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David Adjaye established his own practice in 1994 and quickly gained a reputation for reconstructing cafés, bars and private homes. Adjaye/Associates is now involved with major public projects, such as the newly completed Ideas Store in Whitechapel, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham.

At the end of the long Cold War, even the most cynical among us dared to believe that the world's attentions and efforts might turn a little towards minimising conflict and the use of arms. Instead, we learned yet again that the cause of peace is the most elusive of goals and needs promoting. The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo opened 11 June 2005 and aims to 'promote peace through reflection, debate and involvement, by bringing major and minor conflicts to the public eye'. And if that wasn't challenging enough, it is also supposed to be a major tourist attraction and commemorate both the Nobel Peace Prize and its founder (and the prize choices are sometimes controversial: Henry Kissinger received one, for example, but Mahatma Gandhi did not).

Finding an architectural expression for this complicated brief would be a challenge, especially since the given venue is a small former train terminal. Adjaye/Associates received the commission in 2002, when its portfolio was still mostly residential, but the practice was already known for the unabashed sensuality of its use of materials and its seductive ability to be both architecturally ambitious and relaxed. The Peace Centre proves once again that Adjaye is capable of some stunning architecture, but raises questions of the meaning of materials and spaces and how literal or narrative such choices can or should be.

Accepting the premise that the Peace Centre should be easily accessible as a bar and restaurant, its prominent location facing the harbour is excellent. Oslo, like most European cities on water, is moving its port, railway lines and industry away from the city centre and creating residential and commercial use there.

The Peace Centre is part of a 121,600m 2 development of the area, for which the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) won a design competition in 2002, but almost all of it will be behind the train terminal. Nevertheless, such a soon-to-be bustling location will no doubt help make the centre a major tourist attraction.

The old Vestbanen train terminal is the last remaining 19th-century structure in the area and is bounded by Oslo's stunning brick City Hall, Akershus Castle and the Aker Brygge Waterfront Development. It has a huge public space in front of it, a largely undifferentiated plaza on the waterfront, which OMA recognises is a problem: 'Confronted with the largest urban plaza in Oslo - a summer paradise and a winter void - our proposal suggests an interior counterpart: an 'urban living room'. The terminal itself caused numerous problems for Adjaye. The building is a creamy yellow, Italianate confection from 1872 with arched windows of various sizes and patterns. Two towers with chamfered corners and a three-bay facade, topped by a row of skinny, arched windows separated by engaged columns clinging on to a sloping sill, define the entrance. The two sides of the building splay out and back from the facade. While the terminal has sentimental value in Oslo, its composition is incredibly inelegant and it floats in the space of the plaza like a meringue in a bathtub. As you might have guessed, the building is under the strictest preservation protection.

Adjaye was well aware of the possibly lethal effects of such an urban and architectural context and took the practical and radical strategy of ignoring the building formally and materially.

For the exterior he designed a horizontal, aluminium-clad gateway that is the exact opposite of the terminal in every way. An identical form, though slightly smaller and in a different material, is the first thing one encounters, almost bumps into, in the foyer. Most unfortunately for one's experience of the centre, the preservationists detached and separated the exterior volume from the existing facade, which means there is no transition into the building, and no connection between inside and out (one is not even allowed from the exterior to know that the centre exists; the only indication is the exceedingly discreet signage painted on the facade). The lack of a transition to the centre unnecessarily heightens an already inward-focused approach.

On opening the door, one is faced by the long black wall of a rectangular form. Though one does not need to enter this rectangular object to proceed to the reception, going inside is rewarding. The seemingly random series of small holes punched into all its surfaces are illuminated in a changing pattern of green and red that marks major cities of the world, creating a map.

If you put your ear up to the lights you can hear voices from various countries speaking in their own tongues on issues of peace and conflict (the building's information structure and responsive behaviours were designed by Timon Botez and Eric Gunther).

To the right is the reception area with a book and gift shop. Every surface - floor, walls and ceiling - is painted a hot, glossy red. As surprising as the colour or its shade is, it doesn't actually jolt. It is hard to know what the red is meant to mean, though I fear violence, but the choice of it could just as well mean fashion. There is an original bared column and beam in the centre that is cleverly and gently reduced to a museum piece itself.

From the reception one enters the temporary exhibition space in the small former train shed. Up against one side, to the right, is a shiny brass tunnel with images about the current peace laureate projected on one side, and a tiny niche to the right that displays the medal itself. Adjaye has described this as the spatial experience of the idea of the medal, and it is in this space that the annual award ceremony takes place. Again, the golden colour could have been a too-literal metaphor for honouring the laureate, but being totally surrounded by polished brass surfaces, with a video projected on one wall and its shimmering reflection mixing with one's own, is a powerful, almost hallucinatory, architectural experience. Like the black box of the foyer, it successfully mediates between abstraction and narration, a direct architectural experience and an easy literalism.

From the black painted interior of the temporary exhibition space one takes an escalator along exterior windows up to a flexible gallery for temporary exhibitions that is, bewilderingly, lined in rough timber stained blue/grey. This vaguely refers to Norway and the seaside - the windows in this room do face the harbour, but it is not clear why these associations, or such a rustic feeling space, are relevant in an international gallery in a capital city. Off it is a small screening room.

In the centre of the building is the Nobel Field, programmatically and architecturally the highlight of the centre.

It is beautiful and moving. One enters a dimly lit, tinted and frosted glass box set off from the existing room through short, ramped bridges to discover a field, or a bed of reeds, of approximately 1,000 1m-tall flexible tubes with a red LED light on each tip.

Manicured into a scalloped form, the edge is further defined by individual screens for each Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which reveal that person's story when approached. There is also a haunting and hypnotic soundscape, which Adjaye helped design.

This is a space to linger in, that encourages contemplation as well as the acquisition of knowledge. The metaphor of a garden for peace is well established but is transformed into something abstract that is both didactic and emotional. This is a difficult ambition to sustain, but just what is needed for the centre. Interestingly, while Adjaye is known for his interest in the physicality of materials, this installation is the centre's most ethereal.

The rest of the exhibition spaces on the floor should provide a transition from the hermetic power of the Nobel Field, but one is abruptly in places that are primarily didactic with little architectural presence. In a small room in one of the towers is an interactive, overscaled book through which one can learn about the life of Alfred Nobel (1833-1895). He was the Swedish inventor of a controlled way to detonate dynamite and held 355 patents that generated an immense fortune, all of which he left to support annual prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.

Only the last prize is awarded in Oslo. Images are projected onto the pages as you turn them, with infrared sensors reading your hand movements to illuminate areas. This is clever, but impractical in a centre with ambitions to be a major tourist attraction.

The last rooms, called Wall Papers, allow one to get more in-depth information on the prize laureates, the prize itself, world conflicts and how to get involved in fostering peace.

The rooms are covered in wallpaper that shows either a postage stamp-sized head of the laureates in various colours, or the patterns generated by the lights of the first entrance boxes.

This lighthearted, even kitsch, display seems frankly out of context with the rest of the interventions, though a legitimate strategy in its own right. It highlights a tension in the centre's programme between the needs for contemplation, information and encouraging action. There is a very clever and engaging mechanically interactive interface on the wall where you slide pointers to access hundreds of articles (conceived by Paul Amble).

After having been through a series of contained, materially varied environments, the exit to the ground floor seems undesigned and not intended as part of the controlled circulation and experience of the centre. And the permanent video piece by Marjetica Potrc, from Slovenia, is fantastic, but its installation does nothing for the space or her work. You then walk back through the side of the dark, temporary exhibition space to reach the Café de la Paix. It is covered in a pattern of shades of green and heavy black lines, a wall and ceiling mural by the acclaimed London painter Chris Ofili, for whom Adjaye famously designed an East End studio in London in 1998, as well as his solo installation in the British Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale in 2003. The colours' foreignness in Norway is a good thing and refreshing, especially in the seasonal Nordic gloom, and the colour is the complement of the reception's red. But again, the green strikes me as too literal and romantic a symbol of peace, as pleasant a room as it is.

The Nobel Peace Centre raises difficult issues of the role of architecture in such programmes and the means by which architecture can convey meaning or feeling, especially when the programme is largely didactic and its material virtual. Adjaye's strategy of installations within the terminal is a strong one, but runs the risk of either the architect or the spectator wearying of yet another experience; put differently, it creates the problem of how to differentiate them and how to join them, which is especially acute within an existing building. There are two stunning and moving installations, but a strategy of material differentiation and a lack of attention to the in-between creates an unsatisfying rhythm through the centre. If some of the interventions are more successful than others, all of it is nevertheless carried off with panache.

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