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  1. The Horror Cathedral

    Last week, I noticed a newspaper article from a small village in Eastern Norway, Våler. A man had chosen a unique way to express his dissatisfaction on the new-built church in his close neighborhood. He disliked the design of the new church across the road so badly that he put up a sign on his side of the road so no one miss it when they turn into the church yard:

    «The Horror Cathedral»

    The town’s mayor, Kjell Konterud, says to the newspaper, Glåmdalen, that the municipality does not have the authority to remove the sign, and that it must be considered a part of the general freedom of speech.

    The sign «Horror Cathedral» is the little man’s expression of opinion. It tells us exactly what he thinks about the public building, without offending anyone, – neither the church audience, the municipal administration, nor the architect, Espen Surnevik, – who adds:

    -There will always be some who do not share the majority’s opinion on key construction projects.

    I think Surnevik should feel lucky that the majority’s opinion does not prevail. If so, the church might get a radical workover. The kind of “majority” the architect probably thinks of, is the jury in the architectural competition he took part in. A total of 239 proposals came in, making it the largest architectural competition in Norway, – beaten by the Opera House in Oslo.

    The new church certainly meets all practical and aesthetic requirements – but one does not need to be an award winning architect to see that the new church building is not blending particularly well with the neighboring houses. Honestly, I’m not sure it would have made the church any better, either. But when a large building is built in conflict with the surrounding style, it creates an impression of something that does not fit, – like an overgrown cuckoo in a sparrow nest. – And what does not fit – the cuckoo kid or the sparrow kids?


    Many residents in Oslo’s suburbs have had similar experiences. Speculators are buying up land where they try to squeeze in as much living space as possible, making ultramodern designs that totally clash with the moderately styled neighboring houses. The more living space, the more money. Accommodating as much space as possible on small pieces of land, requires a kind of creative solutions architects gladly produce. While the developer and architect are laughing all the way to the bank, the neighbors despair.

    I recently found a letter to the editor in a local newspaper I wrote 13 years ago about a planned building where the municipality was the developer. An existing nursery in a conservation listed property was to be expanded with an annex one best could describe as “experimental”. The existing neighborhood would be totally overrun. A journalist made a survey in the neighborhood and the local newspaper published their skepticism. The architect, Arne Eggen, made an arrogant statement to the paper, accusing the neighbors of preventing the expansion of the kindergarten – that they did not want any kindergarten in their neighborhood – and, besides: Did the neighbors really understand the drawings? I knew the neighbors well enough to tell that the architect’s allegations were false and insulting…

    – And very provocative.

    The architect has had a good outcome from drawing public buildings for the municipality for several years. I sensed the contours of long-term and mutual convenient cooperation. Unfortunately, too many architects of the postwar period have been given free hands to experiment on the design of public buildings. It’s not just economics and ideology involved, but also an urge to experiment. I think all architects basically want to create a new trend, a new wind within architecture – undaunted by what the public, users and neighbors might think. The paradox is that ugly buildings cost as much as harmonic ones. But that does not matter when they are experimenting with public money?

    The power of an architect?

    I know several architects. They are alright. Anyone might turn a little arrogant in response to a journalist that sticks his finger into your eye and confronts you with criticism you basically know is right, but don’t like to hear – and ultimately may damage your reputation.

    Right or wrong?

    If I’d been the architect who designed the new Church in Våler, I would probably make a less arrogant statement to the newspaper. I’d admit that the new church did not blend too well with the few houses around. It is silly to talk about majorities and minorities. Whom are we asking? Those who cares? Those who attend a church regularly? As we all know, the outcome depends on who you ask.

    When I experienced an architectural abuse in my own community, I chose to write an article in the local newspaper. My post was read, not only by concerned neighbors, but also by the promoters and decision-makers within architecture, preservation authorities and public administration. It started a debate that forced the arrogant architect back to the drawing board.

    The little man’s voice.

    I think that society should listen to “the little man”. The neighbor across the street of the new church building in Våler has a clear message to the public.

    Me? I chose to be a blogger.

    🙂 I wonder if a sign in my garden would give me a higher hitrate.

    The New Church of Våler (Source: bygg.no)

    This is how a traditional church in Norway looks like. The Church in Os, Rakkestad.

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