• Bricks & Words #12: ‘Secrets of the Walls’

    Stockholm town hall perches dramatically on a rocky outcrop jutting into Riddarfjärden bay. A tall bell tower topped with the national symbol of three golden crowns forms a fitting landmark for a maritime country. Closer-to, arched Gothic windows, delicate pinnacles and gilded statues recollect styles of old, whilst bricked-up doorways and extensions in different brick speak of centuries of incremental development. And yet all of this is a carefully crafted architectural fiction, because the entire building – ‘old’ and ‘new’ parts, changes in materials, pseudo-mediaeval touches and all – was built between 1911 and 1923 to a single, unified design. The result is one of the most compelling and beguiling civic structures in Europe.

    Architecturally, Scandinavia in general and Sweden in particular led the world between the wars. Libraries, hospitals and other public buildings combined rational, Modernist layouts and geometric shapes with minimalist but carefully-designed details, these often demonstrating traditional craft skills. The results were widely admired and published extensively and globally. This led to them becoming inspirations for others, most famously, London transport’s director Frank Pick and head architect Charles Holden. They modeled the latter’s new stations for the Underground’s new lines on what they found in Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere, using the same concept of simple platonic volumes and restricted detail.

    It is, then, something of a surprise to find Ragnar Östberg creating a richly textured, ready-made history for his new town hall, with layer upon layer of convincing yet utterly manufactured accretions built into his design from the start. The explanation lies in the perceived need to gift his homeland with a prefabricated mythology, which in turn gave rise to the architectural style dubbed National Romantic. To that end, Östberg incorporated authentic-seeming historic touches into the fabric of his brand new building, each calculated to convey a sense of heritage and time. This begins with the very earth on which the building stands, since the naturalistic rock terrace is entirely man-made. On it, a four-posted freestanding cenotaph commemorates national founder Birger Jarl, King Arthur watching over the city – and by extension the nation’s – inhabitants. The arcade facing the water is derived from the Doge’s Palace in Venice, once a great sea-faring power itself. Within the courtyards, those clever touches of simulated age include fake repairs, walls that half-obscure ‘previous’ features and pavements laid over pavements… at the same time, add an extra level of verisimilitude – at least, as seen by the desinger.

    Both the building and Rikard Larsson’s superb book tells the story of, and is unmissable for anyone with an interest in what architecture can do and can mean.

    ‘Secrets of the Walls: A Guide to Stockholm City Hall’ by Rikard Larsson (Bokförlaget Langenskiöld, 2011)

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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