September 22: The Sweetest of the Swedes

2016/09/22 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1885 Gunnar Asplund was born.

One of Sweden’s gifts to the world, Asplund practiced during the period when Jugendstil was on the wane and Modernism was on the rise.  Rather than a link between two irreconcilable things, Asplund shows the versatility, imagination, enthusiasm for both future possibilities and longstanding traditions. His most famous building, the Stockholm Public Library,  is coolly abstracted, yet universally classical, and bears clever ornament that recalls everything from Assyrian palaces to tins of fish.  Stylistically, most of Asplund’s work falls into a special kind of Nordic Neo-Classicism that was informed as much by the imperial monuments of Rome as the vernacular hill towns in northern Italy.  Although the Scandinavian countries were not unique in these interests, the work of many architects in these countries does have a certain quality, specific enough to earn descriptive tags, including “Nordic Classicism,” which is reasonably helpful, and “Swedish Grace,” which is less so.

Asplund’s varied interests, sources, and points of inspiration help to explain the sparing, simple, structurally inspired geometries that are not without detail, ornament and scale.  In the courthouse above, the clean shape of the building results from its straightforward and traditional structure, shed roof (ornamented with a suggestion of pediment bearing windows, the clock, and dainty swags), and great big arched opening with fine flight of stairs.  At a human, and thus humane, scale and through its decorative attributes the building pronounces its civic standing. But it also has its quirks, including the smallish windows that seem to be part of Swedish farmhouse heritage that enhances the inviting scale of the building.  Even so, it is no revival structure, but comfortably settles into its century without going over to the dark side of ribbon windows and flat roofs.

Before his death in 1940 Asplund churned out dozens of great projects like this, buildings that draw from local and universal traditions and are articulated with the Swede’s clear, clean hand.  Check out this farmhouse-villa, this addition to an earlier Neo-Classical courthouse, and this bold Scandi-Tuscan chapel, for starters.

image: Listers härads tingshus (ccounty courthouse), Sölvesborg, 1919-21, looking as much like the Swedish flag as possible (from this source)


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