“Culture should be provided in a place that is monumental,” said architect Renzo Piano at the opening of the Astrup Fearnley Museet, a public art gallery for exhibiting a private collection, a legacy from shipping magnates Thomas Fearnley and Nils Astrup. Piano’s latest building is intended to act as a landmark for the urban renaissance that Oslo has embarked on.
In 2008 Oslo initiated its Fjord City plan to transform 225 hectares of former docks and wharfs spread over 10km of coastline. The Astrup Fearnley Museet is at the end of Tjuvholmen (Thief Island), a warren of hotels, apartments, restaurants, bars and smaller galleries that is part of this grand vision. Piano’s building sits where Oslo meets the sea – a cultural full stop that announces the edge of the city.
Approaching the building from the city centre down the quayside, its enormous white roof soars against the crisp Norwegian sky. It is hard to imagine a more charming urban setting for a gallery, set against the sparkling fjord and the green hills of the Oslo suburbs.
The 7,000sq m complex, which cost €90m to construct, is divided into three buildings clad in aspen wood. The largest part of the gallery sits to the east, flanked by a rather grandly named sculpture park – a simple, open landscaped patch of ground with a pebble beach that leads to the water’s edge dotted with large-scale works. The building is entered off a new canal that runs through the centre of the complex and visitors pass into an unremarkable glass atrium.
At the opening, Piano said: “White boxes kill art. A building for art cannot be timid or neutral.” The museum director Gunnar Kvaran backed up this assertion: “This is not a white cube, it is an architecture that encourages an intelligent and dynamic relationship with the work.” But standing in a room with a polished concrete floor and pristine white walls, it is clear that the Astrup Fearnley is exactly what they were demonising – it is a sanitised space for contemporary art where the work is the star and, internally, the building is a passive container.
The principal exhibition space is double height with a mezzanine above, which will house temporary exhibitions; it is capable of holding large installations and shows off the engineering of Piano’s roof. A simple stairway leads off this to a series of rooms that provide a more intimate setting for the work. It is a sterile space, below the even light that filters through the massive canopy – the dynamism exists in the art, not the dialogue between building and its contents. The experience is relentlessly bland until you emerge on to the upper-floor balcony which has a fantastic view back towards the imposing brickwork of Arneberg and Poulsson’s 1931 city hall.
The second building holds the permanent collection, which is housed in a warren of rooms extending along a linear path on the partially sunken ground floor. All sense of the external canopy is lost until the first floor when the beams of the upper gallery are overhead in more spacious rooms adorned with works by the likes of Jeff Koons, Rolf Sachs and Damien Hirst. An office complex occupies the third and largest building, rented out to generate revenue for the institution.
The Astrup Fearnley Museet is not a bad building. The roof is an impressive feat of engineering and, below, Piano’s experiments with timber are impeccably detailed. However, the lack of spatial dynamism, coupled with the failure to make the canopy and buildings work together to create a complexity in the galleries’ material and atmospheric conditions, is disappointing. Piano describes the building as “a place to enjoy the light and enjoy the water”, yet the sense of these primal elements is lost – only occasionally a window provides a respite from the posturing of the art collection.
Hidden around the headland, in Bjørvika, is Snøhetta’s 2007 Opera House, which does everything that Piano’s building is expected to do, but with more style and excitement. The Astrup Fearnley Museet is the architectural focus that the authorities of Oslo needs to showcase its urban renewal, particularly when the city has struggled to realise its publicly funded cultural institutions – notably the relocation of the Munch Museum. But Piano’s building is a tired and familiar formula: an internationally renowned architect and a city authority salivating at the prospect of a new Guggenheim or Pompidou. Here the architecture lacks the bombast and the collection lacks the substance to make it all add up. The added pressure of the city’s expectations and the grating rhetoric of regeneration could be its undoing.