Time for Stockholm to grow up

In the early years of the 20th century, Sweden was full of architectural creativity and innovation. Architect Rahel Belatchew Lerdell argues that it is high time for Stockholm to rediscover some of the curiosity that once led to the construction of Europe's first skyscrapers.

At the beginning of October, my company presented plans for Kungsbroskrapan, a proposed skyscraper in Stockholm city centre. Our intention was partly to suggest a timely addition to the city’s silhouette, but it was also meant to highlight the distinct lack of progressive architecture in the nation’s capital.

“Sweden is a country that will never create architecture of any significance. You have a society in which nothing can be built to stick out.”

The quote comes from Frank Gehry, the architect behind the architecturally challenging Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Gehry, who has the whole world as his workplace, knows that a city can radically improve its level of attraction through modern architecture. What he says is clearly arrogant and presumptuous, particularly since he completely misses Swedish pioneers of modernism such as Asplund and Lewerentz. But viewed from a current perspective, and focusing on the capital city, there is unfortunately no option but to agree. Compared to other cities in the world, Stockholm lacks up to date, innovative architecture.

Over the last decade, Sweden has successfully exported its design and fashion. And when the foreign ministry used modern architecture to market Sweden in the virtual online world of Second Life it could be taken as a sign that Sweden takes architecture seriously. In view of the fact that Sweden was at the historic forefront of modern architecture, expectations are understandably high for anyone wishing to visit Stockholm – the Capital of Scandinavia. But the city is unable to live up to these expectations.

Stockholm is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with its enviable lakeside location. The tourism and leisure industries make up a growing share of Stockholm’s economy. Major resources are committed to bringing in visitors. When Stockholm City markets itself on its official English-language website it shows beautiful panoramic images of Riddarholmen and Norr Mälarstrand. For the part of the site aimed at investors, the city has been canny enough to highlight that universal image of economic success, a skyskraper made of steel and glass. It’s just a pity they couldn’t find anything more recent than the Hötorg skyscrapers that were built in 1962.

This summer’s discussions about a freshwater bathing house on Riddarfjärden have set in motion a welcome debate about the role of architecture in the city. As things stand, all attempts at progressive architecture are cut down by a powerful consensus culture and general small town romanticism. But just as the number of inhabitants has not remained constant, Stockholm has not always looked like it does today.

It is possible to argue that we live in the best of all possible worlds, that Stockholm has already reached its completion and just needs to be preserved. But a more critical glance exposes a city that is sealed and whose clear physical boundaries only provide space for the well-off and the well-established. How do we want Stockholm to be? A conserved city from a bygone era or a city that is developing, growing and adapting over time?

Just to clarify: the present would be nothing without its historical counterpoints. Consider a comparison with Paris. What makes Paris architecturally interesting is the confluence of past and present, where world class modern architecture meets palaces and monuments of historic importance.

Stockholm can be considered a metropolis in many areas, from science and music to historic restoration and the business world. But if we really want Stockholm to be a world class city we have to keep up with the pace – or even take the lead – when it comes to architectural development.

There are some opinion shapers who have a strong aversion to anything even resembling a high rise, arguing that such buildings have no place in Stockholm. But they forget that there are already several examples of these, such as the aforementioned Hötorg skyscrapers, the old tax office, the Wennergren Centre, the DN building, Bonnierhuset and Kungstornen. All of these make up an integral part of the city skyline, which most people would be keen to keep. And there are not many people who know that the two Kungstornen towers erected in 1924 and 1925 are considered Europe’s first ever skyscrapers.

Our proposed building, Kungsbroskrapan, would be situated on Kungsbron, at the point where Kungsgatan meets Klara Lake, in a natural dialogue with Kungstornen. Imagine if Stockholm could be as daring and outward-looking in 2007 as it was in 1924!

Rahel Belatchew Lerdell

Architect, RB Arkitektur