The history of Villa Stenersen
Villa Stenersen is regarded as one of the foremost examples of Norwegian functionalism (or modernism) and is one of Arne Korsmo’s most well-known works.
Villa Stenersen was designed from 1937 to 1939 by the architect Arne Korsmo (1900–1968) for the financier and art collector Rolf E. Stenersen (1899–1978).
The house has been listed as a heritage building by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage, and refurbishments are gradually being carried out to restore the building to its original colours and materials. Rolf Stenersen donated the villa to the Norwegian state in 1974 to be used as the prime minister’s residence, but only one Norwegian prime minister ever lived there (Odvar Norli). In spring 2014 the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design took over the administration of Villa Stenersen and was put in charge of presenting the house’s architecture and design to the public.
The architect Arne Korsmo
By the time Arne Korsmo began working on Villa Stenersen, functionalism had already firmly established as a school of architecture. Nonetheless, the architect’s interest in innovative and untested solutions meant that his villas represented something entirely new. Characterized by its highly international style, Villa Stenersen is considered a major work both in Korsmo’s career and in Norwegian functionalism.
Korsmo’s commission from Rolf Stenersen was to design a single-family house for the Stenersen family. But just as importantly, the house would have to accommodate Stenersen’s art collection. That provision aside, Stenersen had few if any demands concerning the house’s appearance and design, and the free reins given to Korsmo may be clearly seen in the house and its design. As Korsmo himself noted a few years later (quoted in Vi selv og våre hjem no. 2/1940), “When the understanding of function, material, and form becomes a living aesthetic ideal for those who want something built, this will manifest itself as a stricter demand on the architect’s qualifications, and architecture will once again become the living, artistically powerful expression of the vibrant joy of life and of human trust. An owner who takes a leap of faith with the architect is therefore entitled to the best possible result.”
A house of glass and concrete
Given this philosophy, it comes as no surprise that Korsmo himself sought inspiration from his international idols and used architectural effects that he otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to use. There are clear similarities between Villa Stenersen – which was built in the fashionable Oslo neighbourhood of Vinderen, otherwise known for its wooden houses – and several of the era’s most prominent buildings. The house’s functionalist traits include the flat roof, the façade of polished white concrete, the accentuation of the substruction and its columns, and the free façade of glass and steel. Korsmo’s international sources of inspiration included Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1925) outside Paris and Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat (1929) in Brno. Villa Stenersen is the only Norwegian housemuseum that is included in the international network "Iconic Houses". "Iconic Houses" is a collection of modern houses that are designed by significant architects and open to the public.
A showcase for art
Korsmo’s use of functionalist effects is in any case not merely a matter of style. In Villa Stenersen, Korsmo used the open glass façades and the possibilities afforded by the free floor to accommodate the house to Stenersen’s art collection. This is particularly evident in the gallery room on the first floor: the façade is made of glass – mainly glass bricks – that provide the room with filtered lighting and thus spare the art from direct illumination. The exterior wall on this floor has been extended, and the supporting columns and girders we see in the bottom two floors of the façade are visible in the room. The functionalist principles made it possible to keep the entire room open, a possibility that Korsmo exploited in order to ensure the most favourable conditions for displaying the art. In addition to the gallery room, it was particularly the stairwell that was designed to house Stenersen’s art collection. Korsmo wanted a natural skylight effect, and he managed to achieve this by perforating the roof with 625 circular glass cylinders in three different shades of blue. The tall, broad walls of the stairwell constitute a gallery where the works of art line the stairs up to the topmost floor. Korsmo himself cited the stairwell as a key component of the house’s interior, describing the lighting effect as “a skylight that technically and aesthetically is one of the most beautiful results I have ever seen”.
The garage is one of the most distinctive elements of the house. Arne Korsmo wanted to alleviate the building’s robustly cubist style and employed circular forms to achieve this. We see this first in the semi-circular drive-through garage, which was custom-made for the owner. The garage serves two functions: it softens the building’s stringent style, even as it meets the needs of the owner – thus embodying the interaction between form and function. The car was a potent symbol of the success of industry in the 1920s and 1930s, and letting it play an independent role in Villa Stenersen was entirely in the spirit of the age.
Functionalism in all its full-colour glory
It is also worthwhile to take a look at Korsmo’s use of colours in Villa Stenersen. The first floor was restored in 2003 and now shows its original colours. Colours and chromatic schemes were of great importance to Korsmo in his houses. Two colour motifs are particularly apparent in the Villa Stenersen; the general interaction between yellow and green, and the shades of blue in the façade, the library, and the stairwell roof. Contrary to what is commonly assumed, virtually none of the interiors was ever white: in the gallery room, for example, the predominant hue is sandstone. By painting the background wall in turquoise, Korsmo accentuates the columns that support the house, very much in the spirit of functionalism. That subsequent generations have considered the functionalist style to be “white” is a misunderstanding that presumably stems from the white exteriors and from the preponderance of black-and-white photos of the interiors (which thus obscured the actual chromatic range). To this day, Villa Stenersen continues to stand out among the wooden houses of the Vinderen neighbourhood, though the howls of protest it met from its neighbours in 1938 have long since subsided.