Tuesday, May 30, 2017

to a poet

I'm currently working on a longer post on Bernt Nyberg and while doing some online research I happened on Arkdes' online archive of Nyberg's drawings and models. unfortunately so far few of the listed items have made it online but among the ones that have I found a drawing for the entrance stair and canopy of his Department of Anatomy and Histology Building (currently referred to as the Josephson Building and belonging to the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences) in Lund from 1965. last year I went by the building for the first time and was immediately struck by two things: first the almost medieval relationship between the entrance stair tower and the neighbouring building to the south east and secondly the way the stair feels both haphazard in detail but entirely planned in the whole. not that the detailing feel haphazard in an unconsidered way, I probably should refer to it as loose fit instead; it is a whole with improvisations where everything is ruled by a main theme

the first thing to say is that seen from the front the stair tower is entirely separated from the main building, both tectonically and in materiality: the main building shows a laconic acceptance of the programme in that it is a white-rendered brick building with repeated fenestration that doesn't in any way try to seem more interesting than it actually is while the stair tower seems to be a picturesque collage of slabs of different materials, not entirely unrelated to neoplasticism. there is an argument to be had that the ninety degrees indentions at the corners of the main block makes it seem like it too is composed of several slabs but even if that is the case the slabs the stair tower is composed of are much more pronounced.

moving down in scale we have the entrance porch and canopy. now we're suddenly quite far from neoplasticism but when looking closer at the different elements it is quite noticeable how everything is constructed from, well, not slabs but from distinctly flat elements: there are timber boards, flat steel barrs, copper sheets etc. there is one obvious exception, the concrete stair, but that is also clearly separated from the building and belongs to the earth instead.

one significant characteristic of the porch – though one most users of the building probably won't notice until after a long while, if they notice it at all – is that the whole thing is cantilevered off the stair tower. it would be so incredibly easy to just put some short legs under the construction but there are none. the only places it actually touches down are the handrail of the stair – added by Nyberg in 1967 – and the ramp at the back which wasn't added until 1983, after Nyberg's passing, to increase accessibility. so if you take a look at the drawing there is actually no point of the porch that ever touch down.

after a while you realise that the fact that the construction doesn't touch down is symptomatic as none of the major elements of the porch actually connect to each other either; they're always connected by secondary elements or interrupted by some other part. so you have a thin flat timber roof that rests atop T-shaped steel beams (ostensibly made from two flat steel bars connected at a right angle) but before the roof meets up with the wall of the stair tower it's interrupted by a copper gutter resting on the same beams (and which at the front lets the water just fall straight onto the ground but at the back is connected to a rectangular drainpipe). in the same way the T-shaped beams aren't actually resting on the paired uprights at the edge of the porch, that would be way too obvious a construction, instead the beams lie on top of steel brackets made of folded flat steel bars and these brackets also serve as the distances for the paired uprights. and the original railing, a flat steel bar folded into the shape of a rectangle, are connected to the uprights by the same kind of bracket, only smaller. the floor of the porch is made from timber boards resting on further T-shaped beams which are in turn resting on the steel cantilevers connected to the stair tower. originally the Ts, and the boards along with them, made a ninety-degree turn at the back folding up to make a waist-high back wall where the ramp now starts.

as I said the only part of the construction, related to Nyberg, that touches down is the handrail from -67 and that's only with one upright, and in a very odd way: the upright isn't just secured on top of the stair but turns ninety degrees and follows the stair to spill down the riser like some kind of slow-moving liquid.

this became a lot longer than I had at first intended but since my first visit I have been fascinated by how just a few materials – timber, steel, copper – in even fewer shapes – basically a rectangular cross-section of different proportions – can combine in unexpected ways to create what can only be considered some kind of built poetry.

acknowledgements and further info:
most information on dates and the different alterations are from Lennart Lundberg's 2003 thesis in art history Arkitekten Bernt Nyberg och modernismen –en studie av konst- och musikvetenskapsinstitutionens byggnad "Josephson" vid Lunds universitet which although it, from the perspective of a practising architect, has some flaws is useful on the timeline of the building and the different changes since its completition

Sunday, April 16, 2017

drops in the river

here's a post I started years ago but never got round to finishing, that is until I started reading the reprint of Nairn's London and read this quote in his description of the Monument 'the view makes most sense to a stranger in that – unlike most London views – it shows how the city is completely formed by the river yet has turned its back on it'. this brought to mind another city, at least partially, formed by a river:
on new year's eve 2012 a friend asked me what was the highlight for me that year. I instinctively replied that it was swimming in the Rhine through Basel.

I'm fully aware that I had been happier at other moments that year, that I had had more fun, felt more alive and been more excited at other times. I also know there are several other things – most other things, really – that had had a more profound effect on my daily life than those few occasions I drifted in that river looking up at the city around me. but had I felt more at peace with the world and my place in it? probably not. and then I'm more at peace with the world than I've been in a very long time.

of course being on holidays had something to do with it, of course being on holidays after having worked way too much all spring had something to do with it, of course being on holidays after having worked way too much all spring and knowing a new exciting job was waiting on my return home had something to do with it.

it was something more than that, though. something about lazily seeing the world going by, of changing perspective and suddenly being in the thing you normally cross over going somewhere else, that was incredibly relaxing. and the city of Basel has done almost everything right helping people use that great resource of theirs.

I remember my first visit to Basel, three years prior: a friend and I had been on a study trip going from Milan via Como, Bellinzona and Chur looking at beautiful architecture and sublime landscapes. the trip ended in Basel where we had a day to take in all the sights we wanted to see and as the city is littered with interesting architecture we set about it with gusto: driving here, taking a tram there, walking this way and walking that way back. in the end we had managed to rack up an impressive amount of sights – in hindsight I barely understand how we managed to fit it all in while it still felt like a fairly relaxed day – but that time the Rhine was just something we happened to pass on our way somewhere else.

a year later I was back, visiting another friend that had moved there in the meantime, and I realised that far from just being something you cross a lot of the life in the city actually circle around the river; be it the harbour, the medical companies and factories occupying long stretches of the riverbank or the people having a beer out by the river during the evenings.

yes, I know, of course the river as a piece of infrastructure is one of the main reasons there is a city there to start with, but I have never been in a city where the water hasn't been turned into either just a piece of infrastructure or something picturesque you look out on while sipping a coffee or a glass of wine. in Jönköping, my hometown, the lake Vättern is somewhere you can go swimming in summer and a provider of horribly cold northern winds throughout the rest of the year, in Stockholm the heavy traffic on lake Mälaren is routed south of the city leaving the huge expanses of water in the city centre as a picturesque element elevating the prices of apartments while rendering the inner city incredibly cumbersome to get around. but in Basel you have people swimming in the river only 50 meters away from a fully loaded barge, you have that same barge passing the beautiful, current-powered, ferries at a right angle: you have the utterly contemporary and the antiquated and the picturesque co-existing side by side in a way that resembles the city itself.

in this way the quays on the Kleinbasel side with their steps leading down to the water lets you witness the new and old, the beautiful and the ugly as well as leisure and labour all at the same time.

it must be said that the reason we missed most of the river on my first visit was because it is only really on the northern shore, in Kleinbasel, that the city connects with the river. in Groβbasel there is a higher and steeper bank and long rows of houses that hide the river from view in the central parts. the upside of this, from the point of view of the locals at least, is that a lot of the tourists will miss this beautiful stretch of the shore, merely seeing it from one of the bridges or, if they're splashing out on accommodation, while having dinner in a fancy hotel restaurant.

but the residents do flock to the river during summer days: bobbing along in the river – using water-tight bags for their belongings as flotation devices – or having a picnic on the stairs leading down to the water. I guess it makes sense that it's on the northern shore that the city connects with the water as Kleinbasel is traditionally more working class than Groβbasel. and now that things have changed, when connecting to a body of water is suddenly desirable to the middle and upper classes there is the risk of going down the route that London seems to have taken, where the riverside seems to have been taken over by luxury developments, Basel on the other hand have upgraded the quayside making sure it's still a public amenity and all along the river is still used for transporting goods and people. no use is forcing the others out, instead they're all co-mingling – seemingly happily. in a way I guess Copenhagen have tried something similar in the way they've built their harbour baths, but they are only tiny spots in a strait, in Basel it's a stretch of water all through the inner city dedicated just to swimmers.

if I were to guess the fact that the river is harder to reach on the southern side is a huge part in the fact that different uses can co-exist as the natural conditions for swimming is missing along the Groβbasel shore so that whole side of the river can be reserved for traffic while the northern two fifths can be turned over to recreation.

the city seems to have done some work to the quayside infrastructure over the last decades which has turned out great (it seems the only reason anyone could possibly have to complain is if you're a drummer wanting to practice the bongos, but in that case I think the rest of the people there are thankful for the ban).

of the cities I've visited Basel is the one that most successfully relates to the water it's situated at; and still I entirely missed the river on my first visit. but I'm not sure it's just a negative thing that tourists miss some spots, at least not from the perspective of the locals.

well, in all honesty we've got something similar here in Malmö, at least in parts of the city: first there's the long sandy beach and the open-air baths at Ribersborg as well as the promenade with steps leading down to the water at Västra hamnen but they're on the outskirts of the city, and Västra hamnen is a very expensive part of town. thankfully that hasn't stopped people appropriating the promenade there and a lot of people from other parts of the city go there for a barbecue and to hang out on summer evenings but compared to Basel it is still peripheral and like in most cities the productive uses of the sea are spatially separated from the recreational ones. so in Ribersborg and Västra Hamnen the sea is a picturesque recreational amenity (and occasional cause of harsh climatic conditions) while in Mellersta and Norra hamnen it's still just infrastructure if, admittedly, picturesque at times. of course you can argue that this is the luxury of having a lot of water, you don't need uses to juxtapose, but I can't help but to think that the city is actually poorer for it.

let's end with a photo of the sun setting behind Groβbasel, a perfect view at the end of a summer's day.

Monday, January 16, 2017

overcome with light, pt. 2

I have just read Johan Mårtelius' essay Längs bokens rygg (Arkitektur (Stockholm), no. 4, 2006) where he mentions the progression from darkness towards light connecting it both to the entrance sequence in Isak Gustaf Clason's Nordic Museum and to the line 'Från mörkret stiga vi mot ljuset' (From the dark we step towards the light) from the Swedish version of The Internationale.

Mårtelius also mentions that the third, modernist, wing – directly in front as you come up the entrance stair – wasn't added until 1932 so originally you were facing a glazed opening with a door leading straight out into the even brighter daylight outside. I hadn't actually thought about it like that, and find it a little disappointing that if you follow that reasoning there is a distinct spatial direction to your progress: you do not see the same spot in a new light but encounter something actually new instead. even though that too works as a spatial metaphor for learning I'm actually quite happy that third wing was added so quickly - it makes the building a bit more didactic and explicit but it also adds something by forcing you to enter and exit in the same way (well, there are other ways of entering and exiting but they are more obviously secondary so don't really matter that much to the entrance sequence).

Thursday, October 27, 2016

hold time

last year I was strolling around Lund and suddenly realised I was just by Bernt Nyberg's County Archive Annex (1971). well, I have been there before, and it wasn't even the first time since it got turned into student accommodation, but it was the first daytime visit since that encounter.

and at first I was a little upset, as a lot of people have been, or maybe not upset but I found it sad and a little annoying that they didn't find any use for the building better suited to its stark brick walls. but afterwards I thought some more about it: for a long time I have had a problem with the profession's attitude towards change and time. always caught between utopian ideals and actual execution the reading architect always encounters buildings at the moment they were just completed: spanking new and without any blemishes. of course, if you actually go to visit buildings you've read about they might have changed but then you can always compare the reality to the, almost platonic, ideal in your mind. in this way you can just ignore anything you don't like, as long as you can rationalise it as being a problem either with the execution or the occupation of the building and not in the building itself (this, of course, is if you believe there is a wrong way to occupy a building, and I would say most architects actually do).

at Mårtenstorget, just a few hundred meters from the archive building, stands Krognoshuset – a building Klas Anshelm left standing when he built Lunds Konsthall next door. this is the oldest profane building in Lund, thought to be dating from the 14th century, and a building whose layered façades I've long liked. and this is what had me thinking: if I approve of the current state of Krognoshuset can I ever justify a dislike of the changes to the archive, at least as long as they're executed in a decent way?

I realised I probably couldn't, because what I in effect wanted to do was to freeze time, to not allow change, just because I liked what was there at the moment. of course you should resist some change – the stupid over exploitation of an existing plot or the kind of renovation that only really serves to drive out current inhabitants – but resisting turning an archive building into student accommodation after it's lost its original purpose? isn't that just the kind of thing that would prevent something like Krognoshuset in 700, or 70, years' time?

well, it might be hard to imagine a contemporary building actually being around for that long but considering the means of construction, hard-fired bricks and a lot of cement in the mortar, in this case there might actually be a small chance.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

overcome with light

Stockholm Public Library with reflecting pool - Gunnar Asplundthe Swedish noun upplysning has three meanings:

1. information, explanation

2. lighting, illumination

3. enlightenment (and in the definitive form upplysningen it's also the Age of Enlightenment)

in this way - in Swedish - illumination and lighting is intrinsically linked with the mental act of enlightenment. or you could state it the other way round: the mental act of enlightenment is intrinsically linked with the physical phenomenon of light. this has been given the most basic and literal architectural form in Gunnar Asplund's Public Library in Stockholm.

let's take a short walk through the building to see just how:

podium stair, Stockholm Public Library - Gunnar Asplund
when approaching the building on Sveavägen you're met by a long stair leading up a podium on which the actual building is placed. you walk towards the faux-Egyptian entrance opening within which the entrance door is set. originally the door was a hinged door, in the 50's changed to a storm door and finally in the late 70's to the revolving door that's still in use.

entrance hall, Stockholm Public Library - Gunnar Asplund
inside is the entrance hall: a high room with dark walls in a sort of stucco lustro (technically they're 'kalkspacklade' but I'm afraid I don't know the exact term in English) adorned by Ivar Johnsson's low-reliefs of scenes from the Illiad. in front of you is a drum pierced by another Egyptian portal while to either side of the drum a curving stair runs up into darkness. the Egyptian portal opens to a stair leading on towards a bright room one story up.

central hall, Stockholm Public Library - Gunnar Asplund
continuing up the stair you find yourself in the middle of a high white drum whose lower parts are lined with bookshelves and whose top is pierced by high windows marching steady all around the drum.

this is the centre of the library, from here you can continue in several different ways depending on what you're looking for: you can make your way up the shelves running around the drum or you can go to the reading rooms and specialist collections in any of the four wings.
exit stair, Stockholm Public Library - Gunnar Asplund
when you later want to leave the library and make the reverse journey you did on your entry everything's suddenly inverted: the bright drum you encountered before is revealed to be dark and dreary compared to the bright light coming up the entrance stair (also note the, non-original, bust of August Strindberg on the top floor misaligned compared to the stair but aligned with the doors on the floor below).

exit hall, Stockholm Public Library - Gunnar Asplundas you walk down those stairs you're constantly able to see out through the glazed entrance portal and upon reaching the bottom step you find that what was a dark and somewhat oppressive entrance hall is suddenly a bright exit hall with light bouncing off the shiny walls and even the ceiling.

continuing out through the revolving door you're back in the same spot where you started from, exactly the same but having been subjected to some both literal and figurative upplysning since last.

you could find this analogy a little cheesy and over-didactic (well, assuming this was actually how Asplund thought about the project, something I haven't got a clue about) but there is no way of denying that the way the different rooms change their appearance and mood depending on if you're entering or exiting the building is plain masterful.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

people folk, pt. 2

exterior view Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markelius
another spring, another visit to Stockholm. this time I managed to get in to Folkets hus so here are some further photos to add to the below post.

entrance foyer Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markeliusentrance foyer

cloakrooms Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markeliuscloakrooms

upper foyer Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markelius
upper foyer

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

people folk

update January 5, 2013 : I finally managed to scan the drawings so I've changed them to proper scans instead of the previous photos.

in a way that's becoming far too common I have recently been working a bit too much to actually manage to write anything, but here's a post I started ages ago and have finally finished:

detail of the façade of Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markeliusin the social-democratic heartland of Stockholm, on the northern side of Norra Bantorget, there stands a slick 1950's office building: a shiny black labradorite wall with hardwood windows – mid-century modernism at its most corporate. but looks deceive, the most extraordinary things are hidden behind that façade: a jumble of caves, stairs, bridges, cantilevering ledges and raking floors; it's a veritable Piranesian etching – well, as seen through a high-modernist prism, of course.

when viewed from outside there's really only one thing that's hinting at something unusual being found inside: at first-floor level a huge concrete canopy decorated by abstract sculptures extends out over the pavement. that canopy makes for a surprising addition to an office building.

in a way the building's sober façade could be read as an example of Adolf Loos' theories of masks. or rather it could if only the sober modernism had stopped at the front door to be replaced with something more thrilling and over the top inside, but this just isn't that kind of a building. what it is, though, is a building of much greater complexity than you might expect when first seeing it from afar, and that complexity is best illustrated by taking a look at the section:

section Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markelius

behind that office building there lies two huge voids, one on top of the other. in a way the building is almost like something from OMA's late eighties: generic façades and heroically scaled construction used to create vast spaces where no-one would at first expect them.

front elevation of Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markeliusthis is Folkets hus (1951-60) in Stockholm by Sven Markelius (1889-1972), professor of city planning at KTH and one of the architects on the board for the UN complex in New York. Markelius has been largely ignored for the last while, eclipsed by his contemporaries Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz. he was a friend of both Asplund's and Alvar Aalto's (whom he introduced to CIAM) and was one of the major Swedish architects during his life, not least because of his role as planning director in Stockholm. internationally he's probably best known for his own house, used as illustration of the AR-article 'The New Empiricism'. Markelius had lots of connections in the Social Democratic Party – for example he designed the house of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal – and I assume that is how he ended up with the commission for Folkets hus. I'd like to see Folkets Hus as his greatest building, it's at least his most odd and weird one.

rear elevation of Folkets Hus, Stockholm - Sven Markeliuswhen the association running Folkets hus decided to demolish its 1901 building and replace it with a bigger it tried to buy up as much of the surrounding land as possible. despite this the plot ended up at only 4 250 Sqm. because of the relatively small plot the two main spaces of the program – a 750-seat theatre and a 1 500-seat congress hall – had to be stacked on top of each other in the middle of the plot with offices making up the two blocks lining the surrounding streets. well, that isn't entirely true as part of the building along Wallingatan (at the northern side of the plot) is taken up by the fly-tower of the theatre - something which obviously renders an active relationship between the building and the street quite tricky. on the other hand the street frontage towards Barnhusgatan makes up for it somewhat as it houses the main entrance for the theatre and the conference hall and a separate entrance for the first-floor restaurant as well as two entrances for the offices on the floors above.

plans of theatre and banquetting hall, Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markelius
it seems now might be the time to talk about those two voids – or caves as I called them in the beginning – the theatre and the conference hall. it's actually only the theatre that merits to be called cave-like: hidden away deep in both plan and section and with zigzagging walls of red brick there is something very earthbound about the space. the white walls and black ceiling studded with round lights of the conference hall on the other hand is reminiscent of an outdoor space in the city a star studded night, in that way related to the auditorium in Asplund's Skandia cinema from 1923. both the theatre and the conference hall play up the theatricality but aim for different associations: the dark cave with the opening through which you observe the world and the agora - the birthplace of democracy.

plans of ground floor and first floor, Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markelius
connecting and flowing between these two spaces are two lobbies. the entrance lobby is the logistical heart of the building: straight ahead a gap gives a view of the theatre's foyer half a storey below while the rising ceiling hints at the route up to the conference hall. the stairs to reach these other rooms are situated at either side of the gap.* if you ascend the stairs you reach the corridor-like cloakrooms for the conference hall. sandwiched between the theatre and the conference hall the walls separating these cloakrooms double up as beams of immense dimensions making sure no columns are needed in either room.

plans of restaurant level and conference level, Folkets hus, Stockholm - Sven Markelius
the foyer for the conference hall is a wide and bright space lit from a south-facing roof-light along the back wall. having arrived here, looking at the interior wall of the theatre's fly-tower, the visitor is encouraged to make two ninety-degrees turns and end up facing the curving back wall of the conference hall. this foyer has some elements in common with the entrance foyer: the gap, a ledge-like balcony and the symmetry. the two rooms are clearly related and are key to making the building function in such an easy way as it does.

I began by claiming that Folkets hus was akin to but not quite adhering to the theories of Adolf Loos. while writing this post I've had to revise that opinion, it's entirely like a larger version of a Loos villa. all the elements are there: the elaborate section, the symmetry of all major rooms, the interior decoration meant to create different moods in different rooms, the meandering and staged communication  – even the tucked away communication for staff/workers.

I've liked Folkets hus ever since I first visited it during first year in college but for different reasons. what most attracts me at the moment is that it's such a complex building but that that complexity is not based on knowing references to historical precedents nor is it an over-complicated skin stretched over a banal stacking of identical floors, no it is a building with a simple and unassuming language used to render the actual complexity of the building as easy and intuitive as possible. it's a very confident building and it's basically the antithesis of almost anything that is being built in present-day Sweden, and for that reason alone well worth remembering and celebrating.

* this set up could be seen as an evolution of the gap in the procession in Markelius' first modernist public building – the Helsingborg Concert Hall – where visitors encounter a half-storey change of level that forces them to make a ninety degree turn up some stairs into the coat rooms before getting back to the main corridor to continue towards the hall (see the cut-away model here). though in this case, as there are two main halls, the continuous ceiling and the falling away floor leads to one hall each.

all drawings are taken from the magazine Arkitektur no. 6 -1961.