“Cathedral thinking” and the right to public space

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Ellen de vibe

Photo: Tone Skramstad Brække
Last April, Ellen de Vibe and four others chained themselves to the entrance of the Y-block government building to protest plans for its demolition.


The world today is unstable, unpredictable, and to some, unsafe. Political strife, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and COVID-19 have brought us new challenges. Sometimes, the city is not where people want to stay. Many of us have even enjoyed staying at home during the time of the coronavirus.

But in healthy times, cities are centers for exchange of goods, knowledge, entertainment, and transport. Human communication and cultural inventions, united in art and architecture, flourish in the city. 

However, as sociologist Saskia Sassen has shown, the urban fabric can become the object of global investments in which the economic value of sites and buildings, unfortunately, is more important than their actual use or aesthetics. Sociologist John Pløger has described how the essences of the urban experience are the concepts of closeness and distance, beauty, and the relationship between time and space. This creates both opportunities and friction. 

City planning and the architecture that it generates should therefore consider several things: 1) It should provide for proximity between familiar strangers, where people gathering together creates safety in the public realm. 2) It should help create informal community, which takes place through simultaneous, ordinary actions like shopping or traveling by public transport. 3) It should value the aesthetic communal experience, which occurs when we see each other in the public space. And finally, 4) It must consider the spatio-temporal experience of unplanned meetings between people.

Over time, the way city planners have fostered these values has changed. In the past, the public would visit local government offices in a very modest manner, asking if they could receive certain permissions, like buying a car or building a house. In the later part of the 20th century, public participation became more common. A city might consult users—for instance, residents in eldercare homes would be asked about what services they wanted—but the municipality still ultimately decided what services to provide. 

Today, the expectations of the public have changed. People expect to be listened to, to be involved, and to co-create their future.  When the City of Oslo carried out its “Car-free Livability Program” from 2016 to 2019 in the city center, different civic groups initiated voluntary activities like “toy-exchange days” and art performances. People, especially younger generations, stated that they own and have the right to use the public “city floor.”

Such temporary initiatives are not, however, enough to create a lasting, healthy city. We must also engage in “cathedral thinking,” the idea that human beings must develop common goals for a future that may not benefit us but will benefit our children or grandchildren. Just as cathedrals in the past were built over several centuries, construction of today’s public spaces will need to have the same time perspective. 

When the City of Oslo redeveloped the old harbor areas in Bjørvika, we designed streets and squares to provide “values of excellence” to the public at large. A 5.6-mile continuous and generous harbor promenade and 13 common spaces penetrating into the urban fabric, as well as public activities on each point of land and in each bay, provide us with such values. The design concepts for the individual plots of land have changed over time, but those public spaces have been kept up for two decades. Thus, inhabitants of the region today and in the future have an increasingly popular set of public spaces. This reflects the “cathedral thinking” of our time.

Public buildings, like the new Deichman library and the Munch Museum in Bjørvika, are also an important and symbolic part of the public realm. Often, older buildings also have great symbolic and functional value as part of our historic, urban identity. After the terror attack in Oslo in 2011, the federal government started to build new governmental buildings closer to the Storting building. Among the plans was to demolish the striking post-war “Y-block” of government offices, designed by architect Erling Viksjø. The plans ignited a huge civil disobedience campaign during the last five to six years to conserve the building. It’s concrete walls, embedded with Norwegian river pebbles (“naturbetong,” or “natural concrete”), also integrated art murals by Pablo Picasso and Carl Nesjar. The building also symbolizes the post-war Norwegian welfare state that we are proud of.

Different types of protest marches, art installations, and nightly surveillance of the demolition works have been carried out. On April 28, I and four other people (a small number because of COVID-19 limitations) chained ourselves to the entrance of the Y-block and the Ministry of the Interior Affairs building. After six hours, we were removed by the police, fined, and put in jail for a few hours. 

The demolition of the Y-block is now, as of Sept. 20, more or less completed. This mobilization to conserve meaningful art and architecture—from a retired head city planner, no less—reflects the importance of cathedral thinking for developing and maintaining the living, public realms in our cities.

The opinions expressed by opinion writers featured in “On the Edge” are not necessarily those of The Norwegian American, and our publication of those views is not an endorsement of them. Comments, suggestions, and complaints about the opinions expressed by the paper’s editorials should be directed to the editor.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ellen de Vibe

Ellen de Vibe is an architect and served as head city planner of the City of Oslo from 1998 to 2019, overseeing the development of Bjørvika, including the beloved Opera House, with its communal rooftop open to all, and Havnepromenade (Harbor Promenade) along the Oslo waterfront. She is an honorary member of the National Association of Norwegian Architects.