Hardly any other building in post-war Norway has been met with such interest and recognition as the new Franciscan monastery on Enerhaugen in Oslo. Learn more about this protected spot in the capital of Norway.
The above words were written by editor Christian Nordberg-Schultz in the magazine Byggkunst In 1966 in connection with the opening of the newly erected St. Halvard’s Church and monastery.
Not far from the former medieval St. Hallvard’s Cathedral on Enerhaugen in Oslo, you’ll find St. Hallvard’s Church and Monastery. The Catholic parish church for eastern Oslo was run by the Franciscans until 1 September 2008.
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St. Hallvard’s is on the site where the last of the wooden buildings of the Enerhaugen neighborhood’s working-class quarters used to be. The wooden houses were moved to the Norwegian Folk Museum (Norsk Folkemuseum) on Bygdøy. The church is hidden in the midst of the five large residential high-rises on Enerhaugen hill, and hence not very frequently visited.
Admittedly, the building, amidst this circle of residential apartment blocks, would be a rather nondescript brick building if not for the extraordinary inverted dome that hangs from the ceiling of its main hall.
Responding to this unusual urban situation, the church establishes a central reference point to the area and its enclosed appearance gives the building a concealed expression. Since the opening in the autumn of 1966, the church and monastery designed by the architects Kjell Lund and Nils Slaatto have become one of the most talked about Norwegian post-war buildings in the world. The architects followed the Brutalist architectural style that was popular in Europe at the time.
The three sections of St. Halvard’s
St. Hallvard’s monastery and church in Oslo have three sections: the monastery, parish offices, and the church, surrounding a circular central nave. The building has three levels, built of brick and concrete exposed both to the interior and exterior.
The church, which is the home base for the country’s largest Roman Catholic parish, is named after the city’s guardian saint. Unlike most churches, where the highest point of the interior rises above the building’s center, St. Hallvard’s ceiling swoops downward to create an inverted dome above its central sacred space. According to the church, the downward-facing dome symbolizes God bending toward his creation, rather than reaching toward the Heavens.
This majestic inverted cupola appears as being molded from above, a sensation of power from the heaven and sky, creating this majestic shape. Though majestic, the cupola also creates a sacral, intimate space and its thin concrete shell gives the spectator a chance to wonder of what may be hidden on its other side.
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The inverted dome
Precisely the inverted dome contributes to make St. Hallvard’s Church a unique room which, according to Nordberg-Schultz, “has the lowest height where it was traditionally highest”. The round room is dominated by a sky that meets the congregation. The fact that the light input is minimal helps to further emphasize the church’s distinctive character and make it a room unlike any other in Oslo.
The walls slope gradually outwards, 3 degrees, for acoustic reasons. Apart from the large glass entrance door, hardly any natural light slips into the sacred room. The church seats from 300 to 350, with additional seating for 70 in the chapel.
Magic and richness
“The force of the structure combined with the subtlety of detail is most moving” wrote Juhani Uolevi Pallasmaa, the Finnish architect and professor of architecture.
“The converted dome seems to represent ‘the great mystery’. What is it, seemingly descending over the church room? The simplest way to describe it is that the roof has a strong character of heaven, as it has always had in the church buildings of the past. But this is a new and unknown heaven, a heaven that is not far off,” wrote Nordberg-Schulz.
“And in some of the work, particularly St. Hallvard’s, Oslo, Lund+Slaatto have added a level of magic and richness to which the Master (Mies van der Rohe) never aspired – the church is one of the most numinous buildings of the twentieth century,” wrote the British artist Peter Davey
Protected by the Norwegian National Heritage Board
The church attracted much attention in academic circles when it was completed, and during the years after the inauguration the modernist monument has won several architectural awards. It was protected by the Norwegian National Heritage Board in 2012.
The building houses the largest Catholic congregation in Norway, so mass takes place on Sundays. Access it by walking from Tøyen or Grønland. From downtown, the easiest route is taking bus 37 to Politihuset and walking uphill from there.
Protected Spot In the Capital of Norway, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top), photo by Sverre Bergli/Oslo Museum