Harder stuff. Løvaas & Wagles decoration of the opera house at Bjørvika

Essay by art historian Jarle Strømodden.

Catalog text for retrospective exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway, 2008. Published with the permission by the author.

The commission

In 2002, Norway’s Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs appointed a special committee to develop a general plan for public art works to adorn the new home of the Norwegian National Opera that was being built at Bjørvika in Oslo. The building’s architects, the firm Snøhetta, wanted to find a solution that would allow these public art works to be treated as integral features of the building. In 2003, Løvaas & Wagle were commissioned to design a surface covering for sections of the building’s facade. This commission would involve close cooperation with the architects from the conceptual phase through to completion. The aim was that the decorative art work should reinforce the architectural statement.

The sections of the facades to be covered were at street level, on the fly tower, the tecnical rooms at roof level, and the workshop complex. Statsbygg, the state building authority, in conjunction with Snøhetta, issued technical specifications for the commission. The artists would have to work with grey, anodized, aluminum panels, which should be perforated. Each panel would measure 60 x 360 cm. The panels would be mounted horizontally on a skeleton that would hold them 30 cm away from the underlying building structure. The total surface area to be decorated in this way amounted to some 6,000 m2. The idea behind the perforations in the panels was to let in light and air. The number of holes, their size, and the distances between them on each panel could vary. The other materials of the facade were white, Italian marble and glass.

The proposal

When Løvaas & Wagle mounted their solo exhibition ”Tepper” (Tapestries) at Kunstnernes Hus in 1995, the institution’s director at the time, Åsmund Thorkildsen, wrote in his catalogue essay that Løvaas & Wagle regard themselves primarily as textile artists. It is worth noting that, ten years on, and with the very different challenges of the opera house project now behind them, it is still the materials, techniques and problems of textiles that constitute the starting point for their work.

Confronted with the challenge of the opera house commission, Løvaas & Wagle chose to draw on textile traditions in their search for a composition for the perforated panels, More precisely, they based their design on a binding pattern for woven cloth, which they found in the Norwegian Home Crafts Association’s Håndbok i veving (Weaving Handbook), 9th edition, published in 1951. This binding pattern has traditionally been used in the weaving of household textiles, such as towels or kitchen cloths. In their project description, the artists suggested a kind of a modular system that uses eight variables derived from this binding pattern. The same pattern, using the same variables, would be repeated across large expanses. The distance of the viewer from the facade, together with changing light conditions, would combine to create a visual dynamic in the building’s vertical surfaces. Although the panels were meant to be perforated – to allow in light and air – variation would still be possible on different sections of the building. Differences in the size of the holes would contribute to the visual dynamic. At the time of writing their project description in August 2003, the artist’s ambition was for the pattern to be more or less discernable from a distance, such as from Ekebergåsen.

The problem

It turned out, however, that the technical specification drawn up by the building authorities could not be met. It was noticed, by the building authority and others, that the perforated panels would generate undesirable noise in unfavourable wind conditions, which might in turn disturb performances inside the building. Tests carried out by Byggforsk, a branch of the SINTEF research institution, found that the problem could be overcome by making larger holes. But this created new difficulties: the panels would then let in rain, leading to humidity problems.

”Rip it up, and start again”

In autumn 2004, it became clear that Løvaas & Wagle would effectively have to start all over again. In this period they experimented with the possibility of quite literally weaving the panels, which would give the facade a conspicuously wavy appearance due to the interaction of concave and convex surfaces.

The question was, what should they do now that the original plan could not be realised? This was doubly challenging for the artists, since the commission had originally specified the use of perforated panels. In short, they found the key to a new solution in a marble sculpture by Alberto Giacometti. The square surface of this unassuming sculpture was embellished with four points, two of them concave and two convex.

By embossing the panels with concave dimples and convex bumps the artists could still use the binding pattern they had found in the handbook on weaving. In other words, they had not ”lost the thread”. What remained to be done was to find the best size for the dimples and bumps in order to obtain the desired effect, which was for the pattern to emerge when viewed from a distance.In the final design for the panels, the weaving pattern is translated into a regular series of round hollows and domes. More specifically, each concave dimple or convex bump in the panels corresponds to one point in the chosen binding pattern where, in a woven cloth, the warp and weft threads would cross. This principle is used consistently, with slightly smaller dimples than bumps. From a distance these details are hard to discern, yet they are essential to the visual effect.

It might seem incidental that the final solution involved embossing rather than perforating the panels. Yet it is intriguing to note how, by means of this slight change, Løvaas & Wagle resolved the problem of form and function.

Public art or decoration?

One question that arises is whether this commission should be described as public art or architectural decor? Løvaas & Wagle’s creation is strikingly different from the public art works by, for example, Terje Uhrn for Regjeringskvartalet, the government’s administration complex, or Anne-Karin Furunes for the underground station at Nationaltheatret (also metal panels). What Løvaas & Wagle have produced is more reminiscent of architectural decor, although this should be understood in the best sense og the word. Something similar can be seen on the facade of Oslo’s Tinghuset, or on the exterior of Oslo Spektrum. These facades have the appearance not of public art in the conventional sense, but of integrated decor.

The visual

The visual aspect is interesting because it is only from close up that one discovers the work (although the question is, of course, should one regard it as a ” work”?). The decor and the building are mutually complementary; they give each other other scope and are inseparably linked. In addition to being decorative, the aluminum panels also serve a practical function; they cover the facade and protect the main structure of the building. Interesting in this respect is that both architecture and utility textiles have traditions in which aesthetic choises have had to be combined with and adapted to functional considerations. As we have seen, in this case Løvaas & Wagle chose to base their work on a binding pattern typical of utility textiles.

When looking at the opera house from a distance one sees its walls, its tower and a variety of surface materials. It is only when one gets up close, either at street level or on the roof, that the decor becomes evident. Admittedly, this assumes one knows that what one is looking at is the result of conscious artistic choice – that the embossed aluminium panels are intended as decor. And this is why I mention Tinghuset and Oslo Spektrum. Since all three buildings are fairly monumental, it is all to easy to overlook their surface decor, unless one reminds oneself – or is reminded – of it. In the case of the opera house it was Snøhetta’s wish that the public art commission should be integrated into the building’s overall visual appearance.

The intellectual

We can view the intellectual aspect of Løvaas & Wagle’s creation as a supplement to the visual aspect. This suggests a number of ways of viewing the work. When studying an artwork, or different examples of architecture, it is always interesting to notice the references that emerge. In simple terms, Løvaas & Wagle’s contribution to the exterior of the opera house prompts associations on many levels: Braille, textiles, tactile qualities, geomtry, digitalisation, repetition, and minimalism – to mention just a few.

First in the above list is Braille, and not just because that’s where it belongs alphabetically. Løvaas & Wagle’s embossed aluminium panels resemble text fragments written in Braille. The similarity is only superficial, yet there is still a point of contact between the artist’s experience with textiles and the tactile premises of the writing system used by the blind. Just as Braille presupposes touch, the facade of the opera house invites us to touch it. But although the latter is accessible to both sight and touch, no specific meaning could be read from it.

Another aspect of this decor is that it combines the old and the modern. The facade is digital in its visual expression. Even the most complex structure can be reduced to the simplest of units. Grossly simplified, a computer program consists of 1s and 0s, Løvaas & Wagle’s aluminium panels are covered in dimples and bumps. The dimples are of a smaller diameter than the bumps – thus the two forms correspond to 0s (dimples) and 1s (bumps).

As mentioned, the modules employ eight variables that are repeated to create a pattern. The principle of repeating identical units is familiar not least from minimalism. But in this case the minimalism is one of form rather than content. The decor and the building complement one another, in addition to which the panels serve a purpose that is more than merely self-referential.

As for the remark that no specific meaning can be read from the pattern on the aluminium panels, this is not entirely true. Just as Braille can be read by those who know that system of symbols, the pattern on the facade can be read by anyone who knows their textiles.

An expansion of the field

The way Løvaas & Wagle have solved the challenge to create a public art work for the new opera house at Bjørvika is both fascinating and impressive. They have met the challenge by combining their knowledge of the field of textiles with technology; a combination of manual and mechanical disciplines.

As we saw at the beginning, Løvaas & Wagle have roots in the tradition of textile art. For the opera house commission they have had to contend with harder materials, but the principles on which they have based their work in this case are partially the same as those they have used in their earlier tapestries and textile objects. Løvaas & Wagle’s contribution to the opera house does not break boundaries so much as expand them. By challenging themselves, the artists have succeeded in challenging the field in which they usually work in a way that develops and enlarges it.

When the new Norwegian National Opera opens its doors to the public this spring, it will be possible to wander arund the building and to observe its surfaces, with their play of light and shade. This too will involve a challenge, since the artist’s contribution is clearly dependent on the viewer’s participation. The artist’s solution to the task they faced and the way it will be experienced will depend on proximity or distance, in other words, on where one happens to be standing. For us as viewers this means we will be dealing with time as movement and experience.

What has to be emphasised is that the exterior of the opera house possesses both visual and intellectual qualities, along with a kind of subtle monumentality. And supposing one could overlook the architecture, one could also say that Løvaas & Wagle have transformed the building into a sculpture.


Translation: Peter Cripps


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