Oslo, Norway

From afar, Snøhetta’s National Opera House for the Norwegian Opera & Ballet appears like a marble-and-glass iceberg floating in the eastern Oslo harbor of Bjørvika. The building brings to mind typological and urbanistic features of other, similar structures, from the grand staircase and sense of public areas of Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House (now Palais Garnier) in Paris (1875), to Jorn Utzon’s iconic soaring forms and civic plazas of the Sydney Opera House (1963–73) in Australia, and even the Foreign Office’s Yokohama Terminal roofscape [record, November 2002, page 142] in Japan. Closer to home, Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall in Helsinki (1971) and Henning Larsen’s static harborfront Copenhagen Opera House (2005) prompt further comparisons.

The National Opera House
Photo © Christian Richters

Snøhetta’s opera house makes the most of experiential qualities, as seen by Oslo residents frequently strolling across the dramatically sloped planes of its marbled roofscape. While fitting well into the low hills of its surrounding landscape on the Oslo Fjord, and already an invigorating urban presence in the quickly redeveloping Bjørvika district, the new opera house effectively symbolizes the creative aspirations of its occupants from the worlds of ballet and opera.

Not surprisingly, it took 10 years to plan, fund, and build the $750 million, 415,410-square-foot structure. In 2000, an international competition attracted 240 entries worldwide—the largest number ever for an open Norwegian competition. Therefore, Snøhetta’s selection was by no means predictable, despite the firm’s obvious national allegiances, knowledge of the site, and location of its office in Oslo.

As Snøhetta principal Craig Dykers maintains, the opera house is intended to be a monument of distinctly contemporary Norwegian character, one that actively engages both occupants and visitors on urbanistic and architectural levels. “It is a social monument,” he says, “a holistic experience where the memory of the object includes the journey as much as the destination.” In architectural terms, its civic aims are achieved through a highly intelligent resolution of conservative theater design, pragmatic spatial programming, a minimal palette of materials—and provocative external forms.

The Norwegian Opera’s director, Bjorn Simensen, wanted the new opera house to equal the best opera theaters in the world, providing necessary spaces for any scale of performance on its three stages. He also preferred the main theater to employ the traditional horseshoe plan. In addition, the opera house needed to accommodate not only opera and ballet performers but room for 600 employees in staging areas, workshops, rehearsal halls, and a ballet academy, not to mention administrative offices. Snøhetta arranged the auditoriums (and their attendant side and back stages) to be served by a broad internal service boulevard, labeled the “opera street,” and function as the major backstage thoroughfare as well as an effective fire and acoustic barrier. A battery of advanced staging technology—16 elevators, a rotating stage, side stages, and a background stage—surrounds the 1,360-seat main stage and the secondary stage, a flexible performance/events space seating 440. (A third theater is a black box that seats 190.) The programmatic separation is further indicated by the simpler orthogonal geometries of these rear volumes, and their more conventional facade treatments of aluminum panels and glazed openings. Despite the density of programmed interior space, however, Snøhetta’s design provides extensive natural light throughout these areas—most surprisingly, a large, open-air garden courtyard at the very center of areas serving staff and performers.