to build a new theatre.

An international competition was held, with the Norwegian company Snohetta the winner. Building began in 2003 and finished four years later, ahead of schedule and 300 million krone (Dh205m) under the budget of 4.4 billion krone.

It is possibly the world's most accessible opera house - at least the only one whose roof I have ever walked over. It looks like it has been designed as a skate park or a place to re-enact that famous scene in The Italian Job, the film in which Minis are driven on the roof of the Fiat factory in Turin.

The opera house is all angles and marble, glass and aluminium and the architecture world liked it well enough to give it the 2009 EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture.

There are a number of cafes and restaurants at the opera house, and a splendid wavy wooden wall, but the real action is inside the theatre.

It shows Norway's democratic side that when you attend a performance there is no hat-check staff, but just a large storage area where you leave your overcoat and umbrella, both unlocked and freely available if anybody wanted to walk off with them - but of course nobody does.

The theatre curtain is so impressive that you almost don't want it to go up: it is like sheets and sheets of aluminium foil, cunningly folded to create the impression of 3D.

But all this cultural activity - there are also plans for a new Edvard Munch museum, a national museum and national library - is part of the redevelopment of the capital's waterfront.

"It's about time," says Erik Furu, the deputy head of mission at the Norwegian Embassy in Abu Dhabi. "Many museums in Oslo date either from the 1890s or the 1960s, and some of the art collections deserve new facilities that will also be new landmarks in the city.

"Norway is also very focused on its districts and isn't just spending money in Oslo. It wants to support livelihoods, both industrial and agricultural, in all parts of the country."

Norway is actively courting tourism, although none of the Gulf countries is considered a priority market. This is a pity according to Mr Furu, who thinks that both in summer and winter Norway has much to offer.

"It's exotic, especially if you come from the Gulf," he says. "There's a nice climate in summer and skiing in winter. There are some fantastic wooden hotels on the west coast, where they specialise in local gourmet food."

They are even building a beach in Oslo near the Aker Brygge, which might be challenging on a cold day, but sublime in the sunshine.

Published: August 29, 2011 04:00 AM


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