Category Archives: Architecture

Swan Maidens at Oslo City Hall

I was just planning on a quick walk-through of the building, which honestly is not to my taste. But the courtyard has sixteen large wood reliefs, each about eight feet tall, by Dagfinn Werenskiold. They portray Norse myths from the 13th century. He had me at the Swan Maidens. Legend has it that three Valkyries appeared on a beach one day in the form of swans. They turned into beautiful women, married three brothers who happened along and couldn’t believe their good fortune, and stayed fourteen years. Then they flew away. I don’t know the end of the story, but the Valkyries are beings that fly over battlefields, deciding who will live and who will die. Did the brothers later fight in battle and get saved? Or had they maybe left the toilet seat up one time too many? The answers are lost in the mists of time.

The Oslo City Hall replaced a slum in the middle of the city, directly on the Oslo Fjord. The exterior style is listed as “Functionalism,” which sums it up. The architects were Arnstein Arbeberg and Magnus Poulsson. It was partially built by 1939, but then World War II intervened and it was finally completed in 1950. The spectacular interior more than makes up for the so-so exterior.

Inside, the grand rooms were decorated by the finest Norwegian artists, chosen by competition. The details above are from Henrik Sorenson’s huge mural “The Nation at Work and Play.”

It dominates the Main Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year.

The rear wall features a mural by Alf Rolfson.

I like the “smaller” rooms even better. The Festival Gallery has windows looking out over the fjord, and a beamed and painted ceiling. Of course there are Viking motifs, like this creature inset in the marble floor.

Axel Revold covered the end wall with a mural depicting the long, narrow country of Norway from north to south.

Aage Storstein, a young up-and-coming artist, painted the West Gallery with images of freedom and democracy. I don’t really understand the history or the politics, but a captive princess and a bear depict the centuries that Norway was in union with Denmark (not exactly willingly, it seems).

My favorite room is a smallish one, the East Gallery. Per Krogh considered it his masterpiece.

The beehive represents city life and the rosebush country life.

He painted an uprooted tree as a rose window.

So much for a quick walk-by of a boring city building. I wandered in the Oslo City Hall for a long time. Outside, I admired Dagfinn Werenskiold’s wooden carvings again. How about Odin on his eight-legged horse Sleipner?

Or ponder “Embla,” an elm tree turned into the first human woman in a Nordic creation story.

Her partner was Ask, a man created from an ash tree.

I was so inspired by Norse mythology that when I recently had an art-class assignment to do a painting that tells a story, I tried my own Swan Maidens. They’re creepily faceless right now while I work out how to do noses and eyes and chins and mouths. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy my Nordic memories.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Copenhagen’s Romantic City Hall

My new favorite City Hall is in Copenhagen.

Why do I even have a favorite City Hall? In most cities, it’s about the last place I’d care to visit. I remember a long-ago trip to Winnipeg, Canada, when I spent several frustrating hours in the City Hall dealing with a fender-bender. (The only consolation was that I got to see an actual Canadian Mountie in his spiffy red jacket).

But Scandinavian countries like Denmark are proudly secular societies. City Hall is front and center in people’s lives, much as cathedrals are in other cities.

Martin Nyrop designed the building in National Romantic Style. To me, it looks distinctly Jugendstihl, Art Nouveau, or Arts and Crafts. This is not surprising for a building inaugurated in 1905, the heyday of these artistic movements. In Denmark, the movement was called “Skonvirke,” meaning “aesthetic work.”

A gilded statue of Absalon stands grandly above the main entrance. Absalon (also known, maybe to his buddies, as Axel) lived from 1128 to 1201. He was a warrior, politician, and archbishop–a Renaissance man before there was a Renaissance. He conquered pirates who plagued early Denmark, expanded its territories, built the first fortifications of what is now Copenhagen, and began untangling Denmark from the Holy Roman Empire. I don’t know whether he was also a kingmaker, but King Valdemar I leaned on him for counsel.

Just inside the main entrance, I think Absalon is dispensing good advice. (Or maybe this is the king–I couldn’t find any information and there was no tour going on).

In early December, the great central hall was being set up for an event. Another time I visited, there was a fascinating exhibit about immigrants to Denmark. (I wouldn’t mind emigrating to Denmark myself).

Inside on a weekday, city workers walk up and down beautiful staircases and go calmly about their business in hushed corridors.

Visitors are free to wander, taking in the beauty everywhere.

Some doorways are carved and fitted with elegant hardware.

All the other doorways have colorful painted decoration. No two are the same.

Even a janitor’s hallway slop sink is a thing of beauty.

The great and good are featured in murals, but so are working people. Tycho Brahe, above, lived from 1546 to 1601. He was a Danish nobleman and a great astronomer, but in this most egalitarian country, machinists and laborers are also honored.

Carved workmen trudge up a staircase. I especially like the man carrying a sheet of glass for a window.

Other spaces are more grand, with murals and ceilings celebrating Copenhagen’s history.

An owl stands at the doorway to the city archives. I have a feeling that important papers don’t get lost here in this most civilized City Hall. It’s no wonder that Denmark’s citizens line up at their beautiful City Hall every Saturday to celebrate their weddings. More on that on Valentine’s Day!

Christmas Time in Copenhagen

Danish flags and paper cutouts are popular on Christmas trees.

The upscale Magazin du Nord department store is festooned with paper cutout garlands.

Tivoli Park is full of lights and people.

Right, I’ll be next on the carousel giraffe!

The snow is not real yet at Tivoli, but it’s cold. Pink and purple hyacinths are planted everywhere. Their scent fills the air.

Festive music fills churches.

The Christmas market at the Gustaf Swedish Church is the best weekend party. Church ladies all wear costumes of Swedish districts. I have shawl-and-apron envy!

There are only about 5 million Danes in the entire country. The pace is relaxed, even in Copenhagen. Art galleries are pleasantly uncrowded and stuffed with beautiful things. Above is “Mary with the Christ Child and the Infant St. John” by Maurice Denis, 1898. It’s in the fabulous French collection at the Glyptotek.

Copenhagen’s City Hall is a work of art in itself. I’ll cheerfully wander its hushed halls for an hour anytime.

Cafes are cozy and store windows full of temptations.

Buying a gift? A friendly elf in ruffled pantaloons will wrap it up for you.

Is Copenhagen expensive? Oh, yes. We rented an apartment, ate in a lot, took in free concerts and recitals, and bought Copenhagen cards, which cover all the sights and all the excellent public transportation. It’s manageable and worth it!

Frederiksborg Castle: Renaissance in Knitting Needles

Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark is a riot of Renaissance elegance. A recent exhibit featured a jaw-dropping collection of hand-knitted ensembles based on the costumes in royal and noble portraits in the castle.

I love the idea of knitting, but I’m terrible at it. A simple scarf from my hands turns into a lumpy mess. So I was in awe.

The source portraits were hard to identify in Danish, so I gave up and just enjoyed the knitted versions of the costumes. How about an artfully ruched sleeve on a simple gray sweater?

Or an elegant dress based on two portraits from the 1500s? I’d cheerfully wear this if I had an occasion fancy enough.

Perhaps an elaborate lace collar?

I’d wear this dress too, if the artist knitted me one in a different color combination. Maybe subtle blues and purples?


The same goes for the pantaloon-turned-skirt number, based on a portrait of one Captain Sir Thomas Dutton. I’ll take one in grays and blues, please.

Two of my favorite colors, and an Elizabeth vibe…

A peplum number in deep blue.

Textures and colors fit for a long-ago princess…


I’m not sure of the inspiration for this creamy white wool coat. It kind of looks like a gentleman’s long-sleeved undershirt, lovingly sewn by his lady. Whatever. Just ring it up. I’ll wear it home!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, past and present, of Europe and the British Isles.

Jugendstil in Helsinki


The island of Katajanokka, just outside the center of Helsinki, might have more Jugendstil buildings per square mile than anyplace else on earth.


It seems that in the early 1900s, when industrialization was drawing rural Finns into Helsinki, there must have been a building boom.


Builders must have raced to create castles for the common people: fanciful and beautiful apartment buildings with turrets, towers, interesting windows, and beautiful decorative elements.


We stayed in one of them, and I’d have cheerfully stayed longer. I could see myself living in beautiful, friendly Helsinki. The city is known for its style. Now I see why!

Helsinki Jugendstil Doorways


For some reason, I expected Helsinki to be a  rough-around-the edges modern industrial city. Instead I found a city full of delightful architecture, much of it dating from the early 1900s. This was the heyday of the worldwide Jugendstil or Art Nouveau movement.


I’m stopping constantly to snap a picture of yet another inviting, witty doorway. I’m loving Helsinki!

Doorways in Kalmar

img_4436

First impression of any building: the front door. A well-chosen one is unique and inviting. This one looks like a face, don’t you think? Maybe a friendly cat?

img_4430

The Swedish town of Kalmar has a lot of unique doorways. Kalmar was once an important strategic town, on the old border between Sweden and Denmark.  It still have a wonderful historic castle. Where there’s a royal castle, people always go to the trouble and expense of putting up fine homes and grand public buildings.

img_4934

Some Kalmar doors are beautiful in their simplicity.

img_4947

Some are  a little more elaborate.

img_4928

Beautiful shades of red, blue and green are favorites everywhere in Sweden.

img_4940

Sometimes flowers add color, even at the very end of the way-too-short Swedish summer.

img_4952

How about some classic geometrics?

img_4916

Sometimes a door invokes the past.  This one is on a grand seafront building, right next to an inviting beach.  I’m thinking “Bad Hus” means “bath house.” How about a swim?

img_3635

Not today. It’s early September. Leaves are changing and the days are getting cold in Sweden. We’ll have to wait for summer! I hope to be back.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Parham Park: My Favorite Long Gallery

This is Parham Park, built in Elizabethan times for a wealthy old family fortunate enough to acquire the land in 1540, when King Henry VIII was busy dismantling monasteries.  The land at that time passed from the Monastery of Westminster to the Palmer family, who began building their grand house in 1577. In about 1597, the Bishopp family bought the house and estate, and held it for about 325 years. In 1922, the Pearson family bought the property and found it in sad repair. They set about renovating, very conscientiously. The quiet but luxurious country life lived in this beautiful house has been about the same for centuries. It appears that over the years, the families who lived here were able to steer clear of the dangerous (and often lethal) political turmoil of their times.


The house is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, close to the southern coast. After the excitement of hosting troops during World War II, the family decided they liked having people around and opened to paying visitors in 1948.

The matriarch (think of her as the equivalent of Lady Violet on Downton Abbey) used to enjoy sitting in the Long Gallery, pictured below, as tourists filed through. She stayed anonymous and had a great time fielding  questions and chuckling at inane comments. She especially liked it when complete strangers claimed that they had been guests of the family before the war–when she would have been their hostess.

According to a friendly docent on a recent visit, the house has the third longest remaining Long Gallery in the country. These galleries were built in Tudor and Elizabethan times to showcase the family’s treasures. Just as importantly, family members used the gallery to take long walks when it was pouring rain out in their gardens and woodlands.


Sometime in the 1960s, the family at Parham tired of the plain white ceiling of their Long Gallery. They had repaired and replaced the roof decades before, but the Gallery was beginning to bore them. So they hired an artist to add vines and branches. And some wildlife! A little owl perches on a branch in the panel above.


How about a pair of birds and their nest?


My personal favorite is the monkey, who looks like he’s up to no good.

Parham today is managed by a charitable trust, and the Pearson family still lives in part of the house. If Parham were run by the National Trust or English Heritage, painting vines and wildlife on the ceiling of the Long Gallery would probably never happen. Those organizations rightly insist on historical accuracy. But since Parham was (and is still) privately owned, the family was free to do what private owners of stately homes have always done: make their home exactly the way they wanted it.  The house is part of the Historic Houses Association, which sells a yearly pass that gets pass holders into many properties free, and into others at very limited times when no one else is admitted.

img_8084

I’ll cheerfully flash my HHA pass at a house like Parham any chance I get, and I’ll return again and again to savor spectacular historic interiors like the dining room above.

img_8015-1

The Chapel at Tyntesfield

TynChapelExt

The chapel at Tyntesfield is a spectacularly beautiful reimagining of a French medieval church, Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Tyntesfield is a Victorian neo-Gothic mansion built by the devout Gibbs family, commoners who rose to great wealth through banking, shipping, and bat and bird manure (more on that later).

FullSizeRender (9)

The chapel was the last big building project on the property, just outside Bristol, but it was in many ways the one most important to William Gibbs. It is also the first part of the house that the visitor sees on the walk from the parking lot and National Trust visitor center.  It’s a stunning first impression. Arthur Blomfield was the architect and builder.

FullSizeRender (8)

When the Gibbs family lived in their Victorian Gothic Revival mansion, the family, guests and servants alike attended prayers twice daily–first in the grand hall, and later in the chapel when it was finished. Beginning around 1842, William Gibbs made his fortune from a simple idea that grew and grew: he imported guano, the droppings of sea birds and bats, from Peru to North America.  Guano was highly prized as a fertilizer. William Gibbs became the richest non-aristocratic man in England. Tyntesfield had 106 total rooms, with 26 main bedrooms plus more rooms for the many servants. The square footage is about 40,000. And this was only their country home.  Most of the time they lived elsewhere, in equally grand digs.

FullSizeRender

Naturally, people were envious of Gibbs’s success. An indelicate ditty in London ran, “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.” Actually, the selling of fertilizer led inexorably to profiting from the slave trade, a fact which the Gibbs family preferred not to dwell on.  Their shipping business, over time, became a part of the Triangular Trade that caused so much human misery. Ships constantly transported material goods and slaves between Europe, the Americas, and Africa.

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

The Gibbs family donated large amounts of their fortune to various charitable causes, and generously supported churches all over England. Naturally, they wanted their own church.  The chapel was built between 1872 and 1879, to a design by Arthur Bloomfield.

Sainte-Chapelle, interior, image from The Guardian article cited below

Sainte-Chapelle, interior, image from The Guardian article cited below

The inspiration was Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, pictured above. Sainte-Chapelle was built by the devout Louis IV in the 1240s. (He later became St. Louis, giving his name to the American city later still).

TynChapGlass

The stained glass at Tyntesfield is beautiful, if not as spectacular as the newly-restored glass at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

FullSizeRender

The stonework is lovely and evocative.

Portrait of William Gibbs by Eugene Deveria, circa 1850, Public Domain

Portrait of William Gibbs by Eugene Deveria, circa 1850, Public Domain

WIlliam Gibbs intended to follow the example of aristocratic families and create a family burial vault underneath the chapel for future generations. The vault exists, but it is empty. The Bishop of Bath and Wells, under pressure from local churches, refused to consecrate the chapel. The stated reason was that allowing a consecrated chapel on the grounds of Tyntesfield would detract from local churches. I can’t help thinking that “the powers that be” were also reluctant to upset the social applecart by allowing a family of common birth to put on airs. (Eventually, George Abraham Gibbs was “created” 1st Baron Wraxall in 1928, but family fortunes were already declining by that time).

The chapel at Tyntesfield is the last stop for visitors touring the beautiful mansion. It’s a lovely, light-filled, quiet place to contemplate history. William Gibbs was buried elsewhere, but a cross and inscription from the book of Proverbs memorialize his life: “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it is found in the way of righteousness.” William Gibbs did his best to be both a businessman and a righteous man.  Early in his career, he and his brother Henry worked hard to completely repay the debts that earlier family members had run up.  The family business had gone bankrupt, and there was no obligation to pay. But they did anyway, every penny. It also appears that William Gibbs did his best to remove his shipping business from the slave trade once the terrible abuses were known.

I previously wrote about Tyntesfield and the Gibbs family at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/10/22/high-victorian…at-tyntesfield/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/06/19/tyntesfield-vi…lendor-rescued/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/06/18/mr-gibbs-made-his-dibs/

An article about the restoration of St. Chapelle in Paris is at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/20/sainte-chapelle-paris-stained-glass-window-restoration-completed

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!