STOCKHOLM—Stockholm is a city of lovely architecture, but don't come here looking for bold new projects. In fact, the most modern building here was finished three decades ago. Since then, Swedish architects have looked toward the past rather than the future. What happened?
I learn the answer today on a tour of Stockholm's architecture with Elizabeth Daude, a rather charming local authority on the subject. The background is simple to tell. Until the late 19th century, Stockholm hardly existed on a scale with other European capitals. Its population was less than 100,000. It comprised a medieval core on a central island—the Old Town—surrounded by a scattering of buildings from later eras, all painted pale orange, yellow, or red as decreed by the king's architect in the late 17th century. (He had spent a lot of time in Rome and wanted to warm up Stockholm with southern colors.)
Only in the 1880s did Stockholm take off. In a frenzy of construction lasting just three decades, the great "stone city" of today was created in a delightful succession of good, solid, and often flamboyant styles: Jungend (a sort of Nordic interpretation of Art Nouveau), Romantic Classicism, early modernism. Once this bourgeois core was in place, the city turned its attention to the working class. Planned communities hewing to a handsome (and healthy) functionalist aesthetic were created around the periphery.
What proved to be the undoing of this happy evolution was the postwar economic boom. In the early '60s, Stockholm's first (and only) skyscrapers went up: the Five Trumpets. This quintet of international-style slabs, arranged in a neat row, is not bad; in fact, there is a certain amount of affection for the towers today among young Stockholmers. And the House of Culture (Kulturhuset), an enormous horizontal glass-fronted thing facing them across a plaza, is a progressive statement that has not been superseded here since it was finished in 1974. The surrounding area, though, is a disaster. What had been a bohemian tangle of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century buildings—the Old Klara neighborhood—was completely razed. In its place rose an array of hulking commercial buildings in a grim '70s Brutalist style. The creation of a dead spot in the center of their city left Stockholmers outraged and traumatized—and very, very cautious. Since then, no one has dared to do anything really innovative or conspicuous here. Even Rafael Moneo's 1998 Museum of Modern Art had to be designed to disappear into its old urban context. To camouflage it further, the city ended up giving Moneo's new building, meant to be white, a coat of pale red paint.
To see what's happening now, architecturally, in Stockholm, we head for the waterfront. The quays used to be commercial, but people here finally figured out there's nothing like living on the water, so residential projects are going up everywhere. And, owing to the current aversion to anything risky, the waterside architecture is all a safe imitation of the styles of the 1920s and '30s: Neo-Functionalism, neo-modernism. Younger Swedish architects are bored to tears. Yet, as we drive around the new projects under construction on the waterfront, I am struck by how well-wrought everything is. Beautiful delicate modernist details, right down to the numerals on the buildings; floating-grid facades defining balconies that give on to the water; a colorful palette of tiles; lots of glass: I've seen nothing as good as this in the United States. And it's anti-car culture: one parking space per four apartments and light-rail lines that whisk you into the center of the city.
As agreeable as the new waterfront stuff is, it leaves us yearning for a taste of real architectural grandeur. So, we head for what is perhaps the supreme achievement of the greatest Swedish architect of the 20th century, Erik Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940). Oddly enough, it is a crematorium.
The crematorium is in the Skogskyrkogarden, which translates roughly as Forest Cemetery. It is the resting pace of one of Stockholm's most famous natives, Greta Garbo, but that is the least of the reasons to visit it. Forest Cemetery should be an architectural destination on par with the Campidoglio in Rome or the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. It's one of the most serene and moving places I've ever been to. Created by Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz in the 1920s, the cemetery is a forest of Swedish fir trees sheltering acres of grave markers of uniform, egalitarian modesty. There are two chapels, one a sort of primitive hut, the other classical. The crematorium is situated on a hill partly created by Asplund, with a free-standing stone cross nearby. Its most remarkable feature is something the likes of which I've never seen before, either in classical or modern architecture: a structure that consists of roof, supported by square columns, and no walls. The columns define a portico; in the middle of the roof is a square opening that creates an atrium. This is where the deceased is placed for the ceremony prior to cremation in the adjacent building. It is idiotic to try to describe the effect of such architecture, which fuses vernacular and classical elements into a primitive, authentic statement. Standing before it, you feel a million miles away from the luxurious design stores of central Stockholm.
"Construction sites and cemeteries—we really know how to have fun," quips our photographer Christian Kallen as we drive away. Such is the travel agenda of the architectural dilettante. And we've still got to see another work by Asplund before the day is over—a public library. That's hitting the trifecta!