From its origins about 9,000 years ago to the present, the architecture of Norway has evolved in response to shifting economic conditions, technological advances, demographic fluctuations and cultural shifts. While outside architectural influences are apparent in much of Norwegian architecture, they have often been adapted to meet Norwegian climatic conditions, including: harsh winters, high winds and, in coastal areas, salt spray.
Norway’s architectural trends are also seen to parallel political and societal changes in Norway over the centuries. Prior to the Viking Age, wooden structures developed into a sophisticated craft evident in the elegant and effective construction of the Viking long ships. Following that, the ascent of Christianity introduced Romanesque architecture in cathedrals and churches, with characteristically slightly pointed arches, barrel vaults, cruciform piers supporting vaults, and groin vaults; in large part as a result of religions influence from England.
During the Middle Ages, the geography dictated a dispersed economy and population. As a result, the traditional Norwegian farm culture remained strong, and Norway differed from most European countries in never adopting feudalism. This, combined with the ready availability of wood as a building material, ensured that relatively few examples of the Baroque, Renaissance, and Rococo architecture styles so often built by the ruling classes elsewhere in Europe, were constructed in Norway.
Instead, these factors resulted in distinctive traditions in Norwegian vernacular architecture, which have been preserved in existing farms in the many Norwegian open-air museums that showcase buildings from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century; prominent examples include the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo and Maihaugen in Lillehammer, as well as extant buildings still in service on farms such as those in the Heidal valley.
In the 20th century, Norwegian architecture has been characterized by its connection with Norwegian social policy on the one hand, and innovation on the other. Norwegian architects have been recognized for their work, both within Norway-where architecture has been considered an expression of social policy-and outside Norway, in several innovative projects.
Stave churches – Possibly more than 1000 stave churches were built in Norway during the Middle Ages, most of them during the 12th and 13th centuries. Until the beginning of the 19th century, as many as 150 stave churches still existed. Many were destroyed as part of a religious movement that favored simple, puritan lines, and today only 28 remain, though a large number were documented and recorded by measured drawings before they were demolished.
The stave churches owe their longevity to architectural innovations that protected these large, complex wooden structures against water rot, precipitation, wind, and extreme temperatures. Most important was the introduction of massive sills underneath the staves (posts) to prevent them from rotting. Over the two centuries of stave church construction, this building type evolved to an advanced art and science. After the Reformation, however, no new stave churches were built. New churches were mainly of stone or horizontal log buildings with notched corners. Most old stave churches disappeared because of redundancy, neglect or deterioration, or because they were too small to accommodate larger congregations, and too impractical according to later standards.
Romanesque architecture – The first stone churches in Norway were Romanesque, built under the influence of Anglo-Saxon missionaries, particularly bishop Nicholas Breakspear. Later churches were influenced by Continental architecture. Examples include the churches at Ringsaker, Kviteseid, and elsewhere. Many of these churches have either been lost or rebuilt in the Gothic style, but numerous examples still exist, notably the church at Trondenes in Troms.
Gothic architecture – Several churches that were originally built as Romanesque structures were modified or extended during the Gothic period. Among these are the cathedral of Hamar, now in ruins, the Stavanger Cathedral, and the renowned Nidaros Cathedral, one of the most important pilgrim destinations in medieval Europe.