Home The Washington Diplomat April 2009 Worthwhile’Detour’



Norway Pulls Out All the Stops at Its Breathtaking Pit Stops

The catalogue sold out. That says something about an exhibit that consists of a single room with a peephole theater and nine models of tourist sites in an adjoining hallway. That theater, based on a Victorian model, is a large wooden viewing chamber with outside seats that let visitors peer at the film inside through brass-rimmed stereoscopic “binoculars.” Its polished walnut panels are quite beautiful, but that’s just a taste of the beauty that lies ahead in “Detour: Architecture and Design along 18 National Tourist Routes in Norway,” now on display at the National Building Museum.

It’s a show that both serves and seduces tourists. The exhibit offers maps of Norway, scenic photos and a catalogue that could function as a travel guidebook. It depicts roadside rest stops, places to picnic, a coastline jagged with hundreds of islands, and 18 travel routes bordered by snow-covered peaks, waterfalls, lakes, forests and fjords.

Taken together, they traverse Norway’s stunning landscape, where pit stops have been transformed into quirky architectural landmarks befitting this innovative Nordic nation.

Deep fjords in the country’s southwest, for instance, produce dramatic scenery but also “terrified tourists in cars [who] have probably never felt closer to either heaven or hell,” the exhibit’s catalogue cheerfully notes. To help out, the government built amenities “along the roads to make them more convenient for travelers,” according to catalogue essayist Karl Ellefsen, an architecture professor in Oslo.

These roadside structures became public works much like the actual highways and roads alongside them. But along the way, art happened. The Norwegian Public Roads Administration’s Tourist Routes project, a practical endeavor started in 1994, recruited cutting-edge architects, many of them young and unknown. Their contemporary designs, bold forms, splashes of color, and use of both natural and man-made materials enhanced or even “identified” the locations where they began appearing.

The resulting information centers, pedestrian bridges, parking spaces, rest stops and observation platforms ended up changing the scenery and, in effect, became tourist destinations in their own right.

They also became pieces of art, incorporating design materials such as stone, wood, concrete, glass and metal while staying true to Nordic traditions that favor simplicity, handicraft and natural elements. They stand out as easily as a famed sculpture might outside the National Gallery of Art.

As such, “Detour” also reflects postmodern art’s interest in tourist landscapes as a separate genre and visual language — contemplating novel interactions between these small structures and the large landscapes that surround them.

On this level though, the exhibit’s architectural models somewhat disappoint. Although they offer a glimpse into these striking structures, they’re too slight to adequately convey the power of these roadside riches. We may see the dimensions of a small wooden “cyclist house,” for instance, but it’s difficult to appreciate the experience of a tourist biker seeking shelter against a rainstorm inside a work of pure art.

But the accompanying gem of a film allows for greater appreciation of the art, architecture and inner spirit of the exhibit. The “three-dimensional” film takes viewers on a road trip to seven sites (two of which are also presented in the model hall), in a vertigo-inducing theater modeled after old-fashioned stereoscopes — an object of art unto itself.

The film visualizes the conversations these structures have with their landscapes, tracking the few visitors who frequent them, and putting the viewer in the front seat of a car hurtling through hairpin turns or a bicycle lazily strolling along a park path.

There are also long meditative stretches of no movement and total silence. Notably, the soundtrack, often barely discernible, weaves in and out of the background as gravel crunches under bike wheels, a faint waterfall swooshes in the distance, wind rustles or voices murmur.

“What fascinates me about ‘Detour,’” said Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Christian Strommen, “is that you literally peek into architecture interacting with nature, and at the same time realize that it serves the needs of travelers along Norway’s spectacular tourist routes.”

And in this way, the exhibit provides a detour from the utilitarian and a journey into the imagination along a road less traveled.

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.