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by Franziska Herren

National Tourist Routes Project in Norway: Architecture and Artworks for Resting, Recollecting, and Reflecting

We associate Norway with beautiful scenery: high waterfalls, spectacular fjords, and glaciers. Tourists travelling through this huge country can choose between many impressive locations. In 1994, the Norwegian Roads Administration started a project to increase the attractiveness of eighteen scenic routes from Jæren in the south to Varanger in the far north. Mostly small but noteworthy architectural objects and artworks were to be developed along these roads in order to boost rural economies and rural settlement by providing tourist attractions. Such attractions would raise interest both at home and abroad.[1] Examples of projects already realised are the elegantly shaped viewing platform in Stegastein in south Norway, thirty metres above pine trees and 650 metres above Aurlandsfjord. It was designed by Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen and gives the visitor the impression of floating in the air. Another example is the waiting room on the ferry quay in the village of Jektvik designed by the architect Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk. It is made of translucent fibreglass which lights up like a Chinese lantern in the long nights of winter. By the end of the National Tourist Routes project in 2024, around 190 installations should have been realised.

The elegant viewing platform designed by Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen at Stegastein is 30 meters over the pine trees and 650 meters above the Aurlandsfjord. For visitors it provides an unique view of the fjord landscape. © Photo: Kjetil Rolseth

The eighteen routes are not connected. The idea behind the project was not to send tourists on a predefined round trip but to invite them to make detours and discover spots they would otherwise have ignored. The artworks and architectural objects were and are developed by young and unknown as well as established Norwegian architects, landscape architects, artists, and designers. One exception is the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø—a small city off the Norwegian mainland in the Barents Sea north of the Arctic Circle: in 2006, the famous Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the influential French-American contemporary artist Louise Bourgeois were asked to design a memorial to commemorate the ninety-one suspects who were burnt at the stake in Vardø in Finnmark in the 17th century. What we know about those witchcraft trials derives mainly from court records from local courts.[2]

Knut Wold’s stone sculpture is located in the midst of the high-altitude scenery close to the rest area at Mefjellet.
© Photo: Werner Harstad / Statens vegvesen

The witchcraft trials in Finnmark are a dark chapter in Norwegian history. Among a total population of approximately 3,000 inhabitants in Finnmark at the time, the percentage of people accused of witchcraft was very high.[3] The authorities believed that storms, shipwrecks, and diseases could be attributed to contact with the devil.[4]

The Steilneset Memorial, completed in 2011, combines art and architecture. It is in two parts: a tall frame made of pine, which contains a fiberglass textile cocoon that houses a 120-metre-long corridor with the exhibition of the trials. The building and the materials the architect used relate to Norwegian tradition: the elongated hall refers to racks for drying codfish.[5]

The corridor is accessed via a ramp, taking visitors up into the core of the pavilion. In the somber space, the visitors find themselves in a sacred atmosphere. Just the slight sound of the sea and the wind passes through the walls.

Ninety-one small windows and ninety-one light bulbs represent each of the victims. Plaques hanging on the walls tell the story of the people who were killed on suspicion of sorcery. Visitors pass slowly and in silence from plaque to plaque. The tragic stories trigger consternation.

The exhibition texts were written by the historian Liv Helene Willumsen, who has been doing research on the Finnmark witch-hunts since the early 1980s. Louise Bourgeois’ installation, The Damned, the Possessed and the Beloved, is placed in a cubic pavilion with seventeen panes of dark glass. An everlasting flame burns upon a chair, and a circle of seven mirrors surrounds and reflects the flame.

The artist and curator Knut Wold was involved in the project from its very beginnings. He works as an artist, art advisor, and member of the architecture council.

The Juvet Landscape Hotel along the tourist attraction Geiranger-Trollstigen is built as nine small, separately situated rooms, each of them unique and adapted to the landscape. © Photo: Per Ritzler / Statens vegvesen

Franziska Herren: Mr. Wold, why was a project to enhance the National Roads with art and architecture initiated in the first place?

Knut Wold: Norway is a tourist’s country—like Switzerland. When it turned out that tourism was decreasing, the Norwegian Government tasked the Public Road Administration with rethinking the national tourism attractions. In 1994, we started with a four-year pilot project. We experimented with two inland roads—Gamle Strynefjell and Sognefjell—and two coastal routes—Hardangerstrasse and Helgeland. In 2000, we expanded the project and chose eighteen outstanding scenic roads, which we planned to enhance with art and architectural works.

FH: How did you select the eighteen routes?

KW: We invited communities and travel agencies across the whole country to propose a route in their region. We got fifty-two suggested stretches, and then spent two years travelling those fifty-two routes. From those, we selected eighteen, among which the coast, the fjords, and the mountains and waterfalls were represented.

FH: How does the commission choose the places to be enhanced with artworks and architectural objects?

KW: We choose spots of outstanding scenic beauty. Most of them are already observation platforms, rest areas, service facilities, and stopping points. But these places are not up to date regarding size, safety, or facilities. With newly designed architectural objects, we can improve those ageing locations. We also create new rest areas in surroundings with unique views. Sometimes we link hiking trails or footpaths to the sea.

FH: How did the selection process work? Did the commission choose the designers, artists, and architects or did you call for entries?

KW: We called for entries. We received 220 entries, from which we chose seventeen agencies with whom we now collaborate. We only asked the artists and architects ourselves for some projects, like the Steilneset Memorial.

FH: What requirements did a project have to fulfil in order to be chosen?

KW: We demand high quality, being unique, and an outstanding aesthetic statement. The projects should address the situation and atmosphere of their location. At one location, it is suitable if the architectural structure fits harmonically into the scenery like the Juvet Landscape Hotel designed by Jensen & Skodvin. The hotel is located in the northwest of Norway. It consists of nine wooden cube-shaped cottages with big windows. Each of these overlooks the most interesting spot. At other locations, it’s more interesting to create a contrast, like for instance at the little viewpoint Askevågen on the Atlantic Ocean. The architects 3RW-Jakob Røsvik designed a viewing point of stone with glass walls—materials which contrast the surroundings.

The Steilneset Memorial in Vardø comprises two structures: a long wooden gangway which shows the stories of the 91people who were convicted of sorcery, and a smoky reflective glass structure housing the installation of Louise Bourgeoise «The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved». © Photo: Jarle Wæhler / Statens vegvesen.

The elongated wooden construction designed by Peter Zumthor refers to a Norwegian tradition: the racks for drying codfish.© Photo: Jarle Wæhler / Statens vegvesen

The installation of Louise Bourgeoise consists of a circle of mirrors within surround and reflect a flaming steel chair.
It commemorates the 91 people who were burned at the stake in the seventeenth century. © Photo: Jarle Wæhler / Statens vegvesen

FH: What should a curator consider if curating artworks at a remote location? 

KW: The curator should reflect on whether an artwork is suitable for a certain landscape. Personally, I find it much easier to deploy a sculpture in a city. That has to do with proportions: in nature, it is much more challenging to appraise the impact of an artwork on the surroundings. A sculpture that looks huge in a city may look lost in a vast rural area. Besides, nature itself is sometimes pretty impressive. A scant plateau, waterfalls, and sleep cliffs are spectacular by themselves, and it is not meaningful to add an artwork.

FH: You realised a stone sculpture near the rest area Mefjellet on a mountain plateau. It weighs forty-two tons, is in the shape of a frame, and has become a popular photographic subject for tourists. What were your considerations when developing this sculpture?

KW: I realised the sculpture in 1995 during the pilot phase of the whole project. For visitors, the stone works as a frame they can stand inside. Some couples have already been married in it. But my initial idea was different: many stones travel from the glacier to the pass. I was interested in bringing a different kind of stone into these surroundings. The stone for this sculpture comes from a quarry in south Norway. The locals criticised the fact that the stone didn’t originate from this area. I found it interesting. For me, it is crucial to reflect on whether it is right to put an artwork in an untouched landscape or if it is better to interfere as little as possible. Today, I would argue to do less in an area where the nature is strong.

FH: Many projects were developed by young and unknown as well as established Norwegian architects, landscape architects, artists, and designers. Why did the commission choose a world-famous artist and a well-known architect for Vardø?

KW: In the 17th century, a particularly high number of people were convicted as being witches and burnt at the stake, most of them women. The city of Vardø asked the commission to have an artist design a memorial for the victims. We were very anxious not to make a mistake with this extremely sensitive task, so we looked for an artist who is familiar with this kind of topic. Louise Bourgeois, whom I had visited in New York a couple of times, soon came to my mind. Throughout her whole life, she focussed on the themes of vulnerability and trauma. I imagined that—if she agreed—she would need an architectural structure housing her installation. I considered Peter Zumthor the right person for this task. I have worked with him already on another project within the National Tourist Routes: in Allmannajuvet, he designed four buildings along the old path of the zinc mines. I asked Peter Zumthor first. Then I wrote a letter to Louise Bourgeois in which I enclosed the court records with the protocols of the convictions. She agreed shortly afterwards.

FH: How did the collaboration between Peter Zumthor, Louise Bourgeois, and you work out?

KW: I coordinated correspondence between Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois. As Louise Bourgeois did not use email, I was in contact with Wendy Williams, her managing director, and her assistant Jerry Gorovoy. It took almost a year until it became clear exactly what each of them wanted to do. In the end, we all met in New York at Louise Bourgeois’ home. During the project, the curator Svein Rønning kept in touch with Wendy Williams and Jerry Gorovoy, and I was in close contact with Peter Zumthor.

The waiting room in the village of Jektvik is designed by Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk. It is made of translucent fibreglass and it lights up in the darkness like a large Chinese lantern. © Photo: Steinar Skaar / Statens vegvesen

FH: What was the most challenging task in this ten-million-euro project?

KW: The Memorial Hall. It was created from textile stretched with steel wire within a wooden frame. The fabric and the wooden construction have to withstand the extreme weather in this region—heavy storms in autumn and winter. So, there was a long phase of checking. The installation by Louise Bourgeois, however, was easy to incorporate. The artist produced a model. The artwork itself was fabricated in the US and then sent to Norway.

FH: Peter Zumthor describes Vardø as a “once attractive fishing village where today only a few boats are left in the inner harbour and the long wooden racks in the landscape, once used to dry fish, are falling apart. Many of the houses are empty. There are now hardly any living-room windows at which, by ancient custom, a lamp is lit at nightfall.”[6] What effect does the memorial have on the village and its inhabitants?

Apart from the Memorial Steilneset Peter Zumthor designed also new facilities at Allmannajuvet – the former zinc mines:
an exhibition gallery to show the history of the mines, a café, service facility and parking for visitors. © Photo: Fredrik Fløgstad / Statens vegvesen

KW: There are definitely more tourists visiting Vardø. That is evident in the hotel bookings, which have increased by around thirty per cent. The memorial is of importance to the locals, too. Many people who were burnt at the stake have living descendants now. For them, the memorial is a kind of a cemetery. In addition, many school classes visit the Steilneset Memorial to learn more about the witch-pursuit in Vardø in the 17th century.

FH: Have you also achieved the goal of increasing tourism along the eighteen National Tourist Routes? 

KW: Generally, more tourists visit Norway. And Norwegians, too, most often spend their holidays in their own country. As far as the eighteen National Tourist Routes are concerned, we have noted that some of them attract more tourists than before—others do not yet. In recent years, we have gained interest for our scenic routes model from several countries including Brazil, Portugal, Italy, and South Korea.

The viewing point at Askevågen provides a 360-degree view of the ocean, the archipelago and the mountainous shore.
Photo: Werner Harstad / Statens vegvesen

 Knut Wold is a Norwegian sculptor. He studied at Alanus Hochschule der Künste and Hochschule der Künste, Berlin. Knut Wold frequently works with objects in large masses of only partially worked stone. He was an organiser and participant of the symposium Norge, stone, Lavik, with Makoto Fujiwara (1985–2011), and of site-specific projects, Hedemarken, with Wenche Kvalstad Eckhoff and Finn­ Aage Andersen (1991–1999). He is an art consultant and curator for the Directorate of Public Roads, the National Tourist Routes in Norway. He worked as a curator for the Detour exhibitions in Europe and the USA and The Witch Trial Memorial in Vardø with Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois (2006–2015), and for Views, Museum of Architecture in Oslo. From 2014–2015, he was member of the Commission for six sculptures along E6 Minnesund – Stange.

Franziska Herren has a background as an historian and film scientist. She was member of the organising committee of the Swiss Youth Film Festival and was twice in the jury of the film festival Swiss-Movie in Spiez. In 1999, she participated in a photography project which resulted in the book Tagebuch published in the edition Patrick Frey. She works as a communication specialist, writer, and editor. As student of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating at the ZHdK, she researches the significance of fictional films in historic contexts. 


[1] Jan Andresen, Foreword in Peter Zumthor et al., Louise Bourgeois and Peter Zumthor: Steilneset Memorial: The Possessed, the Damned and the Beloved (Oslo: Forlaget Press, Published in cooperation with the Norwegian Public Roads Administration, 2016), 7.

[2] Norwegian Public Roads Administration, National Tourist Routes, Varanger Museum, eds., Steilneset. Memorial to the Witches burned in Finnmark, Guidebook (Vardø: Varanger Museum IKS, 2013), 2.

[3] Liv Helene Willumsen, “Relations between 17th-Century Witchcraft Trials in Scotland and Finnmark, Northern Norway,” in Heinz Sieburg, Rita Voltmer, and Britta Weimann, Hexenwissen. Zum Transfer von Magie- und Zauberei-Imaginationen in interdisziplinärer Perspektive (Trier: Paulinus, 2017), 103.

[4] Svein Rønning, “The Damned, the Possessed and the Beloved”, in Zumthor et al., Louise Bourgeois and Peter Zumthor: Steilneset Memorial, 14.

[5] Klaus Englert, “Eiskalte Linie und Feuerpunkt,” Tec21, November 11, 2014.

[6] Peter Zumthor, 2002–2007, Buildings and Projects, Volume 4 (Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2014), 171.



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Issue 41

Centres⁄Peripheries – Complex Constellations

by Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter

by Heike Biechteler

by Ella Krivanek

by Giovanna Bragaglia

by Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi

by Paola Granati & Ronny Koren

by Domenico Ermanno Roberti