By dividing one planned building into two with a passage, Mad Arkitekter turned a modern block in Nygaardsplassen, Fredrikstad, into a piece of sympathetic place-making
When zigzagging through the centre of Fredrikstad, a small town south east of Norway’s capital Oslo, you notice how smaller shopping malls are popping up in between cafés and shops. Their architecture is rather bland, lacking the well-known atmosphere of the ‘old city’ with its small wooden houses in historical colours. The sleepy environment is contagious, and it is not until you cut off from the main street that you are awakened by a completely new street facade with tempting offers in the ground floor units – that maintains and even enhances that appealing atmosphere.
Architect Mad Arkitekter was responsible for this new district. ‘A zoning plan from 2009 had originally approved a six-storey shopping mall on the site that would have closed off this entire area,’ explains architect, partner and CEO Karoline Kolstad Heen. ‘But luckily the plot was bought in 2013 by a local developer called Cityplan, which is well known for being engaged in the city´s development. It wanted us to create a new dynamic city quarter with residents and an active ground floor instead – and one of the owners is particularly fascinated by Blossom Street in London, hinting shamelessly that the design could be inspired by Spitalfield´s diversity of brick architecture.’
Mad was intrigued by the task of thinking in more traditional style. Until recently, this area, known as Nygaardsplassen, was nicknamed ‘Dead Square’. It consisted mainly of office buildings; no residential aspect at all meant that the area was totally silent after office hours. Brick buildings already faced the plot – two from the 1970s designed by local architect Arntsen and Solheim, and one modernist structure from the 1930s.
‘When we start a redevelopment like this we begin by studying historical maps if we can find them,’ adds Kolstad Heen. ‘Going back 150 years, we found that the area was small wooden houses framing a square in the middle. Over the years almost all the wooden houses had been replaced by these modern structures.’
When interrogating the maps, Mad discovered that by dividing the existing plot into two volumes, it could create a passage that would lead onto the old square with the other brick buildings.
‘The new piazza has almost exactly the same shape as the one from 1800. We wanted the two new structures to follow the lines formed by the older buildings from the passage opening,’ explains Kolstad Heen, pointing out how the new and old buildings together form a straight line from the main road.
But that did not mean that the process was without challenges. The passage is only 6m wide, whereas usually a street of this kind requires a minimum of 8m. This meant it had to have special dispensation from the local authority, which the architect successfully argued for in order to give the area the intimate atmosphere it was aiming for. There was also an existing underground car park covering the whole site that had a boundary less than 2m from the main road. As a result normal foundations were not possible. Instead, huge pillars had to be hammered down through the underground garage, but without obstructing any of the parking space. With a clearance of only 10cm to the carpark, it was decided to lay cobblestones on the new city floor. A seamless transition has been made between the different parts by combining new cobblestones with the reuse of old ones. Another challenge was the city floor, which rises 1m from the main street into the middle of the square. As a result, the architect had to design as many as seven different entrance solutions to the restaurants and shops at street level.
‘I think the number of dispensations we got from the zoning plan is some kind of a record,’ says Kolstad Heen, ‘but when the city council saw what a difference it would make to create a new outward-facing square instead of a closed shopping centre, we got a standing ovation at the planning meeting.’
In terms of appearance, the street facade showcases a variety of brickwork that gives the illusion that Mad has designed a whole new chain of buildings. The larger of the two structures is divided into five smaller segments, set apart by number of storeys, window types, colours, brick types and bonds. The use of brick was inspired in part by Fredrikstad’s history of brickmaking in the 1800s and 1900s. However, these bricks were sourced from the Netherlands and were selected for their handmade, hammered-look, specified in four types – Terca Blauw-Rood, Terca Pagus Gris, Terca Milano and Terca York Russet – with the many different combinations making it seem like more.
The material quality in the detailing is quite extraordinary. From wooden doors with brass handles to full-length varnished oak windows and lantern street lamps, the moment you enter the passage you feel like you are being drawn into a huge warm embrace, cared-for and encouraged to linger and mingle. Each detail has been carefully considered. Cantilevered balconies, for example, haven’t been attached to the exteriors, favouring instead inset Juliette balconies that create a more inviting, inclusive atmosphere below.
‘When balconies are attached to the exterior it sends out a signal that parts of the building are private, causing people to unconsciously take a few steps away from the house wall. We wanted people to feel free to walk all the way up to the block walls in the alley,’ Kolstad Heen explains.
To meet the required number of apartments, Mad has filled out the permitted six storeys in the zoning plan. However, by pulling back the two upper floors from the outer walls, it has toned down the impression of height from street level to retain a cosy but also light-filled space. This way it was also able to meet the outdoor space standards for the number of housing units by designing in five communal roof terraces and four private balconies.
The initial plan was to create apartments for sale, but Cityplan decided to keep the ownership of all 39 flats, subletting them through an external company called Wex Apartments. Entering one of the residential units in the large building is almost a revelation. Here you retreat from the activities on the ground floor, at the same time being part of the plaza life through generous French balcony doors. They can be booked directly for a few days’ getaway from everyday life, by people on the move, and by tourists who find it more appealing than renting a hotel room.
‘We have designed an interior in a more Nordic style, with focus on natural materials and light colours, instead of a more classical hotel style with floor-to-floor carpeting and heavy velvet décor,’ says Nora Gangfløt, manager of Wex Apartments. ‘Our customers say that this makes the apartments feel more homely and exclusive, like living in a design magazine.’
Wex Apartments is flouting tradition, however, by using a bar on the ground floor in the passage called Hoi Polloi as the reception for the apartment rentals. The bar is run by a local musician and another local man who is behind a number of popular bars in Oslo. The other commercial tenants on the ground floor have also been carefully selected to create a civic quality in the quarter, from the bakery to the fish restaurant and pizza place. Large windows showcase different interior design styles and the brickwork has been drawn inside in some of the venues – including in the fish restaurant, Holwech, where bricks are laid in herringbone pattern on the floor.
‘The spin-off effect is that adjacent buildings want to participate to improve the quarter. Owners of an older wooden building from the 19th century has for example opened up the old carriage entrance, creating another passage into the square,’ Kolstad Heen says.
It has shown to be beneficial that Cityplan is the owner of the ground floor venues, even though they are run as separate entreprises. This has made the cafés and restaurant collaborate – even to the extent of serving each other´s outdoor customers. This culture has made the atmosphere in the new district even more special. Indeed, the area was buzzing with people from all age groups every night last summer – proving that it’s possible to make an area come back to life after 40 years of being ‘dead’.
‘In Norway building codes and regulations have made urban structures increasingly standardised,’ adds Kolstad Heen. ‘This project shows what a difference quality architecture can do on the larger scale of a city´s development’ – so much so that Mad’s Fredrikstad branch will soon move into one of the 1970s buildings overlooking its first local commission.