Design

The art gallery you can drive

In Norway, the National Scenic Routes project combines innovative design, stunning roads and captivating scenery to create a unique driving experience. We explore this extraordinary fusion of Scandinavian creativity and nature in the new S60.

WORDS: LEO WILKINSON, PHOTOS: JOHN WYCHERLEY

Norway is a country blessed with incredible natural beauty, where soaring mountains, vast fjords, swathes of forest and dramatic coastline are rarely more than a short drive away. It’s a landscape that has attracted thousands of visitors since the advent of modern tourism, and it’s hard to imagine how human intervention could make it more appealing. That, however, is the objective of Norway’s Nasjonale Turistveger (National Scenic Routes). An initiative by the NPRA, Norway’s public highway agency, its aim is to boost business and tourism in rural areas by making allocated stretches of road even more appealing through the addition of contemporary architecture, art and design.

Since the project began in 2005, 18 stretches of road across the country have been given National Scenic Route status. Each one is dotted with new features designed to attract, enable and cater for visitors. While some of the structures are purely artistic, others serve a practical purpose. There are cafes, information points and toilet facilities, as well as sculptures, memorials and many new viewing points. They vary wildly in design, purpose and size, but each new structure has a common goal – to add visual appeal, and to enhance its surroundings. In the words of the NPRA, “…the architecture should be bold and innovative, while at the same time communicating the mood of the scene”.

Over 50 artists and architects (most of them either Norwegian or based in Norway) have contributed so far, each having satisfied the project’s requirement to produce work that is functional, fresh and innovative.

Exploring the Geiranger-Trollstigen route in the new Volvo S60, it’s clear that the ambition and creativity central to the project has created something unique. The entire route is beguiling, but the jewel in its crown is Trollstigen – a mountain pass complete with glacial stream, towering peaks and a 200-metre waterfall. Amid this pristine example of natural beauty you’ll find Trollstigen Visitor Centre. Completed in 2012, this angular confection of glass, sharp-edged concrete and rusty steel was designed by Reiulf Ramstad Architects and manages to both blend and contrast, strikingly, with its surroundings.

As well as the visitor centre itself, the new architectural features at Trollstigen include a walkway that zigs and zags its way down the mountainside to form a viewing point jutting out 200 metres above the road. While vertigo sufferers might not be so appreciative of its charms, it’s an incredible piece of engineering that has created a unique experience. As its official literature points out, there are viewing points suitable for “both the bold and the cautious visitor”.

Viewing points such as these are many and varied in the National Routes project. Some replace older sites or structures, but many create an entirely new experience, providing a viewpoint that wasn’t possible before and an intriguing visual dialogue between natural and man-made elements. At Ørnesvingen, a dramatic viewing platform features its own waterfall, for example, while at Gaularfjellet there’s an example that looks like an alien spaceship that has landed on the mountainside, encircled by jagged peaks. Visitors to the Stegastein, meanwhile, can revel in – or be terrified by – the feeling of being in mid-air, thanks to a glass-fronted viewing point that soars out 30 metres out over the pine trees and 650 metres above the Aurlandsfjord below.

Even the most prosaic of structures created for the National Routes project highlight the thoughtful quality, and sensitivity to their surroundings, that characterises the best Scandinavian design. At Selvika, architect Reiulf Ramstad has created a beachside rest stop that features a bike shed, public toilets, benches, public kitchen and fireplace. If that sounds dull, the result is anything but – a swirling, fluid concrete creation punctuated by numerous circular viewing holes. As much sculpture as building, it also functions as a ramp that makes it possible for wheelchair users and the less able to access the beach below.

On a smaller scale, but no less remarkable, is the toilet facility at Ureddplassen. This wave-shaped concrete building, which has been referred to as ‘the world’s most beautiful public toilet’, was designed by Oslo-based Haugen/Zohar Arkitekter. It’s striking by day but has even more impact at dusk, when its warm interior lighting glows through translucent glass side walls.

At some locations, artists and designers have had licence to create something purely aesthetic that is inspired by – and interacts with – its natural setting. One example is at Meffjellet, where a stone sculpture by Knut Wold features a square central hole that frames the view through it. And at Hågå, a marble sculpture created by artist Jan Freuchen features marble columns that are intertwined with the rocks and sea itself, an elegant metaphor for the importance of the sea and coastline to Norwegian culture.

Experiencing Norway’s National Scenic Routes in the S60 is a compelling example of Scandinavian creativity and innovation. And proof that art doesn’t exist just in galleries, but on the road too.