Grosch: the architect behind the neoclassical university buildings
Christian Heinrich Grosch (1801–1865) designed the Observatory, the first Palm House in the Botanical Garden and the university complex on Karl Johans gate. His designs dominated public buildings in Norway for several decades after 1814.
Av Bjørn Vidar Johansen
Grosch was born in Copenhagen of Danish-German parents. After a brief interlude in what would soon become the capital of Norway, Christiania (Oslo), the Grosch family moved to the Norwegian city of Fredrikshald (Halden) in 1811 – the year the University was founded
Student at the Drawing School
Grosch’s father, the painter and engraver Heinrich August Grosch, earned a living for the family by establishing a drawing school in Fredrikshald. His pupils were primarily craftsmen. These were troubled times. Events leading up to 1814 probably created difficulties for the fledgling drawing school. Following the union with Sweden, Christiania had become the Norwegian capital, and the Grosch family returned to the city. In 1818, the Royal Drawing School was established with Grosch senior as one of the teachers. A separate class in building design and underlying disciplines was impressively comprehensive, in view of the lack of traditions and limited resources. There were so many applicants that craftsmen were given priority over other groups that had previously been admitted: prospective artists and students from the University.
Assistant to C. F. Hansen
Christian Heinrich Grosch was admitted to the Drawing School as a student. He was probably the only student at the school who was studying the art of building with a view to pursuing a profession as an architect. Thomas Fearnley, who would later become one of Norway’s most famous painters, was among the handful of art students. After two years, the young Grosch was sent to Copenhagen to do an apprenticeship as a carpenter. Once there, however, he was admitted as a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. The Academy was dominated by Professor C. F. Hansen, Denmark’s leading architect. At the age of 19, Grosch became Hansen’s assistant.
Interlude at the Royal Palace
In 1824, Grosch returned to Norway. The construction of a royal residence at the top of the Bellevue Hill outside the main centre of Christiania had begun, and Grosch was now hired as an assistant to the palace architect H. D. F. Linstow. This employment relationship was rather short-lived, however, as the Storting’s funding ran out, and the project was put on hold. Linstow had to let Grosch go and gave him a glowing recommendation.
The first Bank of Norway (“Norges Bank”) at Bankplassen in Oslo, now the Museum of Architecture. Photographed in 1981
The political and economic situation paved the way for Grosch, as Norway’s first academy-educated architect, to be chosen as the person to design many of the public buildings that the young nation suddenly needed. In 1814, Norway was detached from Denmark, got its own Constitution, and was forced into a union with Sweden. In the new union, however, Norway had the status of a separate state. The new state needed buildings for its new state institutions. The first to be built was the Customs House (“Tollboden”) in Kristiansand (1825–1827). This was followed by the national hospital “Rikshospitalet” in 1826, the stock exchange “Christiania Børs” (1826–1828), the Bank of Norway (“Norges Bank”) (1826–1830, now the National Museum – Architecture), and the Latin School in Fredrikshald (1828–1830). The influence of C. F. Hansen’s closed, solid buildings in a highly symmetrical, neo-classical, empire style that dominated at the time can be seen in all these projects.
The first university projects
Despite being founded in 1811, the Royal Frederick University, as the University of Oslo was originally called, had still not had any dedicated university buildings built. In the mid-1830s, Grosch was asked to prepare drawings for university buildings on the axis between Akershus fortress and Christiania Torv square. A little further up the road, at Øvre Slottsgate 4, he was commissioned to remodel an older building as a chemistry laboratory (1827–1828). The plans for a university complex had to be abandoned this time too, but the archived drawings show building proportions and façades similar to the complex subsequently built on Karl Johans gate.
The Observatory was heavily influenced by C. F. Hansen’s buildings in Copenhagen.
The Observatory (inaugurated in 1834) at what is now called Solli plass was designed by Grosch. The building is typical of the Danish style of neoclassicism promoted by C. F. Hansen, with a blockish, symmetrical building structure in various volumes, a closed entrance area, smooth plaster walls without ornamentation, and strict, harmonious proportions. Inside, the lobby was a central rotunda topped with a dome that originally had openings to let light in. The Observatory was built for observation and research activities, as well as as a residence for professor Christopher Hansteen. The building quickly became a symbol of the young state’s ambitions to be a science nation. Grosch and Hansteen probably worked together on the design. The necessary facilities with a retractable roof and windows, a rotating dome, and roof-top observation platforms were probably modelled on the Altona Observatory in Hamburg. Through its form and function, the Observatory was to serve national needs and support the University’s academic and scientific activities.
University complex on Karl Johans gate
In 1838, the Storting finally approved the construction of new university premises. The location next to the Royal Palace on Slotsveien, which would later be renamed Karl Johans gate, was proposed by the architect behind the palace, Linstow. Grosch was given the assignment, but it was also decided that all his drawings and plans would have to be presented to and approved by the world’s most famous architect, K. F. Schinkel in Berlin. It has been speculated whether this was originally Linstow’s idea, in an attempt to put the highly successful young Grosch in his place. Whatever the reason, and irrespective of any frustration Grosch may have felt at the situation, it appears to have been a very smooth collaboration. Schinkel started out by praising Grosch’s proposal for three separate main buildings and the choice of a Greek-inspired neoclassical style. The university buildings were designed as a modern facility, with large windows, gas lighting and central heating and used prefabricated materials. Eleven years after the cornerstone was laid in 1841, the entire University moved into the new main buildings, which quickly became a landmark and an attraction in the young capital.
The University complex, photographed around 1900. Unknown photographer.
From palm trees to psalms
Facts about Christian Heinrich Grosch
Name: Christian Heinrich Grosch
Born: 21 January 1801
Died: 4 May 1865
Born in Copenhagen, raised in Fredrikshald (Halden). Educated at the Royal Drawing School in Christiania (Oslo) and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Private practising architect in Christiania from the mid-1820s. He was also “city conductor” of Christiania from 1828 to 1865, meaning he was head of buildings, chief town planning officer and chief municipal surveyor.
The current stock exchange Oslo Børs (1826–28), the Customs House in Kristiansand (1827), the Immanuel Church in Halden (1827–1833), the first Norges Bank in Oslo (1828), the University’s Astronomical Observatory in Oslo (1832–33), the University of Oslo (1841–1856), the “Kirkeristen” bazars and the Fire Station in Oslo (1840–59, 1854–56), the Valberg Tower in Stavanger (1850–53), the School for the Deaf in Trondheim (1855) and Tromsø Cathedral (1861).
One of Norway’s first civil-educated architects. From 1824, he was employed as a draftsman during the construction of the Royal Palace and as a teacher at the Drawing School. Produced blueprints for a number of masonry and wooden church buildings throughout Norway.
The year before the foundation stone of the university complex was laid, Grosch had also designed a palm house for the Botanical Garden at Tøyen. It was later demolished. In the 1850s, Grosch completed the project at Karl Johans gate with the construction of a gymnasium and accommodation for the Professor of Chemistry, known as the Professor’s House. It was his final assignment for the university. In addition to a number of public and private buildings, Grosch became Norway's perhaps foremost church architect during the 1840s and 1850s, working in both wood and masonry. Grosch was the university architect who left his mark across the country and far beyond the academic world. He died in 1865 at the age of 64.
- Aslaksby, Truls m/Hamran, Ulf: Arkitektene Christian Heinrich Grosch og Karl Friedrich Schinkel og byggingen av Det Kongelige Frederiks Universitet
- Seip, Elisabeth (red.): Chr. H. Grosch. Arkitekten som ga form til det nye Norge. Peter Hammers forlag, 2001
- Østby, Leif: Norges kunsthistorie, 2. utgave 1966