NMBU is well-known across Norway for a number of things, such as its vibrant student life, high number of international students, focus on environmental sustainability, and beautiful campus. However, what many people may not realize is that it also has much to offer in terms of local history.
On a fine weekend in late September, just as the university grounds began to see sprinklings of changing colours in the foliage, a guided historical walking tour of the campus took place. Those who attended were treated to a history lesson come to life. Strolling around the grounds of NMBU, they learned many little tidbits about the places they frequent every day.
The afternoon began at Olav L. Moens Plass 1, commonly known to students as the Studentsamfunnet i Ås building. Built in 1934 at the cost of 300,000 NOK (equivalent to 12 million NOK today), construction was briefly interrupted when labourers discovered they had dug into a Viking graveyard. Not your usual construction story, right? Named for its designer, Olav L. Moens, the building’s “funky” style was considered a bit strange at the time because it was part of an agricultural school. A professor in landscape architecture, Moens also designed the university park, which today contains around 800 species of trees. He started what seems to be a family trend of planning buildings for the university: his son would later design Aud Max as well as the original buildings in Pentagon; and, much later, Moens’ grandson designed Pomona, also in Pentagon.
Inside Samfunnet, even more surprising facts were shared by the knowledgeable guide (SIAS’ very own operations manager, Lars Raaen). For instance, did you know that before it became the main drinking spot for students, the bodega was used to store potatoes? For a time, it also served as the dining hall for students, back when the oldest university buildings were used for student housing. Who knew?
Another room which contains a wealth of stories is Aud Max, used today mostly as a concert hall and the site of other big student events. Planning for the building initially started in 1956; the idea was to have it located on campus, close to where the Bioteknologi building is situated today. Eventually this idea was scrapped, after officials deemed it would be too expensive to construct it on campus. They decided to build it at Samfunnet instead, and planning for this began in 1964 with construction finishing in 1970.
In the main foyer located just inside the downstairs entrance of the building, there is a little-known yet significant piece of history: a memorial plaque commemorating students who went to fight in WWI/WWII and never returned. The solemn monument is also a reminder of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Norway, during which they controlled university campus buildings including Samfunnet.
On a much lighter note, this room also has architectural features that were built to represent elements of the Norwegian landscape: the wall jutting out in the center of the room is supposed to resemble a glacier, while the columns that greet all visitors to the building are supposed to represent the forest. One of the columns was built crookedly on purpose, with the intention of confusing drunk students. Perhaps try to test this theory and locate the crooked column the next time you’re there!
The tour then moved back outside, making its way past the sculpture outside of Aux Max (designed by the sculptor Carl Nesjar, it is supposed to resemble a torch) and down past Meiermuseet (the old dairy building, now a museum). The group continued to walk across the proper university grounds, making stops at Stabbur (built in 1895, now used for foreninger meetings) and Vitenparken, which used to be a post office. One of the participants on the walk was a former student at NMBU; he shared some amusing anecdotes from his time at the school, including a mention of how SIAS used to have their own travel agency. The rest of the group chuckled upon hearing this, surprised with this new knowledge.
The next stop was a visit to the original buildings of the school: Cirkus, Tivoli and Okonomikantina. History buffs may already know that NMBU first became an educational institution in 1859, when it was established as the Norwegian Agricultural Postgraduate College. In 1897, it received the more formal accreditation of a “university-level university college” which it held until receiving university status in 2005 (until this time, it was also known as the Norwegian College of Agriculture). Named after buildings at an Oslo theme park, Cirkus and Tivoli were used to house both students and employees of the school; cleaners, shoe polishers and the local baker all lived on the basement floor. Okonomikantina, meanwhile, served as another mandatory dining hall for residents. Prior to the construction of Samfunnet in 1934, these buildings were also used for social activities.
Around the campus grounds, the group was also led to various monuments and statues commemorating different figures in the university’s history. Those noted by the guide included tributes to F.A. Dahl (director of the school from 1858-1880), Johan L. Hirsch (director when the school received its university college status in the late 1890s), and – perhaps most interestingly to students of Norwegian history – Christian Magnus Falsen, known as “The Father of the Constitution” due to his role in preparing Norway’s constitution in 1814. Until that year, Falsen had owned and lived on a farm, Vollebekk, located where the monument to him stands today. It is now a local tradition that every year on May 17th, people will gather at this site and make speeches.
The final stop on the main university grounds was in front of what are probably the most widely photographed buildings at NMBU: Urbygningen (“Clock Building”) and Tårnbygningen (“Tower Building”). Urbygningen was constructed first, in 1901. For the first few years, the building had its own power station, with workers residing in the basement with their families. In 1919, officials decided to construct Tårnbygningen. Given the tough economy at the time, the bricks used were half the size of normal bricks, in order to prolong construction duration so that workers could be paid more. Notably, during WWII the occupying Germans painted all of the university buildings black so that they would be more difficult to spot from the air. A close look at the exteriors of either Clock Building or Tower Building revealed that there were, indeed, flecks of black amidst the familiar brick.
The afternoon hike came to a close at Pentagon, NMBU’s student housing village. The complex was given this name as there were five different programs at the school during the time it was built. Construction first began in 1963 with Buildings A, B and C. Today, the housing complex consists of a myriad of buildings that are home to hundreds of students.
So, there you have it. Although this may be the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, it seems that you can also take part in a real-life history course around the campus grounds. Just make sure to bring your walking shoes.
By: Chiara Magboo