The Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo

Norway’s capital is a sparkling Scandinavian metropolis known internationally for its rapid expansion. The city on a fjord has undergone non-stop cultural and architectural ferment and evolution. Visitors and locals alike continually happen upon some new museum, architectural work, even a new neighbourhood to admire and visit. Consider the exuberant Barcode skyscrapers, twelve buildings of varying height, width and style erected side by side in the Bjørvika area and completed in 2017; consider the very famous Opera House that rises directly from the fjord’s waters with its very white roof, specifically designed and inaugurated in 2008 as a place for romantic strolls and stunning views; consider the new Estudio Herreros-designed Munch Museum which opened in 2021 in a sixty-metre tall building covered entirely in aluminium in varying levels of transparency.
The face of the Norwegian city has changed so much in recent years, with many new buildings, often cultural venues, quickly becoming new symbols for Oslo.
Without doubt, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, known to the locals as the Astrup Fearnley Museet and open since 2012, is one of the most interesting new buildings to go up in Oslo this millennium. What’s more, this particular transformation of the Oslo waterfront is the work of an Italian: Genoese architect Renzo Piano.


The Tjuvholmen District

The Astrup Fearnley Museum is not just in any old part of Oslo: it sits right on the fjord, on one of the many strips of land (or to be more accurate, concrete) that jut out from the city into the sea. Petite and surrounded by water, the Tjuvholmen neighbourhood is one of Oslo’s newest and most modern quarters. An absolute must-see for visitors interested in aesthetics and architecture, the Tjuvholmen district is connected to the city by one small bridge, linking the small island to the Aker Brygge district, a popular destination for urban walks in the capital. Undoubtedly, Tjuvholmen’s crown jewel is the Astrup Fearnley Museum, but it must be said that the whole district has plenty to offer, not least fantastic views over the fjord from its piers and a nearby archipelago of small green islands.


Astrup Fearnley Museum: History

The museum was originally founded in 1993 by two philanthropic foundations, both created and run by descendants of the famous Fearnley family, English maritime magnates and navigators who emigrated to Norway in the eighteenth century. In 1995, the Thomas Fearnley Foundation and the Heddy and Nils Astrup Foundation merged to form the Thomas Fearnley, Heddy and Nils Astrup Foundation. The museum slowly gained international fame, becoming a global sensation in 2002 when it spent $5.1 million on a gilded porcelain sculpture by American artist Jeff Koons, depicting pop star Michael Jackson and his favourite chimpanzee, Bubbles. In 2012, the museum moved to its new home in Tjuvholmen, becoming a destination not just for lovers of contemporary art but architecture too.


A Marine Museum

The Astrup Fearnley Museum opened to the public on 27 September 2012. Also known as the Tjuvholmen Art Museum, it is the flagship feature of the larger Tjuvholmen Icon Complex project. The majestic building was conceived to strongly integrate with the surrounding fjord inlets, not least because the Astrup Fearnley Museum’s three large volumes form the shape of a large sail. The building is covered in a curved glass roof that makes the nautical comparison all the more relevant. Reminiscent of the ice that forms in winter on Norwegian fjords, that white glass roof looks like a sail puffed up by the wind, allowing ample natural light into the museum halls. Visitors begin their artistic journey in the park outside the museum, proceeding along canals and small bridges into the exhibition halls proper. Visual contact between the structure designed by Renzo Piano and the natural elements of sea and air is ever-present, as are the views out over the rest of the city: an ever-tightening bond between architecture and nature has long been a hallmark of the Italian architect’s work.

For the most part, the structure is made of wood, combined with thin-strip steel columns reinforced by steel cables, recalling the masts of the sailboats moored in the harbour. White pillars at the far end of the museum complex support the curved glass sail as it descends almost to ground level, where a small pool of water cleverly prevents visitors from venturing onto the glass roof.


Interior Halls at the Astrup Fearnley Museum

In well-defined areas, the glass roof is finished with thin white ceramics to significantly reduce the roof’s transparency and protect displayed works from sunlight. Inside, visitors pass through spaces of varying sizes, some constricted, others very large, some even double height. A few of the exhibition halls connect externally via bridges, crossing the canal that cuts the museum in two, appearing like the mast of an imaginary unfurled sail.


Construction Work on the Astrup Fearnley Museet

Construction work on the Astrup Fearnley Museum lasted between 2007 and 2012, alongside overall construction of the renovated Tjuvholmen neighbourhood. Designed by Renzo Piano in partnership with Narud-Stokke-Wiig, it cost €90 million to build.