By Jakob Harry Hybel
Deep in the pine forest in the outskirts of Oslo, lies the Mortensrud Church. If you do not know it’s there, it’s possible you would walk by without taking notice. But nevertheless, the small church designed by the Norwegian architects Jensen & Skodvin has become something of an attraction.
The task of the architects was not an easy one, as the client’s demands were very specific and the expectations unusually high for a project on this scale.
The Mortensrud parish, started in the 1980s, did not use to have a church. Instead, they have leased premises at a local secondary school for Sunday prayer. However, despite the fact that they were so obviously in need of a place of their own, the parish did not want to settle for just any church.
They wanted it to be a symbol, as identifiable and awe-inspiring as the Medieval cathedrals. Its design should reference a time where the church played a more active and socially conscious role in society. All this, a comprehensive attempt to reactualize the role of the church in a town that used to be a stop on the pilgrim route to the nearby Cistercian monastery on Hovedøya.
The church compound, located on the crest of a small hill surrounded by tall pine trees, has an elongated, rectangular shaped floor plan with gabled roof. It consists of two volumes: the church to the north and the parish center to the south connected with a church ground.
The main structure of the church is a framework of welded steel profiles stabilized by horizontal beams. The walls are a combination of slate bricks and glass, with the slate walls withdrawn from the glass facades, allowing for narrow aisles on either side of the nave.
The hand-crafted light grey slate bricks have a smooth and an uneven side – the interior walls have the smooth side facing inwards, while the uneven side is visible from the outside through the glass. This makes for a fascinating and brutal contrast between the fragile glass and the carelessly stacked stone mass. From inside the nave, the mortarless slate walls, letting filtered light in through its cracks, suddenly seem frail in contrast to the steel columns that define the space.
Nature and Structure
The church blends perfectly into the natural landscape with its assertive slate walls accentuating the colors of the landscape and large glass surfaces reflecting the surrounding vegetation and the changing light of the sky. The campanile at the south-west corner and the mighty pine trees outside the church binds the complex naturally together.
The elements already on the site have been treated with the utmost respect. The existing rock formations emerge like islands in the in situ cast concrete floor of the church between the congregation and choir – and in the atriums by the entrance, as many trees as possible have been preserved.
The church has been exceptionally well-received by the locals – in fact, the amount of churchgoers more than tripled after just a few weeks. On taking their new facilities into use, parish minister Svein-Erik Skibrek notes:
|There was a sense of coming home, when we started using the church. […] The church is wonderful, bright, open and gives the experience of something sacred|
The church has not just sparked enthusiasm among the parish members, though, it has also received numerous architectural awards, including the European Steel Design Award 2003, and most recently, the church was named one of the preeminent post-war buildings in Norway in 2007. In the jury’s decision, they stated:
|Built on a modest budget, this is a structure characterized by grandeur and a church that will stand out as one of our greatest contemporary architectural contributions.|
The Miracle of Mortensrud
Jensen & Skodvin have remarkably managed not only to live up to the collossal expectations of the local community, but also to make one of the most celebrated buildings in the country in recent years. “The miracle of Mortensrud,” the church has been called.
How did they pull this off? Well, one of the things that makes Mortensrud Church such an exceptional project, is the way it relates to tradition. Its gabled typology evokes traditional church architecture, but in its construction it references both modern industrialization and Medieval stone masonry techniques.
The church succeeds in creating a dramatic yet subtle interplay between nature and culture, past and present, tradition and modernization.