I have big expectations for the new SFMOMA expansion. A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to see first hand the work of the architects when I visited Oslo. I was so excited! It was an architecture pilgrimage. I dragged my poor dad across the city, and together we roamed around and over and throughout the Oslo Opera House. It was early summer of 2008, and my dad and I were just beginning our heritage tour, during which my dad would introduce me to places and relatives that he knew well. But on the first days of our trip, I was able to show my dad the things that excite and animate me in my work: good design, great art. This meant exploring Stave churches, museums and the opera house.
What makes the Oslo Opera House so unique and visually interesting is the seamless integration of art and architecture. Due to a art-sales tax, the architects were able to incorporate the work of several artists into the bones of the building. Four particular pieces shine bright.
Roof (2007). The building is like an iceberg that floats on the edge of the bay, with one lip emerging from the water and rising to large, monolithic structure. The first impressions of the opera house are from a small bridge, where you are above the water and the structure. Walking closer reveals a series of steps and shifts, that lead one up to the entrance, and also up and around the exterior, as if hiking a gentle glide. The floor is textured and patterned, and is the first art work that you will encounter. Because it is “art”, it does not need to conform to code, so the structure is steeply pitched, with short cuts and troughs. Its like climbing the slopes of the nearby mountains.
Facades (2007). Unexpected is the tessellated pattern decorating the exterior walls. What had appeared to be a solid surface, is in fact made up of punctured shapes, innies and outies, that the artists have compared to traditional Norwegian textile weaving. This helps to break up the monolithic surface of the exterior with texture and dimension. In person, the metallic woven skin provides detail and artistry that helps to humanize the large mass, much like the tile work on the sails of the Sydney Opera House.
Stepping inside, the lobby is a large, light filled space, and the space owes much to mid-century Scandinavian architecture. The vertical sticks, masterfully combined with intricate fasteners, also soften the large, imposing mass of the circulation leading into the opera house.
The other wall (2004 – 2008). A main fixture of the lobby is the free standing installation piece by Olafur Eliasson which in cases the coat check and bathrooms. A light-screen sculpture, the piece is composed of folded metal pieces whose size and shape shifts and stretches vertical. The entire screen is back lit with LED lights. The LEDs shift in tone from bright to soft green to white, and change over a 10 minute time frame. The color shift works with our sense of perception, and the screen appears to both advance and recede. The screen also calls into focus our attention, as few people will stop and stare for 10 minutes, but many people will do a double take: “I thought that was green!”; “where did that piece come from”. The hide and seek nature of this piece is an interesting addition to the space.
In contrast, the bathrooms are solid, dark and earthy. The resemblance to traditional nordic earthen structures was overwhelming.
MetaFoil (2004). Finally, the interior of the opera hall itself is composed of a striking moment. The curtain resembles crumpled tinfoil, but is in fact a flat woven textile. Well, it was a piece of crumpled tin foil on the artists kitchen table, which was photographed, manipulated, and eventually wove. I marvel at the intricate detailing that went in to making this “throw-away”, tromp l’oeile effect. First, the entire curtain is woven with matte cotton thread,with colors of white, grey and gold. It’s only the striking combination of these three colors that causes us to perceive many more colors. It appears to be made of metallic threads which are reflecting the colors of the main hall…colors meant to evoke the tomatoes thrown at the end of a bad show.
Clearly the architects are very talented, and have a good sense of fun. We are going to be very lucky if SFMOMA is even half as good.
David Bjorngaard, April 2016
Some images from Visual Art in the Oslo Opera House, Jørn Mortesen