Oslo Barcode Horizon

Oslo Barcode Horizon

Scanning Norway's Barcode Horizon

A few weeks ago, a Norwegian coastal steamer called the M.S. Nordnorge slowly made its way from Bergen in the country's southwest to Kirkenes in its far northeast. The voyage itself was nothing remarkable—ships make the run every day. But on this occasion, NRK, the state broadcasting company, televised the entire journey in real time. Astonishingly, half the country tuned in.

The 134-hour trip—which chronicled Norway's largely undeveloped coastline in excruciating detail—immediately became the stuff of legend. There is something quaint about a nation celebrating its scenery, in what amounts to a pastoral group hug, at a time when it might be assessing the meaning of another news story.

In early June, Monitor Group, a U.S.-based consulting firm, said it had ranked Norway's government pension fund, which invests the country's oil revenues, ahead of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority—making Norway's "oil fund," as everyone calls it, the largest sovereign-wealth fund in the world. Monitor puts the size of the fund at $560.5 billion (€389.5 billion). To consider the implications of that kind of piggy bank, meant to help out a country of five million people on a rainy day, I made a trip to the ground floor of Oslo's new PriceWaterhouseCoopers building, where Oslo S Utvikling AS, another cash-rich, largely government-owned entity, is busy redeveloping the city's waterfront.

"This is a laser pointer," said Odd Degnæs, an Oslo architect and my guide, as he selectively shined his piercing light on a scale model of what the city will look like in a decade or two.

Appearances deceive just about everywhere in Norway—which fancies itself a rustic holdout in a corrupt and complicated world, rather than a mover and shaker in that world's financial markets—but especially here in Oslo, which can still resemble the woeful provincial backwater that insinuated its way into the work of Ibsen and Munch.

Oslo remains marked by second-rate brick structures, souvenirs of its centuries-long status as a dependent of the Danish and Swedish crowns. But that shell of derivativeness is gradually being pierced by one remarkable building after another. In 2008, the city opened its new waterfront opera house. And in a few years from now, a dozen impressive high-rises, collectively called the Barcode Project, will became an anchor for the whole redevelopment of Oslo's vast inner fjord.

Where does the name "Barcode" come from, I asked Mr. Degnæs, who works with DARK Architects, the Oslo studio that collaborated on the project's winning master plan with two other firms. "It just sort of emerged during the competition," he said, scanning his laser over the 12 model buildings lined up in a densely striped row.

The highest of the buildings is no more than 18 stories, which isn't very tall, even by Oslo standards. (Two much taller buildings, genuine skyscrapers from the 1970s and '80s, are a short walk away.) But Barcode quickly became a codeword for many Norwegians who want to turn back the clock and recapture the low-rise look of their traditionally low-profile capital. "The discussion about Barcode was very intense in Norway," said Mr. Degnæs. "It delayed the project by at least three years." All 12 buildings should be built by 2014.

Mr. Degnæs's casual appearance and affable manner are also deceiving. He isn't just a friendly guy in his mid-50s—he is a major player in Norwegian life. His clients include the country's biggest bank and Statoil, Norway's energy behemoth. And his architecture office's parent firm, DARK AS, is actually a conglomerate with several constituent entities, including a-lab, the architecture studio that designed the building we were standing in. "I'm chairman of the board of the holding company," he finally admitted, with what I would call frank modesty.

The Sweet Life

The prices of summer homes in Risør, the seaside resort a three-hour drive south of Oslo, are high even for Norwegians, but many Oslo residents join in the splendor by sleeping on their boats.

In late June and early July, Risør attracts a music-loving subset of boat owners to its summer chamber-music festival. A highlight of this year's line-up is tomorrow's Lieder concert by German baritone Matthias Goerne and Norway's superstar pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who will perform alternating songs by Mahler and Shostakovich.

It's common to link the two composers' symphonies, says Mr. Andsnes, but not the songs. The program, which the musicians will take to the Salzburg Festival later this month, may be "dark," Mr. Andsnes concedes, but "the Shostakovich brings out the sweetness in the Mahler."

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