Road Trip

TEXT Mason White

Road Culture

The myth of the road trip–simultaneously as both escape and journey–is cross-cultural and historic. The Grand Tour of the 1700s and 1800s perpetuated travel as an educational experience. The 1900s saw a different kind of travel that evolved rapidly with the success of the automobile. As road travel’s popularity grew, so did the network that facilitates it. Both the Interstate Highway system in the United States and the Trans-Canada Highway can be said to form their own ecology, or what Reyner Banham called an “autopia.” Canada’s road ecology is a 7,821-kilometre highway linking Victoria, BC with St. John’s, Newfoundland. Construction of the Trans-Canada Highway commenced in 1950, officially opening in 1962. As road travel in Canada expanded in the 1960s and ’70s, so did the culture of travelling by car, motorcycle, van, and camper, among others. Road culture and the allure of the road trip was popularized in multiple media and loomed large in the North American lifestyle. But between destinations, natural or urban, how does this infrastructure respond to the land? It is simply efficient and no-nonsense. And what is along it? Perfunctory pit stops, bathrooms, visitor centres, and information kiosks come in the form of nostalgic or drab cabin-like houses, dotting the route in uninspired roadside lots. A majority of these roadside architectures are situated at a designated distance from each other based upon refuelling, consumption, or bathroom pacing logic.

Although the so-called ecology of roadway and highway systems–so commonplace in our environment today–can be said to have originated some 70 years ago in North America, there is little doubt that its rethinking is now occurring elsewhere. But, with their tendency towards over-engineered efficiency and singularity, what kind of environment can highways and roadways offer? And is road culture inherently predisposed toward the Populuxe or Postmodern? Norway has put forward a few responses to this. In fact, they are investing an unprecedented 800 million Norwegian Krone ($136.5 million CDN) toward a targeted reinvigoration of the road trip.

Norway’s National Tourist Routes

The Norwegian Public Roads Administration is responsible for constructing and maintaining roads throughout Norway. Under their supervision, a Tourism and Travel Project (Reiselivs-prosjektet) was initiated in 1994, and concluded in the recommendation to implement National Tourist Routes (Nasjonale turistveger) across Norway. Karl Otto Ellefsen, professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, has remarked that “the Norwegian travel industry is [prior to the Routes project] a collage of small companies with little access to capital and a low level of professionalism in terms of development.” The Norwegian Public Roads Administration sought to change that, by developing 18 road sections as a dispersed tourist attraction, stimulating economic growth through tourism, trade and industry. The first four roads were opened in 1997. Along them, the National Tourists Routes projects upgrade selected sections of the roadway system deemed unique and opportune. This has yielded a 1,850-kilometre-long outdoor museum highlighting the powerful interface between architecture, infrastructure and landscape. What could be a better context for a road trip–or a museum tour for that matter–than a rugged coastline of fjords, islands, lakes and mountains?

It could be argued that the Roads Administration, by default, has become the curator of Norway’s landscape. With almost 60 architecture firms designing 131 projects to date along 18 different routes, the Norwegian Tourist Routes elevate the road-trip experience from a cultural event into an architectural and landscaped cultural event. Each project is unique, custom, and a direct response to the particularities found in its context’s views, ground condition, and experience. The Routes projects become not only perfunctory pit stops, but also destinations in and of themselves. Forgoing the tendency to explain and present information in museum fashion, the projects offer a way to navigate and view the land. This new network provides a variegated infrastructural interface for travellers to interpret the landscape while still in it. Estimated for completion by 2016, substantial funding remains fuelled by the estimated 81.7-trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, in its status as the third-largest exporter of natural gas after Russia and yes, Canada.

Two organizational councils manage the commissioning of Routes projects. Architects are selected either through invitation or competition. Both processes are monitored by a council consisting of architects, landscape architects and artists. A second council is managed by a curator commissioning a single artwork per route. The councils modelled themselves on an Olympic committee, paralleled earlier by the 1994 design commissions for Lillehammer. Equally interesting is the manner in which the National Tourist Routes required cohesive collaborations across municipalities, county council districts, and other public agencies representing planning, trade and industry. Jan Andersen, National Tourist Routes project manager, indicates that the challenge is in “inspiring involvement, a sense of ownership, and complete support for the high-quality requirements.” Compounding these challenges is, of course, the upkeep and evolution of such a network in order to allow it to maintain its status as desirable to tourists. The Norwegian Public Roads administration proposes a quality audit every five years to assess operations and management and any necessary expansions or modifications. Professor Ellefsen believes that the National Tourist Routes can be seen within the larger context to connect with the reuse and reconstruction of the “Norwegian cultural landscape.” Amidst the excitement of the potential of the projects, he poses significant questions about the nature of touristic development with limited resources, rural encroachment, and the difficulty in representing national identity.

On a utilitarian front, each project varies in its combination of restrooms facilities, rest areas, parking, walking paths, and dumpsites. The Routes projects could crudely be categorized into two approaches: either a walk or an overlook. So generally, projects propose an approach of moving through the landscape, or of viewing and contemplating the landscape. Many proposals merge qualities and programs of both, and in fact it is many of these that seem to be the most successful.

Four Projects

One powerful example of such a combination of moving through and looking out to the landscape is Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen’s Lookout Point in Aurland (see CA, February 2006). The overlook, a three-hour drive from Bergen, was completed in 2005 and is often used as the cover image for the Tourist Routes program. In part, this is because of its simplicity and elegance, and its heroic yet light-handed approach. Or as they state: “Nature first and architecture second was the guiding principle when we sat down to design this project.” Like an incomplete bridge across the chasm of Sogn og Fjordane–one of the larger fjords on the West Coast–the lookout extends out 35 metres and over the void, before bending back toward the sloping rock face. Saunders says, “We wanted people to come out in the air.” Just before returning back to the ground to support itself, the overlook offers only a frameless glass pane between the viewer and the water, some 640 metres below. Touching lightly in only two places, the overlook is comprised of laminated Norwegian pine. So as not to disturb the purity of this expression and experience, parking and public restrooms are provided a short ways along the road. As a testament to the competitive process, at the time of its completion, both architects were under
35 years old.

Another project, by 3RW arkitekter in collaboration with Smesvig landskapsarkitekter AS, is situated along a zigzagging road in rnesvingen, within the Geiranger fjord 600 metres below. The project, completed in 2006, is comprised of a walkway, viewing platform, and a waterfall. Two view options are available: a dynamic view around the hairpin bend, and a static long view of the fjord facing opposite. The dramatic walking view parallels the knuckle in the road, with benches as a road buffer, and leads to a thin cantilevered concrete platform extending out in the fjord’s airspace. The combination of walkway and platform gives the experience its panoramic and cinematic quality.

Reiulf Ramstad arkitekter’s (RRA) intervention along Road 63, some seven hours north of Oslo, is comprised of an impressive series of platforms and walkways cascading down the Trollstigen (literally meaning troll ladder) plateau. Here, the view includes not only the undulating topography but also the impressive Route 63 itself, which consists of 11 hairpin turns originally completed in 1936. RRA have provided two vantage points from which to view the landscape, one from high above at the edge of the Stigfossen waterfall which tumbles down the steep slope below. The second viewing platform is accessed by a descending concrete walkway that terminates in a tectonically tiered public surface. The elegant platform is lined with Corten steel sheets and glass along the outer perimeter.

Ghilardi + Hellsten arkiteker, a young Oslo-based practice, is currently at work on two Routes projects. One is the stunning Eldhusya that proposes a looping navigation walk at a maintained level of +8 metres. They argue that this offers “the traveller the possibility of experiencing the sea and the horizon as a constant.” As in the Aurland project, the walkway is light in its impact, as it hovers just above sensitive vegetation, providing crate-like perforations for light, water, and ultimately growth. Youth again plays a role, as Franco Ghilardi and Ellen Hellsten are part of an emerging generation of Norwegian architects at the vanguard of design.

Conclusion and Potential

The Tourist Routes’ strength–besides the actual artifacts that they generate–is the kind of culture that emerges out of this project. This refers not only to users of such a network that will no doubt come away with a heightened sense of their surroundings and the emotive role that architecture can play, but also to the commissioned practices. For several of the design practices, a Tourist Routes project will be their first built work or at least their first public commission. This national initiative cultivates an entire generation of architects and landscape architects, however modest the project, and provides an essential step toward leveraging further work, public or private. Alongside the expression of national identity found in the projects themselves, the Tourist Routes projects also foster a new generation of Norwegian practices, thrusting them into the international spotlight. With a population of only 4.8 million, the architectural (and cultural) output of Norway rivals any country in our young century. The work found along the Tourist Routes is representative of this new generation of design: inventive, sophisticated, and forward-looking.

Needless to say, the potential for Canada to pursue such an endeavour is not only relevant but rich with opportunity. And it is about time for the Trans-Canada highway to undergo its next evolution. Road trip, anyone? CA

Mason White is an Assistant Professor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. He is a partner in Lateral Office and founded the research project InfraNet Lab.