Last week, the Guggenheim Museum in New York held a symposium to celebrate the closing of the exhibit Detour (which was on view at Parsons School of Design) and had showcased examples of innovative infrastructural sites along Norway’s new tourism roads. Undertaken by the Norwegian Tourism Board in 1998, the National Tourist Roads endeavor will eventually comprise 18 different roadways along which contemporary artists and architects have designed infrastructural sites. Six are open and the rest will be completed by 2016.
The symposium mostly featured speakers involved with the projects, including a keynote lecture from Swiss architect and 2009 Pritzker Prize winner Peter Zumthor. Svein Rønning, artist and head of the Arts Council for the National Tourist Roads Project, opened the symposium with slides that introduced the audience to the various built projects in their natural settings. These weren’t multi-lane highways – they were patient little roads, snaking around the Norway’s looming geological wonders. Although there were plenty of detailed images, in even the most gracious of panoramas presented the audience was forced to squint to see where exactly these buildings and projects were located. “Mark Dion’s project would be right about here,” said Rønning as he pointed to a void of mountainside greenery. Unlike the garish roadside oddities that scream at drivers in America, discretion was part of the idea for Rønning.
The general thinking has been that for transportation infrastructure to properly function, it must be as streamlined and ostensible as possible. But what if the psychology were the other way around? What if infrastructure challenged its users, instead of pandering to them? Rønning begged these questions with his presentation by calling the National Tourist Roads projects “question marks” in the landscape, inviting travelers to abandon their cars and venture into the Norwegian wilds. One such venture was the roadside stairway pictured above, which inches up a former hill (that had been severed by the road’s engineers) and leads to a pathway that disappeared past a waterside bluff into the forest. Architect, Einar Jarmund, principal of Jarmund/Vigsnæs, later presented his images of this project along the Lofoten Tourist Road, explaining how the path possessed no traditional semiotic indicators; no sign, no instruction – only the curious color of bright yellow, represented in path’s railing, seen from the road’s approach as a horizontal lightening bolt across the landscape. The gesture was simple yet seductive.
This effort has given younger architects and artists the opportunity to realize their first public works; Rønning argued that they were more likely to take risks, which were encouraged. They joined more established contemporary artists such as Mark Dion and Fischli & Weiss along with the senior firms Snøhetta and Peter Zumthor’s. Zumthor showed slides of his collaboration with artist Louise Bourgeois on a memorial that remembered those who perished during a spate of witch burnings in Steineset. Currently being constructed, its two buildings, one elongated, and another a cubic pavilion, sit in snow banks along the waterfront, just outside the town. Though one building shimmers in the night with lights for each of the dead, and the other endures with an eternal flame, there’s no real path to get there.