COPENHAGEN – There has been a glimmer of hope for an Oslo building decorated with murals by Pablo Picasso which was doomed for demolition after years of resistance from pressure groups.
Dubbed the Y-Block, the 51-year-old government building in the Norwegian capital which was the target of a terror attack in 2011 and was due to be completely demolished by the end of the year in a controversial plan.
Authorities have begun to empty the interior and are planning to remove two of the five murals sandblasted into the modernist building’s walls designed by the Spanish artist.
The Fisherman is a huge relief and covers the building’s facade facing the busy street of Akersgata and The Seagull, a smaller work, is located in the lobby.
Both are examples of Picasso’s first monumental murals created in collaboration with Norwegian painter Carl Nesjar.
Ellen De Vibe, former director of urban planning in Oslo between 1998 to 2019, tells EFE: “The murals are integrated into the building, they are an architectural unit.
“It is the whole that constitutes the work of art, removing them and hanging them elsewhere would destroy it.”
De Vibe took part in protests which started in 2014 to save the building, spearheaded by a support group to save Y-Block.
Y-Block was built in 1969 by Erling Viksjø and has great architectural value as well as being a symbol for the Norwegian welfare state, according to De Vibe.
“It has great symbolic value for social democracy and the reconstruction of Norway after World War Two, links with the UN and peace and is a memory of July 22,” Kjersti Hembre and Hanne Sophie Claussen, members of the pressure group, say.
On July 22 2011, far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik planted a bomb in the government complex killing eight people.
He then went on to commit a massacre on the Utøya island where the Labor Youth camp was being held, killing 69.
The Fishermen was a gift from Picasso to the Norwegian people for a specific place, the facade facing the bustling square so it would be “visible to pedestrians,” Hembre and Claussen add.
The mural also links Y-Block and Høyblokka (H-Block), the main building of the site.
Initially, the government wanted to demolish the entire complex but fierce opposition led authorities to revise plans and in 2014 they decided to keep spare H-Block and restore it.
Urban planning proposed an alternative to the demolition in 2013 but Statsbygg, the body that oversees the Norwegian state real estate assets, did not review the proposal, recalls De Vibe.
Statsbygg went ahead with a new plan for the area which was approved by parliament in June 2019 and the city council granted permission a month later.
The government has defended its plans to tear down the building citing security and safety issues because there is a ring road under Y-Block and the site was severely damaged by the bombing.
But critics argue the building is several decades older than the road and technical solutions exist including its maintenance and reducing the area of the complex which would be cheaper and salvage the historic site.
The fight to preserve the block and prevent the relocation of the murals to another building has also seen heritage defense groups and organizations like UNESCO, the International Council of Monuments and Sites and the American art museum MoMA.
De Vibe believes the hasty decision to demolish the complex was made while the country was in a “state of shock” following the terror attack.
“By taking the demolition order so soon, Y-Block was left out, there are commitments in place that make it difficult to change plans.
“For some, it is a matter of principle and it would be a defeat to backtrack,” Hembre and Claussen add.
When parliament rejected a motion to stop the demolition two weeks ago, just as an Oslo court had done before, several groups withdrew the lawsuit filed by lawyer Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Just when all hope seemed to have dissipated, a glimmer of optimism emerged last week for opponents of the demolition.
The families of Nesjar and Viksjø sent a letter to municipal authorities saying they were not consulted when the decision to relocate and reuse the murals was made.
Norwegian law requires artistic consent for works to be used again but only Picasso’s family was consulted and granted authorization.
Minister of local government Nikolai Astrup said that according to the intellectual property rights agency Picasso was registered as the artwork’s sole author.
If Urban Planning considers the law has been breached, it could withdraw the permit and freeze the demolition.