25 Aug 2012

Three Scandinavian Cities

by Chris Matthews

Even the dead have better welfare – Skogskyrkogården

A social democratic get-away-from-it-all. Stockholm and Copenhagen were on the itinerary but Malmö was the happy accident. The circumstances of Scandinavian success are without the enormous political baggage of empire and laissez faire economy; in Britain Labour sometimes win a political majority, whereas in Sweden the SDP for decades had a sociological majority - a successful compromise of private business and public welfare. The results have been enormously beneficial for planning - profit has not always been the priority - and so like the ghost of Anthony Crosland I'll be pointing to my holiday snaps and saying 'this is how it can be done'. Despite this their problems are all too familiar, namely suburban sprawl and the car economy but for the most part they are tackling these issues with comparative aplomb.

Stockholm Style

The romance of nationalism – Stockholm Town Hall

At Stockholm the political shifts are like the aesthetic - without rupture, intelligent, confident if at times slightly dull. There few tired tourist clichés in the way London is being bled dry of its ‘sights’, and the word icon is seldom called for save for when a place or building that captures the true sense of the word. Stockholm Town Hall is a case in point, it is a symbol of the National Romantic - however historically bogus if diplomatically functional it may be. The stucco hotels of Skeppsholmen pierced by the copper spires of Gamla Stan are another, and are best viewed from atop the muscle of rock along Katarinavägen. The cruise liner tourists squashed by the expressway below are missing all the fun.

Copper spires and stucco

Boberg's Rosenbad

When it came to plan and style there’s a comparison with Glasgow. Lindhagen's vision is similar to ‘the grid’ and both cities had turn of century architectural confidence and associations with Chicago. To prove this theory the somewhat grim Metropolis-style towers of Kungstornen are an obvious place to start. Yet it is the numerous devilish details throughout the gridded streets that are most convincing. Once you've applied the doorway details of Boberg's Rosenbad to photographic memory you can see time and again the Louis Sullivan-esque florid details encased in geometry. The Venetian Gothic Artists Association building (Konstnärshuset) continues in this decorative idiom. It was built within a few years of Mackintosh’s famous art school, and is just as contemporary if not nearly as innovative. That said the art scene must have been quite progressive: Torsten Jovinge was 30 years ahead of David Hockney’s pool side sojourn. Finally, the sandstone of Skånebanken is supposed to represent the region of Skåne but to me it again recalls this thumping vision of the Glasgow Athenaeum.

Sullivan-esk streets amid the Lindhagen plan
Ralph Erskine – brutalist stairway meets timber canopy  

It's in the interwar period where this comparison ends: whereas Glasgow withdrew into itself as London clawed away its talent and relative economic power, Stockholm skipped lightly from one idiom to another; neo-classical, modernism and post modern; Gunnar Asplund as the genius and Ralph Erskine as practical master. The City Library and the Skogskyrkogården cemetery are both breath taking experiences and perhaps say more than words can about Swedish welfare. Asplund is well known as acting as an intelligent bridge between the neo-classical and the modernist, but when you compare the drum lighting at Hedvig Eleonora Kyrka (begun in the 17th Century) to his city library you can see that he had an intelligent inheritance from which to draw. Erskine's innovative campus buildings at first recall the timber porches of North America but as you walk round the university you notice they ape the neighboring Swedish vernacular. The adjacent interwar neo-classical Museum of Natural History by Alex Anderberg is so thrillingly ugly that it is a relief from the city’s good taste.

Stadsbiblioteket by Erik Gunnar Asplund 

A heritage of classical drum lighting – Hedvig Eleonora Kyrka

Hammarby Sjöstad - send me a postcard when Britain does this

There has also been a successful transition to the contemporary period of regeneration. Hammarby Sjöstad is on nearly every British masterplan precedent board but is seldom (never) realised. The scheme is now over a decade old, so how is it holding up? The short answer is that it is very successful and clearly well supported by strong public services such as a tram and free ferry. The architecture may not always be thrilling but it fits a very public spirited plan, were the fun pontoons and natural landscaping really lift the place. This comes as no surprise as the city is an exemplar at this. The London Olympic Park may be getting plaudits for its meadows and landscaping but Skogskyrkogården began doing this nearly 100 years ago. One of the first things you notice when you arrive at Stockholm Central Station are the generous public benches - you don’t have to buy anything in order to simply sit down. Beat that St Pancras.

Georges Seurat is alive and well and living at Långholmen

The generous pontoon cycle lane beside Söder Mälarstrand

Not everything is perfect. The most recent developments at Hammarby and Årsta Hamnväg are more profit driven, and the 5 krona public toilets and overpriced museums do their best to keep the poor out of the inner city. There is also an ongoing debate about the relative success of the mid twentieth century social democratic suburbs. Though they were often successfully designed for living, they can lack high street activity and are isolated by aggressive expressways. I can understand this problem but I think for the most part it is successfully tempered by a comprehensive public transport and cycle network. We stayed in one of these suburbs 5 miles from the city centre at Telefon Plan, where the old industrial Ericsson buildings are smoothly being converted for public education and the creative industries. Some major expressway junctions littered the space between here and the town centre, but we never had cause for complaint because the off-road cycle lanes were so profuse.

Tackling the suburban expressways with cyclist expressways

Mid twentieth century tenement suburbs near Telefon Plan

Tenement stairwell: designed for living

Industrial apartment conversion at Telefon Plan

Thank God for Malmö

Malmö – sustainable and social

As my train arrived in Malmö I noticed that I was sick of Stockholm and its stuck up stucco. I was surprised at how much I had missed bricks. Malmö was like a breath of fresh air - a diverse and working class inner city - where it is easier to do what you can't in Stockholm: afford to live. The feel of the place hits you like a cross between Hull and Sheffield but as though it was made in Holland, or of course Denmark - the region of Skåne was Danish until the 17th century. You could argue that Folkets Park was where Swedish social democracy had its first impact on development. The Moorish style of the Moriskan was chosen to avoid associations with class, though British visitors would instantly associate it with George IV's Brighton Pavilion. Neighbouring this is a dense urban cluster of various mid twentieth century working class tenements, many with their own national romantic (moose) paintings in the lobby. At times this could be homogenous and disorientating but for the most part is a very sustainable and social urban inheritance.

A nod to Norman – geodesic entrance at Station Trianglen

The later half of the twentieth century wasn't so kind to Malmö with the city’s decline in its ship building which resulted in unemployment and crime rates worse than most British cities. What to do eh? The substance and ambition of local Mayor Ilmar Reepalu certainly puts Boris Johnson in the shade. Malmö built over 400km of cycle lanes, ceded itself away from oil, produced renewable energy from its own waste and stuck its buses on biogas. All this saved the city £100m per year. Sounds great, but the tangible visible changes to its infrastructure and urban development is what hits you on arrival. Clearly the Oresund Bridge is a major feat - you can now wiz over to the capital of Denmark in thirty-five minutes. But it doesn't end there: this new rail connection has facilitated a circular underground metro system called the City Tunnel. Including the central station upgrade there are new stations, some of which are wonderfully designed by Metro Architects, and though comparisons can be made it is easily more polished than the Jubilee Line extension.

Back to the Future - Station Trianglen

At Station Trianglen (designed by KHR and Sweco) you descend in an elevator from a very Norman Foster geodesic shell onto a cavernous room carpeted with a mosaic called 'patterns of everyday life'. The lighting is careful, there are no adverts or barriers, just raw concrete and 60s space age silver balls hang from the ceiling. You descend again, this time to the platform. This is not like getting the underground at Bank - squashed by the ostentation and advertising idiocy of the city. The platforms are split by mighty concrete columns which create a generous elevated space and on either side a white grid of steel panels line the tunnel. You stand there taking in the fantastic visual sense of time and distance, and suddenly you notice tiny beams of light within the grid dance the length of the tunnel to the sounds made within the station. This is not look-at-me Zaha, but rather look at the people, elevating our ordinary experiences. This is how good it can be.

The City Tunnel deserves an entire blog to itself

I have no pictures of Västra Hamnen as I was advised to go at night and rightly so. I knew this was a model of sustainable residential brown field development but wasn't quite prepared for how good it was - more thorough and inventive than Hammarby and Sluseholmen in Copenhagen (see below). A plan of coherence, variation and surprise which embraces the sea and shelters from it amid streets, esplanades, courtyards, water and walkable back gardens. Architecturally the style it is very "allotment modernism", a dash of Gropius here and bit of pedway contemporary brutalism there; each functioning in very different and place specific ways. At night the lighting is carefully composed to create interest as you walk though; walls, lamps, floor, knee height, up light, down light, even the glowing windows have been considered. The landscaping is the big winner here with planting based on the natural location and numerous public artworks and facilities. On a moonlit midnight we saw a man walk through the streets in flip-flops and towel and as we ventured towards the bathing decks beside the sea we could see people swimming. Yes it is gentrification of a sort - housing generally for the middle class, but it is not gated and the public facilities, especially the bathing decks - are used by the whole of Malmö.

Inventive Copenhagen

National Romanticism at Copenhagen Town Hall

Stockholm prides itself as being "the capital of Scandinavia" an obvious rebuff to its nearest rival Copenhagen. Yet the tag line is misplaced. Whereas the former is picturesque with silly Venetian sensibilities, Copenhagen is innovative, permissive and more comfortable about being in northern Europe. For my money Nørrebro beats Södermalm at the Hipster Olympics. You can arrive where you leave off at Malmö - at the work of Metro Architects, via the thrillingly futuristic Oresund Bridge - an amazing commuter journey. For the metro at Copenhagen, Metro Architects appear to have been given less freedom than at Malmö, but are still singing from the Norman Foster hymn sheet.

Sarah Lund’s workplace: the neoclassical Police HQ

The harbourside is a wealth of contemporary development such as the iconic new Opera House, which is typologically similar to Roger’s Welsh Assembly. Yet the best stuff is the most understated and it appears to be what Copenhagen does best; apply confidence in materials to a sort of neo classical modernism. Nearly anywhere else such buildings would be conducted in a slap dash dull manner, but not here. Like Stockholm the transitions from through the ages have been smooth. Hack Campmen's neoclassical Police HQ was one of the location stars of The Killing TV series - an understated and powerful building - one wonders if Vincent Harris was ever looking over his shoulder.

A dazzling visual rhythm - Gutenberghus

Harbour side townscape - Maersk Esplanaden & the Customs and Excise Museum

I didn't get chance to see a single Arne Jacobson building (this whole article is clearly cursory), yet I did see the same school of thought throughout the city. Though it is often called functionalism, you can often sense a sort of neoclassical undertone. Gunnar Asplund could easily have had a hand in the town halls at Lyngby and Søllerød for example. Alf and Søren Cock-Clausen's Gutenberghus and the Maersk Esplanaden by Ole Hagen display a later development of this restrained modernism. Beside the Maersk Esplanaden is the Customs and Excise Museum. Designed by Eva Koppel in the late 70s, it is an intelligent addition to the historic harbour, and the neighbouring public artwork could easily have been found in the mouth watering pages of Cosmic Communist Constructions.

A public and accessible Silo conversion

Islands Brygge: Insensitive compared to Sluseholmen & Västra Hamnen

Olaf Lind's 2005 guidebook appears to be pleading for more international work, but I think opposite: the rest of the world should be pleading for Danish design. Contemporary design appears to be at loggerheads between continuing in this tradition and breaking with it through big and brash statements. Sluseholmen is successfully continuing in the former vein, a successful waterside system of Amsterdam style variation. The saying goes here that instead of a house, two children and a car, the aspiration is for an apartment, a dog and a canoe. This culture of sustainable living is repeated at the thrilling Bryggebroen cycle bridge and Silo conversion, yet the neighbouring new apartments are a little insensitive. The Fisketorvet Shopping Centre is even heading towards the base standards of British regeneration, and a similar ‘death of the high street’ retail problem has also occurred at Frederiksberg Centre. Copenhagen does have a major problem with sprawl and the city must be careful with out-of-town brash projects such as the new car park city of Ørestad.

A new Greenway – from Frederiksberg to Nørrebro

Contemporary restrained modernism - Fredricksberg Gym

British highway planners should clearly be conducting in depth studies of Copenhagen - the impressive cycling infrastructure is inspiring. The extensive network of segregated road-side cycle lanes has helped to develop a huge cycle economy with independent cycle shops everywhere - especially in Nørrebro. This culture has bred small and intelligent measures such as shared cycle and pedestrian crossings, cyclist priority over cars at junctions, segregated traffic lights and now Greenways. At Frederiksberg the Copenhagen business school, plaza and understated Frederiksberg Gymnasium is built to face and appreciate the Greenway. This development-beside-greenway typology is hopefully a vision of the future.

The success of profuse, segregated road-side cycle lanes.

So what did I miss about Britain? Considering the corruption, ostentation, squalor, ramshackle infrastructure, jingoistic media and the long arm of global capitalist retail, the answer is of course not much. Though the pubs, the cheese and the free museums spring to mind, it was the sheer diversity and density of places and people that resonated most. My mind wondered to Leicester with its fresh confidence and Emily talked about Nottingham’s Old Market Square as if it were an exotic melting pot, which from a Stockholm viewpoint it is. So if we take these lessons and apply them back home, there’s hope of creating an innovative urban Britain.

The socio-economics of cycle culture


owen hatherley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
owen hatherley said...

I wonder a bit if how bad things are here can blur our vision a bit when we look at northern Europe. I spent a bit of time in Aarhus recently, and those I spoke to were quite depressive about the political and planning situation in Denmark - lots of sell-offs of social housing and big speculative post-industrial regen schemes (which was half-finished, though not particularly promising, and a lot of property-obsession in general. Amazingly, I was also told that the UK was often held up there as a model! Perhaps we're allowing being impressed with how well-managed and planned these things over there are to blind us to the fact that from the perspective of leftish urbanists over there, something like Hammarby is a serious backsliding from their earlier achievements, no matter how impeccably put together.26

Chris Matthews said...

Yeah you're quite right. For anybody else reading this, a word of warning: I did visit these cities after visiting the previous places in the blog archive. (BTW Ralph Erskine worked on Welwyn Garden City which sounds bonkers).

And yes, key point overlooked by me here: Hammarby & Västra Hamnen is social back sliding. I think I kept comparing things to the UK and not to how things were before in these places. I think I was overwhelmed by the lack of security, aggro, bling and squaller. Allot of what I've wrote is very cursory but I thought the observations where worth sharing, if only in order to try and understand them better.

I could see at Årsta Hamnväg, Ørestad, Hammarby & Fisketorvet that the most recent developments were much worse. At least Hammarby (mark I), Sluseholmen or Västra Hamnen are innovative in their design & planning, and do things which we can learn from in a positive sense. I can't really say that about Cardiff Bay, Upton, West Quay, The Riverside Museum, The Shard... Maybe I need to think harder about the really good UK schemes to get a better perspective but certainly in terms of cycling, landscaping and the public realm I don't see how the UK is a model at all.

owen hatherley said...

I think those seeing the UK as a model were meaning it as in 'a more dynamic, sexy, low-tax model than the high-tax, high-regulation dinosaur that we're in etc'. I honestly couldn't take seriously someone who thought Salford Quays or Canary Wharf could be placed next to Hammarby or Hafencity without shame. What British cities do do well as you say at the end of post is the kind of dense, diverse, easy urbanism you find in Leicester. It shouldn't be either-or, of course.

Matt Nicholas said...

Interesting take on places I really must get round to visiting. If you were impressed by the cycling infrastructure there, most Dutch cities would blow your mind!

AM said...

(for more) snaps of S.:

http://odesproposito.blogspot.pt/2012/09/s.html (and the previous 25...)

Planning Stockholm Travel Itinerary said...

Stockholm city is really beautiful..Last time when I had gone to Stockholm...It gave me many memories with my kids..Specially i am foodie and so my kids..

TripTard said...

This article on "Three Scandinavian Cities" is a great overview of some of the region's most beautiful and interesting cities! I appreciate how the author highlights the unique character of each city, from the sleek design of Copenhagen to the vibrant cultural scene in Stockholm.

The photos are also fantastic and really bring the cities to life. It's clear that the author has spent time in each place and has a deep appreciation for their architecture, culture, and history.

Overall, this article is a great starting point for anyone interested in exploring these three incredible cities. I'm definitely inspired to book a trip and see all the sights for myself!