Erling Viksjø contributed to the design of monumental buildings in Norway more than any other architect in the period following World War II. He won many of the most prestigious architectural awards of his time, and was responsible for the buildings of the Government Quarter in Oslo, among others. Today, Viksjø’s name is inextricably linked to modern, large-scale high-rises, constructed in a material he called Naturbetong, in styles such as Brutalism. However, he also developed several other new materials, and wanted to create a “softer” modernist architectural style.
Modern = concrete
After completing his architectural studies, Viksjø worked for a period in the office of architect Ove Bang in Oslo. There he worked on Bakkehaugen Church and on the competition sketch for the new Government Quarter. Bang was one of the leading Functionalist architects in Norway. He was internationally oriented and an avid devotee of radical architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The experience Viksjø gained in Bang’s architectural practice most likely inspired him to work with concrete, high-rises and modern building design. He sought modern forms of expression, and was particularly enthusiastic about Le Corbusier.
Movement in concrete
Viksjø collaborated widely with others, which also led him to explore new paths. Around 1950 he experimented extensively with concrete as a material, and together with engineer Sverre Jystad he developed his signature material, Naturbetong. The material is made by filling a casting mould with small natural stones and then pouring in a thin mortar mixture. When the material hardens, the surface can be sandblasted, revealing the stones under the surface. This innovation made it possible to create patterns and images directly on the wall surfaces of the buildings. Viksjø contructed several of his early works using this technique, such as the Block of bedsits for members of the Storting (Norwegian parliament) (1950–54, demolished in 1972), and his own Summer House in Larvik (1956–57). The technique was used to particularly great effect in the two buildings of the Government Quarter: the High-Rise (1946–59) and the Y-block (1952–69, demolished in 2020).
The High-Rise – the peak of Brutalist architecture in Norway
In 1946 Viksjø established his own architectural office in Oslo. Work on the Government Quarter was a pivotal project from its very start, and spanned several decades. In the 14-storey High-Rise, which was completed in 1959, the emphasis was on straight angles and clear, repetitive shapes (the building was altered and extended in 1988–90). For this reason it is often referred to as the epitome of a new, monumental modernism in post-war Norway, and of the Brutalist style. The phenomenon Béton Brut was the subject of heated discussion in its time, and arose out of Le Corbusier’s extensive use of raw concrete in architecture both before and after World War II.
Architect with a love of art
Viksjø was interested in visual art, knew many artists and was himself a painter. For the High-Rise he engaged four younger, radical, abstract painters to execute artworks directly onto the concrete: Inger Sitter, Carl Nesjar, Tore Haaland and Odd Tandberg. In addition, Hannah Ryggen was asked to create a large tapestry for the entrance hall, and Nesjar created walls based on drawings by Kai Fjell. Pablo Picasso himself joined in towards the end of the project. Several walls of the High-Rise were based on drawings by Picasso, and these were also sandblasted by Nesjar. The collaboration of Viksjø, Nesjar and Picasso developed further in several sculpture projects, and culminated in two murals decorating the Y-Block: The Fishermen and The Seagull (1956–69).
Throughout the 1960s Viksjø continued to experiment with concrete. Together with Odd Tandberg he developed what they called conglo concrete, incorporating natural stones of different sizes cast within the concrete. The concrete blocks were then cut into thin plates. This procedure resulted in what were almost abstract compositions with decorative colour fields. Among the buildings where this technique can be seen are the Norsk Hydro headquarters (1955–63), the Elkem building (1959–65) and Standard Telefon og Kabelfabrik (1966–67).
Architecture as sculpture
Viksjø created a unique form of interaction between architecture and art. In many of his buildings he established an intimate connection between the two art forms, resulting in a cohesive architectural sculpture. The desire to forge a synthesis where architecture and art worked together without losing their distinctive features was already apparent in Bakkehaugen Church (1939–46, 1955–59), but reached its pinnacle in late works such as the Oslo Board of Health and the Y-Block, the latter now demolished.
Hallvard Trohaug: Arkitekt Erling Viksjø (Oslo: Museum of Architecture, 1999)
Berit Griebenow: Erling Viksjøs høyblokk: Et Gesamtkunstwerk? (Master’s thesis in art history, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo, autumn 2014)
Espen Johnsen: Erling Viksjø. Eksperimenter i form og betong (Oslo, Pax forlag, 2020)
Espen Johnsen, Talette Simonsen, Øivind Storm Bjerke, Øystein Ustvedt: Bevegelser i betong, Arkitekten Erling Viksjø og kunstnerne (Oslo: National Museum, 2020)