The Aurland Lookout is a 98-foot-long pirate plank of a viewing bridge that reaches out over one of the largest and most spectacular fjords in western Norway. We're not sure what's more impressive: the views or the fact that the only thing standing between you and the ravine 2,133 feet below is a measly sheet of glass.
The lookout was designed by the Norwegian architects Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen, and it's part of a more than $400 million initiative to transform Norway's copious natural beauty into design destinations. Launched in 2002, the 18-year-long program taps predominantly young Norwegian architects and designers to spruce up 18 designated "National Tourist Routes" — scenic highways — with assorted overlooks, walkways, picnic areas, and toilets. Now, at the halfway mark, Norway has built around 120 sites, from the Aurland Lookout to an elevated concrete walkway that winds through the trees of the Rondane National Park to a memorial for persecuted witches (yes, persecuted witches) by Louise Bourgeois and Pritzker Prize-winner Peter Zumthor (the only foreign architect here), which will open this summer.
It's a mammoth testament to one country's faith in the power of design.
All told, the government is expected to sink an estimated $377 million into the program, with an additional $63 million from private and public partners. It's a mammoth investment and a testament to one country's faith in the power of design to add equity to an already flourishing tourism industry. As the initiative's rep Hege Lysholm tells Co: "It's the nature experience we want to emphasize. The architecture and signs and rest areas work as an enhancement."
The structures are decided in design competitions and adhere to a basic (and classically Scandinavian) formula: Nature first, architecture second. Thusly, you see lots of simple designs that subtly play up the drama of the surroundings — an undulating viewing platform that echoes the water below, say, or a restroom whose roof follows the mountain line. Materials like wood, glass, and concrete are selected both for their organic aesthetic and, perhaps more importantly, because they need to be able to withstand extreme climate, particularly in the Arctic reaches of northern Norway.
Has the program been a success? Anecdotally, Lysholm says patronage at local restaurants and camping sites and hotels is on the upswing, though she acknowledges that it might not result directly from the National Tourist Routes initiative. Next year, the government will have a more scientific barometer when it analyzes traffic data for each site.
All in all, it's an awful lot of work — and an awful lot of money — for something that's largely untested. (A successful pilot project in the 1990s was the initial impetus.) Still, Lysholm says, the government's confident that the program will reap rewards, financial and otherwise. "Norway has a lot of old history and a lot of old, good-looking sites: churches, national monuments and so on," she says. "Now we have an opportunity to make sites and monuments for our time. These are small diamonds on the outskirts, and there's a belief that they'll boost the economy."