The Robust, the Sincere.
Buildings should be built to last. What is still typical today, despite all the new technology, is after all that architecture is a genuinely unwieldy, slow medium that requires major resources for its creation. |
For this reason the robust is important if architecture is to be taken seriously and contribute to the development of a sustainable community.
The robust is an alternative to the architecture that is mainly based on visual features. The really significant qualities of a building are complex and not always visually accessible. They quite simply demand a different commitment, or even presence, if they are to be judged.
The robust should not be interpreted to mean something crudely hewn and therefore sturdy through its brute strength. Instead it is intended to engender durable and multifaceted architecture. There are many factors that make architecture relevant in the long term and appearance is only one of them. Robust architecture affirms the context of a project in the broadest sense. Its physical, concrete surroundings are one aspect of this. Other aspects are the technical conditions that apply to the project, its financing, its social context, its history or current or expected social role. Robust architecture aims to determine the state in which all the circumstances can be scrupulously taken into account and synthesised in the form of a building. When one or more of these circumstances change, the building will continue to be relevant, but now superimposed with its own historical overlay.
Sigurd Lewerentz’s works provoke thought in this context as they focus on the essential, the poetic, advanced experiments, but not as visually challenging buildings that demand the attention of those who are not really affected by them. On the other hand, those called upon to use them find them more interesting than most other buildings.
Another aspect of the robust, but different, is how the building may be combined with other buildings, or perhaps even rebuilt. In this respect robustness denotes how clearly, or as it were self-evidently, the building manifests itself. Here we could describe the robust as the cut-off point where functional requirements have been fulfilled and where the design acquires an almost generic character. This can also be expressed by saying that it is also open for other forms of use. This is easier said than done. There are many examples of buildings with a contrivedly archaic appearance and even more whose appearance is merely the sum of all their functions.
The robust need not necessarily refer to the material circumstances of a building but can just as easily concern how they function in their context. The Austrian architect Hermann Czech has presented arguments claiming that architecture is background and should only speak when it is spoken to. This should not be taken to mean humility or false modesty but rather the expression of seriousness. The starting point is, of course, Adolf Loos’s observations about facades and also garments in the modern city. Loos claimed that the correct degree of unassertiveness in both garments and facades was a form of collective agreement in cities. The deliberate unassertiveness of exteriors offered, in his opinion, protection and was a prerequisite for the private inner sphere and its individuality of expression. I consider that Czech’s argument from the 1980s is just as relevant today when some architecture seems to focus on arbitrary issues such as branding and design strategies for the commercial world. The projects completed by Czech, primarily in Vienna, are themselves eloquent proof that robust architecture takes no single stylistic form. One point of departure for Czech’s creations appears to have been aversion to ready-made style. Instead he endeavours to find numerous reasons for each form and consequently functional trifles can easily be combined with special solutions when these are required. If Czech can be viewed as an architectural philosopher and hyperfunctionalist, he also calmly gave new life to Viennese café culture. With his contemporary adaptations of furniture by Thonet in light interiors of our time, Czech once again renewed this culture in the MAK Café in the 1990s in Vienna’s Museum Angewante Kunst. Inspiring examples of how architecture that retains focus on the contemporary can transform and develop existing architecture on a large scale can also be found in Otto Wagner in Vienna in the early 20th century. Even more breathtaking transformations were undertaken in Chicago at roughly the same time. The classical rules of architecture were adapted on a new metropolitan scale without vanishing in the process. One example of such a change can be found in the architecture of Louis Sullivan, who replaced the earlier contributions of craftsmen to buildings with industrially produced ceramic elements with oriental features that were arranged, like the pixelated images of today, along the surfaces of facades.
The robust need not endure or be built to last. Shigero Ban’s emergency dwellings of paper reels and Lacaton & Vassal’s many low-budget projects are excellent examples of this. The robust need not result in buildings that are compact and visually subdued. In a series of buildings during recent decades the Norwegian architects Jan-Olav Jensen and Börre Skodvin have created environments with a highly complex array of materials but nevertheless very convincing results.
Resisting the seemingly radical and visually determined architecture opens up other possibilities of linking today’s buildings to those of earlier periods as well as what should be one of the most important tasks for our age: looking after what already exists and in the name of sustainability developing and augmenting it. One example of a worthwhile task in Sweden concerns the massive renovation of the housing erected in the outskirts of our cities in the 1960s and 70s. Developing, augmenting and revitalising these major concentrations is an important and demanding task that should not be entrusted to anyone who would have preferred rather that the buildings of this entire era had never been erected. In actual fact these areas possess a scale, organisation and structure that, on the whole, make infill and revitalisation quite reasonable. Unlike housing from the 1980s, for instance, which was from its conception intended to have visual appeal, with all this means in terms of dodgy planning, adornment and pitched roofs, one can view the projects of the 60s and 70s as having been inspired by the ambition (unfortunately far too tight-fistedly) to produce the largest possible number of apartments given the limited resources and time available. We should not, in my opinion, approach the task of enhancing these environments, as is done in many quarters, by adding a few storeys, covering their trivial facades with fashionably layers of coloured glass and then crowning their once flat roofs with more contemporary vaulting or other trimmings. Instead of such clichés we should make robust additions in the form of infill and extensions where they have genuine and not cosmetic importance. We should pay the same careful respect to these artefacts that may seem strange to us as to individuals we do not know, and allow the design of what we add to be determined by the existing environments and the lives of their inhabitants and not by the dictates of current styles that will soon be just as obsolete as the environments they were meant to renew.
Endeavouring with empathy to understand how additions can be made to what already exists should be an important issue of our time. Melding the old with the new without attempting to make distinctions for their own sake. Additions need not lack wilfulness. What is important is that the wilfulness is not all that the architecture can offer. Manipulating existing buildings, or even creating links to them, physically or architectonically, raises the issue of tradition.
Gustav Mahler is reputed to have commented on this subject: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes,but the handing on of the fire.”
One architectonic theorist who is inspiring where the robust is concerned is the Austrian Josef Frank (1885-1968) who lived and worked in Sweden from the 1930s onwards. Frank could be described as the link between Adolf Loos and Hermann Czech. In his Accidentism from 1958 he asserts that the settings that please us have arisen by chance and that we should therefore shape our surroundings as if they had arisen in the same way. Frank, who was anything but a romantic, does not of course mean that we should imitate earlier buildings. His standpoint can be seen as a rejection of the “… the uniformity that is not the outcome of practical concerns but the result of an ideology – that is not our own”. Without underrating the importance of the design of individual buildings, Frank claimed that the most important problem for architecture today was town planning. He continues “What variety can offer us is not general beauty but character. A theatre does not have to resemble a factory, nor does a bank need to look like a café”. In his ironic and sarcastic text he goes on to say: “The notion of wanting to ‘elevate’ everything to a work of art is in itself a seductive one. But let us not forget that even though we cannot define a work of art, one of its essential qualities is, however, that it is unchanging and serves no other purpose than to be observed. In this way it makes demands of people and I do not believe it is possible to be entirely comfortable surrounded only by objects that make such demands”.
The attitudes cited here have been one obvious inspiration for the varied tasks I have undertaken in my practice. In 1997 Bonniers, Sweden’s most important media group, invited entries to a competition for an art gallery and offices next to its head office in Stockholm. The result of the competition, the newly erected Bonnier building with an art gallery on the ground floor is intended through its volume and its linkage with the curvature of the street outside to merge with the disposition and scale of the surrounding built fabric. Simultaneously and by contrast, its exterior of glass and steel singles it out as a distinct institution alongside the brickwork complex by Ivar and Anders Tengbom from the end of the 1940s. Inside the gallery all of the enclosures, large and small, wedge-shaped closets or narrow corridors, are viewed as potential exhibition rooms, with the ceilings of the same height, the same materials and illumination. The equivilation of the interior spaces means that all the rooms in the building can be used in varying constellations. The rooms in the art gallery are elementary, flexible and hopefully playfully inviting in character. Very large sliding walls (11 x 4.2 metres) can be parked manually in enclosures in the walls or form part of the variable exhibition arrangements. The gallery’s transparent facades to the surrounding streets and waterways are motivated by the desire not to isolate the exhibitions behind closed external walls but instead to display art in contact with, and also against the background of the surrounding city.
The addition to the Museum of Sketches in Lund’s mediaeval town centre is the first stage of a major expansion. The museum was established as to exhibit a study collection for students at Lund University in the 1930s and is housed in a number of buildings of varying age. Its first gallery occupies what used to be a gymnasium built at the end of the 19th century. The exhibitions and collections in this gallery have gradually expanded to overflow into neighbouring buildings and in 1958 and 1984 these were supplemented by the erection of new buildings. The most recent addition is a compact extension and its interior serves to link each section of the museum to form a route that takes you through the entire exhibition area. The siting of the extension creates an outdoor exhibition area, a courtyard, at the centre of the museum. The new compact extension will also provide a plinth for the next phase of the expansion. It is linked to the large exhibition hall built in 1958. This section of the museum is made of concrete cast in-situ using moulds of timber. The exterior of the extension is constructed of very large precast concrete elements and the joints and grooves between them form an integral aspect of the design of the façade. Some of the elements contain windows and a few smaller details which reveal for those who perceive it that the industrially manufactured elements are also delicately chiselled-out building stones. In the interior, the galleries in the extension for temporary exhibitions echo the informal atmosphere in the study collections on show in the rest of the museum. Daylight is admitted by clerestories which are supplemented in some positions by recessed windows into which visitors may withdraw from the galleries to survey their surroundings. The flooring is of solid lye-treated pine.
The harbour building in the port of Skanör is intended with its volume to provide a distinct, well ordered structure for its motley harbour setting. It has recessed verandas facing the sea, a tower for the lifeguard, newsstand, and restaurant and is surmounted by a roof terrace so that it becomes a multi-purpose building, almost like the casino of old-fashioned bathing resorts. The building methods with timber columns, laminated wooden beams and joists of solid timber relate the unfamiliar new erection to the wooden sheds, smokehouses, dockyard machinery and bathing huts that surround it. The uniformity of the material and the repetitiveness are intended to provide an explicit frame for the constant comings and goings in the restaurant and bar. Further reasons can be found in the reality that in Swedish architecture today architects often play a marginal role in the detailed planning process which requires great clarity in the proposals that are submitted.
The sincere may seem to be an unarchitectonic aspect of building. Nevertheless it is indispensable if one considers that buildings should primarily serve those that use them. If the robust is an essential quality if buildings are to survive and become part of the structure of a community, then sincerity concerns another side of what is built. When the robust is not far from concepts such as organisation and logic, I consider that what characterises sincerity in buildings involve wilfulness, audacity, playfulness or even something as unusual in architecture as the naïve.
These qualities may be both unassuming and subtle but as a rule they provide a work with presence or warmth and can even invite some form of dialogue. For most people buildings are something they occupy or pass through but they are not generally interested in the architecture as such. For occasional individuals who have the time and interest or who have quite simply become aware of their environment a building can, however, offer a wealth of possibilities and significances and provide a genuine voyage of discovery.
The sincere does not demand attention. It is quite simply part of the care with which the building has been designed.
Playfulness knows no age.
Describing the architect Nicodemus Tessin the younger (1654-1728) in terms of sincerity may seem to be a breathtaking anachronism. After all, he more than anyone else shaped the monuments and rituals of Swedish autocracy following models from Rome and the court of Louis XIV in Paris.
The palace in Stockholm is undoubtedly Tessin’s masterpiece. For many it is an austere, almost impregnable building and its design is based, in part, on the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. It cannot be denied that the building is furnished with the all pomp and an architectonic setting that fits its purpose. In this context I would like to point out something that I consider raises it well above the expected solemnity to become instead the building’s most unanticipated and vibrant spatial arrangement.
I am thinking of the two ceremonial staircases that are placed on each side of the east-west axis of the palace and which provide access to all of its royal apartments. In their contemporary baroque magnificence the staircases provide all the splendour that can be demanded. Tessin himself proudly described, in the spirit of Alberti, how the staircases with their 80 columns and half-columns were of genuinely royal majesty. At the same time they are so ingeniously designed that even though they occupy the entire breadth of the building of about 15 metres they also easily open into the apartments of the central building and their guardrooms. In practice the staircases form generous extensions of the royal apartments and have been particularly useful for major festivities. In other words it clear that they provide all the magnificence, functionality and festiveness that can be required. But what they have in addition to this can be described as follows.
The staircases are, despite their enormous size, discreetly incorporated into the palace. From outside there is no indication in the facades of where these asymmetrically sited stairways are placed. From within, however, the staircases offer spectacular views with the dramatic play of light between the eastern and western facades. The ascent from the ground floor is actually spiral and involves crossing landings of various sizes, and neither the subject ascending to visit royalty or those standing above to receive him can survey the course of his ascent. Instead of being magnificent the stairs are alluring rather, complex in their tortuous and diagonally illuminated rising motion. There is poignancy in their manifest lack of the predictable majesty that is so often the outcome of the rituals of kingship.
If elsewhere the palace is endowed with perceptible processional routes and symmetries, this major spatial complex is a sensual departure from the rule. For Tessin, working in the second half of the 17th century, his profession was not stamped with the desire for individual originality that prevails today. In describing these staircases as his own invention he confirms, however, that here he relied on his own imaginative faculties rather than base them, his palaces in the spirit of the age on “the most excellent examples” he had come across during his studies in Paris and Rome.
Another example if not of sincerity at least of wilfulness can again be found in the palace in a staircase situated in the same eastern section. In this case it is quite a minor feature of the building that must have had particular significance for Tessin. This is not an invention but certainly a copy of the circular staircase in the Palazzo Barberini in Rom Rome designed by Borromini. This lovingly incorporated caprice seems to have had some specific significance. This staircase also evades the building’s symmetrical design and, in contrast to its subordinate role in the plans, it is still a spectacular and memorable space in which the stairs spiral upwards around an open centre (required functionally as a water-lift). The staircase is unexpectedly magnificent in relation to its subordinate role in the building and the contrast creates the effect of surprise and captivates the visitor with the magic of its architecture.
Being able in this way to enrich the predetermined order while the function remains unimpaired is the idea behind what is referred to here as the sincere.
Another more contemporary example of architecture with great sincerity and wilfulness is Örebro’s great Civic Hall from 1965. Its architects were the brothers Erik and Tore Ahlsén. This large and somewhat Palazzo-like edifice is a genuine complex with a theatre, conference facilities, a dance-floor, offices, hotel and restaurants. The exterior of the building is typical of its day and only partly hints to the richness of its contents. The frame and structure is rational although complicated by the stage and auditorium of the theatre. This rational structure contains, or once contained, a number of spaces that were arranged wilfully. One of these is the free-form dance-floor in the centre of the otherwise orthogonally structured floor plan. Together with other almost organically shaped stairways and niches these spaces with their curvatures provide the building with an opulence and a sense of solicitude that can primarily be experienced by those who are inside it. The building displays further wilful features to the occupants of the offices in the upper storeys that extend above the theatre’s auditorium along the facades around the courtyard. High up in the middle of this large building in the centre of the city, among its high-rises, complex, green, rolling countryside can be seen. The shape of the yard surmounting the auditorium of the theatre and its stage reflects their differing heights and takes the form of a gently undulating, grass-covered landscape. This advanced courtyard design can be seen as an expression that seems to herald all sorts of contemporary projects, in the subordinate role it plays in the exterior design of the building it is, on the other hand, unusual and provides food for thought. And to round off the story, it is said that during the first few summers there were sheep grazing on these urban slopes …
The supreme virtue.
As I write this it strikes me that Nicodemus Tessin and the sincere may not be as incompatible as may seem at first. In Tessin’s project for the palace in Stockholm there are drawings showing what form the Hall of State was to take (carried out by Carl Hårleman, 1698-1752). The longitudinal drawing illustrates how the walls were to be provided with inscriptions. The texts are by Cicero in Latin and have recently been translated. The first maxim reads: The supreme virtue of kings is clemency. 1
1 A quotation from Cicero’s De Officis: “Nihil laudabilius nihil magno et praeclaro viro dignius placabilitate et clementia” taken from “ Om moralen i Nicodemus Tessin d.y.s byggnadskonst - Några tolkningsalternativ”, an unpublished manuscript by Bo Vahlne, Stockholm, 2005.
Text previously published in Nordic Architects Write – A documentary anthology, Edited by Michael Asgaard Andersen, Routledge, 2008.