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Oslo: A City Planner Turned Ardent Activist

Written by on 4 mai 2020

A protest in Oslo took a surprise turn when Ellen de Vibe, the former head of city planning, was arrested. She and four other protestors had chained themselves together outside the city’s government quarter. The reason? To protest plans to demolish one of Oslo’s most iconic pieces of architecture, the Y-block.

The Y-block was built in 1969. This three-pronged concrete structure designed by Erling Viksjø, features two murals by Pablo Picasso embedded into its walls. It is considered by many in the international community as a masterpiece of modernist architecture. 

In 2011 a terrorist attack in the area partially damaged the building. Ever since, the government has been desperate to demolish it, promising to preserve the Picasso murals elsewhere. The authorities claim security is their main concern, but conservationists argue that demolishing the building is simply finishing what the terrorists began.  

Protests have been ongoing for years, but it seems today, in the midst of the global pandemic, demolition work on the Y-block may finally have begun. 

Ellen de Vibe, fresh from the police station, describes the scene : 

“We were obstructing ordinary movement in and out of the building. Somebody was standing with the chain around their waist, and somebody was sitting down. So people were putting their legs high in the air to get over or were going down to get under. People had quite a humoristic approach to it. It seems to me that quite a lot of the ministry employees actually support what we’re doing.

Of course we had to keep two metres apart. And in Norway the health authorities say that you don’t need to have a mask, but I had one because I’d realised that the police were going to pick me up. So I think we adhered to the rules. Because of these rules, normal protest marches and normal democratic activities are not allowed anymore. We wrote a long article in the biggest national newspaper, Aftenposten, yesterday morning saying that we think it’s deplorable, because of the coronavirus, that the central government carries on this demolition work, although they know that there’s a lot of political strife and struggle related to the project.

I’ve been a chief town planner for 20 years and people know that I’ve always been clearly spoken about what I think town planning wise are the right solutions. But I never planned to be an activist like this. I guess once or twice in your lifetime, there are situations where something is so important that you have to act like that. It is something that from a moral basis you have to do, I think”

Activists across the world are devising ways to continue peacefully protesting during the pandemic. Some actions have moved on line, whereas others, including weekly protests drawing thousands against Israel’s Netanyahu, are adapting to social distancing protocols. Many fear the difficulty of keeping governments to account in our current circumstances. 


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