Farmer, baker, community maker

What is Losæter? A cultural institution? A place to eat; or to escape from it all, in the middle of the city? An art-led approach to Norway’s transformational development has not only created a new urban community – but has caught the eye of international observers, says Fiona Shaw.

Farmer, baker, community maker

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Nestled between the concrete ventilation shafts of an Oslo tunnel, straddled by the skeleton of a Nordic lifeboat, the beauty of Losæter is that it’s different things to different people. Sitting on common land along the Bjørvika waterfront, it’s dedicated to a range of activities around art and urban food production. It includes the city’s Flatbread Society, Herligheten allotment community, an ancient grain field, a bakehouse and Oslo’s first city farmer – but it’s also changing all the time.

Photo © Sebastian Dahl

This area is a former container port, marking the point where the river Akerselva meets the Oslo fjord. Opposite Bjørvika’s shiny ‘Barcode’ district, and adjacent to the sophisticated apartments of Sørenga, traditionally this area was full of barriers separating the city from the fjord – roads, railways, and a closed container port.  

It’s also part of a new cultural centre in the city, encompassing Oslo’s new opera house; a seafront promenade and seawater swimming pool. Work on a new public library has just started, while a new museum celebrating artist Edvard Munch is on the horizon. 

Increasingly though, this unconventional enclave is becoming the face of the city. As Oslo heralds its status as European Green Capital for 2019, “what is on the front page?” asks Anne Beate Hovind, art director at developer Bjørvika Utvikling. “It’s this place. What kind of experiences do people look for when they’re visiting a city? It’s these tactile experiences. People are really understanding now how important it is.” Hovind is the person responsible for commissioning Losæter’s evolution – by the artist collective Futurefarmers – alongside its twin project, Future Library. 

Photo © Bjørvika Utvikling by Vibeke Hermanrud

Oslo is one Europe’s fastest-growing capital cities and the last 15 years has seen 650,000 square metres of former port, road and rail reimagined, bringing 5,000 apartments, offices, shops, restaurants and cultural spaces to the mouth of the Akerselva. A tunnel buries the road – see those towers – and 40% of the area is designated as common land, including three kilometres of promenade and Losæter’s edible garden. Unsurprisingly, it’s Norway’s biggest ever transformation. It’s based on an idea from Oslo City Hall, which has gathered pace since the early 1980s, of Oslo becoming a fjord city, embracing its breathtaking views across the bay, rather than turning its back on it.

“Turning this industrial harbour into a new city is a total transformation. The master plan has seven commons and a promenade, and I was responsible for commissioning art in these public spaces,” says Hovind. “If we followed a reptile brain decision, we would probably select an artwork – a sculpture which is big and figurative. We understand this art; a bronze – in Norway, that would be a moose and I’m sure every culture has their own bronze. So, we wanted something different – we wanted something that was relevant for urban people today.

“And so, we commissioned artists that have worked with more slow space and more organically-developed and participatory works. We selected Futurefarmers because of the work they had already done which was quite green – or urban farming, in a way.” San Francisco-based Amy Franceschini took on the role of the lead artist. But it wasn’t all plain sailing in those early days…

“When we first introduced them, people were actually laughing at me,” admits Hovind, with a smile. “Because in Norway people thought ‘no, that’s not relevant. Why would that be something nice in the city?’ But of course, eight years later, we understand that was totally wrong. It’s very relevant and it’s become a participatory space – it’s developed organically with the artists in dialogue. It’s become a big symbol of what urban life is about.”

 As a visitor to Oslo, I’m always impressed by the sense of balance in the city: workers leave early on Friday afternoons to head for the mountains to walk or ski; they value the green as much as the blue of the fjord – and the bricks of this elegant city. But Hovind suggests that’s easier to see from the outside in, than from with the conventional wisdom of the city. “I think we are very much in nature, but we don’t articulate the value of it. We don’t see the trees for the forest. I’m very nature-based and have realised that I have a language for passing on that knowledge,” (Hovind grew up on a farm) “– I didn’t know that when I started this project, but through trying to communicate what this is about, I found it. I remembered a lot about farming, I remembered a lot about forestry. That is tacit. It’s in my genes.”

 This is a more considered, ‘slow Oslo’ approach. Since 2012, that has included planting a cultural grain field from nine varieties of heritage grain. Previously thought extinct, the grains were donated by Johan Swård, who took apart his old barn to reclaim them. A thriving urban gardening community has come together following a call for allotment boxes in ‘Herligheten’ – 4,000 people applied for 100 boxes. In 2013, Futurefarmers created a temporary bakehouse and hosted public programmes to test the idea of a permanent bakehouse. And, because you can here, they bundled their oven into a canoe, baking flatbread, and paddled around the city, speaking to neighbours and gathered ideas, opinions and reflections on the development in Bjørvika.

The lifeboat structure is, in fact, Losæter’s permanent bakehouse – its three ovens are open for public use, stimulating a growing community of local bakers. Food studios, a city farmer, herbalists and bakers – amongst so many others – are testament to the significance of food in our society, and the time we spend talking about it, appreciating it and considering its role in a more sustainable society: “I think it’s a growing awareness now – understanding how important nature is. It’s time to think in our heaving technical world,” says Hovind.

Photo © Alexander Benjaminsen

Losæter was officially named in 2015, its new moniker reflecting the communal nature of the idea – ‘Losæter’ combines two Norwegian words for common land: ‘Loallmenning’ and ‘sæter’. ‘Lo’ gives the geographic location of the site, near the water, while ‘sæter’ captures the right to put animals to pasture and to put up a house for the summer. It is a community with something for everyone. Well, almost everyone. “It involves people that don’t play soccer, for instance,” says Hovind. “It’s not another soccer field; people with dementia use the space. Kids use it. It’s so much broader. People from across Oslo come here. It’s become a very symbolic, important space because it’s in the middle of the urban development. It’s a reminder of the cultural heritage of farming and baking and the old grains…biodiversity; social sustainability. It has it all.”

Hovind admits that, from Bjørvika Utvikling’s perspective, there is no business case for her job. “BU doesn’t make money from it,” she says. “But new public spaces are both expected – and there is a strong belief that it’s an important part of building a city. My board has been very brave and trusted in me and the process. They got paid for being so brave – they have trusted the art as something different than business.” 


Losæter and its sister project, Future Library, are bold projects and Hovind points to her ‘make yourself irresistible’ strategy when I ask her about the move from pop-up to permanent. “I talk about this a lot,” she admits. “I always say that if my board had told me to do a risk assessment for Future Library, nothing would have happened. A better way to make things happen is to do temporary first, but when it comes to Future Library, it was permanent. Although there was much more, I didn’t tell everyone everything in the beginning. But when I had fixed the forest and fixed the room and Margaret Atwood said ‘yes’ to be the first author, that’s when I really started to believe that it was going to happen. People have to suddenly realise that they love it, and then they realise the point of no return has already been.”

Hovind commissioned the artist Katie Paterson to create the Future Library: alongside Losæter’s gardens, a new forest is springing up. In 2114, 100 years from the start of the project, the 1,000 newly-planted pine trees in Nordmarka forest will become an anthology of books, printed on paper made from the trees. Every year, a new author is commissioned to write something for the library, which will be held in trust in Bjørvika’s new library, only to be read a century from now. Margaret Atwood was the first to contribute a new piece of work: David Mitchell; Icelandic author Sjón, London-based Turkish writer, Elif Shafak and, most recently, South Korean author Han Kang have also been announced.

 This is art unconstrained by the walls of a gallery, an entry fee or, indeed, a bronze moose; combined with community, sustainability and deep thought about our relationship with the world around us. “I’m on a mission,” says Hovind. “We have to make sure our kids physically experience nature or else they will lose empathy and they will make wrong decisions. It’s not only a drill in your head, it’s an actual physical experience.

Photo © Bjørvika Utvikling by Vibeke Hermanrud

“The Future Library is extremely well-known, now,” Hovind says. “And it’s fantastic to end up with these two commissioned works that are totally different from anything. It has really challenged our perception about living in the city. Even though we are far up north, in a quiet corner of the world. I think it resonates with people both in Norway – but also globally – that this is what our lives are about.”


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