By Riccardo Biffi.
Very few things come more naturally than coming home after a long day, kicking off your shoes, closing the door after you and leaving the world outside while enjoying the control and warmth of your very personal privacy and space. It’s such an automatic action that everyone carries out so airily any given day, without minding how much any aspect of the experience is thought through and thoroughly designed by experts in many fields.
Luckily, Open House and Reprogramming the City, two informative exhibitions held at the National Museum of Architecture and at the DOGA respectively during the summer of 2018 in Oslo, bridged the gap between our everyday urban life and the work of the city planners and architects, presenting to the general public our way of living in the broader picture of its relatively sustainable social and environmental footprint.
While the latter, Reprogramming the City, focused on giving a platform to various creative solutions to repurpose mostly abandoned or decommissioned areas and structures in the Nordic countries, the former shone a light on the complex and intricate process of urban planning and its recent history mostly in Norway, revealing to the viewer many unexpected sides and needs that usually intertwine in the designing of housing areas.
The visitor at Open House is indeed brought to look through the city exposed like a doll house, open, taking at turns the point of views held by the architect, the landscapist, the political representative, the planning engineer, the financing institutes, and also of the resident. Among graphs, historical pictures, scale models, blueprints and real life cross sections of materials, the exhibition surely serves a great cause in trying to explain to the general audience the complexity present in harmonizing all of the often conflicting interests at stake in urban planning. At the same time, one particular point is stressed upon throughout the narrative layout: the current rate and ways of housing development are less sustainable than we are brought to think and therefore some re-orienting of priorities has to be undertaken. In particular, in the last decades, with the progressive decline of cooperative housing development and the correspondent surge of private investment in building, the real estate market in Oslo witnessed a continuous decline in the median quality and space of the housing units while the median price per square metre skyrocketed. As the panels explain, the typical Norwegian Two-rooms-and-a-kitchen apartment shrunk progressively in surface and ceiling height, to accommodate more units per building, while sacrificing residents’ liveability, exposure to sunlight, and ultimately serenity and health. To counterbalance this trend the exhibition proposes various examples of contemporary cooperative living and co-housing in different contexts and sizes, drawn from all over Europe. The R50 Baugruppen building  in Berlin stands out as a possible model for the future of urban living. Resorting, among other inspirations, to Le Corbusier’s Uniteé d’Habitation – though brought to the next level – the housing solution sees residents sharing a restaurant-like professional kitchen, other common areas like a working-reading space, a children’s playground, the laundry facilities and the rooftop green terrace. This answer cuts building, maintenance, and utility costs severely, while at the same time offering a genuine occasion for socializing and cooperation among the residents.
Overall, Open House is informative and well thought out, balancing a good share of historic knowledge and complex data with clear and intuitive representations that ease its understanding. At the same time, the choice of materials and artefacts displayed and their arrangement is visually and experientially pleasant. To be fully honest, though, Open House, while being very direct in showing the social and environmental unsustainability of most of the recent development, seems a bit too cautious when it comes to drawing a more general but still direct conclusion and challenging, even just as imaginative wishful thinking, the idea that the building companies’ profit should always be the main drive and top priority in housing construction or modelling, making social inclusion and green politics come last.
Reprogramming the City, on the other hand, greets the visitor with a vibrant array of innovative and creative solutions to age-old problems. Underlying the few case studies one might find the common interest in the exploration and revitalization of the hidden value intrinsic to many urban abandoned or underutilized structures and areas. Thus a dark underpass can easily become a well lit and colourful playground with a rock-climbing wall; a decommissioned rail track laid throughout the city is transformed in a safe cycling highway, or an old silo right in downtown Oslo is readapted to be a student-housing building without being demolished and replaced. The main point conveyed being that in our age of exponential growth in consumption of resources and, of course, of land, re-use and repurposing should be the starting, neutral point in analyzing the sustainability of a practice like living the urban space. This way, one might find literally behind the corner, easily applicable, low cost solutions to long-standing and universal residents’ demands that, still, are often overviewed in reconstruction projects. In this direction Reprogramming the City showed the visitor how in many and replicable occasions the eco-friendly solution can be the furthest away from being the expensive one, or how sometimes just a slight modification in urban design can go a long way in making a difference for a neighbourhood. One example can be set by the renovation of Tåsinge Plads  in Copenhagen, where a square often unpleasantly flooded by residual rainwater is turned into a communal botanic garden and green area that absorbs and feeds upon the once problematic precipitations, developing various micro-ecosystems and giving nearby residents as well as passersby something that’s more than a park to enjoy.
In the end, the two exhibitions serve a great purpose in bringing awareness to the ways we live in the city, doing so by exposing the ever changing links between sociological aspects, engineering, design, and ecological footprints in these times of unprecedented human influence on the environment. The visitor is indeed ultimately confronted with her own daily practices and needs as an urban dweller, represented from broader perspectives that fit in the frame all the aspects of urban consumption and inhabiting that usually fall ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
1. R50 Baugruppen, Berlin: https://www.metropolismag.com/architecture/residential-architecture/dont-call-it-a-commune-inside-berlin-radical-cohousing-project/ ; https://www.archdaily.com/593154/r50-nil-cohousing-ifau-und-jesko-fezer-heide-and-von-beckerath
2. Tåsinge Plads, Copenhagen: http://klimakvarter.dk/en/projekt/tasinge-plads/