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Napoleon vs Universal Design - Who Wins? (Part 1)

How Napoleon’s Defeat in the 1813 Battle of Leipzig Came to Challenge Universal Design’s Innovative Properties - By Olav Rand Bringa, Senior Adviser in The Norwegian Ministry of Culture


Napoleon was at war with most of Europe from 1802 to 1815 when he finally was defeated at Waterloo. The alliances shifted over time but at the end of the Napoleonic wars England, Russia, the German States, Austria and Sweden stood against him. Amongst his allies were Holland, Spain, and Denmark-Norway. Norway was at the time under Danish rule.

This meant that the neighboring countries, Sweden and Denmark-Norway, were on opposite sides in the conflict. When Napoleon lost the battle of Leipzig, two years before Waterloo in 1813, Sweden saw the possibility to acquire land that it had long coveted: Norway. The January 1814 peace treaty obliged Denmark to give Norway to Sweden.

This plan was not popular in Norway. In fact, a number of prominent and influential citizens saw the opportunity for independence after 400 years of Danish rule. Delegates were hastily elected and gathered in the manor house of a wealthy landowner and industrialist in Eidsvoll in southern Norway to work out the constitution for their dreamt-of nation. The American constitution from 1787 was an important model in this task. The constitution was approved by the 112 elected men on the 16th of May 1814. (see Figure 1) The first article read: “The Kingdom of Norway is a free, independent and indivisible realm”. It was dated and signed by the president of the constituent assembly the next day. The 17th of May has become the Norwegian national day, much like The United States’ Independence Day on the 4th of July.

The Renovation Plan

The wooden Manor building where the constitution was worked out, adopted and signed, was built around 1770 (see Figure 2). The house has three levels: basement, first and second floors. The house totals over 21,000 square feet and was designed to accommodate the running of a wealthy man’s estate and for his family with rooms for meetings, work, guests, and leisure in addition to private quarters. Each space was populated with a custom wallpaper, carpets, and furniture. It was a big household that required servants. They had their quarters in the basement close to the kitchen, storerooms, and wine cellar. The servants had their own staircases and passages hidden in the walls which could take them to important rooms on all floors without disturbing employers and houseguests.



The room with the most historic and symbolic value is the building’s largest room and is located on the second floor of the manor house. It was in this very room, originally planned as a ballroom, that the Constitutional Assembly held their meetings, ultimately adopted the constitution then declared Norway a sovereign and independent state. It still stands and is a national treasure and symbol of a sovereign nation and of democracy. The manor has been open to the public as a national historic site since the early 1850s, and is now visited by 80,000 people each year.

When preparations were made for the rehabilitation of the building prior to the 200-year anniversary in 2014, several challenges arose. The aim of the renovation was to have the building laid out and redesigned to make it look as close as possible to what it looked like in 1814 to provide visitors with a more authentic experience. It was a challenging task. Earlier restoration efforts had been of questionable quality, but the renovation team used old documents and a painstaking study of the building itself to gather the needed information.

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The Ronald L. Mace Universal Design Institute is a non-profit organization based in North Carolina dedicated to promoting the concept and practice of accessible and universal design. The Institute's work manifests the belief that all new environments and products, to the greatest extent possible, should and can be usable by everyone regardless of age, ability, or circumstance.

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