Coasting along the roads of Norway, one is struck by beautiful mountain after breathtaking fjord, each bend of the road seems to yield a more spectacular view from the last. Just as you reach a spot where you must slow and crane your neck to take it all in, there is a pull-off that provides the perfect place to have at least a few minutes with the view before heading onto the rest of your journey. Sometimes there is just room enough to park and a bench for enjoying a snack, elsewhere there are buildings complete with cafes, museums and rest rooms. These strategically placed pull-offs are a part of an invitation for visitors to view Norway’s scenic beauty, traditional heritage, and contemporary design practice through a collection of drives called the National Tourist Route Project (NTRP). Combining stunning scenery with dramatically designed architecture, the NTRP immerses passersby in its intangible cultural heritage practices through the very tangible and strongly directed gaze of these viewing platforms, benches, and buildings.
Upon the project’s completion in 2023, there will be a total of eighteen official routes consisting of nearly 250 amenities including rest areas, viewing platforms, walking paths, and artworks. As of 2016, all of the eighteen routes have been designated with many of the structures completed. What has already been built has received a number of design awards and a wealth of positive international attention.
The NTRP is an ambitious investment in the tourist industry even for a country where tourism has long served as an integral component of the country’s economy. The NTRP cleverly takes necessary improvements to an existing piece of infrastructure and invests more than the functional minimum to create a unique asset that they hope will give back to the country’s second largest industry.¹
As stated by the official catalogue, “the National Tourist Routes are not only about the road as a transport artery, but also a gateway to a better understanding of culture, nature and history. Along these routes we would like time to be something that does not simply vanish, but something you experience.”
Whether visitors are overtly aware of this intentional exposure to Norway’s long-standing traditions, they are participants nonetheless. The NTRP places drivers amidst a spiderweb of heritage practices: the act of touring is a part of a tradition of viewing that, in turn, perpetuates long-standing cultural ideas of the picturesque; the rural villages and adaptive reuse of buildings are part of Norway’s vernacular heritage; and the contemporary architecture of new structures can be perceived as both an example of emergent authenticity and a continuation of the country’s history of “building with nature.” ²
This balance between subtle and overt, tangible and intangible has created a complex heritage that is enveloped in the tourist gaze and at times debatably authentic. (see Erik Cohen, “Authenticity and Commoditization in Tourism”). However, as cultural heritage scholar Laurajane Smith explains, the intangible qualities of memory, experience, and affect are heritage (emphasis added).³ The act of viewing the landscape, the encounter with nature, the experience of the place is the heritage that these route designations and pull-offs are highlighting.
Smith continues her point that heritage is so often grounded in the physical, material, and spatial because these geophysical markers, whatever they may be (and they can shift), provide a relational marker for an individual. “In a very real sense heritage becomes a cultural tool that nations…use to express, facilitate, and construct a sense of identity, self and belonging in which the ‘power of place’ is invoked in its representational sense to give physical reality to these expressions and experiences.”4 Whether tourist or resident, a sense of what it is to be Norwegian and to be within Norway is the overwhelming message of these sites.
Although the eighteen routes and their respective stopping points have long-served Norway as tourist spectacles – inspiring paintings, literature, and other arts – many of the pull-offs were previously, at most, basic wooden platforms, and many of the roads were in need of repair when the project began in 1994. 5 By framing heritage as the act of viewing rather than the physical material of the existing sites, the NTRP made room for the replacement of existing structures with contemporary Norwegian designs.
A jury of five architects and artists were charged with selecting designs that bring attention to existing cultural traditions and illustrate the emerging Norwegian design aesthetics. While some seasoned professionals were invited or selected through the competition process, in general, the jury favored younger designers providing a venue within which to experiment. 6 The curation by the jury has resulted in a cohesive overall aesthetic for the entire project.
For many of the sites, the influence of noted Norwegian architect, Sverre Fehn, and his iconic “build with nature” practice is obvious. Fehn’s work focused on modernist structures that responded to the surrounding landscapes in size, form and balance. 7 Likewise, the architectural tone of the NTRP structures often match that of the surrounding landscape. Pull-offs atop dramatic vistas and panoramas and are equally loud and awe-inspiring; those amidst rolling gentle hills are themselves quiet and simple. Some critics even suggest that the NTRP pushes the Norwegian “build with nature” tradition beyond its historic framework to new and fresh territories. 8
One of the most pronounced examples of this is the Trollstigen stop along the Trollstigen to Geiranger route that was designed by Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter AS. If one were to approach Trollstigen from the north, you would wind through a valley with towering mountains on either side. As you reach what seems to be an impassable wall of rock, the steep switchbacks of the road come into focus. Before continuing on, there is a pull-off. This spot is just large enough for a handful of cars but as you scan the route ahead you spot, slyly, at the very top, an angular feature jutting out from the rock. Where it appears no one can reach, there is a viewing platform seemingly miles away.
If one were to approach the Trollstigen stop from the south, you would find yourself winding gently amongs mountains in the distance with the space of wide open plateaus on either side. The southern rest area is where the main building and restrooms are. These rise out of the plateau unassumingly as triangles that mirror the shape of the distant peaks. Hidden from view of the parking lot is a pathway and stream that meander side-by-side. Just as the water takes a sharp turn down the face of a cliff, the ground beneath the pathway begins to drop off and you are standing over top of a sheer face. To the right you see the path continue to another viewing platform jutting out further from the cliff – one that provides a perfect view of the nearby waterfall and the switchback road below. Situated along the cliffside, the sharp and angular architecture speaks in harmony with the dramatic landscape around it; much like the cliff, it makes no attempt to blend in or hide. It is as pronounced and loud as the view while also remaining obviously disparate and man-made. At the heart of the NTRP is the ability of the structures to go toe-to-toe with the landscape and still bow its head in reverence.
The targeted use of materials is a large factor in how the architecture distinguishes itself while matching the tone of the landscape. Many of the NTRP sites do not stray from a palette of concrete, glass, wood, or Core-ten steel. These materials frame viewsheds of historic structures, sweeping landscapes, or older cairn markings that lead ambitious viewers up mountain trails. Thus, the materials of the new structures operate between the dichotomy of old and new by facilitating both at the same time. Cantilevered platforms, grated walkways with open views to straight below, and plate glass railings allow viewers to lean over and take in the landscape often in ways previously not possible at the sites.9 In one stroke, the structures promote traditional heritage as well as offer new traditions through the use of materials, aesthetics, and new viewing perspectives.
The National Tourist Route Project has embraced a nuanced and progressive approach to a seemingly straightforward need to repair infrastructure and increase tourism to the rural countryside. The NTRP expands heritage tourism beyond the UNESCO heritage sites that are peppered throughout the country to the more subtle and antiquated tradition, and, simultaneously, it exposes visitors to the contemporary design ethos of Norway. While financially the NTRP has required substantial funding, culturally, the project is low-hanging fruit. Objections to the project’s renovations of viewing platforms and bathrooms have been hard to find. By using an unique approach to infrastructure repair, the project has expanded Norwegian tradition in a way that is relatively non-confrontational and still authentic to the country’s cultural heritage. Likewise, the project protects natural resources by corralling tourists on durable structures rather than having them wander loose across the landscape. While most visitors may only be stopping at a given site momentarily, their gaze is heavily directed by the structures the NTRP has built whether bench or bridge, atop a cliff or alongside a sheep pasture. Though visitors may be unaware of all of the tradition embedded in their visit, they are being exposed to the significant parts of the Norwegian culture and perpetuating it themselves with each photo and story they pass along from the visit.
- Larsen, Janike Kampevold. “Global Tourism Practices as Living Heritage: Viewing the Norwegian Tourist Route Project.” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 9.1 (2012): 6. Web. 2. Larsen 4, 6-7. 3. Larsen 17. 4. Smith, Laurajane. Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print. 75. 5. Larsen 6; “Architecture and Art – National Tourist Routes in Norway.” National Tourist Route Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. 6. Ellefsen, Karl Otto. “Detoured Installations: The Policies and Architecture of the Norwegian National Tourist Routes Project.” Hensel, Michael, and Cordua, Christian Hermansen. Architectural Design : Constructions : An Experimental Approach to Intensely Local Architectures (1). New York, GB: Academy Press, 2015. 67. 7. Larsen 11. 8. Larsen 12. 9. Larsen 13.