Brief history of Nordnes

In the course of 1990, the GRIEG Group has raised its new headquarters on the water's edge at Vågen, the old harbour of Bergen. The site on which the new building stands was laid out for development at the beginning of this century, but the industrial traditions of the district stretch as far back as the late Middle Ages. Once upon a time, the area behind the new Grieg building was also the cultural centre of the city, for this was the site of the Altona Tavern, where the Harmonic Society met regularly for almost 40 years, starting in the 1770's.

The single most important event in the history of this area took place in 1901, when many of the buildings along the waterfront between Muralmenningen and Holbergsalmenningen burnt to the ground. The site of the fire was subsequently laid out in a fashion that differed substantially from the earlier building structure, and a completely new facade towards Vågen was established. This presentation attempts to outline how building styles and commerce in this district developed until the fire of 1901.

The first town buildings were put up towards the end of the 14th century. The area belonged to Munkeliv Monastery, which lay at the top of Nordnesryggen. Nordnes did not become a ''built-up area" until the 17th century, when small building plots on the grounds of the old monastery were surveyed and rented out. As tenents gradually bought up their plots, much of Nordnes came to be characterized by the existence of large numbers of small private properties. Much of this pattern of property ownership is in existence to this day.

The 17th century buildings were very similar to those that burnt down in 1901. They were constructed in the form of ''courts", with rows of houses running from Strandgaten down to Vågen, and the alleys between the houses were the same then as later, They differed, however, in that the rows of houses were not continuous, but at first were widely spaced. Buildings did not become really dense until the 18th century, by the end of which the pattern of development had acquired the form that it was to retain until the fire of 1901.

Each "court" consisted of a number of properties. The characteristic unit was a house plus ancillary buildings such as a stone cellar for storage, a separate kitchen building and a warehouse on the waterfront. This type of building was adapted to the dominant activity of the area, i.e. large- and small-scale trading. During the 17th century the merchants dominated the area, though a number of craftsmen and seamen also lived there. There were few unskilled workers, as most of these lived on the west of Nordnes, in the district known as Nøstet. The social inequality is particularly obvious when conditions on the eastern and western slopes of Nordnesryggen are compared. At the same time, a characteristic of the district on the eastern slope was that rich and poor might well live side by side.

The increase in building density that characterised the 18th century was followed by an increase in population density in the 19th. This was primarily due to the rapid rise in the number of city-dwellers at that time, but peculiar to this district was the fact that the better-off were moving away from it. The large merchant houses were rented out, in many cases to several families. The mid-19th century was a period of change, in the course of which the old "court" structure gradually disappeared, though the merchant class continued to dominate the area.

A merchant's household consisted of his family and servants, The number of servants had risen since the 17th century, suggesting that many of the tasks that had previously been done by workmen were now carried out by servants. In the 19th century, an increasing number of tenants also came to be regarded as part of the household.

The fire of 1901 brought about a distinct break with the pattern of building as it had developed since the late Middle Ages, The old social and economic structure, on the other hand, had already disappeared in the course of the previous fifty years. The modern waterfront warehouse buildings that were put up after the burnt-out area was laid out for redevelopment were more suitable for the new period. Buildings that combined the functions of dwellinghouse, trading centre and craftsman's workshop under a single roof were no longer appropriate to their time.