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Memory loss: post-terrorist sites in Norway

Concept sketches daniel libeskind architectural review

At sites of terrorist atrocities, buildings become much more than physical edifices, they encapsulate place-associations and entrench symbolic meaning

Societies are shaken by terrorist attacks and it has become conventional to memorialise in their aftermath. European policies responding to disaster have begun to address memorialisation as part of their humanitarian response strategy to terrorism. In September 2017, the European Parliament released a study entitled ‘How can the EU and the Member States better help the Victims of Terrorism?’. It identifies the need for commemoration services and memorials which demonstrate societal acknowledgement of the loss and trauma suffered by victims of terrorism. Similarly, Dr Anne Eyre provided the UK Government with policy guidance on humanitarian assistance after the London bombings of 2005. Commemoration and permanent memorialisation are advocated as important contributions to the psycho-social recovery of survivors and the bereaved.

From these reports, we can see that memorials are widely accepted as useful steps towards societal recovery after terrorist attacks. In Madrid, annual commemorations of the 2004 11-M bombings have become a focal point for political disputes between terrorism victims groups. Many protests have also beset 9/11 memorial sites in the United States. Family groups frequently protested against reconstruction plans for the Manhattan site – including the placement of human remains in the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the plans for a ‘Freedom Center’ on the site, and the requirement for a visitor entry fee. 

Oslo government terrorist attack y blokka architectural review

Oslo government terrorist attack y blokka architectural review

Source: Fartein Rudjord / AP / Shutterstock

Oslo government breivik terrorist target architectural review

Oslo government breivik terrorist target architectural review

On 22 July 2011, the Oslo government quarter was targeted by Anders Breivik

The raw sensitivity of these sites can make them susceptible to activism and protest from families’ organisations, local residents and campaign groups, as well as fake news sensationalism. Perhaps the most surprising episode of memorial contestation has arisen in Norway, where the national memorials to the victims of 22 July 2011 have been scrapped and the selection process restarted. In 2014, artist Jonas Dahlberg won the international design competition with Memory Wound, cutting an uncompromising 3.5m gash through the Sørbråten peninsula, which juts out towards Utøya from the mainland. Memory Wound achieved worldwide acclaim for its bold and unflinching confrontation of loss, horror and the irreconcilable memory of atrocity. 

Dahlberg’s memorial was cancelled in 2017. Local residents had been frustrated that they hadn’t been adequately consulted about the memorial, and felt the state had behaved ‘arrogantly’ by ‘forcing its way’ onto a piece of recreational land. The Workers’ Youth League (Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylking, or AUF), to which the attack’s young victims belonged, effectively ended the dispute by offering their ferry quay as an alternative site for the national memorial on which architects Manthey Kula and Bureau Bas Smets are now designing a new, very different memorial. By offering the ferry quay – a site directly connected to the events of 22 July – Jørgen Frydnes from the AUF felt that the authenticity of the place would relieve pressure on the design, enabling the construction of something low key and potentially more acceptable to the local residents: ‘It will be a more powerful place if you place it where it happened. You’re not going to create a new space for 22 July when you already have a place on the mainland, where Anders Breivik came to the island, where he parked his car, but also where a lot of the survivors came swimming towards’, Frydnes explains. ‘So this is already a place with historical relevance and historical significance.’

Memory wound jonas dahlberg sørbråten architectural review

Memory wound jonas dahlberg sørbråten architectural review

Source: Jonas Dahlberg Studio

The bold plans by Jonas Dahlberg for Memory Wound on the Sørbråten peninsula divided the island both physically and emotionally, with some locals seeing it as a violation of nature.

Auf dock manthey kula bas smets norway terrorist memorial architectural review

Auf dock manthey kula bas smets norway terrorist memorial architectural review

Source: Courtesy of Manthey Kula

The AUF proposed their ferry quay as a memorial site, on which Norwegian architects Manthey Kula and Bureau Bas Smets have designed a memorial

Martin Coward has explored the relationship between place and violence in his work on urbicide. Using Heideggerian thought on dwelling and the four-fold, he shows that when a place or building is attacked, its meaning (and thus our imagination of human dwelling and security) is destroyed. This is why terrorism targets symbolic locations (to generate a feeling of ontological insecurity in the audience), and why memorialisation has emerged as a response to terrorism. Memorialisation and reconstruction remake the site of insecurity and death as a place of resilience, fortitude and remembrance – reinstating their place within cultural and political imaginaries.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, to find that memory ‘sticks’ to buildings more strongly than to open space. Where buildings are symbolically overdetermined, unbuilt land is less likely to be imbued with place-meaning. When we are shaken by terrorist events, our memories and commemorative practices centre on the built environment. It is central to how we imagine our dwelling, and our commemorative imaginations are no different in this regard. 

‘It is perhaps unsurprising to find that memory ‘sticks’ to buildings more strongly than to open space’

This dynamic was demonstrated through two other architectural controversies after 22 July. Høyblokka and Y-blokka (the Highrise and Y-Block), two buildings in Oslo’s government quarter, were built in 1958 and 1969 respectively by Erling Viksjø. Høyblokka is a domineering concrete tower block, reminiscent of the UN tower in New York, the Modernist, Functionalist style speaking to pragmatic, sober and egalitarian values of the period, while the three concrete limbs of Y-blokka stretch around its feet. The two buildings are enlivened by Pablo Picasso’s innovative sandblasting of etchings, but these murals failed to integrate the government quarter buildings into the Oslo tourist trail. The disinterest in the site radically changed on 22 July 2011, when it was bombed by Breivik. In the subsequent five months, the buildings experienced a remarkable surge in symbolic value and place identity. The tower became the most frequently mentioned item in Norwegian online discussion of 22 July, according to the government property agency Statsbygg’s media analysis. And yet in 2012 the Norwegian government announced (given the excessive costs that would be incurred by repairing and modernising the buildings) that demolishing Høyblokka and Y-blokka would be a more cost-effective option, and make room for a modern replacement which would meet building codes. 

Y blokka terrorist norway architectural review

Y blokka terrorist norway architectural review

Source: Teigens Fotoatelier / Dextra Photo, Norsk Teknisk Museum

Erling Viksjø’s Modernist Y-blokka and the neighbouring high-rise Høyblokka

The decision radically underestimated the transformation of the buildings into national symbols in the months following 22 July. Memory ‘stuck’ to them. The majority of commentators documented in Statsbygg’s analysis argued in favour of keeping the buildings, lauding them as national symbols of Norwegian identity, values and history. Others highlighted that the site had become symbolic of the struggle between good and evil, and that demolishing it would complete the work of the terrorist. That ‘becoming’ was also recognised by the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments who, in 2013, argued that most of the symbolic value of the buildings had been attained after the bombing of 2011. 

In response to public criticism, the national government chose in 2014 to deviate from the ministerial plan (and protocols regarding the costs of building modernisation). Høyblokka was saved and became the centrepiece in new plans for a modernised government quarter. However, Y-blokka, adorned with the largest of Picasso’s murals on the site, still faces the threat of demolition despite continued public protest. The episode of architectural controversy surrounding the government quarter demonstrates the way that memory sticks to the built environment and precludes the easy demolition of structures which have taken on symbolic status after terrorism. The societal distress caused by terrorist attacks becomes associated with particular locations and structures within the built environment, because the built environment is central to our imagination of culture, purpose and human meaning. Even if a bombed location lacked a symbolic identity previous to attack, like the buildings in Oslo’s government quarter, terrorist atrocity can generate that place meaning for a structure. This makes it extremely difficult for governments to tear down sites of violence that could otherwise stand, or to memorialise at a distance from them.

Picasso murals høyblokka y blokka terrorist site norway architectural review

Picasso murals høyblokka y blokka terrorist site norway architectural review

Source: Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design

Despite Picasso’s murals, both Høyblokka and Y-blokka were slated for demolition until public outcry forced the government to reconsider razing the high-rise – Y-blokka remains at risk of demolition

Outside Oslo, another plan was made in 2013 to tear down a structure associated with the slaughter of 22 July. Two major concentrations of victims were found behind the pump house, and inside the island’s café building. Frydnes from the AUF and the Norwegian architect Erlend Blakstad Haffner (of Blakstad Haffner Arkitekter) have led the memorialisation and reconstruction of the island – and have been tasked with coping with the legacy of these buildings. 

Early plans for memorialisation and reconstruction on Utøya island (the ‘New Utøya’ project) responded to this visceral density of horror by deciding to tear down the café building. In its place, architecture practice Fantastic Norway planned to create new modern structures for camp participants, while another firm 3RW were selected to create the memorial to the victims of 22 July overlooking the lake.

The plans were heavily criticised by the families. One family went as far as to say that they would chain themselves to the café building to prevent its demolition. Frydnes and Blakstad were taken aback by the families’ reaction to the plans to tear down the café, but committed themselves to listening and adapting the plans. This was a near impossible task because the building was so dilapidated and old that it could no longer service camp participants’ needs. It seemed impossible to both commit to future camps (and ‘take back the island’, in AUF discourse), and to retain the rooms which had become sacred to the families. 

Hegenhuset utøya blakstad haffner drawings architectural review

Hegenhuset utøya blakstad haffner drawings architectural review

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Utøya blakstad haffner arkitekter hegnhuset architectural review

Utøya blakstad haffner arkitekter hegnhuset architectural review

Source: Espen Grønli

Hegnhuset translates as ‘protective’ or ‘safe house’.On the island of Utøya, where Breivik slaughtered 69 people, Blakstad Haffner Arkitekter encased the old café in a new glue-laminated pine structure. The building’s roof is supported by 69 pillars of wood, representing those who died on 22 July

The solution was found in Blakstad Haffner Arkitekter’s Hegnhuset design. It has preserved parts of the original café building affected by deaths (the sacred zones) while designing a new structure around them. The original café building became a building-within-a-building. Around it, they constructed an enormous wooden and glass pavilion – which now hosts educational events alongside commemorative displays. The structure is thus a heterotopia: a multiple place. Hegnhuset roughly translates as ‘protective house’ or ‘safe house’, with additional connotations of ‘preserved house’. This name appealed because it allowed the team to pluralise the meanings of the structure – emphasising that it is not just a mausoleum or site of death, but it was also crucial to protecting those who escaped.

The original protests of the families again emphasise the stickiness of memory to the built environment. Memory associates itself with built places, intervening in their meanings and constituting new associations. Buildings affected by terrorism become resonant symbols of loss or resilience after terrorism – affecting plans to tear them down. After 22 July, the AUF and the Norwegian Government both initially underestimated how sacred these structures would become in public perception. Their strong place-association with atrocity meant that they took symbolic meaning into themselves and became sites of memory. As Høyblokka and Hegnhuset demonstrate, the built environment takes on symbolism by surviving terrorist attacks. Structures can become symbolic of national identity, or become sacred spaces on account of the lives lost within. 

This piece is based on ‘Memory Wound: Architectural Controversies in Norway after the 22 July Attacks’ by Charlotte Heath-Kelly, published in Ethnologie Française (2019, No 173: 119-129)

In our print edition, the memorial on the site of the AUF ferry quay was mistakenly attributed solely to Manthey Kula, rather than Manthey Kula with Bureau Bas Smets.

Lead image: Libeskind’s MemoryFoundations for the World Trade Center masterplan combine memory of the 9/11 tragedy with hope for the future

This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to buy your copy today