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NEW YORK TIMES


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Beaming good cheer to a town's dark days

By New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:07 p.m. HST, Apr 14, 2014



RJUKAN, Norway » Yearning for sunlight has been a part of life in this quaint old factory town in central Norway for as long as anyone can remember. Here, the sun disappears behind a mountain for six months of the year.

It is worse for newcomers, of course, like Martin Andersen, a conceptual artist who arrived here 12 years ago and would find himself walking and walking, searching for any last puddle of sunshine to stand in. It was on one of these walks that he had the idea of slapping some huge mirrors up against the mountain to the north of town and bouncing some rays down on Rjukan.

The town eventually agreed to try, and last fall, three solar- and wind-powered mirrors that move in concert with the sun started training a beam of sunlight into the town square. Thousands of people turned out for the opening event, wearing sunglasses and dragging out their beach chairs. And afterward, many residents say, life changed.

The town became more social. Leaving church on Sundays, people would linger in the square, talking, laughing and drinking in the sun, trying not to look up directly into the mountain mirrors. On a recent morning, Anette Oien had taken a seat on newly installed benches in the square, her eyes closed, her face turned up. She was waiting for her partner to run an errand, and sitting in the light seemed much nicer than sitting in a car. "It's been a great contribution to life here," she said.

But the sun, pale and weak, did not last long. In fact, during the almost three months from Dec. 25 to March 15, the skies were so cloudy that the mirrors produced just 17 hours of sunlight on the square, bolstering the arguments of those who call the project a waste of money.

Most days, in fact, the square just looks like the parking lot it once was. A bone-chilling wind sweeps through it, and there is often the sting of swirling sand that was once put down on snowy roads, but which now drifts over the dreary blacktop.

There has been so little sunlight, in fact, that the solar mechanisms that power the mirror stopped working and the beam disappeared completely for a while. A generator and fuel had to be hauled up the mountain by snowmobile to get things going again.

But most residents do not seem to dwell on such setbacks. Certainly, the mayor, Steinar Bergsland, is not much concerned. Refusing to accept life in the shadows, he said, has brought all kinds of attention to Rjukan, a town built by an industrialist who opened the world's first large-scale fertilizer plant here between 1905 and 1916.

In the decades that followed, the industrialist, Samuel Eyde, known here as Uncle Sam, built just about everything that stands in Rjukan today. Managers got the houses with the most sunlight. Workers got apartments deeper in the valley. But all the housing was cutting edge for its day. There was indoor plumbing for everyone.

Eyde understood the yearning for sun, too. Back in 1913, one of his bookkeepers wrote to the local paper suggesting that a giant mirror might work. But instead, Eyde, who settled here because a waterfall nearby provided an easy means of generating electricity, built a cable car so his employees could go up the mountain to get some sunshine in the winter. The cable car still exists.

But the mirror enthusiasts wanted more. "We were a high-tech town 100 years ago," Bergsland said, "and now we are using high tech to get some sun into our valley.

"Of course there were people here who said this is crazy," he continued, "but a lot of people really liked the idea."

And tourists have begun to trickle in, including from Oslo, about a three-hour drive away. Many of the businesses here report an uptick in income. If Rjukan becomes one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites next year, as it hopes, that should help, too.

Still, not everyone has embraced the mirrors. In this town of about 6,000 people, some 1,300 signed a petition to block the project. Some opponents, like Robert Jenbergsen, who is studying to become a teacher, have changed their minds. "I thought it would be a waste because we have a lot of bad weather here," he said. "But when we got the sun, you could see the happiness it brought. We had never seen anything like that before. So, now I think it is great."

Others, however, have not been impressed. Annar Torresvold, 77, and his wife, Anne-Lise Odegaard, 70, still think that the 5 million kroner (roughly $840,000) spent on the mirrors might have been better spent elsewhere. They worry about a possible closing of the hospital, the quality of the schools and health care for seniors.

When they want sunshine, they drive to the next town. Or up the mountain to the ski resorts.

"It's a very costly little spot of sun," said Annar Torresvold, who moved to Rjukan after he retired from working in a paper producing plant. "It was very clear what common people thought, and they thought it was a waste of money."

And Torresvold thinks the town will end up spending more to keep the mirrors working. "I can't see this having a long-term effect on things here," he said. "It's just a flash in the pan."

It took nearly a decade for the mirrors to go up. Andersen began the project, researching the technical aspects and drawing up projects that included rounded mirrors. But once he assured town officials that it could be done, they turned it over to engineers.

Eventually, the mirrors, each measuring 17 square meters (about 183 square feet) were flown in by helicopter and installed 450 meters (about 492 yards) above the town square, where their movements are controlled by computers.

These days Rjukan is focused on fixing up the town square. Perhaps a fountain is needed. "You can't just have a sun mirror shinning on a parking lot," Bergsland, the mayor, said.

Andersen, who has generally made a living off odd jobs (he is currently a lifeguard at the municipal pool) grumbles a bit that the mirrors are square and that little was done to make the site aesthetically pleasing if someone were to walk into the area on the mountain, as he would have done.

For his next project, he would like to paint a Jules Verne quote - "Look with all your eyes, look!" - in giant letters across the road leading into town. Verne once visited Rjukan in 1861, Andersen said. But he is not optimistic.

"It is a simple project, cheap," he said, sounding a bit annoyed. "But the town has already turned me down. They would not consider it."






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