By Gisle Løkken

Tromsø gave birth to a dream of something big that had the potential to bring the city and the region out in the world in the picture of a winter wonderland in the concept of magnificent arctic magic. Tromsø’s dream was, according to the myths, conceived by a public servant out jogging, and was immediately appropriated by the politicians and the mayor of Tromsø. From that point on, a most peculiar process evolved that contained the most one can desire of political and economical battles, positioning, intrigues, great rise and deep fall.

It is easy to perceive the Olympic dream as some sort of a utopian project. ‘First there are the utopias. Utopias are sites with no real place’ states Michel Foucault (‘Of Other spaces (1967), Heterotopias’). The utopias are ideas or images that might represent a perfected version of society. Utopian thinking has a long tradition and a strong presence in Northern Norway (might be seen in literature e.g. in Hamsun’s writings). It has been important for surviving in a harsh landscape, and keeping dreams alive in a demographically dispersed region. This phenomenon becomes much more diffuse and problematic when the utopia encounters reality. On the one hand Northern Norway has always been a prosperous land, where big dreams can come true. On the other hand the region is a complex field of unrealized dreams and visions. Its strong underlying notions of national stigmatizing, a history of marginalization and colonial exploitation for centuries have cemented a regional trauma of self-fulfilling dystrophies and inferiority complexes.

This leads to Foucault’s next term when he describes ‘real places (…)- which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, (…) are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted.’ He calls them ‘heterotopias’ in contrast to, but also as a physical representation of, utopias. If the Olympic idea and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) represent utopias, we might see the Olympic Games or the Olympic venue as representing the Foucaultian heterotopias. The boundary of the places is characteristic for both the utopias and the heterotopias; there is a necessity for limitation and opposition, for freely defining the contradiction with other places.

From the start of the process in Tromsø it was announced that the Olympic project should be democratic and inclusive. The process started out in an atmosphere of joy and enthusiasm. The whole city, including the local sport clubs, private planners, architects and the municipality participated. The anticipation grew huge. The Olympic idea was seen as a great opportunity to collaborate in a joint process that would profit the whole community and wider region.

In the initial phase of the process during which the application for being the Norwegian candidate for the winter Olympics 2018 was made, the process tended to be inventive at all levels. What might be called the edge dynamics - the physical, mental and professional boundaries of the city and the society - were challenged. The Tromsø Olympic committee, Tromsø 2018, had a unique possibility to completely renew the form and the content of the winter Olympic Games. The rising pressure of global crises and the experience from Beijing offered a possibility to create new and sustainable games; ecologically, economically and democratically. The Tromsø games were early declared to be this new and bright example of a modern, collaborative and alternative athletic event, lifting the Olympic idea out from the old, limited utopia, and into a new and experimental field. To describe this search for new spatial ideals we might borrow the term alterotopias, naming an alternative otherness with a high social awareness: ‘Foucault spoke of ‘heterotopias’ as spaces that have ‘the power to juxtapose in one real place many spaces and locations which are by themselves incompatible’, ‘spaces of the other’. But the spaces we’re interested in, alterotopias, are other spaces as much as spaces of ‘the other’, and spaces built and shared ‘with others’ with those ‘you do care about, who are different from you’. (Urban / Act, 2007, Doina Petrescu / Constantin Petcou)

Before the Olympic idea was conceived, Tromsø had gone through two interesting urban planning processes, ‘The Game of Tromsø’ in the 1990-ies, and the Year of Urban development in 2005 (ByÅr05) (originally initiated by professor Knut Eirik Dahl/Dahl&Uhre and Tromsø municipality). These were different experimental processes of investigation and democratic dialog concerning urban matters. The ByÅr05 developed several new and advanced methods for how to achieve deep knowledge and how to develop profound understanding of new and democratic planning processes. In the magazine Plan # 5/2007, sociologist and urbanist John Pløger, in his article ‘Å strekke seg over skyene’ (to stretch oneself over the clouds) (after Jean Hillier: “Stretching Beyond the Horizon”: A Multiplanar Theory of Spatial Planning and Governance), discusses the possibility of creating a new and progressive planning process. It is of especially great interest that he uses Tromsø’s ByÅr05 as his main example: ‘Tromsø may be more radical than they are aware of themselves.’ Pløger discusses this paradigm that urban theorist Jean Hillier names as a more ‘performance-based planning’, which is based on the notion that ‘planning authorities do not always know the best’. It is the process that gives the opportunity for new exploration and new knowledge.

After the initial application phase, a big change occurred. The local Olympic committee changed its composition and its way of working. From being inclusive and open minded, the committee closed in on itself and slowly became indifferent to the local engagement that was so important in the first stages. Most time and money were spent on political strategies and on comforting the IOC. The position of Tromsø 2018 became defensive, and the initial collaboration processes were gone. From being open, inventive and real, the project turned into being more and more confirmative of the old idea of an Olympic utopia.

Observation of what was happening called for an awareness of the wrong direction which the process was taking. The local architectural organization (NAF) invited local politicians, Tromsø 2018 and architects to debate the situation in spring 2008. The invitation said: ‘As an organization for architects and as a professional organization for architecture and planning, we are concerned that the single biggest event in Tromsø ever, is being planned as an ad-hoc process. It is our opinion that an event of this kind and size has to be planned in an open and professional atmosphere, and we want to contribute to build a broad alliance between public and private planners.’ Openness, dialogue and collaboration are absolutely essential for succeeding in a project of this kind. It is unfortunately striking to observe how years of extraordinary experiment on city processes and democratic planning processes evaporated when Tromsø became the National candidate city.

Foucault goes on using the mirror as a metaphor: ‘I believe that between utopias and these quite other sites, these heterotopias, there might be a sort of mixed, joint experience, which would be the mirror. The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface (…).’ ‘But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position I occupy.’ The mirror states the contradiction or the duality of a utopian project. It might be seen as a metaphor for the Tromsø process, giving an interesting reflection on what was real, and what was not, and also giving a perspective on the Tromsø Olympic committee’s self image. The process was obviously real, but was reflecting unproportional and unreal images of a utopian ideal. From aiming for high and collective goals, the most important occupation slowly became the fulfillment of personal ambitions and internal fighting. In such a state, an organization and a process never make progress, and are only confirming positions and methods that are already known.


Transparency and experimentation are needed in dealing with the overwhelming and dystrophic prospect of the coming global crisis. In a joint article in a Norwegian newspaper the special advisers for the General Secretary of the UN, among them Srgjan Kerim, former president of the General Assembly of the UN, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, debate the necessity of a new and more ethical and ecological basis for the global economy; ‘If we act wisely, we might handle the two crises at the same time. (…) [it] gives a unique possibility to build up a more profitable, safer and more sustainable global economy.’ (‘Don’t spoil this crisis’, Dagbladet, Friday 26th of December 2008).

Several local and competent initiatives were taken to graft the Olympic process with renewed thinking on these matters. But again the process tended to confirm old economical models and systems of known, developer based thinking. Instead of kneeling in front of economic market liberalism, Tromsø 2018 and Tromsø municipality had a unique opportunity to define a new and vibrant process where new ideas about future Olympic events could be discussed and invented. Unfortunately, an anxiety about the demands and rules from IOC overshadowed and strongly limited a potentially creative process. On the contrary, it is probable that fresh threats from global changes and a need for more democratic and ethical models would have opened the IOC doors wide open.

The time for traditional Olympic utopian thinking might be over. The games in Beijing forever showed the madness of arranging an event of such dreamlike perfection at any cost. In the ongoing global depression, China more than most is facing a reality that displays how utterly unethical, undemocratic and unecological these games were. The Beijing Games thoroughly outlined a heterotopia that demanded a condition of tabula rasa to fulfill utopian dreams. In the state of a new global awareness, ambitious goals may be more important than ever, but not in the form of utopia.

In the autumn of 2008 the Tromsø application was finally turned down by the board of the Norwegian National Sport Organization, marking a final ending for the Tromsø 2018 winter Olympic dream.
Tromsø started out by claiming an otherness, a will and an ability to renew the Olympic process. Despite substantial experience from urban experimentation and a growing awareness of global climate changes, the process went wrong. Clinging more and more to the old Olympic utopia and the delights of the IOC, the Olympic process slowly lost contact with the citizens and the local sport organizations, and thereby the desire and the ability to be different. The potential otherness of a Tromsø model could have been extremely interesting. Not as a utopian idea, or as a heterotopian otherness, but as a process of investigation, experimentation and collaboration: a potentially different planning process that could have challenged all levels of landscaping, public processes and a future sustainable urban development.

Gisle Løkken
is born in Stavanger, Norway. He is an architect MNAL, founding partner and manager of 70N arkitektur, where he continuously develops a reflective, critical and committed approach to architecture and planning. Løkken teaches at Bergen School of Architecture and at NTNU, Trondheim. He is regularly used as a lecturer and guest critic at architecture schools and architect associations, as well as jury member in competitions and prize committees, nationally and internationally, and his work has been exhibited, published and awarded. Løkken was member of the board of the Scientific Committee Europan 8 2004-2007, chairman of the board of the Architects Association of Northern Norway 2005-2008, and he is since 2009 vice president of the Association of Architects in Norway, NAL. Løkken lives and works in Tromsø, Norway.