Espen Svendsen, religious studies scholar

Bryggen has made it to the front pages in Norwegian papers many times during the last half century. Even a cursory glance at the headlines gives an impression of a turbulent period with dramatic changes in attitudes, and at times quite heated debates.

On the 5th of July 1955, Bryggen became front page news in many Norwegian papers. The dramatic photographs showed how large swathes of the old wooden district had gone up in flames, and in the following days, the papers printed eyewitness accounts, photographs showing the extent of the damage, and numerous advertisements from affected companies looking for new premises. After the smoke had cleared, the papers were concerned with a set of new questions: What could be done to prevent future fires, what should be done about the surviving buildings, and what should happen to the site of the fire? According to a survey carried out by Bergens Tidende, the large majority of Bergen’s inhabitants did not appear to have been particularly proud of the wooden buildings, and there were many letters to the editor arguing that expensive property such as Bryggen should be used for more modern buildings. It was suggested that the site of fire, or even the whole of Bryggen, should be redeveloped to make way for parking houses, hotels, shopping centres, office blocks or blocks of flats. Some people also wanted to tear down the remaining buildings, and argued that the whole area was characterised by dilapidation, attracting undesirable elements like “rats and vagrants”. Of the 29% who wished to preserve the surviving tenements, over half of them said that the houses should be preserved as they were part of a cultural heritage site. In the end, the debate died away without any clear decisions about the future of Bryggen having been reached.

 

Above: The Bergens Tidende survey.


Both sides: Excerpt from the debate in Bergens Tidende.
Browsing through the newspaper archives from this time, it is easy to miss another important issue which was highly relevant for Bryggen: A few inconspicuous announcements informed the readers that archaeological excavations were about to begin. That the excavations were awarded less attention than they would later receive is not too surprising, as the scale of the project was rather modest at this point. The Director General for Cultural Heritage proclaimed that “the excavations must continue until the end of next calendar year” – but nobody yet knew that this would turn out to be a huge understatement.

 

 

 

 

 

The debate about the ultimate fate of Bryggen flared up again following the next fire, in 1958, and now the rhetoric became more confrontational. If the wind had blown in a different direction, the fire could have spread to the houses beyond Øvregaten, and in interviews and letters to the editor several people voiced their concern that the remaining part of Bryggen constituted a fire hazard. Bryggen, with its old wooden buildings, often containing flammable materials and with large amounts of rubbish piling up in the narrow alleyways, lacked any kind of fire detectors or fire suppression system. It was not yet decided if Bryggen faced demolition or preservation and the instalment of fire protection systems, but it was clear something had to be done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the debate raged on, the archaeological excavations continued to receive media attention. Articles about the discoveries of runic inscriptions and ships led an increasing association of Bryggen with the Norwegian medieval period, as opposed to merely the Hanseatic period. At the same time, popular support for the preservation of Bryggen was increasing, and by the time Stiftelsen Bryggen (The Bryggen Foundation) was formed in 1962, the press coverage was almost uniformly positive. Through most of the 1960s and 1970s, articles about Bryggen deal with increasing popular support, restoration work and a steady stream of new archaeological finds.

Whether the articles deal with new finds shedding light on the first centuries of the city’s history, fundraising for preservation work or complaints that the fireproofing work is progressing too slowly, there is no longer any doubt that Bryggen is definitively worth saving.

 

Below: After the archaeological excavation were completed, Bryggens Museum (1976) and the SAS Hotel (1982, now the Radisson Royal Blue hotel) were built on the site of the fire.