Norway's 'Jugendstil' Town
Henkin, Stephen, The World and I
If you think Art Nouveau architecture belongs to only big cities like Brussels and Barcelona, better think again. Tiny Alesund on Norway's western coast has some of the best Jugendstil around.
The town of Alesund on Norway's rugged western coast boast two firsts. That it is the world's top exporter of dried cod is understandable enough, since it lies at the very epicenter of the Norwegian fishing trade. A lesser-known fact, however, is that the seaport, whose 36,000 residents are celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, has the largest concentration of Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, architectural style in the world.
Upon encountering Alesund for the first time, tourists, especially Europeans already familar with Jugendstil, have an immediate fascination for the wide array of colorful and wistfully shaped buildings decorated with sinuous curves and elaborate ornamentation. The bright yellows, lively greens, deep blues, and in some cases flaming oranges of painted Jugendstil homes peacefully coexist with the more visually dominant stone and brick structures.
Part of the overly asymmetrical decorative style that spread throughout Europe between the 1880s and World War I, Alesund's brand of Jugendstil likewise makes ample use of undulating forms of all kinds. Most obvious in the architectural detail are the whiplash curves of foliate forms, as well as flames, waves, and the flowing hair of female figures.
What led Alesund to adopt this charming style was a catastrophe: a fire that burned down the entire town center of more than a thousand structures during a gale one winter's night in 1904. Miraculously, only one person, an elderly woman, lost her life.
Equally amazing was the new town that arose from the ashes in just three years, thanks to Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, who sent shiploads of provisions, building materials, and most importantly, architects and artisans trained in Art Nouveau, the popular style of the time. The numerous towers, turrets, and medieval/romantic facades built in stone were imbued with locally inspired figureheads, dragon-style ornaments from Norwegian romantic architecture, and borders from Nordic mythology.
"Dragon-style motifs are found in Norwegian carpets, paintings, house details--so it is a part of Norwegian tradition," says Ivar Braaten, curator of the Alesund Museum. He adds that when Alesund changed from a rural to an urban society after Norway's liberation from Sweden, the town became the "forerunner" of the new Norway. "Jugendstil architecture provided a sense of identity for the urban-community lifestyle. The previous style was dominated by a protest against urbanization and industrialization," notes the curator.
"Art Nouveau was the first style that broke with the historic traditions that preceded it," he says. "Previous styles were copies of preceding ones, such as the Viking and medieval periods [in Norway], which had rich arts-and-crafts traditions." Indeed, no longer was architecture a mere reinterpretation of historicity. Conservative tastes in exuberant styles such as Neo-Classical, Neo-Romanesque, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Baroque were no longer acceptable to bold, fin-de-siecle architects, who sought a distinctive new style. To a great extent, the sweeping innovations and the immediate aesthetic appeal of Art Nouveau created an architecture brimming with the hope, optimism, and new possibilities that the twentieth century, with its burgeoning cities and economies, seemed to offer.
An offshoot of Symbolism and the Arts and Crafts Movement, both products of 1880s Europe, Art Nouveau, or "new style," is called Jugendstil in both German and Norwegian. Jugend simply means "youth" in German, and in fact, the name of the style derives from the magazine Die Jugend, which was founded in Munich in 1896. The style caught on internationally with the work of Belgian architecture professor Victor Horta and his memorable Maison Tassel in 1893. …