Taking concrete steps

Joe Holyoak

I think that it’s OK not to feel too guilty about things of a dubious nature that one did when young. We can feel an appropriate regret that one’s lack of experience led to the making of misguided decisions, but at the same time also enjoy a certain retrospective pleasure in youthful ambition and confidence, which was uninhibited by that very experience yet to come. Earlier this year with my friend Inge Willumsen I visited a big housing project in Oslo which Inge and I designed in 1967, while working in the office of Harald Hille. Inge had just graduated from his architecture course, I had just completed my fourth year. I had not been to see the development since 1976, despite being in Oslo several times since then.

The housing at Grefsen is in the form of a concrete megastructure. Five linked blocks, ten storeys high, containing 360 flats, are cranked along the contour. Their backs face the wooded mountainside of Grefsenkollen rising up behind them; their stepped and terraced fronts face down the slope, towards the city centre and the fjord six kilometres away to the southwest; stairs and lifts go in the joints. I can’t remember now exactly how Inge and I chose this form. I do remember that we designed it very quickly, and made a big model with cork contours. But in my fourth year I had been very taken with John Andrews’ 1963 Scarborough College near Toronto, also with a stepped cross-section in concrete, cranking around its site. There were a lot of stepped concrete profiles around at that time. Denys Lasdun’s ziggurats at the University of East Anglia were completed in 1968; Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre in London was begun in 1967. In plan and section Grefsen is also not unlike Jim Stirling’s unbuilt Dorman Long steel project of 1965.

I left Hille in September to go to start my final year at college, and I still find it difficult to believe that the Grefsen Terrassehus actually got built. But it did, hundreds of people live there, and it’s in the guidebook to architecture in Oslo. I am still impressed by its size and geometry, but given the opportunity I would not want to design it today. It is a classic example of an architect-designed, big, monumental object; these are heroic forms dominating the landscape, ultimately derived from Le Corbusier’s pioneering 1952 Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. Today I am uneasy with the idea of monumental forms for lots of people to live in. They are appropriate for a National Theatre perhaps, but my perception is that as a residential form they diminish the status and the individuality of their residents. It’s not the repetition and regularity that I object to; I am an advocate of the merits of the pattern-book Georgian terrace, and admire Urban Splash’s current factory-made houses. I think it is more the gargantuan superhuman size and scale that concerns me. Among 1960s stepped concrete residential developments, I make an exception for Siedlung Halen near Bern, designed by Atelier 5, a marvellous and inspiring place to live. It’s a stepped section, but it’s on the ground, descending a slope, not unlike a Tuscan hillside village or a Greek fishing village.

This reminds me that as a fourth year student, while being impressed by huge concrete megastructures, I was also fascinated by complex and dense vernacular settlements, such as those illustrated in Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 book Architecture Without Architects, which I bought in 1967. How was this undiscriminating contradiction possible? By the innocence of youth, I suppose. But I think there is also an urban design dimension to it. In 1967, urban design was not in my vocabulary. Everything was various kinds of architecture – old and new, big and small, impressive and modest. Later, I learned to apply urban design criteria to architecture; not about the making of buildings, but about the making of towns. The point about the Grefsen Terrassehus that I now find problematic is that you could not make a town out of this sort of building. It exists as an exception to the general rule; on a Google Earth photograph, showing the whole 130 square kilometres of Oslo’s built-up area, you can pick out the building easily. But you could make a complete town from streets of terraced houses. Even the Brunswick Centre makes an urban block in Bloomsbury, albeit turned inside-out.

URBAN DESIGN 152 Autumn 2019 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 152 Autumn 2019

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The architects of Grefsen Terrassehus, Oslo


The Oslo Architecture Guide entry for Grefsenkollen


Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation .

He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.