Mitter Lund’s 1745 map of Christania

Mitter Lund's 1745 drawing of Christiania and Oslo (Gamlebyen)
Mitter Lund’s 1745 drawing of Christiania and Oslo (Gamlebyen)

One of the best overviews of Danish-era Christiania is Mitter Lund’s 1745 drawing of the city as seen from Ekeberg. While other, often Romanticist-influenced representations of the city over-exaggerate the terrain of the surrounding hills or the heights of the fortress and church towers, Lund’s drawing presents a view of Christiania which, to my mind, best captures the city as described by the records and travel accounts of the time.

The drawing’s full title is “Prospect af Aggershuus Festnings, Christiania Byes og Opsloe Forstads Østre Siide, optaget ved Eegeberg udi Opsloe og forfærdiget udi Aaret 1745 af Mitter Lund”, and can be translated as “View of Akershus Fortress’, Christiania City’s and Oslo suburb’s eastern side, as drawn from Ekeberg in Oslo and completed in the year 1745 by Mitter Lund.” The work was widely distributed in the 1891 edition of Det gamle Christiania: 1624-1814 by Ludvig Daae, and what few framed prints exist seem to have been removed from copies of this book.

The 1891 edition of Ludvig Daae's book Det Gamle Christiania. Though there are several versions of the book, Lund's drawing only appears in the 1891 edition.
The 1891 edition of Ludvig Daae’s book Det Gamle Christiania. Though there are several versions of the book, Lund’s drawing only appears in the 1891 edition.

A high-quality scan can be found here:

Large version of Mitter Lund's drawing, compiled from three different scans
Click above for a large version of Mitter Lund’s drawing, compiled from three different scans

Various elements are labeled, numbers for sites in Christiania and letters for those in the old city of “Opsloe”. If you have difficultly reading the map itself, a transcribed list of sites can be found here.

Starting from the left, the striking white walls of the fortress seem to gleam in the sun, a stark contrast to the bare red and orange brick visible today. To the left the low buildings of the eastern fortress, many recently constructed, can be seen. Today this area is home to the Ministry of Defence and the docking point for ferries to Denmark.

Moving right we see the city of Christiania,  over 120 years old at the time of drawing. Several important buildings are labeled, including the City Hall (2), the Latin School (4) on Dronningens gate,  and the town church (9).

Vår frelsers kirke

Oslo Cathedral, which at the time was known as Vår frelsers kirke (Our Savior’s Church), can be seen with its original low tower. The tall bell tower we see today, as well as the surrounding  shopping arcade, were added in the mid-1800s. Another sketch of the church’s design in the 1700s can be seen here.

One interesting note is the inclusion, off on Hammersborg hill, of Christ Church. This served as Christiana’s first house of worship before the Holy Trinity Church on the main square was completed in 1639. Tiny Christ Church, which gave its name to today’s Christ Graveyard (Christ kirkegård), was torn down only 11 years after Lund made this drawing, making this likely one of the last depictions of the building. Though the level of detail is low, it still gives us a sense of the church’s setting, outside the town, nestled quietly  among the trees on a lonely hill above the buildings and the bay.

Christ Church on the hill outside Christiania, where Deichman Library is today.
Christ Church on the hill outside Christiania, where Deichman Library is today.

Squint and you’ll notice the tiny detailed logs sitting on the harbor, awaiting transport, most likely to England. These were in fact stacked several meters high, often towering over the people working on the Bjørvika docks among the “city of timber”.

The Tukthus, or prison, is clearly visible (13) in the eastern stretches of the city, dominating the surrounding skyline. From this drawing it’s easy to understand why Karl Johan, upon first visiting the city following the dramatic events of 1814, mistook the prison for the place.

The prison rising about the city on the left and Oslo Ladegård, with the grey roof on the right. In the distance is (Old) Aker Church
The prison rising above the city on the left and Oslo Ladegård, with the grey roof on the right. In the distance is (Old) Aker Church

Old Aker Church (14) can be seen on its isolated hill in the distance. Lund’s work unfortunately fails to capture the details of the surrounding farms and pastureland, but still allows us to see  how remote the church remained from the city itself well into the 18th century.

Though the town of Christiania is well-established at this point, we can see that the old area of Oslo was by no means “abandoned”, despite this being the word often used to describing the transfer of the population from Oslo to Christiania. Several homes still remain, as well as Oslo Hospital (d), the stately Ladegård (f), the barely-visible ruins of St. Hallvard’s Cathedral (h), and the Bishop’s house (i).

Several copies of this printing can be found in collections around town, and some have been framed and put up for display, though up to now there was no good copy of the map online. Given the uniqueness of Lund’s work, in both time and perspective, it only seemed right to have to it available online for everyone to examine and enjoy.

The Old Border Stones

I recently moved from downtown Oslo out to Nydalen, which involved a lot of driving back-and-forth along Geitmyrsveien in the St. Hanshaugen area. After several long red lights the intersection of Geitmyrsveien and Ring 2, I noticed a small stone wedged at the bottom of a light pole, with something carved on the face. Finally I stopped and walked over to take a look at the thing.

The front side of the stone The back side

It turns out that this is an old border stone demarcating the 1878 boundary between Christiania and Aker herred (read more about herreds here). Aker herred was basically the area surrounding Christiania, and its boundaries correspond with the modern borders of Oslo, stretching from the Lysaker River in the west to Groruddalen in the east, and from the northern reaches of Nordmarka down to the southern edge of Nordstrand. Aker herred was traditionally the farmland for the city, providing food and supplies for the urban residents and, most importantly, the garrison at Akershus Fortress. The massive expansion of the city in the 1800s meant more land had been taken away from the herred for Christiania, and over the 19th century more and more of the farms and løkke, or pastures, became developed urban areas (which is why so many areas of the city have “løkke” in their name).

To get a sense of the city’s expansion, take a look at two maps: First, this map depicts the city’s limited size in 1830, while this 1860 map (split into two images on the city archive’s website) shows the massive growth that had occurred over just 30 years, especially to the north. As this tide of outward expansion continued, it was decided in 1878 to set up a series of markers clearly indicating where the city stopped and the herred began. 81 stones were placed on the border, with a “K” on one side for Christiania (which was sometimes spelled “Kristiania”) and an “A” on the other for Aker herred. The stones were numbered as well – the one I came across, as you can see, is #70.

Some of these stones can still be seen today, often in their original location. There are a few good guides for finding them, though they are all in Norwegian. First check out for their entry on the stones (this Norwegian-language website is an amazing resource in general for information about Oslo and Norwegian history, and in terms of public wiki sites it often surpasses the information available on the Norwegian Wikipedia). Second, go to this page for a detailed list of each of the 81 stones and their current status today.

In 1948 Aker herred was completely absorbed into Oslo, giving the city its present size and shape. The inconspicuous stones are now all firmly within the city, and are often slightly hidden, like the #70 stone above, in small corners where they’re easily overlooked. A walk along the old border, looking for the stones along the way, would make for a great day hike around the city, and I hope it’s something I can find time to do before the snow sets in…

The sun’s setting earlier every day…
With that in mind, be sure to enjoy the fall foliage and crisp days while they last, and have a good høstferie!

Oslo’s Hidden May 17th

May 17th is Norway’s Constitution day, a day for bunads and flags and kids parading up and down Karl Johan street while the Royal Family tries to not strain their wrists during four straight hours of hand-waving.

There are some smaller celebrations, though, that are easily overlooked. NRK doesn’t film these acts of remembrance – only those few who gather together in the early morning hours (and in the case of this year, brave the morning downpours) can see and be part of these ceremonies.

May 17th isn’t simply a day of parades and fancy clothes, but is also a time to recall what made Norway the place it is today. There are a number of Norwegians who have had a profound impact on the country, and through their acts the country was reshaped, sometimes radically and sometimes violently, into the form we are all familiar with. Most of these names are now confined to history books and wouldn’t be recognized by most Norwegians, but fortunately there are a few who still take the time once a year to give these great men of Norway’s past the recognition they deserve.

This May 17th I was able to attend two such ceremonies, one for the man who helped to create a modern Norwegian identity, and another who defended Norway’s constitution on the battlefield, and in the process set the groundwork for Norway’s ultimate independence.

 The crowd at the rainy remembrance ceremony for Henrik Wergeland at Vår Frelsers Graveyard

The first ceremony, which was fairly well attended, was at the grave of poet Henrik Wergeland. This is quite fitting as Wergeland was a major proponent for holding celebrations on May 17th. There had been annual commemorations of the date that the constitution was ratified on since 1814, but they were rather small affairs. Nevertheless, the celebrations caused concern for the Swedish-Norwegian king at the time, Karl Johan, who in 1828 prohibited any patriotic songs or speeches on May 17th.

When the next Constitution day came around in 1829, a number of Norwegians in Oslo (Christiania at the time), led in part by Wergeland, celebrated anyway. Swedish troops attacked and began to beat the Norwegians while they were gathered on Stortorvet, just in front of the cathedral. Though the patriotic demonstration was broken up, Wergeland used the event and its aftermath to further push for May 17th to be a day of commemoration of the constitution. Karl Johan relented and revoked his prohibition, after which the size and scope of May 17th celebrations continued grow across Norway.

 The crowd listens as a speech about Wergeland is given

The remembrance ceremony at the graveyard is lead by Oslo’s Jewish community, as a way of giving thanks to Wergeland’s efforts on behalf of Jews in Norway. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first Norwegian constitution prohibited Jews from living in the country. It was only after several decades of effort, in a large part spearheaded by Wergeland, that the constitution was amended and a Jewish community could grow in Norway.

A even lesser-attended ceremony is in a small graveyard behind Deichman Library. Known as Christ Graveyard, it was established following a massive outbreak of plague in Christiania in 1654. Several notable people were buried here over the next two centuries, such as Edvard Munch’s parents and his sister, who died as a teenager (she was the model for several of his paintings, such as “The Sick Child“).

On May 17th, all attention in this graveyard is focused on a impressive grave near the back gate. A tall granite obelisk, it has a handsome profile of a man without whom Norway as we know it today might not exist. That man is Andreas Samuel Krebs – “The Hero from Matrand”.

 A close-up of Krebs’ grave monument

The general story of Norway in 1814 is sadly not presented in any good English-language book. With the 200th anniversary of the events 1814 just two years away, I hope this unfortunate situation will be remedied soon. For the time being, if you are not familiar with the rather epic story of the creation of Norway’s constitution and its brief struggle for independence, you can read a quick summary here.

The initial push for independence that year culminated in the constitution being signed on May 17th, 1814. This document called for radical changes to the way governance was carried out in Norway, most importantly through the creation of the parliament, the Storting.

Norway, however, had little outside support in their push for independence, and the Swedes, who had been promised Norway by the European powers, were eager to collect their prize. In the summer of 1814 Swedish troops crossed into Norway, lead by Karl Johan. The understanding was that Norway was not destined to be a true co-equal in a union with Sweden, but would rather find themselves as the much lesser member, functioning more as a Swedish province, in much the same way as Norway had been a de-facto Danish province since the Reformation. This new constitution and Storting were not to be tolerated, and the Swedish forces were there to crush any aspirations of independence once and for all. For the Norwegians, it was not enough that they had created their own constitution – now they had to defend it.

This task fell in part to Krebs, a major in the Norwegian-Danish army who threw his lot in with the Norwegians in 1814. In two battles on August 2 and 5 he first stopped and then routed the Swedish forces advancing on Kongsvinger. These victories were the moral boost Norway needed, and the successful tactical retreat by the Norwegian army a few days later at Langnes further drove home the fact that the Norwegians were ready to defend the accomplishments of Eidsvoll. If the Swedes wanted to destroy the Eidsvoll constitution, they would have to fight their way across all of eastern Norway, a slow and costly proposition. Instead, Karl Johan decided to negotiate with the Norwegians. The peace treaty, known as the Convention of Moss, was a victory for the Norwegians (despite what modern Norwegian historians might say) in that it allowed them to keep their constitution and parliament. These would serve to greatly strengthen Norway’s position in the union with Sweden, and it lay the groundwork for the May 17th celebrations and subsequent growth of nationalism and identity in Norway over the next century.

Had the Norwegians lost at Lier and Matrand then the entire history of the Norwegian-Swedish union would have been much different, to Norway’s detriment. For this reason, and for his bravery as a solider, Andreas Krebs is remembered to this day in a Royal Guard ceremony every May 17th.

The Royal Guard in formation near Krebs’ grave in Christ Graveyard on May 17th

This ceremony this year was decently attended, given the relatively unknown status of Major Krebs (a status that is completely undeserved, considering his contributions to his country). I would estimate there were around 50 people or so in attendance, not counting the Royal Guard members. There were even several descendants of Krebs there, continuing to honor the memory of their ancestor. 
A wreath is laid on Krebs’ grave every May 17th

After giving a speech highlighting Krebs’ bravery and service and laying a wreath, a member of the Royal Guard salutes towards the grave

 Descendants of Andreas Krebs talking with a member of the Royal Guard after the ceremony
There are several other wreath-laying ceremonies around Oslo on May 17th, including one at the statue of King Haakon VII, the graves of Norwegian excited by Nazi forces during World War II, and the grave of Christian Magnus Falsen, who was instrumental in writing the constitution at Eidsvoll. The memorials by the graves of Krebs and Falsen are the only two events on May 17th which  commemorate someone directly involved in the events of 1814.

If you are interested in seeing more of May 17th in Oslo besides what happens on Karl Johan street, check the official May 17th schedule before next year’s events to see what is planned. It will be a worthwhile experience.

Eidsvoll: Under Construction

I had heard that plans were underway at the Eidsvoll Manor house to completely refurbish the place in preparation for the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution. If you’re not familiar with the name Eidsvoll, here’s a quick bit of background – the Eidsvoll Manor house, located about 20 minutes north of Gardermoen airport, is where an assembly of leading Norwegians meet in the early months of 1814 and drafted the Norwegian constitution as part of Norway’s push for independence during the Napoleonic Wars. The constitution was signed in this building on May 17, 1814, and is the same constitution still in use today (with some later amendments, such as changing the second paragraph which originally decreed that Jews couldn’t live in Norway – yes, it really said that). It is actually the second oldest constitution in the world after the American constitution. The date of the constitution’s ratification became Norway’s day of national celebration – May 17th.

Since I was going to the airport to pick up a friend, I decided to leave a little early to take a side-trip by this historic house and see how things were going. And right now the refurbishing is certainly in full swing…

 Eidsvoll Manor is now one massive construction zone

 This is what the building normally looks like:

And here is what one of the front wings looks like today:

It’s interesting to see the building in this state. With the paneling removed, you can see the actual timbers underneath, and gain a sense of the building’s construction and the construction styles of the period. For the time being the manor itself is completely closed. While I understand the desire to keep the public out, so that work can proceed quickly, there is a lost opportunity here. The reconstruction and refurbishment efforts would make an incredibly interesting exhibition in their own right, since this work gives us a rare opportunity to literally “see under the skin” of the historic building. But alas, all that can be done now is visit the small museum off to the side, with the usual exhibits on 1814.
 The backside of Eidsvoll Manor

Both the main house and the side buildings are being worked on

As I mentioned, this is all being done to prepare the building for a flurry of festivities (and a likely upswing in visitors) in 2014. One of the staff at the museum told me the focus now is on authenticity. Past refurbishments did not try to retain the specific appearance of the house from 1814, instead using general “period” furniture and wallpaper. As a result, the look of the 1814 interior has been somewhat lost. The hope is that once the current work is done, the inside of the manor will appear as near as possible to how it looked in those heady days of 1814, when the fate of the country was literally being decided within its walls.

If you live in Oslo but haven’t been to Eidsvoll Manor, you really should go – just not right now. While the museum is interesting, the real point of visiting Eidsvoll is to see the rooms where the historic events of 1814 actually occurred, which of course can’t be done at this moment. The house should (hopefully) be open again for visitors in early 2014, if not sooner, and once it is be sure to make a point to visit. In the meantime, check out the house/museum website at (English version here) to learn more about the events surrounding the creation of the constitution. It is actually a very gripping story, and I’m surprised that there is no English-language book focusing on 1814 in Norway (if there is one and I’ve missed it, please let me know). Read up and share some history with your friends this May 17th!

Here an Aker, There an Aker…

…everywhere we see an Aker. The name “Aker” is scattered around Oslo, from the Old Aker Church to Aker Solutions. It’s the name of the river demarcating the town’s (in)famous east-west divide, and Oslo City Hall is flanked by two Akers – Aker Brygge and Akershus Fortress. Beyond that, nearly all of Oslo is surrounded by Akershus county. Aker truly is everywhere.

A selection of some “Akers” in Oslo – clockwise from the upper left: Old Aker Church, Akershus Fortress, the Aker River, Oslo-based Aker Solutions, and Aker Brygge

The cold has kept me inside a bit more than usual, which means there is time for some research on the story behind Aker. For most historical inquiries about Oslo there are some standard sources to check first – Oslo Byleksikon, the Store Norske Leksikon, and articles from the Norwegian Wikipedia and the LokalHistorieWiki. The wikis can be a hit or miss, but in some cases there are amazingly detailed articles by people who clearly know their stuff. I also grabbed a few books from the Oslo University library (if you’re new in Oslo, go get a library card at the university library right away – it’s free, you can check out unlimited books, and they have a lot of new non-fiction publications in English, usually long before they would be available at Deichman).

As far as Oslo place names go, the general rule is to assume the name has something to do with a farm. “Løkke”, for example, which we see in names like Grünerløkka and Tullinløkke, means a paddock, where farm animals were kept. Nearly the entire Oslo valley was already filled with farms by the time of Viking era (c.800 CE), and these farm names (with endings like –løkke, –sted, or –gård) became neighborhood names as the city expanded out.

One of earliest of these farmsteads was actually called Aker Farm (Aker gård in Norwegian). The farm was probably around from the Iron Age, which in Scandinavia was from c.500 CE to c.800 CE. The name was about as unimaginative as could be – “akr was just a Norse word for field, so basically this was “field farm”. What Aker Farm lacked in creativity, though, it made up for in size – the large property originally stretched from the Aker river on its east side to today’s Bislett neighborhood on its west.  It was later divided into Lille (small) Aker and Store (big) Aker, with Bislet creek marking the border between the two. Bislet creek, after being hidden underground for years, is partly visible again running through the middle of Oslo Høgskolen on Pilestredet. 

Bislet Creek (Bisletbekken), frozen over at the moment, runs through the campus of Oslo Høgskolen before being routed through pipes, eventually emptying out into Pipervika. This served as the border between the two Aker farms.   
Researchers aren’t exactly sure where the main centers of these two farms were located, but it’s believed that Store Aker was around where Old Aker Church is today and Lille Aker was somewhere just to the north of today’s Hegdehaugveien, likely on Underhaugsveien. In the Middle Ages the farm belonged to Nonneseter Abbey, but was later transferred to Akershus Fortress and supplied the fortress with foodstuffs.
Looking down Underhaugsveien towards Bislett Stadium. Lille Aker farm was likely centered around here,
Speaking of which, how did the name of the farm end up in the name of the fortress? Well, south of Aker farm was an area known as Akershagen, meaning “Aker garden”, or “Aker yard”. This yard covered roughly the area from the Parliament building down to Akershus Fortress, and from Rosenkrantz gate over to Dronningens gate. At that time the shoreline of Oslo was much higher than it is today (the shore line has changed to its present location thanks to both post-glacial rebound and man-made expansions starting from the 1700s), and the small peninsula where Akershus Fortress is located today was much more narrow. Nearly the whole of entire peninsula was likely part of Aker yard. The yard itself was likely used as a grazing area for Aker farm up until the early Middle Ages, when it was acquired by the king. 
Even more Aker! This street, called first Akersgata and later Akersveien, runs from Akershus fortress up to Old Aker Church.
From this point onward the headland became an important site in Norwegian history, especially Norwegian royal history. The defensive capabilities of the headland, which was known as Aker headland (Akersneset in Norwegian – I’m not sure which was named “Aker” first, the garden or the headland) were recognized early on, and there was likely some kind of simple fortification on the headland during the Viking era. The area was used by several kings and nobles during the early Middle Ages, and was even the site of a battle involving King Sverre in the year 1200. The inital fortress as we know it today began to be built on Aker headland in 1299 under the reign of Håkon V, and was called the building (hus) on Aker, or Akershus. It would serve as both a palace and a fortress. Today, inn addition to being a popular tourist attraction, it continues to serve as the home of the Norwegian Defense Ministry. 

Akerhus Fortress, whose name ultimately derived from a farm. Seriously, almost all names in Oslo are somehow farm-based.

What of some of the other Aker names? Well, around the year 1100 a small stone church was built on a hilltop in Store Aker farm. The church was named after the farm and became known as Aker Church, though today we refer to it as Old Aker Church (Gamle Aker Kirke). At that time Store Aker farm lay in Oslo herred – the word herred here meaning roughly “hundred”, and served as an old system of organization in Scandinavia (you can read more about the herred system here). When the city of Oslo was established in the early Middle Ages, the large part of the herred that was not incorporated into Oslo proper was renamed Akers herred, after the church and its surrounding parish. Over the next 900 years Aker herred was gobbled up by the expansion of Oslo, bit by bit, until a sweeping reorganization in 1948 transferred the rest of the herred to Oslo proper. 
The Aker river was originally called the Frysja during the Viking and medieval periods. According to Gunnar Jerman in his book Akerselva – fra sagatid til opera (and retold here in Norwegian), this original name was done away with by a Danish bureaucrat. Writing in 1636 while stationed at Akershus fortress, the bureaucrat was unsure what the name of the river near the fortress was, and so simply called it Aggershuuses elv, or (as well would spell it today) the “Akershus River”. The name stuck, and over time this was shortened to simply Akerselva – the Aker river. 
    I wonder if at some point in the future there will be a movement to change the name back to Frysja, like there was to change Christiania back to Oslo.

The Aker river also was the namesake for Aker Brygge, in a roundabout way. An industrial company was set up in 1841 on the banks of the river near Øvre Foss, which at that time was still in Aker herred. The company incorporated the herred name into its name, calling itself Akers mekaniske verksted. This company, which got involved in shipbuilding, eventually moved to the city shoreline, directly across from Akershus fortress. The brygge, or wharf they built and worked at was named after the company – Aker Brygge. Though the company mostly left the area in the late 20th century, the name remained, and Aker Brygge became the snazzy dining and shopping locale we know today.
Aker Brygge, transformed from industrial work area to public relaxation space.

Finally, the Akers mekaniske verksted had another transformation to go through. In the mid 20th century Akers mekaniske verksted brought a number of other companies and became known as the Aker Group. It continued to grow and merge, buying shares in other companies, including Kværner ASA. These groups eventually evolved into Aker Kværner, before being renamed Aker Solutions in 2008. So, next time you stroll along Aker Brygge or the Aker river, view the harbor from Akershus fortress, or go to your job with Aker Solutions, remember – the names around you have a history and legacy nearly as old as Norway itself. 

Stockholm vs. Oslo – a comparison of contrasts

Over the holidays I had a chance to go to Stockholm for a few days. Last-minute trips are the only way I travel, but sadly the Oslo-Stockholm train was always booked weeks in advanced whenever I checked or way too pricey to even consider. Turns out, though, that few people take the train during romjul (the week between Christmas and New Years – yes, the Norwegians actually have a specific word for the week between Christmas and New Years), so I bought some tickets 8 hours before the train left, and off we went.

Stockholm is a nice town – not my favorite capital city in Europe, but definitely an enjoyable place to spend a few days. I had been anxious to see what this town was about since on more than one occasion a Norwegian had apologized for me for Oslo not being Stockholm. The conversations usually went something along the lines of:

Norwegian – “How do you like Oslo?”
Me – “Oh, I like it. It’s a nice city, and really beautiful with the water and nature so close”
Norwegian – “Yes, it is nice. It’s not Stockholm, though, sorry, but it isn’t bad”

So what does Stockholm have that Oslo doesn’t? First and foremost is the size – Stockholm is a BIG city – basically if you took every neighborhood in Oslo, made each of them into the size of all Inner Oslo, then mashed them all together, you get Stockholm. I felt like the country boy arriving in the big city from his local village after coming to Stockholm from Oslo.

The scale of building was much more impressive, too. This of course has to do with the very different history of the two places – Oslo was a sleepy provincial capital for much of it’s history, and even when they were building impressive structures, the Storting was consistently penny-pinching. The Royal Palace here in Oslo, for example, was originally going to be bigger with more ornamentation, but the Storting forced the architect, Hans Linstow, to scale down the designs. They even stopped funding the project for 10 years because of budget concerns, and the palace foundations just lay there for a decade. (considering some recent concerns over the cost to repair the National Theater, perhaps little has changed). None of this money-grubbing was going on in Stockholm – this was the capital of a imperial power in the 1600s and 1700s, and the government wanted everyone in town to know it. Many of the main buildings here – the palace, the riskdag (parliament), the national gallery – are massive in scale and dwarf their Oslo counterparts.   

And they had butter. Real butter. On store shelves. I wanted to take a photo, but that would have been a dead giveaway I was coming from Norway. 

I’m not pointing all this out to say one is better or worse. If anything, these differences simply highlight the two country’s contrasting histories and national characteristics (though, to Sweden’s credit, I do miss butter). My hometown in the U.S. of Portland, Oregon is actually in a similar situation with our larger neighbor – Seattle, up in Washington state. Seattle is the big city of the American northwest, while Portland, while is a decent-sized city in its own right, doesn’t reach the same hustling, bustling, “metropolis” level of Seattle. But that’s actually the reason why I like Portland a bit more than Seattle – that comfy, cozy feeling. Both Stockholm and Seattle are big, fun, and busy, but Portland and Oslo have that small-town feel which makes them both so easy to live in and enjoy.

Portland + Oslo = Small-town feel even in a (relatively) big city

So in that regard, going to Stockholm actually made me appreciate Oslo a bit more.

That was the positive. Now for the….well, not-so-positive. I found one major area where I will join the ranks of those saying “sorry, Oslo’s not Stockholm”. That area is historical preservation – Stockholm has done an excellent job of preserving the historical look and feel of it’s main areas. Oslo, on the other hand, is a mish-mash of architectural styles, and few areas have been preserved with any true historical feeling. 

For example, take our old town area – old Christiania (or Kvadraturen). Considering the size of the area, not a lot of the original buildings have been preserved (or restored in the original style), and those that do remain are not well kept-up. Instead of keeping the old-town look feel, both of the original 1600s town and the 1800s developments, the Kvadraturen is instead the place with empty streets, quiet offices, buildings with run-down paint jobs, and a place you don’t want to be at night unless you’re looking to pick up a “friend” for the evening. This is a shame, as the old town would be an ideal place for tourists and locals to gather. Just look at Christiania Torv, where the older look and feel is (somewhat) maintained – that is very popular in the summer. Go just a few blocks east, though, to the modern offices wedged between unkempt older buildings around areas like Bankplassen, and the Kvadraturen is often devoid of life.

 He’s often the only one around Bankplassen in the evenings

Now look at Gamlastan – Stockholm’s old town. The cobblestone-style streets have been preserved, the buildings are maintained in the traditional style, and there’s an attractive historical consistency to the area.

Note the lack of modern buildings in Gamlastan, part of what gives the area its appeal
In Oslo, on the other hand, we have our oldest standing building in old town surrounded by flat-looking office buildings.

Mid-17th century doesn’t fit in with late-20th century

Another example of excellent preservation is Gustav Adolfs Square on the Stockholm waterfront. Everywhere you look you can see the grandeur of imperial Stockholm. Most of the buildings are from the 1700s. The one newer addition, the Riksdag building dating from 1905, was built in the neo-baroque style to fit in with the other buildings.

 Gustav Adolfs Square, with its impressive (and still intact!) baroque buildings

Sadly this isn’t common in Oslo. There’s usually little effort for new buildings to “fit in” with the surrounding older structures (just think of Oslo S and the west hall vs. the east hall, as well as the design for the new station)

They don’t really go together, do they?
Even on a more “historical” square, like Stortorvet, there’s still a disconnect in the styles, with a blocky, unattractive grey building from 1971 on the west side. The buildings on that site before were of a similar style as the ones remaining on the south side towards Karl Johan street. This new building completely disrupts the general architectural atmosphere of the square. Why they old buildings were torn down instead of reused, I don’t know.

The 1971 building west side of Stortorvet – fortunately most people spend their time looking at the cathedral and have their backs turned to it

Stockholm does a much better job of preserving its older buildings and regulating the newer, larger constructions to their own area. Now, this isn’t a rallying cry against development – no city is stagnant. Development, however, should be carried out in partnership with preservation. In Oslo development and preservation seem to be constantly clashing foes, especially in the mid-20th century. There are some notable recent exceptions, such as the converted factories and mills around the Aker river, and hopefully this trend will continue.

So, to sum up – Stockholm trip, good fun. Stockholm is definitely the bigger city, but Oslo’s small character has its own special charm which I actually prefer to Stockholm’s busy streets. Oslo, however, doesn’t preserve its historical spaces as well. Hopefully in this one regard the Oslo city planners will take a lesson from Stockholm, because Oslo has a lot of interesting history – more so than most people who live here give it credit for – and it’s worth saving.