March 24, 2023

‘Nature’ is not a place

Research Update: part of ongoing research for the 2022 Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship. Exploring the potential for a structured program of small public architecture in regional NSW by investigating the standout international example of the Nasjonale turistveger (Norwegian Tourist Routes) in Norway.

Building a sense of regional identity: The Høse Bridge in Sand by Rintala Eggertsson Architects.

At this stage of my research, I’ve been learning about the Norwegian Tourist Routes (NTR) in Norway, reflecting on differences between the Norwegian and Australian contexts and interviewing key people involved in the project. I will be travelling to Norway in May and will be posting another update before I go.

Comparing the Norwegian and Australian Contexts

There are key differences between the Norwegian and Australian contexts that are relevant to my research. In Norway, wealth from natural resources flows directly to citizens via the Sovereign Wealth Fund, the largest fund in the world. Australia’s Future Fund is modest by comparison and has no structural link to mining wealth (its capital came largely from the sale of Telstra).

In Norway, the ‘right to roam’ policy allows allows travellers to camp wherever they please. Hikers have access to an extensive network of hiking huts for a low annual membership fee through the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT). Free camping is rare in Australia by comparison, and hiking cabins aren’t nearly as prevalent in our national parks (although this is starting to change, as State Governments experiment with different models for hiking huts in National Parks).

Following a groundswell of grassroots activism in the 1970s and 80s, Norway established an effective parliament for the Sami people. The Sami Parliament is an elected body of representatives that advises the Norwegian Government on all matters relating to Sami people and culture. There is no such body for indigenous Australians, however the Voice to Parliament Referendum is a sign of positive change.

'Is this research?': Jordan Silver at his desk. Illustration by Jordan Silver.

Understanding the Origins of Norway’s Tourist Routes

The NTR was conceived by the Norwegian Public Roads Administration as a domestic tourism initiative. Following Norway’s economic windfall, Norwegians had taken to vacations in the Mediterranean, neglecting domestic travel. Parallel to this, new tunnels and highways had bypassed many of Norway’s older roads, known for their hairpin roads and spectacular views. To draw more tourism, the Roads Administration funded a pilot program of new lookouts and rest stops along Norway’s 18 most scenic driving routes.

Whilst the idea of ‘scenic routes’ was nothing new in Norway (European nobility had traditionally travelled to Norway to undertake scenic road trips), the idea to combine them with experimental contemporary architecture was an innovation. 30 years on, the program has been enormously successful, drawing local and international tourism. The NTR is now experiencing something of a generational shift as Jan Andresen, the program founder, retires. To mark the occasion, the Roads Administration has published a new book and is holding a seminar in Oslo which I will attend.

'Nature' is not a place: One criticism of Norway's Tourist Routes is that they reinforce an outdated way of connecting with nature. Illustration by Jordan Silver.

Conversations with key people: emerging themes

My conversations with key people involved with the NTR are proving invaluable in helping me form a nuanced understanding of the program and introducing me to highly relevant concepts that I hadn’t considered before I began my research. Some interesting critiques have emerged too. My conversation with Ingerid Almaas, ex-editor of Arkitektur N and leader at DOGA, revealed a view of the NTR that I hadn’t considered; that it reinforces an outdated, picturesque attitude towards nature. During our conversation, Ingerid helped me see the limitations of the ‘spectacle’ as a guiding aim for these projects. Left unchecked, this emphasis can prioritise Instagram attention over genuine connection with landscape for visitors.

For Ingerid Almaas, the NTR reinforce a picturesque attitude towards nature.

My conversation with Dagur Eggertson of Rintala Eggertson Architects centred around the differences between a top-down and grass roots approach to small public architecture. Dagur told a great story of one of their NTR projects, the Høse Bridge in Sand, where local community had developed a strong sense of ownership of the project through its design and delivery. After speaking to Dagur, I’d like to understand if other NTR projects have managed to create a similar feeling of ownership within their local communities. My sense is that the top-down structure of the NTR could form a barrier to meaningful community engagement, but I’m looking forward to exploring this more in future conversations.

For Dagur Eggertsson, the top-down model of the NTR creates limitations for community engagement.

Karl Otto Ellefsen was another fascinating contact. His long-standing involvement in NTR as an academic and critic has granted him rare insight into the evolution of the program over 30 years. Karl explained that the motivation for each scenic routes project has been to provide a highly contextual interpretation of its setting, an approach made popular by a group of Oslo practices in the 1990s. Karl was quick to dispel my growing belief that Norwegians have solved many of the social issues that face Australians today, particularly around indigenous relations. He referred to active protests in Oslo about a critical issue in Norway; the illegal development of renewable energy infrastructure on traditional Sami land. Karl acknowledged a lack of engagement with Sami culture in the NTR projects, suggesting that this would be a likely priority for the program if it were to be created today.

For Karl Otto Ellefsen, the NTR has maintained a highly contextual approach to its projects over its 30 year lifespan.

The themes that have emerged from these conversations are helping me refine my research questions, which will inform my next round of conversations. I’m looking forward to delving deeper into these themes and discovering any others as I progress. Alongside my international research, I am also developing a detailed travel itinerary and making local contacts who can help inform a future NSW-based program.

More to come…


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