History of Kvadraturen

Something unusual happened four hundred years ago. An old medieval city, Oslo, was abandoned, and the city’s inhabitants built an entirely new city. This new city was called Christiania, and it is the part of Oslo’s city centre we now call Kvadraturen.

From Oslo to Christiania 1624–1660

In the early hours of 17 August 1624, old Oslo fell victim to a great fire that raged for three days and laid waste to almost the entire city. This was just the latest of many fires experienced by every generation in the city of Oslo.

King Christian IV declared that the city be moved to the other side of Bjørvika and rebuilt with better protection against fire. He personally came to Oslo to execute his plan, and by 27 September, the King’s new city was officially founded and named Christiania in his honour. The King also had military reasons to move the city. Its location made old Oslo vulnerable to hostile cannon fire from the hills. The new location, close to Akershus, offered better protection, and the fortress could become a citadel or military centre in a fortified city surrounded by bastioned ramparts. The fortified city with a geometric street grid was the ideal of the time.

Within the quarter circle bounded by Akershus festning, Bjørvika and the ramparts, straight streets in a right-angled gridiron pattern were laid out. The street width — 24 ells or 15 metres — would prevent new fires. Along the harbour, the blocks were large, to give merchants plenty of space for business and large homes. The smaller blocks further west were intended for tradesmen and small merchants. Property owners were given plots of land equivalent in size to those that had burned down in Oslo, but they did not obtain title to these properties until several years after they had been developed. Owners of large plots were also ordered to build smaller buildings “uptown” where tradesmen may find rented accommodation. This was a reflection of the social stratification of the time, but also of the King’s compassion for subjects without the capital required to build.

Fire protection was also the reason for the ban on traditional Norwegian log buildings. The upper classes were ordered to build expensive brick buildings, whereas ordinary citizens were allowed to erect timber frame houses in the Danish tradition. However, timber-framing was also a foreign custom that locals did not like. Many builders disregarded the building code completely and erected unlawful log buildings — but escaped prosecution.

Absolute monarchy 1660–1814

Christiania burst at the seams and expanded beyond the walls and past the old shoreline toward Bjørvika. Most new residents found a home in the suburbs around the city. The economy boomed during this period, as a result of timber exports. This meant that the city quickly recovered from the great fire and a Swedish invasion attempt. Rich sawmill owners soon distinguished themselves as an upper class, with homes and living conditions far beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.

The city expanded slowly in the 1600s, and for a while, there was enough free land within the walls. Eventually, the beach and shallow water outside the seafront at Dronningens gate filled up with waste, and in 1657, a decision was made to further reclaim this area to create new land for more buildings in Bjørvika.

When the blocks north and west of Christiania Torv burned down in 1686, it was decided that the church and the buildings closest to Akershus would not be rebuilt. Kontraskjæret would remain open and clear in front of the fortress, which was expanded, with a clear artillery range outside its new walls. At the same time, the walls around the city were dismantled, and the fire-damaged church was relocated outside the former city walls. The new cathedral was eventually completed on the new site in 1697, and a grand square, Stortorget, was later established in front of the church. When Charles XII of Sweden laid siege to the city in 1716, many buildings were damaged by artillery fire from the fortress. Many of them were modernised in connection with their repair after the siege. Slowly, the city expanded beyond Kvadraturen’s limits, first around the square and along Grensen, and then out onto reclaimed land in Bjørvika. This was enough to keep the city growing through the 1700s.

In Vika and Vaterland, outside the city itself, however, unregulated suburbs developed, where poor people were allowed to build inexpensive timber buildings, but not engage in trade. They supplied labour for the citizens within the city. Later in the 1700s, suburbs also developed along the eastern entry roads, in Aker, Grønland and Lakkegata.

During this period, the city earned massive revenues from the increasing timber exports. Sawmill owners amassed enormous fortunes and distinguished themselves from average citizens as a financial upper class with an extraordinarily lavish lifestyle.

The fortified city with a geometric street grid was the ideal of the time.

Christiania as a capital city 1814–1899

The story of Christiania in the 1800s is primarily a story of growth. The city, which had a population of only 10,000 people in 1814, had grown to a city of 250,000 people one hundred years later. The city’s growth took off when it suddenly became the capital of a new nation, and a few years later an industrial city.

On 17 May 1814, the provincial city of Christiania suddenly became the capital of a new nation. Kvadraturen still made up the city proper, and it had a population of less than 10,000 people. In addition, a further 4,000–5,000 people lived in the suburbs around the city. The fledgling central government administration created numerous new jobs in the city, speeding up its growth, although times remained hard. The state also needed new buildings for many different purposes. The city needed more space for housing and public buildings.

As the country was now in a union with Sweden, the threat from Norway’s hereditary enemy had been eliminated. This meant Akershus could be released from its status as an active fortress and the ground in front of the fortifications could be released for new development. In the period 1820–1840, beautiful public buildings and modern tenement buildings were erected near Bankplassen and Grev Wedels plass. But there was no room for a royal palace within Kvadraturen. The palace was built on a hill far to the west, linked to the city by Karl Johans gate. The University and Parliament buildings were also erected along this new avenue, pulling the city’s centre further west. This area developed into an entirely new neighbourhood of tenement buildings, and the city’s first detached villas with their own gardens were built in the neighbourhood around the Royal Palace.

The population expanded even more rapidly from around 1840 onwards, when modern industry emerged, especially along Akerselva. Job opportunities brought more people to the city, and they settled in tenement buildings and small houses in the suburbs along both sides of the river. This growth made it necessary to expand the city limits, as the city had long since outgrown Kvadraturen. After initial expansions in 1859 and 1878, the city expanded to the size it remained until 1948, when all of Aker was incorporated in the city. The city that had a population of just 10,000 people in 1814 had grown to a city of 250,000 people one hundred years later!

In the 1800s, the streets in Kvadraturen were upgraded to an increasingly higher standard. In the 1840s, old cobble stones were replaced with paving stones, and toward the end of the century, pavements were upgraded to solid granite paving stones or asphalt paving. Starting in 1848, gas lamps began to replace the old oil lamps, and in 1892, electric street lights were installed along Karl Johans gate. The water and sewage system was also upgraded. In 1894, the city introduced electric trams, the first city in the Nordics to do so.

Kvadraturen after 1948

After the war, Kvadraturen became even more a purely business district. Along Karl Johans gate and adjoining streets, especially north along Grensen, there was a wide variety of businesses and services. Further south, toward the fortress, however, blocks became more and more empty and there was less demand for offices and shops. Car traffic was about to overwhelm Kvadraturen completely, until strict parking regulations were introduced and through traffic was redirected below ground. Prostitution and drug use started to become a problem, and Kvadraturen became a protected cultural heritage site.

After office hours, the area was almost empty. In time, Oslo had acquired all the facets of a large metropolis, and parts of Kvadraturen attracted people and groups that refused to assimilate into the welfare society carefully constructed by the authorities. The area closest to the fortress became the centre of the city’s prostitution activity. From the late 1960s onwards, the city also developed a drug scene. Initially, this was most visible in the Palace Park, and later in Hydroparken at Solli. Later, the drug scene relocated to the area around Østbanestasjonen, which for some time had had a bad reputation.

Traffic congestion became a significant problem in the city centre after World War II. The situation was untenable, in terms of both mobility and parking. Rådhusgata was the main traffic artery through the city. The situation improved once the eastern metro lines connected with the western rail transit lines in 1977. Oslotunnelen was completed in 1980, and this tunnel linked the eastern and western rail lines at Oslo Central Station. And finally, most of the car traffic through the city centre was redirected below ground with the opening of Festningstunnelen in 1990.

Developments in the surrounding areas alleviated traffic congestion in Kvadraturen and made the western parts of the city centre more attractive to the public and to service industries. The City Hall was inaugurated in 1950 and a new, modern business district was established in this area and in Vestre vika. Vestbanestasjonen was closed in 1989, and Rådhusplassen was closed to both car and rail freight traffic in 1989. In the late 1980s, the fashionable district of Aker Brygge was established on the premises of a former shipyard, Akers Mekaniske Verksted.

In recent years, growth in the city centre has as a matter of policy been directed eastwards, toward Bjørvika, where the new Opera opened in 2008. The area is in the process of being transformed from a traffic hub and harbour area, into an urban neighbourhood with a mix of offices, residential buildings and cultural institutions.

The idea of preserving Christian IV’s city took root in the post-war era. The National Trust of Norway’s gift to the city to mark the 350th anniversary of Christiania in 1974 was a conservation plan for Kvadraturen in its entirety, focusing especially on the previously disparaged 19th century brick buildings. The plan was adopted in 1979.

A modern city 1900–1947

A housing market crash in 1899 brought construction activities in the city to a grinding halt. This did not last long, however. After ten years, construction activities picked up again, and the city continued to expand, though not at the rate it had been before the turn of the century. Economic booms throughout the 1900s repeatedly led to extensive urban renewal in Kvadraturen. It became the hub of Oslo as a modern metropolis, with car traffic, neon signs, cinemas and shopping.

Since the mid-1800s, Kvadraturen had gone from being “the city” to becoming just part of a large and expanding city centre. This development continued in the 20th century. The tenement developments, which consumed the old greens around the city, known as Bymarken, also brought commercial buildings and public institutions. Storgata, Torggata, Pilestredet, Ullevålsveien, Bogstadveien and Drammensveien became key city streets outside Kvadraturen. Independent urban communities also developed in Majorstua, Grünerløkka, Frogner, Grønland and other districts. Nevertheless, Kvadraturen remained at the heart of of the city centre.

The city expanded in all directions around Kvadraturen. Important business activities on all sides put pressure on Kvadraturen. The eastern and western railway stations, Østbanen and Vestbanen, lay on either side of it, and the connection between these two was Rådhusgata, which was extended through Kontraskjæret in 1881. To the north and east, new squares were established. Harbour activities expanded to the south and east, and the industrial belt along Akerselva and the harbour areas bustled with activity. The City Hall in Pipervika and the new commercial district around it pulled the city centre westwards — a trend that began as soon as the Royal Palace had been completed.

Kvadraturen remained as the central business district between all of these growth zones. It was still the preferred location for new public and private institutions, many of them so large that they filled entire blocks. The General Post Office, built between 1914 and 1924, as well as Telegrafbygningen, erected around the same time, competed with monumental new structures erected for banks and insurance companies, such as Christiania Sparebank and Den norske Creditbank. The maritime industry is also responsible for some of Kvadraturen’s landmark buildings, such as Sjøfartsbygningen, Havnelageret and the offices of DFDS and the Norwegian America Line near Jernbanetorget.

Kvadraturen’s location and functional gridiron streets were still able to meet the demands of most city centre functions, such as government administration, trade and finance. In the years between the two World Wars, however, property prices and traffic congestion became more pressing issues. Kvadraturen lost almost all of its residents. Affluent families moved to the residential areas around the city, and efficient rail or car transport made this functional split possible. The city was seen as an unhealthy environment to live in, with its noise, dust, dirt and car exhaust. The topography of the Oslo basin made air pollution worse here than in many other cities.

On 1 January 1925, Kristiania became Oslo. With this, the symbolic ties to Christian IV’s city were severed. As a reflection of the times, Akershus festning was restored, and there were serious plans to fully restore it to a medieval appearance. The cultural climate of the era did not appreciate a Renaissance city from the Danish era.

City planners turned their gaze outward, envisioning a Greater Oslo in the Master Plan of 1934. Execution of these grand plans for the Greater Oslo area had to wait until after the war, however, when the city incorporated the neighbouring municipality of Aker.