It was a devastating fire in 1904 that destroyed the town. In 16 hours 850 buildings burned down. 10,000 people were homeless in the depths of winter, but only one person was killed: she’d gone back into a building to save something. A town built on water – lost to fire.
In rushed assistance, architects, and craftsmen. Norway was in economic difficulties at the time. This was opportunity for employment, and the chance to be part of something significant: to rebuild entirely in concrete and stone, and in the contemporary style of the time.
The fire was 1904. I saw one building with 1905 on its front, several with 1906, and by 1907 the job was done.
I spent a little time (could have been more, but the boat waits for no one!) in the Jugendstil Centre which is in the Swan Pharmacy built with characteristic turrets and flourishes in 1907. What was wonderful was the way the displays honoured the people who were responsible for the rebuild, the architects, yes, but also the builders, plasterers, finishers…
And then a quick canter around town – seeing their work. 111 or so years on there are of course some modern buildings, but mainly sympathetic. There’s scaffolding evidence of continuing maintenance, and some ‘hmmm’ moments wondering about sea-level rise… but it’s gorgeous, and glowing with civic pride.
So of course my mind turned to Napier, arisen from earthquake and fire in its Art Deco incarnation some 25 years after Ålesund. Again, speed, determination and a coherent design philosophy … executed in the middle of a depression. And I wondered what, in say 50 years time, we will be able to look at as the defining features of the Christchurch rebuild. Probably not speed. But what will it say about the people and style of our time?
Another thing about Ålesund. It was a really significant contributor to the Great North Sea Escape Route – later known as the Shetland Bus. As soon as the Germans had invaded Norway in April 1940, flotillas of fishing boats started ferrying people to the UK, some to escape, many to join the forces.
Underground groups in Ålesund formed, hosted and shipped fugitives. From May to December 1940, 29 vessels left from Ålesund – nearly half of all those that left Norway – and during the entire war, 88 vessels and 800 people made the run from Ålesund, despite brutal attempts to stop them, and the dangers of the route.
The cost was 18 vessels and 158 people, lost, 130 captured, 51 executed. A part of me wonders if the pride and resilience developed in the early 1900s was part of Ålesund’s determination to organise and act.
Then, it was back onto Hurtigruten’s Kong Harald to continue our cruise to the Nordkap. But not before I had to accost a couple of bemused people in the street. What were they doing with Kiwi-branded (plastic!) grocery bags? The answer was in a not-so-Nouveau building up the road.
And another look at built beauty… and a wistful thought about a long cup of coffee and just letting the boat go on.