A powerful country in the past, Sweden lost in 1709 the battle of Poltava against Russia. This military disaster led to a large loss of influence and territory for the Swedish crown. Therefore, Stockholm looked during the 19th century for several means of restoring its lost greatness. So architecture has also contributed to this national effort.
In particular, the competition for the Nordic Museum in 1888, won by Isak Gustaf Clason (1856-1930), has endowed the capital with extensive Swedish neo-Renaissance style cultural facility. Actually, it was Clason’s pupils who developed at the beginning of the 20th century a national romantic vein, giving new architectural life to the country.
Still as a result of a competition in 1905, Ragnar Östberg's (1866-1945) project for the new Stockholm City Hall was a great step affirming this national style. Even if the building is inspired, for instance, by the Venice Doge's Palace, Östberg refined his work for a long time – as the building was completed only in 1923! This patient maturation allowed him to rework many elements, synthesizing several medieval Swedish and Renaissance sources. More than a monument, this Town Hall has deeply reorganized the use of its site: its interior courtyard is functioning like that of a haughty Gothic castle, while an open gallery offers a remarkable spatial and visual connection with the lake. The high tower evokes the symbolism of the Middle Ages municipal belfries, giving at the same time a monumental highlight to the building and the urban landscape.
The same finesse of design can be seen inside. A large covered courtyard, the Blue Hall (used for banquets for the Nobel Prize awards) skillfully balances sober volumes, high-quality masonry, and an undeniable overall majesty. The apotheosis is reached with the grand Golden Hall. Here the gold-dominated, Byzantine-inspired mosaics sum up the history of ancient Sweden - culminating in the imposing allegorical figure of the Lake Mälar Queen.
Between voluntary archaism and abstract simplification, this decor brilliantly reinvents the national tradition. Östberg has achieved in this work a perfect balance blending historical memories and progressive modernization of forms.
Despite his demanding perfectionism, this architect was far from being an isolated builder. Among others, Lars Israël Wahlman (1870-1952) and Ivar Tengbom (1878-1968) both designed essential buildings for 20th century in Stockholm.
For example, Wahlman won the competition for the Engelbrekt Church in 1906. It also eloquently mixes Byzantine and medieval memories, which the architect was able to finely transform according to a vocabulary close to Art Nouveau. As with the Town Hall, the result deeply marks its environment. With its dramatic use of the site, this place of worship is undoubtedly a monumental marker.
After receiving only the second prize in the competition for the Engelbrekt church, Ivar Tengbom was luckier in the competition for a church of the Högalid district in 1911. His project energetically synthesized pure and massive forms of Swedish medieval churches. The two towers are covered with a bell tower in a more neo-Baroque style. Despite these historical references, Tengbom knew how to simplify his architecture, first of all to enhance the volumes. The emphasis on large unadorned brick walls gives almost abstract dignity to the whole sanctuary, consistent with Lutheran precepts.
These achievements had established the reputation of their architects, allowing them to carry out a number of works pursuing a similar logic. So Wahlman signed the astonishing neo-Romanesque Ansgars chapel in Björkö in 1930. Tengbom also built several sanctuaries distinguished by their sense of simplified Romano-Gothic masses, like the solid church of Höganäs in 1934. This did not prevent Tengbom to also build in the neoclassical style (notably the Stockholm Concert Hall in 1923), then to adapt himself to modernity (headquarters of the Esselte company in 1929).
Meanwhile, the 1920s began a clear aesthetic shift in Sweden. The national style was gradually abandoned, in favor of a simplified neo-classicism, while early modern research also emerged.
Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940) contributed a lot to this aesthetic evolution. His more famous work, the Stockholm Public Library in 1924, synthesized his reflections on the best way to share books in a society. Here his neo-classicism is based on the Palladianism heritage, also continuing the 18th century researches towards greater formal abstraction. The building pure volumes have limited historicist allusions to some symbolic details, and have resulted in great functional efficiency.
Asplund developed this approach in his new wing of the town hall of Gothenburg during the years 1920-1930. Abandoning the idea of an extension imitating the old building, he ultimately built a modern functionalist addition. This has become an example of a contemporary adding that balances well innovation and adaptation to its environment.
Often published in books by various authors, Asplund is nevertheless the tree that hides the forest of the great Swedish architects. Their art marvelously combines historicist charm, sobriety, constructive quality, sense of renewal. So it would probably be useful to conduct more international researches on 20th century architecture in Sweden! By taking an interest in all creators of value, both traditional and modern.