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Oslo's Building Blocks

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Everyone I know who's visited Oslo has told me it's boring.

Bjorn, my Olso guide, doesn't agree. "But," he concedes, "parts of Oslo are becoming ugly."

We're standing on the roof of the Oslo Opera House, which only opened in 2008 but is already among the city's most iconic structures. A practicing architect himself, Bjorn is mostly complimentary of the opera house, although he believes the decision to build it out of white Italian marble (which is now yellow) instead of grey Norwegian granite was a mistake.

He points toward the northeast. "Those buildings you see right there are known as the 'Barcode,' what with how tall and thin they are. They were designed so as to only minimally obstruct the scenery around them -- the idea is that you can see through the bars."

The Sea, The Green and The City Between

The problem with this well-intentioned idea is that it is only applicable if you're looking at the buildings straight on.

"The original concept of Oslo was simple,' Bjorn explains. "The sea, the green and the city between. Only now, thanks to our new Manhattan project, you can't see the sea from the green, or the green from the sea -- it's only city now."

He directs my attention south, where another new construction project is rapidly rising. "This is the first phase of a project the government has dubbed the 'Fjord City,' which they eventually want to extend around the entire Oslo bay.

"The idea is that tourists will be able to walk from the far east end of the fjord all the way to the west, and that's fine, but it won't seem like much of a fjord when all is said and done, now will it?"

During our three-hour tour of Oslo's most important buildings, the contrast Bjorn draws between Norway's past, present and future is increasingly more dramatic, a production in which he eloquently casts edifices I might otherwise miss altogether as major players.

We head west down Karl Johans Gate, Oslo's main street, toward Norway's royal palace. The scene is familiar; The street is where Norway's annual May 17 paradise, which celebrates the drafting of its constitution in 1814, takes place. Only today the red Norwegian flags and blue skies on all the postcards I've ever seen are absent.

We veer left off the main street toward Norway's parliament building. "The building was extremely impressive, in the 19th century, when it was built," Bjorn explains, noting its domed design. "And of course it's still a nice building, but what's significant about it is that the open dome permitted members of the public to literally keep an eye on the then-new Congress."

He pointed back toward the Royal Palace. "And of course the king, who still had real power then, could also see, albeit from farther away."

A Failure in Urban Development

We turn south, and head down into the Aker Brygge development. "The problem with this new neighborhood isn't that the buildings are mostly garish, even if they are. It's that the area is only residential.

"There are only apartments here," he continues. "There are no hospitals, no schools, no services of any kind -- that's hardly a supermarket over there! From an urban development perspective, it's a failure."

Before I know it, we're once again in the shadows of the Barcode, walking along the water's edge as "roller skiers" practice their moves, and a local singer belts out a cover of Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet."

Bjorn's political viewpoints are on the far left of the political spectrum; he speaks about the state almost reverentially. He skirts around the topic of last year's bombings, but sticks mostly to economic issues.

"The problem with all this development is not only that it's frivolous, but that it doesn't reflect the will of the people. You see, most of this land is owned by the railway company; in other words, the government. They've sold it to 'private' companies to develop it, and the companies are in some ways private, but they have such an unfair advantage.

"I wouldn't go so far as to call it corrupt," he continues. "But there is certainly collusion. And I don't like it."

The Forces Controlling Norway

Akershus Festning is a fortress that dates back back to the late 13th century. "You're the second American dignitary to visit this month," he jokes, referencing HIllary Clinton's recent stop at the castle, which has always been occupied by whatever force is controlling Norway, and has never fallen once in its history.

"Actually that's not entirely true," Bjorn corrects himself. "To be fair, the Nazis took control of Norway first, so they didn't have to 'conquer' the fort, per se. But the fact that they executed Norwegian dissidents here, at a place that has been so symbolic of Norway throughout history, well, that was really unacceptable."

As the afternoon wears on, I begin to realize that Bjorn's cynicism is rooted more in a deep love for his city and his country (and a profound dissatisfaction with the lack of love others around him seem to have), than in contempt.

By this time, we're perched on the walls of the fortress, overlooking the bay where the tour began.

"These boats," he says, pointing over the water toward the marina docks to the south and east of Aker Brygge. "They're always parked. I ride my kayak out into the fjord, and I'm always the only one. Do these people even know what they're missing?"

"But isn't that a good thing, I mean that you're alone?" I was playing devil's advocate a bit, of course, but I was also serious.

"The problem," Bjorn explains as we walk back eastward, "is that Norway's priorities are now misplaced. In the early part of the century, even as late as the 1940s when I was born, we were one of the poorest countries in Europe.

"We're now one of the wealthiest countries in the world, mostly thanks to our oil, but we don't produce anything. We can't survive forever on money alone."

National Survey

Ever the contrarian, I continued my push in the other direction. "And what of Oslo's perpetually high ranking in [The Economist's] Quality of Life surveys?"

"What about it?" He asks. "In our own 'National Survey,' which is taken every three years, people are no more happy than they were when Norway was poorer. You would of course think that more access to wealth -- and, to be fair, to social services and welfare -- would make people happier. But it simply isn't the case."

After a few more minutes enjoying the view of Oslo's bay, we head back toward Karl Johans Gate. Bjorn needs to go east; I need to go west. I thank him for his insight and for his candor.

He thanks me for listening attentively, even though I know he was slightly annoyed by how I often I stopped to take photos. To be sure, the picture of Oslo he has painted for me is far less romantic than any of the ones I've snapped.

But Oslo is nonetheless more complex than its largely utilitarian design and architecture would suggest -- Oslo is not boring, not by any means.