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Trondheim is very grey at this time of year. Below a grizzly sky, a thin sheet of white cloud hovers over the vast pewter waters of the fjord. Rare shafts of sunlight accentuate the murk. In mid-November, dawn is at eight and dusk at four, but there will be much less daylight in a month's time and the sun will be even lower, so it's surprising that Trondheim is not an extremely grim place.

On the whole, the traditional form of the town centre and many of its timber-clad buildings have been preserved (though there is a commercial heart in rather heavy Jugend stone and rendered masonry). Wooden buildings are painted in ochre, oxblood, pink, pale green, gold, blue and white. It may sound like a twee mishmash but the colours really do cheer the place up. And they make me revise old prejudices: that wood is not really an urban material, and that applied colour is to be avoided in northern cities.

Trondheim's scale is ancient. The original capital of Norway, it was founded in 997AD by King Olaf I on the River Nid near the fjord. It was built to the Viking pattern, in which buildings had narrow gable ends towards the quaysides and long deep plans, so as many as possible could get a strip of waterside.

The form continued after the great fire and replanning of 1681 until well into the 19th century when the much larger developments needed by industrialised transport and commerce had to be located off the original defensive spit, closer to the fjord. But the old city is not free from coarse contemporary intrusions.

One of the least subtle is an over-scaled glass interpretation of traditional warehouses - a hotel for Radisson SAS, the vandals who appallingly kitsched-down the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, Arne Jacobsen's great gesamtkunstwerk.

One of the most dramatically over-scaled buildings in the city is the technical university (where I am working for a short while).

Built as a celebration of Norway's independence, Bredo Greve's 1910 Neo-Romanesque facade broods from its hill over the little city like the castle of a northern Dracula (particularly when uplit at night). The original university building is backed by a huge, continually expanding and very confusing complex. Students, thank goodness, are bright, charming and remarkably helpful to disorientated foreigners.

Even more massive than the university is the submarine pen built by the Germans during their occupation.

The solid concrete roof and walls are 5m thick, making the fjord-side monolith virtually impossible to demolish. Just across the road, between a brewery and a used-car vendor, is one of the city's most radical new buildings, a small housing scheme. Designed by young architects Geir Brendeland and Olav Kristoffersen, this is claimed to be the tallest (four-storey) solid-wood building in the world, with thick floors and walls of prefabricated timber slabs, glued and dowelled together.

These elements are exposed inside, making wonderfully scented and textured rooms.

Cladding is of untreated pine planks, a reminder that most of the old wooden buildings have a structure of logs, clad later in boarding. Now a promising four-storey commercial building with an exposed laminated wood structure is finishing in Trondheim's main street. Clearly, it's time to reassess the rich timber building traditions of the north.

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