Venice, Sweden

Venice, Sweden

Venice, Sweden
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 24 2003 7:21 PM


Today's slide show: Images from Stockholm. Today's video: Jim Holt talks with the National Museum's Boel Ulfsdotter about Swedish design in the 1990s.


STOCKHOLM—Leaving the Glass District, we roar up Sweden's Baltic coast in our powerful Volvo, still unerringly guided by the English dominatrix voice issuing from the satellite navigation system. (By now this unseen woman has become our new girlfriend. Her name is Beryl, I believe, and she is a little over 6 feet tall.) Blue skies all the way, punctuated by the occasional patch of brilliant white fog. At nightfall we arrive in Stockholm, long ago dubbed the "Venice of the North."

A fatuous nickname? Not entirely. Stockholm, like Venice, is a city where every street ends in a glitter of water. It is built on an archipelago of 14 rocky islands, and its most famous landmark, the Stockholm City Hall (where the Nobel Prizes are given out), possesses an arcade and campanile that are deliberately reminiscent of Saint Mark's Square. Throughout Stockholm, columns of classic Mediterranean orders, in hues of pale orange and red, are topped with Eastern cupolas of green copper. But if people go to Venice to pine after a blond boy named Tadzio, here the iconic object of desire is surely Pippi Longstocking. (Pardon me. I seem to be having a Herbert Muschamp moment.) Also, it is bloody cold here.

Actually, Stockholm is just coming out of its winter shell. The days are getting reasonably long, and people are starting to be seen again in the city's gorgeous parks. (Stockholm is one-third green, one-third water, and one-third architecture.)

Tonight, the Bern’s Red Room hosts a champage reception
Tonight, the Bern's Red Room hosts a champage reception

We are staying in the theater district, at the Berns Hotel, the sister establishment of the Grand Hotel, where the Nobel laureates are put up. The night we arrive, the hotel's vast and ornate lounge is thronged with Swedish yuppies, who appear distinctly less work-fatigued than their American counterparts. The hotel's restaurant occupies another festive space, with soaring gilded ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and medium-cool furnishings designed by Sir Terence Conran. There is a grand piano on a stage for a later jazz performance. The Berns Hotel, I discover, was originally built as an entertainment palace in 1863. On the mezzanine level is a private dining room called the Red Room, where Strindberg once sat writing a novel that he ended up titling The Red Room. Near the reception desk I spot a roster of the hotel's recent guests: Alanis Morissette, Beck, Marilyn Manson, Bill Gates … On the basement level is a club called Le, which means "smile" in Swedish. Its reputation for having the best DJs in Stockholm draws a rather good-looking late-night crowd. I would love to join them. But (sigh) architecture beckons.


Who are the great Swedish architects of the last hundred years? Names like Asplund and Markelius leap to mind, but beyond that I, at least, am a little hazy. I have heard, however, that there's an important new building here by a non-Swede. It's Stockholm's Modern Museum, and it's by the famous Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. Since it contains a museum of architecture, it seems a logical place to head for. So we cross a little bridge to the island of Skeppsholmen, where the museum is located.

There is a problem. By the time the Moneo building was finished in 1998, a lot of water had apparently leaked into the concrete. A few years later, visitors to the museum began complaining of headaches and fatigue. Although modern art often has that effect on one, here the cause was more lowly: mold. So the building sits closed and forlorn until it can be rid of this nasty stuff.

The collection of architectural models is temporarily housed nearby, and a bright young guide named Elisabet Johansson gives us a quick conspectus of Swedish architecture—from the rude wooden structures of the 13th century (when Stockholm was founded) all the way up through the golden age of modernism. Tomorrow we will do an architectural tour of Stockholm, clapping eyes on many of the actual buildings. Ironically, though, the two most notable projects of the last decade are both effectively hidden from sight. One is the moldy Moneo museum itself, which was deliberately designed to disappear into the skein of antique buildings that surround it. The other is an indoor swimming pool complex that was built in the mid '90s as part of the city's unsuccessful bid to attract the Olympics.

A little later, we stroll back across the bridge and pop into the National Museum of Fine Arts. There we see the design collection, which lays out Swedish (and other) classics decade by decade through the last century. The installation is delightful—no ropes around the furniture—and I chat with the art historian Boel Ulfsdotter as I make my way through it. After all the accumulated exquisiteness, it comes as a something of a relief near the end when she points out a few witty anti-taste statements. Some contemporary Swedish designers, apparently, feel a little ambivalent about their aesthetic patrimony. Our favorite item is by someone called Per B. Sunderg (b.1964). Made out of faience, a kind of fancy French porcelain, it consists of a gaudily colored moose, a female nude, and a bunch of grapes atop what looks like a soup tureen. The whole thing turns out to be … a radio. "I love it!" Boel says. "It's terrible."

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, and Costa Rica.

Jim Holt writes for The New Yorker, the New York Times, and other publications. A former visiting journalist at U.C. Berkeley and an American correspondent for BBC Wales, he now divides his time between New York and Paris.