MoMA urges Norwegian government to preserve Picasso mural-clad Oslo office building

Backing the Block

MoMA urges Norwegian government to preserve Picasso mural-clad Oslo office building

The Fisherman by Pablo Picasso and Carl Nesjar as seen on the facade of Oslo's Y-Block building (Mahlum/ Wikimedia Commons)

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has joined the growing effort to save an unoccupied yet culturally significant Oslo governmental office block that was close to the site of a car bombing carried out as part of a larger domestic terror attack on July 22, 2011, from being demolished under the order of Norwegian officials.

Dubbed Y-Block, the endangered building in question is a late-1960s Brutalist structure designed by Erling Viksjø that boasts two rare, monumental murals by Pablo Picasso sandblasted into its concrete walls. The murals, The Fisherman and The Seagull, were executed by frequent Picasso collaborator the Norwegian artist Carl Nesja, and are located on the hulking building’s exterior facade and in its lobby, respectively.

As reported by The Art Newspaper, MoMA’s Martino Stierli, chief curator of architecture and design, and Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture, recently submitted an impassioned letter to Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, and the country’s minister for the environment, Sveinung Rotevatn, urging them to “reconsider the approved decision for the demolition.” Norwegian newspaper VG subsequently shared the letter.

Unlike the neighboring H-Block building, which containers a trio of smaller interior Picasso murals and has been partially reopened in the years following the attack, Y-Block has remained fully shuttered since 2011 and will be razed per a plan to dramatically revamp the Regjeringskvartalet district. The plan was first announced in 2013 to significant consternation. (As part of the scheme, H-Block, unlike Y-Block, would be fully refurbished.) Both modernist buildings were on the verge of being granted protected landmark status by the Directorate of Cultural Heritage before the attack.

The interior and exterior murals gracing Y-Block would, of course, be carefully removed and relocated to another area in the new governmental district as promised by officials. However, the decision to demolish the building and move the famed artwork—one that officials say is being made due to security concerns and the high costs of maintaining a large office building that’s been redundant for nearly a decade—has prompted widespread outrage among preservationists, architects, public officials, and ordinary citizens alike who believe it should remain standing as a sign of Norwegian resilience. Many opponents of government’s plan are of the opinion that demolishing the building would finalize the agenda of the right-wing extremist, Anders Behring Breivik.

The urgency to save the building, which did not suffer any major structural damaged during the bombing, has increased in recent weeks as workers begin site prep work ahead of the planned demolition, which hasn’t yet been assigned a date and, up until now, has been continuously postponed since 2014. And as the clock ticks, the choir of opposing voices has only grown louder with a 2019 petition to save Y-Block garnering 47,000 signatures. MoMA’s involvement has helped to amply these voices in recent days.

“We are writing to express our grave concern regarding the approved demolition of the Y-block governmental building,” reportedly reads the letter from MoMA. “The demolition of the building complex would not only constitute a significant loss of Norwegian architectural heritage, but it would also render any attempt to salvage or reposition Picasso’s site-specific murals elsewhere unfortunate.”

Earlier this year, European conservation organization Europa Nostra added Y-Block on the shortlist for the 2020 edition of its “7 Most Endangered” program.