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The opposite of Shard: Piano in Oslo

Renzo Piano’s new Astrup Fearnley Museum is so laid back it’s horizontal, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Nic Lehoux

Iconic buildings are a pain in the ass. They look great (if you like that sort of thing) but it’s usually at the expense of function. Look at Renzo Piano’s Shard. Why make an office building the shape of a tall, thin pyramid? The higher you go, the smaller the floorplate gets. That’s why Piano stuck a boxy extension round the back, to satisfy tenant space demands. But from a distance the Shard looks amazing. On the skyline. On magazine covers. In films. Wow.

Piano’s latest, the £65 million Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo is nothing like London’s towering spire. ‘This is the opposite to the Shard,’ says Piano. ‘This place tells the story of horizontality.’

That’s true. It’s located on parkland at the far end of the busiest strip of Oslo’s waterfront and marks the end of a pleasant city walk. But it’s also a much smarter building than the Shard in that’s its iconic form, the one you’ll see in press clips and tourist guides, is only part of the story. This is an icon with two modes of expression: an angular, expressive, metaphorical one, in the form of a giant glass roof that gives it the iceberg look tourists might expect an Oslo landmark to have. And a more formal, orthogonal, timber-clad one, huddled beneath the transparent glaze, that is comfortable to visit and use.

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Astrup Fearnley Museum by Renzo Piano

The museum, funded by two philanthropic foundations established by descendants of the Fearnley shipping family, houses a privately owned contemporary art collection, with some of the best work from the 80s and 90s on show. Jeff Koons’ ceramic Michael Jackson and Bubbles is among them, alongside other striking works such as Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided (those cows, cut in two) and a series of Cindy Sherman untitled portraits.

There’s loads of disturbing pop art, the kind that makes the tabloids squeal: stuff by Gilbert and George, Richard Prince, and Fischli/Weiss. In the main entrance lobby, visitors are greeted by Takashi Murakami’s 3-meter Girl, a giggling, knock-kneed, Manga femme with unfeasibly large breasts. If you like this kind of thing, there’s no better collection to visit in Europe.

That’s why the building is a surprise. You’d expect a white cube like David Chipperfield’s Folkwang in Essen. Or maybe a big shed like Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum in Glasgow. Instead you get a three-building complex defined by steel masts, cable ties and Aspen timber facades, and laminated timber beams that soar overhead. It feels a like a campus or business park development. But in a good way. Because hidden beneath his iconic, arcing botanic-style roof, Piano has cultivated his own chunk of city in the Tjuvholmen district of the Norwegian capital. ‘It’s a happy building,’ he says. ‘It’s a great quality. You don’t have to be stupid to be happy.’

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Astrup Fearnley Museum by Renzo Piano

Divided in two by a canal with pathways either side, the museum covers an area of 7,000m2 of fjord-side headland southwest of the city centre. One half houses a large temporary exhibition space and café and sits alongside a waterfront sculpture park with its own beach. Across the canal over a wide bridge, the entrances to the other exhibition spaces, in two separate buildings, are at quay level. The larger of the two only has art at ground level - with office space above.

A broad expanse of steps between them leads to the Sneak Peak tower, a 90m observation spike marking the centre of this new arts quarter. In the network of streets in the emerging townscape beyond, a continuation of the Aker Brygge development built in the 1990s, there are a clutch of private galleries, a number of restaurants and a five-star hotel. Piano calls the museum ‘a place where art and community can meet’.

This happens most deliberately in the galleries, a series of 10 rooms across the three buildings, each with a different ceiling height and shape. The biggest of them is the main gallery in the temporary exhibition. It has two floors: one floor at ground level and one on the mezzanine, and is lit with natural light from a corner-cut skylight. Across the canal, the exhibition spaces of the art museum on the north side of the canal extend under the steps between the quay level and the Sneak Peak tower (not designed by Piano). There is nothing special about the way the art is displayed and the spaces don’t feel anything more than adequate but touring them is enjoyable: I felt comfortable there, and if someone took against the galleries I’d wonder why.

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Astrup Fearnley Museum by Renzo Piano

In some ways Piano has forged a definitively Scandinavian building and there are two seminal projects that have influenced his design, both very different expressions of regional style. As Piano himself admits, there is the remarkable Louisiana Museum of Modern Art by Vilhelm Wohlert and Jørgen Bo, ‘a roof with many places beneath’ set within grounds dotted with sculptures. And there is Snøhetta’s opera house across town, whose building-as-landscape form and clamber-all-over me charms demanded an equally gestural and friendly response of Piano. It doesn’t quite match either of those buildings in terms of craft and surprise but it successfully remixes their values to make a fun new venue for Oslo.

If you’re used to the adrenalin hit you get from the Bilbao clones that usually host the kind of art the Astrup Fearnley specialises in, you might be underwhelmed. But stay for a while; it might convince you. Like when you stand on the bridge and look back towards the city and frame a perfect view of Oslo City Hall, a stylish brick giant by Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson. Or when you skirt the edge of the beach and look back at the museum - its masts, the timber and glass - you could be at a sailing club. But what kind of sailing club has sculptures by Gormley and Kapoor in its grounds?

Then inside, you stop for a while by a picture window in one of the smaller side galleries. There are lovely views across the fjord. Later, you take a boat-trip, and see the strange roof in all its glory, sculptural, photogenic, perfect for the brochures. It seems an entirely different building. At one end it almost touches the ground. Is it dipping into a man-made pool… why? A huge cruise liner moves into view, children run and play on the grass verges; there’s lots going on. It’s a real place.

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