“You know, there is more construction here than anywhere in all of Scandinavia,” said Tore Valkeapää, the old Sami shopkeeper running a store out of a massive tent in the middle of central Oslo’s bustling waterfront district.
I smiled approvingly. Somehow, the elderly man’s words seemed right. Everywhere I turned in this ultra-modern city, construction cranes rose like monuments in the soft November sky. Oil revenue is fast turning Norway’s once-quaint capital into the Dubai of Northern Europe, and the evidence is everywhere.
To the casual visitor, the most obvious example of Oslo’s modern resurgence is the Oslo Opera House, a 1,100-room complex built at the head of the Oslofjord, one of the largest of Norway’s famed fjords. Opened in April 2008, it was constructed at a cost of 4.4 billion Norwegian Kroner (approximately $880 million), and is the largest cultural building built in the country since the Nidarosdomen was completed around 1300.
“It’s definitely attracts a lot of visitors,” said Valkeapää, whose store sits less than 300 meters away. He’s not kidding: in its first year alone, more than 1.3 million people passed through the Opera’s doors, with many more simply taking photos outside of its low sloping roof, which literally rises out of the ice-cold water. The expressionist-style building has also received considerable international attention from the architectural community, winning both the World Architecture Award in October 2008 and the 2009 Mies van der Rohe Award, the European Union prize for contemporary architecture.
Indeed, the “Tiger City” seems to have adopted a new slogan: bigger, taller, glitzier. Out with the old, in with the new. Already a “young” city by European standards, Oslo has been turning back the clock even more. No better confirmation exists than the under-construction Edvard Munch museum, dubbed “Lambda” by architect Juan Herreros. When completed in 2013, the 14-story museum will replace the current space dedicated to the world-renowned Norwegian painter, which itself first opened in 1963. With promises of sustainable construction and visitor-friendly design, the project has generated virtually no controversy among locals.
I was surprised, to be sure, of just how modern Oslo is becoming. I had decided to spend a day in the city with a couple of friends of mine, and our expectations were decidedly mediocre. Others I’d talked to had described the city as little more than a retail-oriented port with a reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in the world (indeed, it holds the top stop according to The Economist’s 2010 rankings), or worse, a drab capital lost among tourists to the more popular and slightly less expensive Kristiansand and Bergen.
To be sure, when we first entered the Oslo metropolitan area in the early morning via bus, there wasn’t much to see: Asker looked like a typical bedroom community, and Drammen was a riverside industrial burg. But when we finally reached Oslo, I was awed by a spectacle of high-rise glam and construction that for a moment convinced me that I was looking at a much larger northern city like Berlin or Moscow.
The first thing we did was take a walk. Even at this early hour, the streets were crowded with business people on their way to work and chipper travelers conversing in half a dozen languages. Everything was clean, bright and functional.
There were little white candles flickering everywhere – even in the cozy cafe where we lingered over a lavish breakfast smorgasbord. According to our preferences, we fortified ourselves with hard-boiled eggs and shrimp salad, with mackerel in tomato sauce and muesli. We refilled our plates and sipped our tea and coffee, reluctant to go out into the winter cold. Candles in silver-stemmed goblets and smoked glass boxes burned on every table, like a promise to hold onto the light right through the frosty autumn morning and the rest of the day.
While my companions endeavored to visit the cultural sites of Oslo, from the National Gallery that houses such Munch masterpieces as “The Scream” (recently put back on display after being stolen in 2004) to the Stortinget (the seat of the Norwegian parliament) and the Royal Palace, I was determined to discover just exactly what Oslonians thought of the immense changes taking place in their city.
“It’s hard to imagine, but when I first opened [my store] there were only a couple of T-bane (subway) stops,” said Per Hermansson, owner of Shadowland Records. “Now they’re everywhere.”
Hermansson has lived in Oslo since emigrating from Sweden in 1992. He opened Shadowland Records in 1998, specializing in gothic and electronic music. Located on Storgata, one of Oslo’s busiest shopping streets, the store is in an easy-to-miss alley next to a shopping mall. I came upon it by chance, having become lost after grabbing a bite to eat at a 1950s-themed American deli, and knew instantly that I’d found something unique: stores devoted to this type of music – a genre with admittedly few fans – are rare, and usually only found exclusively in much larger cities like New York or London. Its mere existence was a sign of Oslo’s evolution.
“It’s the oil,” Hermansson told me. “Everything goes back to oil.” Hermansson first came to work in the lucrative oil fields of Arctic Norway, and decided to settle in the country for good.
Largely unaffected by the worldwide economic recession, Norway has been banking on energy for decades. First, it was timber. Later, hydropower. Now it’s oil.
In August, Norway’s daily oil production was more than 2.3 million barrels per day, placing it ninth worldwide, just behind Iraq and above other oil-rich nations such as Nigeria and Venezuela. Most of it comes from offshore wells in the North Sea, where there are an estimated 6.7 billion barrels in reserves.
In 2007, the state-controlled Norwegian energy companies Statoil and Norsk Hydro merged to form Statoil ASA, which today is the largest offshore oil and gas company in the world. With operations in 21 countries, it is ranked by Fortune as the 36th-largest company on earth, and the biggest in Scandinavia. Employing more than 29,000 people, the Stavanger-based company pours more than $3.5 billion into the Norwegian economic machine every year.
Hermansson decided to leave the oil fields because he wasn’t completely happy. “I’d seen a couple of accidents, and didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on a rig,” he said. “I just wanted to make some money and start my business.”
The first few years were difficult for Hermansson and Shadowland. With rent along Storgata being among the highest in the Nordic countries, business simply wasn’t brisk enough in the small, low-ceilinged store. But around 2004, things began to change.
“More and more people started coming in,” Hermansson told me. “It was strange, because most stores of this kind were closing [due to online downloading instead]. But they kept coming in somehow. I was able to start putting on shows [by bringing bands to local clubs] and last year was one of my best years ever [for business].”
According to Hermansson, there are only a few dozen record stores worldwide that he knows of that sell gothic music, and his is the only one in Scandinavia. Shadowland’s growth, he believes, is directly related to Oslo’s emergence as a destination for cultural digestion, including exposure to various subcultures.
“When I first came here, there really wasn’t a subcultural element to Oslo,” explained Hermansson, his Swedish accent virtually indiscernible from lifelong residents. “As the city has grown, the scene here has grown as well. Now we’re one of the biggest in Europe.”
Turid Melhus, 24, has lived in Oslo her entire life. “There’s definitely been a lot of change here,” she said, her English easier to understand than almost any New Yorker.
Melhus is a bartender at 34 SkyBar, a posh bar located on the 34th floor of the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel. At 117 meters, the building is the tallest in Norway, and the third-tallest in Scandinavia. Inside, its sleek, futuristic design is a microcosm of Oslo’s aspirations.
“When I was a little girl, there were very high taxes,” Melhus told me as I sipped an Irish coffee over the glass-topped bar. The crowd, mostly middle-aged foreigners, was elegantly subdued, the legato crooning of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” wafting over glass tables and plush red chairs. “But the taxes helped pay for many things that have been built here, and now business is taking over and paying for it,” Melhus added. “None of this existed when I was young. It almost seems like it sprouted overnight.”
To the uninformed, it may seem that way indeed. As night descended on the city, the temperature outside was beginning to dip. Little snowflakes fluttered by the floor-to-ceiling windows like flecks of dust that had been disturbed, and suddenly I realized the symbolism of the moment.
“There may be a furious storm outside,” Melhus told me as I nursed my coffee, “but when you come here you know you are in heaven.”
I smiled. So that’s what Oslo aspires to be: heaven. With the annual Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony taking place Dec. 10, and the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships taking place in 2011 (an event which has unsurprisingly sparked a construction boom of its own), the world may begin to see the results of the makeover.
“The changes have been unbelievable,” Melhus said. “In another 20 years, I probably won’t recognize the way it is now.”
If Oslo’s transformation continues at its current pace, she may be right.