‘An incredible phallic monument!’ The grain silo gallery, a gift from the trillion dollar man

If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to be as insignificant as a grain of corn, you can now get a good idea in Kristiansand, a city in southern Norway. Standing on the fourth floor of the new Kunstsilo art museum, carved out of an old 1930s grain silo, you can peer down a dizzying concrete tube that plummets to groups of ant-like people below. Or you can look up through more concrete shafts at small circles in the sky. You can recreate the journey of a grain by climbing a spiral staircase in one of the cylinders, or test your nerves by walking on a glass-floored terrace that hangs above another shaft and floats above a tubular abyss. It’s a dramatic spatial spectacle – and we haven’t even gotten to the art yet.

This mighty concrete mountain was once home to 15,000 tons of grain and is now a repository of the most important collection of Scandinavian modern art in the world. It is a 5,500-strong collection that includes full-scale paintings, drawings, ceramics, sculpture and architectural installations and tells the story of the past century of abstraction, surrealism and expressionism in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark – in one of the ultimate symbols of modernity itself.

“The magnificent first fruits of the new era,” is how modernist maestro Le Corbusier described grain silos, to which he devoted an entire chapter in his 1923 manifesto, Toward a New Architecture. For modernists, silos were the perfect expression of form following function, monuments to storage and symbols of global trade, stripped of excess ornamentation. For Bauhaus boss Walter Gropius, they were “almost as impressive in their monumental power as the buildings of ancient Egypt.” They still have an irresistible appeal and stand like industrial cathedrals with pure geometric shapes. But what should be done with these surplus hulks?

“It was a real headache,” said Mathias Bernander, mayor of Kristiansand, where the 40-metre-high cluster of silos had stood empty since 2008 and was in a prime spot on the water. “The building was protected, but useless.” The thirty concrete cylinders, designed by one of Norway’s leading functional architects, Arne Korsmo, were listed as a monument in 2010, but there was no idea what to do with them. Plans to turn the building into a hotel had proven impossible. “It wasn’t worth anything,” Bernander says. “It actually had a negative value because it was a problem rather than an asset.”

In 2012, a concert hall was built on one side of the silo in the shape of an extravagantly undulating shed. A few years later, a development of expensive waterfront apartments began to appear on the other side. But the silo remained, a stubborn remnant blocking the regeneration of the waterfront. Then, like in a Nordic fairy tale, along came one of the town’s former children, who had since become one of the richest men in the country. And he was looking for a striking place to house his extensive art collection.

“We walked around the city and thought, ‘Where would it be nice to have our museum?’” says Nicolai Tangen. “Then there it was: this incredible phallic monument!” Tangen is no stranger to chasing meaty opportunities. The 57-year-old made his fortune as a hedge fund manager in London and now heads Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest of its kind in the world – earning him the nickname ‘Norway’s trillion-dollar man’.

He began collecting art in the 1990s, and became so enamored that in 2003 he took a sabbatical to study for an MA at London’s Courtauld Institute. Acquiring a horde of museum-quality Scandinavian modern art became an obsession, but realizing his dream of a place to exhibit it in his hometown wasn’t an easy ride.

“In the beginning it was all clever and positive,” says Tangen. “And then, bang!” That was the sound of Kristiansand residents hearing that they were on the hook for co-financing the project. The building was not just to become a private museum, but a shared home for the city’s existing art collection – a controversial deal that cost the then mayor his job. Of the total cost of £52 million, Tangen’s foundation contributed approximately £15.5 million (half of the total cost came from public sources, the rest from private grants and a bank loan).

“I could have paid for the entire museum,” says Tangen, “but then it wouldn’t have been a gift. In order to arrange anything, people must participate in the initial investment. If you get a kitten for free you will have to look after it less than if you had to pay £10.”

Judging from the crowds at the opening event, most local residents seem to be delighted with their new kitten, but the controversies are still far away. People poured into the ground-floor atrium, where the silos have been hollowed out to create a 21-metre-high void and windows look down into the space from the landing above.

One silo contains the staircase, beautifully crafted from oak, with the curved white steel balustrade protruding into the atrium, while another hugs a curved semi-circular bench on each floor. Evidence of the significant surgical intervention remains visible: the concrete edges of the silos have been sawn and ground, exposing thick aggregate and rusted steel reinforcing bars.

“We wanted to create a contrast between the rough silo and the new, precise elements,” says Magnus Wåge of Barcelona-based Mestres Wåge Arquitectes, who won the project in an open international competition, with Mendoza Partida and BAX studio. Their first idea was to turn the silos themselves into labyrinthine exhibition spaces, but they discovered that it would have been virtually impossible to exhibit paintings. “So we decided it would be better to turn the silo into a kind of sculpture in the middle and open it up into a basilica-like space.”

The galleries are located on either side of the memorable void, 3,000 square meters of conventional white cube space spread over three levels, housed in a new block on one side and a rebuilt former warehouse on the other. They are largely windowless, with relatively low ceilings and separated from the atrium for environmental reasons by two sets of sliding glass doors. They feel a bit lifeless, creating a monotonous sequence that is only alleviated by returning to the yawning atrium.

It’s a similar experience to a visit to Thomas Heatherwick’s Zeitz Mocaa Museum in Cape Town, also housed in a former grain silo, where the diabolical acrobatic feat of carving an egg-shaped volume out of the concrete tubes clearly prevailed in creating of the best possible spaces for the exhibition of art. In both buildings, the hollowed-out industrial carcass is the real star of the show.

For all their claims of “adaptive reuse,” both projects are also undergoing heavy rebuilding. It turns out that aging concrete silos can’t actually be sawn and cut as much as architects would hope. As in Cape Town, the Kristiansand construction required a 250mm thick concrete sleeve to be cast around the existing 150mm thick cylinders, as well as an additional grid of concrete beams to be screwed through the pipes to stabilize the structure.

The freshly buried silos were then insulated and finished with white plaster to restore the appearance of the original structure, only a little plumper. No embodied carbon assessment has been carried out, but the environmental argument of ‘reusing’ the building in this way, when such a substantial amount of new concrete had to be poured, is questionable – especially when the spatial drama of the silos is limited in both cases to the atrium.

Yet it’s easy to forget all this when you’re on the roof. While Heatherwick’s building is topped by an exorbitant boutique hotel, the top of the Art Silo houses a restaurant with a spectacular roof terrace open to all. Here, visitors can sit behind rows of glass fins, arranged so that fresh sea breezes can flow through the holes, and enjoy the view over the container port on the other side of the harbour. You can also gaze at the colossal cruise ships, which ferry thousands of passengers into the city every day; their landing zone will eventually be connected to the museum’s boulevard via a walkway.

Until now, the main attraction of Norway’s sunniest city has been a zoo and amusement park, themed around the popular pirate character Captain Sabertooth, which attracts 1.2 million visitors annually. Its former director, Reidar Fuglestad, was poached to run Kunstsilo in the hope he would turn it into an equally popular attraction.

“I think this project takes Kristiansand from a small town to a big city,” says Tangen. “I don’t think it will be Bilbao straight away. But I like the idea of ​​having an annoying little museum here that puts on the best shows, so that these well-appointed museums in Oslo say, ‘Gosh, what’s going on there?’

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