Monday, March 29, 2010

A capital in search of visionary architecture

STOCKHOLM. Copenhagen has its celebrated new architecture in modern city districts deemed as urban planning failures.
Stockholm represents the opposite – new city districts seen as models for successful modern planning but lacking visionary architecture.
Recently I spent an evening in a packed auditorium in the Swedish capital to get a taste of the public debate on the city’s architecture.
On stage was a leading local politician arguing for more daring architecture, a famous architect ready to provide it and an architectural historian urging caution as new buildings are planned for Stockholm’s precious inner-city.
Listening was a crowd of some 300 residents anxious to voice their criticism of a number of buildings not seem fit for their beloved city.
“We need an architectural policy for Stockholm, a policy that not only says where the city can grow but also how”, says Kristina Alvendal, vice mayor for city planning for the ruling liberal-conservative coalition in Stockholm’s City Hall.
She has ordered work to begin on an architectural policy for the city. Perhaps she will find inspiration in the Danish capital Copenhagen, where a new and ambitious architectural policy was adopted late last year.
The initiative is applauded by Gert Wingårdh (above right, with Alvendal), one of Sweden’s leading architects, who was invited to defend his profession in the discussion.
“The City of Stockholm now wants world class architecture. But what is world class? That’s a difficult question. But just the fact the issue has been raised is a big step forward”, says Wingårdh.
The theme of the discussion was supposed to be tall buildings, following a heated local debate over two planned skyscrapers in a new district that will be built on the northern fringe of central Stockholm (I have written about the project here).
Any plan for a tall building casting a shadow over old neighbourhoods will stir emotions in Stockholm, where people are proud of an un-dramatic skyline dominated by church towers.
“Stockholm is completely dominated by church spires that has nothing to do with a secular society”, says Wingårdh in an attempt to get the debate going.
He also presents a couple of tall buildings his office is designing in the Stockholm area, but since they are located outside the city center there are no protests. But when Wingårdh shows pictures of a beautiful but modest residential building, 13 stories at its highest point, in an inner-city neighbourhood, critics raise their voices.
“Architecture must make a statement”, argues Wingårdh.
When the audience gets their chance to speak, there is criticism against a number of new buildings deemed too ugly for Stockholm. One such building now stands at Östermalm’s Square (above left) in a classy part of the city. With its glass façade it seems completely out of place in the old surroundings, claim the critics, and vice mayor Alvendal’s response is that other plans had been even worse.
Another hotly debated project has been a new office, hotel and congress complex (pictured below) next to the railroad tracks at Stockholm’s Central Station. The complex called Stockholm Waterfront, to be completed later this year, is considered to be an ugly intruder blocking the view of Stockholm’s beautiful City Hall (right).
“Please wait until it’s finished before you judge it. And remember that it stands at a place where there was nothing but traffic”, says Kristina Alvendal.
Martin Rörby, a well-known local architecture historian, is applauded when he criticises the Stockholm Waterfront complex, but at the same time he reminds the audience that they have to keep an open mind towards change.
“A dynamic city is a mix of old and new, high and low, of contrasts. The essence of a living city is to shed its skin now and then”, says Rörby.
Stockholm is doing that now, in a big way. But the new skin still needs visions for its design.

Copyright: White Arkitekter AB/Jarl Asset Management AB
The office and hotel complex near Stockholm's Central Station.

Construction of Stockholm Waterfront will be completed later this year.

Copyright: White Arkitekter AB/Jarl Asset Management AB
The Stockholm Waterfront complex as it will look at night from City Hall.