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High block under attack

Grimstad Short Film Festival: The Government Building and its Social Democratic Symbolic Value were attacked 22. July 2011. But are there perhaps other and more peaceful forces that threaten the same values?


Hammersborg – Protecting the Bygone Future
Director: Birgitte Sigmundstad

When Anders Behring Breivik placed a bomb outside the Government building in Hammersborg, and then traveled to Utøya to kill young people at AUF's summer camp, it was an actual and symbolic attack on Norwegian social democracy. The government building, which also goes by the name Høyblokka, has stood since the end of the 1950 century as a venerable manifestation of what curator Bente Aas Solbakken at the National Library has called "monumental architecture". The building symbolized social democratic values, place-based rationality, proud bureaucracy, a solid state, collectivism and a restrained future optimism in postwar Norway.

Hammersborg7In the movie Hammersborg – Protecting the Bygone Future (2016) analyzes the visual artist Birgitte Sigmundstad Høyblokka's ideas. She is reluctant to give an in-depth picture and an interpretation of how the political ideals of the past and the present were attacked 22. July 2011 – the work is also a reflection of a modern Norway where certain social values ​​seem faded and threatened.

Life in the concrete walls. Sigmundstad's film is one of the few documentaries in the Norwegian short film program during this year's short film festival in Grimstad, which impresses with its reflection ability and sense of form – and with its ability to integrate the near-analytic with the big politics.

The work concentrates on the Norwegian architect Erling Viksjø's works in the Government Quarter – which consists of the rectangular High Block and the Curved Y Block – and molds their carvings into the shapes of the buildings. A soft voice leans over the static depictions of the immovable natural concrete and breathes life into it. At one moment we are outside and have an overview of the buildings' exterior, monumental and sculptural forms; the next moment we are in their more intimate space, where artistic river stone gravel walls bring to life the sandblasted concrete walls.

We get an outline of the buildings' history and architectural features: The high block and the Y block were built in the 50s and 60s to house the Norwegian government, and, according to the narrative voice, stands as a Tribal artwork: a building that materialized egalitarian values ​​in the postwar period. Like so many other architects, Viksjø was inspired by the work of the French-Swiss modernist Le Corbusier. In the development of the Høyblokka he used an architectural technique that has been termed "sculptural" and which integrated works of art with the functionality of the building. This post-war architecture, according to the film's narrator, was linked to the political belief in "progress through reforms and not big jumps". "There was no shortcut to utopia," she says affirmatively, before cutting it to a conch-shaped staircase that spirals upward toward the top floor and the white sky. Viksjø wanted to give material form to "a way forward" rather than to utopia. The buildings' natural concrete, a material type Viksjø itself developed, and used here for the first time on a large scale, suggests a human fragility and natural coarseness in the monumental, which testifies to the gradual and experimental rather than the absolute.

Film – like architecture – is a valuable work of form, and Hammersborg appears as a grim cast of Viksjø's monumental dream.

Change that threatens. In the book House in Oslo (1971), architect Odd Brochmann describes the Hammersborg urban area as "a collision of buildings, terrain, streets and conflicting considerations". Rather, in Sigmundstad's film, the place appears as uniform, and Viksjø's work emerges as the dominant centerpiece. But by opening with a picture of the restoration cloths covering the back of the High Block, and a little later giving us a fragile close-up of a single cloth pushed by the wind, Sigmundstad lets the terrorist attack disrupt the peaceful reflection and optimistic "monumentality" that lies in the film's portrait. The film's tone strikes a poignant balance between the monumental and the fragile, the visionary and the melancholy.

Sigmundstad, however, is not only concerned with the fact of terror, but is at least equally concerned that the postwar socialist values ​​are partly past, that they were quickly threatened by a new political and cultural mentality. In an "individualistic consumer culture", as the narrative voice suggests, Viksjø's buildings are not necessarily linked to anything positive; you see closed technocracy where formerly egalitarian bureaucracy was seen.

But Sigmundstad's film goes further: Over a naivistic work of art by Picasso, a pre-industrial image of happiness, she withdraws plans to demolish the buildings after the terrorist attack (in 2014 it was decided that the High Block should stand, but that the Y block should be demolished). For an irony, the narrator's voice claims, if the goal of right-wing extremism and fascist aggression were to be fulfilled by a New Public Management ideology that "puts a price tag on every human choice."

Film – like architecture – is a valuable work of form, and Hammersburg appears as a grim cast of Viksjø's monumental dream. As Architecture Professor Thomas Thiis-Evensen wrote in the Aftenposten on January 13, 2012, the Høyblokka with its "white bandage" has suddenly "become topical as a symbol of resistance after the terrorist attack." Hammersburg continues such thinking, arguing that the building also stands as a more general symbol of resistance – a reminder of our collective roots in a time marked by individualism and market-oriented forces.

A new type of "Oslo movie"? The same forces characterize our film culture – a film culture where many filmmakers work with commercials to make money and develop. In the film industry, awareness of the vital link between moral and aesthetic values ​​often seems to be weathered or banished.

This development was mirrored during this year's documentary film festival in Volda, there Cellist (Kinnerød and Fjellheim, 2015) won award for best short / medium length documentary. It's hard to see this movie (ending with "# Røros") as anything other than a self-indulgent and soft-pornographic commercial for scenic surroundings and an adorable cellist.

Hammersburg is not a totally "free and artistic" short film, but stands out as a less promotional and more reflective and responsible film. According to the intro texts, it is a mission-based movie (from CPH: DOX), and it clearly takes the position that the High Block symbolizes values ​​that should be defended. Thus, and in its "enlightened" form, it can be said to have touch points with the classic "Oslo films", which had its heyday in the post-war era and which were short films about modern life in Oslo. Often these were characterized by being promotional and propagandistic – and even though Hammersburg to a certain extent, “attitude-creating” appears, it has a far less didactic and more critical and questioning tone than what characterizes these. The movie listens to a place rather than selling an idea.

Still can Hammersburg possibly seen as a critical and revitalizing continuation of this tradition – a documentary tradition that was an important part of a social democratic information project, and which promoted the idea of ​​a well-functioning community and a depiction of it for posterity.

Teaches film studies at NTNU Email endreeid@gmail.com

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