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Picasso murals caught up in terrorist attack’s bitter legacy


    Y-Block in Oslo’s government quarter is seen as a symbol of social democracy and bears a mural by Picasso and the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar. It’s scheduled for demolition, with the mural, “The Fishermen,” due to be moved elsewhere.

OSLO, Norway >> Walking through Oslo’s government quarter, it’s hard to miss the monumental concrete mural that dominates its central square. The semiabstract depiction of three people on a boat, pulling in a catch under a blazing sun, is on the end of a swooping modernist building known as Y-Block. “The Fishermen” bears the unmistakable lines of the artist who designed it: Pablo Picasso, who created it in 1970, in collaboration with a Norwegian artist, Carl Nesjar. It is one of five murals by the two men in the government complex here.

In the last six years, however, both the building and the mural have been in a grim state of uncertainty. Since July 22, 2011, Y-Block and an adjacent building, known as H-Block, have sat largely empty, their windows boarded up or covered by screens, a ghostly reminder of the car-bomb attack by the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik that tore through the government quarter, killing eight people and damaging the buildings.

To the outrage of preservationists, architects and politicians, the Norwegian government has decided to follow through on plans to demolish Y-Block and relocate “The Fishermen” and another of Picasso and Nesjar’s murals. Statsbygg, the Norwegian state property directorate, announced in late September that it would award a contract to redesign the quarter to a group of several high-profile architecture firms who, in accordance with government wishes, will replace Y-Block with a triangular building with a semitransparent facade and erect a row of offices along one edge of the site. Opponents of the decision see it as an affront to Norwegian and global artistic heritage, and a capitulation to Breivik.

“We don’t want the ministry to tear down the building when the terrorist didn’t manage to do that,” said Janne Wilberg, the city of Oslo’s director of cultural heritage.

The controversy began in 2014, when Norway’s Ministry of Local Government and Modernization decided that ministries located elsewhere in the city should be moved onto the site and Y-Block, which sits on top of a tunnel deemed susceptible to a terrorist attack, should be torn down. Officials did not specify the exact nature of the threat. In an email, a spokeswoman from the ministry wrote that after a comprehensive security study, “We were not able to find any good solution where the Y-Block could be maintained.”

After the ministry announced its decision, the heritage organization Europa Nostra included the Picasso murals on its shortlist of the continent’s seven most endangered artworks. The Picasso Administration, which oversees the painter’s legacy, has also criticized the decision to remove the murals from Y-Block. In 2013, the organization’s head of legal affairs, Claudia Andrieu, told Norwegian radio that the art should not be moved, but after a meeting with Norwegian authorities in 2014, the organization took a more conciliatory tone, saying in a statement that it would monitor the process step by step. The Picasso Administration did not respond to requests from The New York Times for comment.

In the winning bid for the redevelopment, the Picasso murals are to be incorporated into two new buildings, placed to greet visitors as they enter the district. “They will be a main feature as you enter the site,” said Gudmund Stokke, the Oslo architect who led the team. But preservationists argue that the murals and the buildings are of a piece. “The whole idea of the area is precisely that the art is incorporated into the body of the building,” said Mari Hvattum, a professor of architectural history and theory at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. “To take them out and frame them like a painting in a museum, I find a completely atrocious idea.”

Preservationists also argue that, Picasso murals aside, the decision to demolish Y-Block would obliterate a priceless symbol of Norwegian history. “It’s an architecture with just astonishing qualities,” said Hvattum. Both H-Block, built in 1958, and Y-Block, built just over a decade later, were designed by Norwegian architect Erling Viksjo. Both were notable in their use of “natural concrete,” a material created by Viksjo with the engineer Sverre Jystad to withstand the harsh Norwegian climate, and for the way they incorporated Picasso and Nesjar’s art, as well as that of several other Norwegian artists.

Pal Weiby, a spokesman for Statsbygg, said that the tunnel underneath Y-Block would need to be lowered approximately 16 feet to satisfy the government’s security guidelines, and that the building would have to be demolished, whatever else happened, for that work to take place. “It’s not possible to keep the building, at that security level,” Weiby said. To save it, he said, government business would have to be moved out of the quarter.

In 2011, authorities were in the process of designating both buildings as protected heritage monuments when Breivik detonated a car bomb outside H-Block, killing eight people. He went on to murder 69 more, mostly teenagers, at a retreat for the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party on the island of Utoya, outside Oslo.

In the years since the attack, Norway has struggled to find a way to commemorate the attacks’ victims. A proposed memorial, which would have involved slicing a section out of the rocky coastline near Utoya, was shelved this summer after outcry from neighbors. Another memorial for the government quarter was also scrapped. In the eyes of some activists, this has made the preservation of the building and murals especially important. “Breivik wanted to attack social democracy,” said Hvattum. “He wanted to get rid of the legacy of social democracy in built form, and in living form, in terms of people. To tear this down is to complete his mission.”

Some preservationists are skeptical of the government’s claims about the risks of retaining Y-Block. “We are not allowed to look into the security reasoning behind this,” said Wilberg, who argues that the secrecy surrounding the safety measures make it impossible to have an honest public debate. In an email, the state secretary for the Ministry of Local Government, Paul Chaffey, wrote that “the government took its decision regarding the Y-Block in 2014” and that “we see no reason to change this decision.”

Other opponents of the ministry’s plan argue that, heritage issues aside, it will leave the district with too much office space, overwhelming Oslo’s historic city core. “We’ve tried to keep the buildings quite low so they merge with the surrounding fabric,” said Stokke, who describes the team’s plan as an attempt to insert a new “iconic” building onto the site while creating a subtle backdrop for the surviving historic buildings.

But Ola Elvestuen, member of the Norwegian parliament for the Liberal Party, is unconvinced. “They’re trying to build too many too large buildings in too small of an area,” he said. He plans to fight the proposal in parliament, aiming to preserve Y-Block and its Picassos in their original locations.

“This is our near past,” Elvestuen said, “and the near past is often the hardest to preserve.”

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