The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Building of the month

May 2013 - St Olav Church, Trondheim

Ola Wedebrunn

Trondheim is a city at the mouth of the Nidelva, a river on the west coast of central Norway. Its location has many favorable resources and constructions of material character, wood, stone and modern technology, mythology, history; an urban context of many possibilities. It is the site of the ancient Nidar dome, an immense medieval construction of metamorphic stone, a conglomerate of matter and craft, handed-down knowledge and the precision it takes to care for its significance. This is the context of the Catholic Church of St. Olav, in the direct vicinity of the Nidar dome.

The church was originally founded in an existing wooden construction, a former locomotive hall built in 1902. This was again substituted by a modern steel and reinforced glass structure, covering the main space – twenty four by twelve by six meters – designed in 1966, and inaugurated in 1973, a work by architects Petter Holm, Per Kartvedt, and Bernhard Witte.

The position of this structure is undoubtedly a sincere expression of the modern movement in architecture. It has an original material character and static scheme of steel, a rare precision, almost instrumental. It is transparent, with a light and colourful quality of glass, with linear and square structural members and modules of steel frame, concrete and glass blocks. It is the persistence of metal, the dynamic change of electric light and candles, reflected and direct daylight. It is a progressive and untraditional composition of glass and polycarbonate, acrylic and covering sheets, gaskets and linear rafts. This is all integrated with the green space of the riverside of Nidaros the urban plan of the Trondheim, as The Heavenly City and Via Dolorosa of the altar wall, a mosaic of colour and glass and stone by Håkon Bleken and Edgar Müller.

It certainly makes sense to consider this construction in an international context of the modern movement, referring to Maison de verre and the architecture of Pierre Chareau, to Notre-Dame du Raincy of August Perret and the steel church of Otto Bartning at the Pressa exhibition in Cologne. However, first and foremost it is a work of architect Per Kartvedt, related to the British architect group Archigram. Thus it is a link to a long history of references in the British Isles; the medieval Dome of Nidaros, continuing with the architecture within NTNU the present University of Trondheim.

The congregation of St. Olav Catholic Parish Church has 2000 active members, a number that is increasing. The need for space is by far exceeding the present capacity of 200 people of the original construction. In addition to the current lack of space, the construction suffers from a continuing abrasion. Due to the energy performance of the steel and glass wall, the material expression of modern architecture immediately turned to economic disadvantage. The global energy crisis came more or less simultaneously with the inauguration. The use of glass blocks, originally considered because of its insulation properties, became a conflict of material economy, energy balance, heat and light. Thus glass became a disadvantage that was difficult to integrate with the service of the church, the character of the construction, and with the interaction of space and construction. This in turn led to what at best can be said to have become an appendix of lost opportunities.

It would not have been impossible to meet the requirements for a responsible energy balance and comfort with the original construction. The additional interior insulation, added to the building shortly after the church came into use, was not transparent. It solved problems of thermal comfort and economy at the time, but changed drastically the experience of light and transparency. It is true that it is demanding to balance the strong presence of light, shifting with the seasons, the headlights passing on nearby roads, the artificial and the living light glowing with the activities of the interior space. It is also true that the internal insulation became a contradiction far from the intention of the original experience of light, service of the church, technology, art and architecture.

In a workshop for students at the architecture school of Trondheim in the spring semester 2010, eight projects for the conservation of the steel and glass construction where developed. The programme was based on the explicit needs given by the church. The result exposed that it was possible to appreciate the value of the church, to ensure the continuity with and within the present construction of steel and glass, and to enlarge the church with needed space. By coincidence an invited competition for a new church took place parallel to the student project. The competition arranged by the congregation declared the needs of the church. The difference though, was that the competition demanded a new building. Even though the planning authorities recognized and explicitly expressed the value of the existing construction, on national and municipal levels, it was difficult to advocate the conservation of the steel and glass church.

It is difficult to act with recent heritage; it is even hard to know when to be critical and how to express value and quality. It takes commitment and sense, to argue for value. Inevitably it is difficult to argue for the quality of steel, glass, light, and the conservation of a modern church, when at the bottom line, survival is in vain.

Ola Wedebrunn is Associate Professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, school of architecture and Professor at the Department of Architectural Design History and Technology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. ‘Survival in Vain’ has recently been printed in a Nordic/Baltic docomomo publication.


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