Archive

Sweden

I walked by this interesting and charming residential building in northern Berlin the other day. It turns out it was designed by Brandt und Simon Architekten, who incidentally also designed my local bar, Kohlenquelle which, to be perfectly honest, I up to now suspected had never been designed at all. The striking feature of the building however is the pixelated façades made up from tiles or shingles, allowing the building to merge with the surrounding garden, to dematerialise and disappear depending on how you observe it. It is in a sense a form of ‘stealth architecture’, the term is, if I remember this correctly, borrowed from Mike Davis’ ‘City of Quartz’ (a terrific portrait of Los Angeles and a great analysis of the militarisation of urban and architectural space for anyone who has yet to read it). Mike Davis uses the term to denote alleged (it is in their nature to be elusive) buildings in Venice Beach that are built for affluent clients yet designed to appear insignificant and shoddy from the street so as not to attract burglars. The building above is a different type of ‘stealth architecture’, where the stealth element is more a matter of style than of military tactic.

In the military sense of the word, man has constructed ‘stealth architecture’ since he started building. Shelter was always constructed so as not to attract attention, at least until city walls and other defensive structures replaced the need for concealment to an extent. In times of peril, many smaller mountain towns would have hidden refuges as a last resort of protection. All ages have produced stealth architecture in the military sense. Bunkers constitute the avant-garde of military stealth architecture. Recently however, the civilian application of stealth as style has evolved, from all corners of the world, for various motives, but with one common aim; to create architecture that pretends it does not exist.

One example of ‘stealth architecture’ is ‘Old House’ in Tyson Street, Melbourne, by Jackson Clements Burrows Architects. Commissioned by a client to build a modern building, restricted by the preservation zone the site was located in, the architects negotiated a compromise. They constructed a modern building, but the street façade was clad with a full-scale photography of the old building. The result was a trompe l’oeil, if one stands directly in front of the building; the new and the old merge and become indistinguishable. Its angles and perspective lines line up from that one point, in a way thus preserving the homogeneous character of the area.

The architects describe their project like this:

“The project attempts to elevate the difficulties of obtaining planning approvals in heritage areas into a sublime and ironic gesture which may generate debate about the problem itself. In this sense it is both a critique of the process and a surreal architectural solution which is evocative of the site’s memory and historical context.”

It is a compromise where the new building and the image of the old merge, forming a very strange unity of past and present. One could argue that the project enters into a dialogue with its context through its obvious falsification of the history, while the jabs at the planning department and the complications created by heritage laws are perhaps a commentary that can best be expressed in other ways than architecture.

Sweden has its fair share of stealth architecture. The gallery designed for Magasin 3 by Block Architecture is one interesting example. The façade of the building was clad by a ‘fence’ of reflective aluminium louvers that mirrored the surrounding landscape, allowing the building to appear or disappear as one looked at it. An almost shy structure that hides behind a mirror, a very non-intrusive form of architecture that dissolves into the park. Was this ever built by the way? I have never seen it, but then again, that was half the point, perhaps it is there and I have just never looked at it from the right angle while squinting. It is an interesting thought; perhaps it lies there, forgotten, only to be discovered accidentally one day by an old lady walking her dog.

Another interesting project is the Tree Hotel designed by Tham Videgård, a hotel room halfway up a tree in the gigantic forests of Northern Sweden. Its reflection distorts the view of the forest, creating a very light building completely subjecting to the natural landscape. The slight distortion of the forest and its perspective is the only sign of the building. I cannot help but think this will make a marvellous ruin if its location and existence is ever forgotten and then stumbled on by chance decades later.

A similar project, also subservient to the landscape is ‘Juniper House’, by Murman Arkitekter on the island of Gotland. A modern wooden building is here covered by a second skin, a camouflage suit, of full-scale photographs of the juniper landscape making up the context of the building. The resulting building becomes almost invisible and suddenly materialises and dematerialises depending on weather conditions and angle.

It is easy to dismiss ‘stealth architecture’ as a simple comment on the context, or in some cases even the planning department. In that sense, stealth architecture would simply be apost-modern, tongue-in-cheek, double-coded nod to the history of the site, and the context. In the worst case scenario, it is only a method for imposing new architecture in sensitive contexts disguised by a barely credible veneer of adaptation, a deliberate falsification undertaken to exploit new territory. On the other hand, the architects of these buildings have sought a way to construct a house, while at the same time offering the opportunity to view the scene without the building. In other words, ‘stealth’ is a method for having the cake and eating it too, a great feat to which mankind has always aspired but never quite pulled off. This type of architecture can also be interpreted as a more complex post-modern dialogue with context and history. Furthermore the architecture questions the nature, role and impact of architecture. Creating optical effects of dematerialisation is part of the interchange with context and beholder. It is however also a will to be invisible, an architecture of invisibility and transparency, ephemeral architecture in a sense, that disappears with the blink of an eye. This architecture presents a hyper-real image of the world without the architecture, a world where the sun is always shining on the driveway, where the junipers are sunlit forever. Stealth architecture becomes scenography for a dream.

The dream of immaterial architecture is more prevalent than one would imagine, particularly so in Sweden. Take one more  look at competition winners over the last years, many if not most, renderings present buildings that are transparent, half hidden behind trees, ephemeral and light, sometimes even with either top or foundation covered in mist, erasing the structure or at least disconnecting it from the context in which it is to be inserted. This is how both architects and clients envision their buildings: invisible.

The most simple expression of this is of course the characterless glass box, always transparent in visions and renderings, almost always surprisingly massive in reality. In a sense, these are paper versions of ‘stealth architecture’, visions of nothing. The trees in renderings are almost toxic green and the lawns and playing children as saturated in vivid colours as the buildings are transparent and discreetly invisible, out of focus. Abstraction of materials and details enhance the illusion of the unreal, an ephemeral, hovering, building that sits in a sea of vibrant green invisible to all but those who look directly at it.

Actual ‘stealth architecture’ is paradoxically comparatively honest, making an actual effort to dematerialise, stealth architecture is invisibility with a purpose. The glass boxes, on the other hand, become bulky faits accomplis, realities we realise we cannot ignore and learn to live with. The desire to dematerialise architecture in different ways raises the question of architecture’s role in society and our cities. Is this a way of addressing the dichotomy between the taste and aesthetic preferences of architects contra those of the public? Is the architectural profession simply engaged in a process of creating invisibility cloaks for modern buildings, to camouflage our work, saying “–look, it isn’t so bad, you can hardly see the building behind all those kite-flying children”? Architects are conjuring up images of a world without architecture. It is an act of legitimisation through self-effacement. The glass boxes can be interpreted as manifestations of a society fearing architecture, and of an architecture fearing society.

-Most links in this post link to websites in Swedish-

In recent years, almost every medium- to large-scale urban project in Stockholm has been subject to such massive public and professional resistance that in the end, the projects have been abandoned. Naturally, this situation is not unique to Sweden or Stockholm, but it has reached a paralyzing level,  veritably hindering the city from development. Projects become bats in the upcoming elections. Most recently, the shadow government promised a more popularized version of the most prominent project at the moment, Slussen – the Lock – which connects the Gamla Stan and Södermalm.

The project’s background is basically this: Gamla Stan, located on a central island in Stockholm, is the oldest remaining part of medieval Stockholm. In the 1930’s, the old lock connecting Gamla Stan and Södermalm was replaced by a traffic solution primarily designed for cars. In many ways it was an ingenious solution, integrating underground, pedestrian, automobiles and buses in a complex shamrock-shaped traffic system designed by Tage William-Olsson.

Today, the traffic node of Slussen is in a state of disrepair. The concrete is deteriorating and for the last two decades, a solution has been sought to replace the existing design. The existing structure is generally deemed unsafe and beyond repair, and decreasing levels of traffic make the original design ineffective.

Design competitions were held, and when the dust cleared in 2004, Swedish architects Nyréns came out with the winning proposal. However, this was not without controversy, and in 2008, the urban planning department informed the architects that their vision was too boring, and the very next day they invited some of the world’s more famous architects – including Jean Nouvel, Sir Norman Foster and Bjarke Ingels – to come up with inspired designs for replacing the traffic node, using Nyrén’s traffic planning.

The city chose Foster and Partners’ proposal. However, the proposal was not very developed, and in subsequent design stages most of the more spectacular features, such as the meandering pedestrian bridges, were erased one by one until finally, the city ended up with a design that was pretty low-key and streamlined, but which included a large amount of commercial space meant to finance part of the development.

At this point, the chaos erupted. Suddenly, alternative solutions were being presented left and right. One such solution, independently presented by a number of architects, vows to make the traffic apparatus more or less invisible and buries the underground line. Invisible solutions are always a hit with the public, so the solution got a lot of media attention for a while. Yet another privately presented solution was entailed the conversion of the bridge to a kind of Ponte Vecchio, complete with replicas of traditional Stockholm buildings. Then Bengt Lindroos, one of the last grand old Swedish Modernist masters, surprised the city with his version – a less commercial development with more public spaces; perhaps the only professional alternative proposal I have seen so far.

Then the public demonstrations, petitions and marches started. Last week the shadow cabinet presented their version in an attempt to gain a few votes it being election year, after all. It was a slimmed down populist version with a very odd pyramid as the centerpiece. Now, yet another group demands that the possibility of constructing a replica of the original 1930’s design be investigated, or repairs to the original structure if possible. The debate rages on, and we will see what the results are when the smoke clears.

It is a large-scale public project, and as such, public debate is essential, but this has turned into a farce. Politicians have turned the project into a battlefield for the upcoming election, which, however irresponsible, is an effective way of winning votes. Some unfortunate developments in central Stockholm in the 1960’s still haunt every project proposed in the city’s central areas, and politicians have been extremely wary of public opinion ever since. This creates populism and compromises that are sometimes good and prudent in retrospect, and sometimes very unfortunate. As a result, the city has become extremely polarized socially – poor satellite suburbs surround a rich and exclusive urban center, fostering segregation of which Stockholm has only seen the beginning, one that will most likely haunt the city for many decades to come.

This is not the first time a project has been deadlocked by tumultuous dispute. A couple of years ago the city held an architectural competition for an addition to the Public Library, one of Sweden’s more famous buildings. A winner was chosen from the around 1200 proposals the city received from across the world, and then the public bashing started. The Swedish public seems to view architects as malefactors out to destroy the city that the inhabitants love and cherish. Here, as in the case of Slussen, individual architects emerged promoting their own designs, determined to sway public opinion, and thereby force the publicly sensitive politicians to consider their project. A number of cheap appeals to public opinion were launched.

Again, demonstrations, marches, petitions appeared overnight, all focusing on Heike Hanada, the German architect who had done nothing more than submit a proposal for a competition. She was ridiculed by the media, the architectural press, and a number of self-righteous and self-proclaimed experts screaming bloody murder. In the end, the politicians caved in to public opinion and scrapped the project on the pretext that it would have been more expensive than first estimated. The politicians neglected to notify Heike Hanada directly. It was an inappropriate project, but the fault was not Hanada’s but the organizers of the competition.

This current situation is unsustainable. The combination of opportunist politicians, opportunist architects,  lobby groups and an intoxicated public resistance to any change whatsoever has resulted in a polarized debate where projects are slowly killed step by step and development becomes next to impossible. The question is what can be done about it.

Sweden lacks an independent advisory board of architects, a common institution in most European countries. The UK has two separate independent advisory boards: English Heritage and CABE. English Heritage is mostly concerned with preserving the cultural heritage, while CABE focuses on quality in design. Both are more or less funded by the Department of Culture. These two bodies often disagree, but the main objective is always to find a solution that will make everybody as happy as possible, both now and in the future. The key is that these advisory boards are independent. Although they have a certain political agenda, they are not affiliated with any particular party and thus can make professional opinions based on their (sometimes) objective analysis. This system is not perfect, but it involves two independent professional bodies, which is as close as you come to an expert opinion.

Stockholm has a “Beauty Council” which is the local version of CABE. This is however financed by the council, and twelve of its thirteen members are appointed by the City Council, although only four are directly politically appointed. The members are artists, politicians and a mere two architects, which strikes me as odd, but probably resonates the Swedish lack of confidence in architects. Riksantikvarieämbetet (RAA) is the corresponding Swedish version of EH, but most of the practical responsibility rests on the (politically appointed) County Council.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with democracy and transparency in architecture. However, when every instance intended to provide professional and objective advice is politically appointed, we end up with the subjective and opportunist advice to subjective and opportunist politicians – an undesirable situation. The time perspective of politics is very different from the time perspective of architecture and urban design. Politics usually focus on shorter terms while architecture and urban design has to work for decades or centuries – and for that reason, an independent architectural and urban advisory board would be a good idea in Sweden. The nearest equivalent to this is the Swedish Architects’ Association. But they can hardly be said to be objective as they are the architects’ union, like the ARB in the UK.

The Swedish Architects’ Association did however recently bring forth a political program, proposing a coordinated architectural political policy. This is in many ways a great idea. An architectural policy has been accepted in many cities – Copenhagen is a nearby example. Copenhagen city council recently published “Arkitekturby København”, which is a set of architectural strategies and priorities explaining how the council wants Copenhagen to grow. One of the essential points of this document was that the council adopted it unanimously. This means that the document can lay out long-term architectural strategies that last longer than one four-year-term, and this is essential. Denmark also has the DAC, the Danish Architecture Centre, an organization funded primarily by the Ministry of Culture, which serves as a presumably objective body of professionals who comment on developments and inform the public through Copenhagen X, a public information project aimed at informing the public about new architecture.

In Sweden, the parties bicker and argue using architecture as bats; this is not very encouraging for developers who feel that the future of their project is insecure and dependent on the outcome of the next election. A unanimously adopted program however will provide the longevity that is needed for all parties, architects, developers, council and inhabitants. An political strategy for architecture which takes a long-term perspective and adopted independently of party lines would create a much more stable platform for the discussion of architecture, for architects, for politicians and for everybody else.

Neither the British nor the Danish systems is perfect, but at least there are organizations and strategies to deal with these situations, whereas Sweden is dominated by anarchy and rampant opportunism. One way or another: to get out of the current conundrum, Stockholm needs to develop a long-term architectural perspective.

This can be achieved by implementing a political strategy for architecture, which needs to be adopted by a broad majority in City Hall so that it remains valid after the next election. In addition to this, I think it would be an excellent idea to create a politically independent body of professionals that can review or comment on projects from a reasonably objective perspective with a long-term focus. In the proud Swedish traditions of self-proclaimed self-righteous know-it-alls, I guess I will just have to go ahead and form it myself.


Anthony Gormley
and David Chipperfield have together designed a pavilion at Kivik Art Centre in the south Swedish countryside. It is the first collaborative project between the artist and the architect and consists of three concrete volumes of 100 cubic meters each; the cave, the stage and the tower.

The cave, at the bottom, is a rather introspective closed space of solitude. It also serves as a sort personal air lock separating you from the world, and the queue, outside.

Next floor up is the stage, where you stand on a stage looking into the forest and your body becomes a part of the installation. The surrounding forest observes you, and you look back at it.

At the top you find yourself looking out over the tree tops, you are an observer looking out at the world from an isolated observation tower.

The volumes are meant to capture three ways of experiencing the local landscape, and how your body and mind relate to these experiences. Only one person at a time is allowed to enter the pavilion, and this helps preserve contemplative nature of the work.

The idea behind Kivik Art Centre is to create a centre for artists with workshops and eventually a permanent exhibition space. The problem is as always money. The foundation does not own the land where the pavilion stands and lacks the funding to buy it at the moment.

The pavilion has received a lot of international media attention from Wallpaper, the Guardian and a number of other magazines. In Sweden on the other hand, mostly the local papers, and one or two of the national ones have shown it any attention.

The majority of the Swedish attention has, however, been on the fact that you can spot some celebrity’s house from the tower- and he has demanded that the pavilion should be torn down. This makes you fear for the future of the Kivik Art Centre, and for the state of culture in Sweden in general.

Shopping arcades may be fighting a losing battle for consumers in the long run. They appear to be too rigid in structure, lack complexity and adaptability. For the last years, internationally, there’s been a triumphant return for the department store. In London; Selfridge’s, Harvey Nichol’s and last, but not least; Dover Street Market, these are changing the idea of a department store. At least with Dover Street Market, the idea is to create a more adaptable structure. Brands are organised independently and can update lines and stalls freer than a shop with a generic men’s department. The fact that it is decorated like a shanty town just increases its impression of instant flux. Departments can expand and retract according to need whereas the shopping arcade is locked in so many ways to the physical borders between the actual shops.

Another great strategy is to mix in other activities with the shopping, eating, drinking, art exhibitions and so on, among the merchandise rather than in a food court. It’s basically all done in order to expose the customer too as many products as possible in a friendly environment. The need to sell is not emphasized, cash registers are almost hidden away, staff don’t accost you, the need to browse is understood and encouraged. The longer you spend there the more profitable you are and thus it’s in the interest of the store is to make you feel welcome and make you linger around. The shopping area becomes curated rather than engineered, art exhibitions are interlaced with products and the borders between art and consumer goods are blurred.

This concept has now found its way to Stockholm, it may have been around for a while, what do I know, I haven’t been there in ages. PUB is one of the classic department stores in Stockholm, but has in recent years become less exclusive and popular. The top floor has recently been refurbished to accommodate a very DSM inspired fashion outlet. Even most of the aesthetics seem to come from the same shanty-town concept.

This type of venues will probably pop up all over the place in the coming years, and whether or not they succeed will basically depend on whether they manage to maintain their exclusive reputation. You can only have so many luxury shantytowns in one city. I am quite positive to the concept I must admit, it adds a few of the layers of complexity that the shopping mall lacks by mixing bars and exhibition spaces with the shopping. These developments are more living room like, whereas shopping malls are highways, pick your exit from the main aisle, do your business, get back out. Places like D.S.M. and PUB manage to keep me interested quite a while longer. I am however no expert in shop design and profitability per square foot and so forth, and in the end, that’s what it all comes down to.

From an urban perspective, I don’t really mind them neither. They don’t pretend to be an extension of the street, that’s the whole point; it’s exclusive. These stores are highly controlled environments, but so are shopping malls, possibly to an even higher degree. At the same time, they never claim to be public, they never pretend to be an ersatz for the city centre, they are a part of it.

I was in Stockholm a while back, it’s as always a fantastically beautiful city. One thing I don’t understand however, is the obsession with shopping arcades, or city malls if you prefer. In recent years a number of arcades have opened up in the central part, most recently in Skrapan, a refurbishment of what used to be the Swedish tax department’s old headquarters. Another arcade was stopped by a surprisingly energetic grass roots movement in another part of the city centre. Furthermore, when the proposal for Slussen, an area with incredible potential, was presented, it turns out it’s going to be a cultural centre, located in, surprise, a shopping arcade.

Yet another project is Sergels Torg, right in the middle of the city. Here a lengthy discussion has involved everything from constructing picturesque 18th century style town houses to a park. In the end the consensus appears to be to put a glass wall around the existing shops and, presto, you have a shopping arcade.

The perceived problem with open streets and squares, Sergels Torg in particular, is security and crime. There’s no denying that Sergels Torg has its fair share of dodgy characters, drug dealers, users and so on. At the same time, isn’t that really just a proof of it being a public space that actually works? It actually does present the user with a reasonably accurate cross section of Swedish society, for good and bad. Does anybody seriously believe that if you turn it into a controllable space, the dealers will stop dealing, users stop using and so on? Or do they just don’t want to see these elements of society? We live more or less in a society where the middle class sets the rules, and I believe that it is essential for those in charge to meet their subjects, otherwise it’s all too easy to become cruel.

One of the great things about the classic European city is that you meet the others, people who aren’t like you. The shopping arcade is a quite sinister way of excluding and controlling space so that people won’t be threatened by the other. Taken to its extreme in Minneapolis or Houston, it creates a double world where nobody meets anybody who’s different and thus have no understanding for any values or lifestyle other than their own.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not a fanatical advocator of the European city model, at the same time I do recognize that it has got a few qualities that are quite rare in any other model. I do not believe this is resulting from the inferiority of any other models, but probably because they are still evolving.