Matthew Hall

S:t Petri at 50 Contextualizing an Icon

- Björkhagen - Sweden

Text and images by Matthew Hall

Forty years after his death, Sigurd Lewerentz’s work and reputation enjoys a renaissance of interest and validity. Janne Ahlin’s seminal monograph from 1987 has recently been republished, and earlier this year Japan Architecture & Urbanism Magazine, in collaboration with the Architecture and Design Center in Stockholmdevoted two special issues to his work. While these are only a few examples from many, it appears that Lewerentz’s work is compelling a new international audience to take notice, and often the Church of St. Peter in Klippan completed in 1966 serves for many as the introduction.

              St Petri Kyrka, Klippan 1966, Sigurd Lewerentz

Many even make the architectural pilgrimage to visit and the city reports it as their number one tourist attraction.Often misunderstood as an anomaly in an otherwise diverse body of work, this building is not a lone icon, but one of the final products of a long career. Lewerentz practiced architecture from 1908 until his death in 1975.His subtle subversion of existing typologies, common materials and neo-classical motifs became more extreme with age. One would expect a young architect to be radical by default; in search of new moves, forms and concepts in a struggle for autonomy and maturity. For Lewerentz, it is striking that his radical nature, while always an undercurrent in his thought and work, would most forcefully show itself in his late works such as S:t Petri through uncompromising formal and material unison.At first the Klippan church committee in charge of finding the architect was worried he was too old, but after visiting Lewerentz’s work at St. Mark’s church in Björkhagen they reported back “They said also in Björkhagen that he was too old. But if you want something extraordinary you shall hire Lewerentz. He is prepared to do it,” (01) thus initiating one of Lewerentz’s (and perhaps modern architecture’s) most unique and legendary works.
In 1966 Reyner Banham’s New Brutalismmakes the case for the budding movement through a critical summary of international architecture. In his chapter on the “Brick Brutalists” he refers to Lewerentz’s Church of St. Mark in Björkhagen (the precursor to St Petri) as the “hardest case” of a building that would “greatly enrich the Brutalist canon if it could safely be included within it.” (02)

              St Markus Kyrka, Björkhagen 1956, Sigurd Lewerentz

Banham considers the special case of Lewerentz to be a very “other” architecture, outside of conventions and distanced from his contemporaries. He was not the only Swedish architect to participate in the extensive church building of the 1960’s as many architects used this venue to produce a high quality of work in the wake of an increasingly pragmatic and production oriented building industry. Caldenby refers to Sweden’s extensive church building as a “haven of beauty” for architects who had ambitions beyond the practical describing Lewerentz as an “emblematic artist-outsider” (03) With such a reputation coupled with a relatively small output of built works compared to his contemporaries, one is left with more questions than answers upon investigation of his full career’s output. What is often considered an abrupt turn in his late work is suggestively foreshadowed in the moves of earlier experiments. His sites as laboratories varied but concentrations of his work span decades at particular sites such as Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm or the Östra Kyrkogården in Malmö where one can trace shifts in his design approach, realized often in confrontation with his previous designs.

              Östra kyrkogården, Malmö 1916-72, Sigurd Lewerentz

              Sta Birgittas Kapell, Malmö 1916, Sigurd Lewerentz

              Skogskyrkogården, Malmö 1917-64, Sigurd Lewerentz

While he engaged critically with the Zeitgeist’s of the twentieth century he contributed to most all of the early modernist identity crises, testing their capacity for authenticity constantly challenging himself, balancing his acquired expertise with fresh insight on each new design problem.

Strange Details

While many details and forms carry over from Lewerentz’searlier work, in particular the church of St. Mark, in Klippan they are more refined, focused and archaic. Brick and tile patterns vary wildly with drawings that suggest a precisely dimensioned starting point but no resolution for the patterns’ end.

                                                        St Petri Kyrka, Klippan 1966, Sigurd Lewerentz

In the sanctuary space the floor undulates and breaks at the baptismal front as waves of brick articulate the vaults above. Caught between floor and ceiling is a cross-like fabrication of weathered steel which sits upon two massive steel sections joined into one column. Apparently the steel assembly for the sanctuary was left outside for months to achieve a weathered state otherwise impossible for an interior condition, just as witnesses tell tales of his demanding nature allowing no brick to be cut and often rejecting perfect workmanship.

            St Petri Kyrka, Klippan 1966, Sigurd Lewerentz

                                                         St Petri Kyrka, Klippan 1966, Sigurd Lewerentz

                                                         St Petri Kyrka, Klippan 1966, Sigurd Lewerentz

One of the more discussed details are the insulated glass panels simply clipped to the exterior of the wallwith no clear compositional intent and with no frame other than a dripping bead of black sealant. This enables the interior to read unenclosed, as if inhabiting a ruin as the fragile panels of glass appear to float on the rough exterior brickwork.

             St Petri Kyrka, Klippan 1966, Sigurd Lewerentz

While the elimination of the window frame is an odd detail, it is even more astounding when one considers that Lewerentz spent decades designing and fabricating architectural components such window and door frames though his company IDESTAin Eskilstunaonly to refuse touse his own(let alone any!) window frames in his late work in Klippan and the Flower Kiosk in Malmö.

These along with countless other details suggest a struggle for the essential, eliminating familiar typologies and conventions. Much interpretation has been leveled at this and other details, but when asked Lewerentz simply replies that it is much simpler to do it this way, continuing on to state that it not something that should normally be done suggesting that this was a special case.In a discussion with the architect Bernt Nyberg shortly after S:t Petri was completed, Lewerentz remarked disparagingly against a functionary who only conceived of one correct and absolute way of doing things stating: “He had never understood that you can do it in a hundred different ways. That is what we must acquire. Knowledge.” (6) In Lewerentz’s case, knowledge required practice, experimentation and dialog, and he chose to exercise all three solely through the act of building.

Lewerentz & Nyberg

Lewerentz’s status as the silent architect has no doubt elevated him to mythical status: an architect’s architect. In a recent interview with the architects Bolle Tham and Martin Videgård, they observed that such an iconization of Lewerentz is perhaps problematic, as we tend to individualize the work and neglect to understand the context and colleagues instrumental to its development. (5) It is precisely this position that led me to take a detour in my travels and research on Lewerentz in 2012 toward the architecture of Bernt Nyberg. This resulted in the first exhibition and English publication of his work. Entitled “Endangered Architecture,” it focused on the current state of Nyberg’s architecture by illustrating its tragic demolition, decay and detrimental alterations juxtaposed with archival imagery. (6)  Nyberg’s work is not alone: Bengt Edman has threatened projects along with countless more, and even Lewerentz’s Flower Kiosk at the Eastern Cemetery in Malmö has been “renovated” with an imitation copper roof. It seems that nothing is sacred.

              toilet addition adjacent, Resurrection Chapel

              toilet addition adjacent, Resurrection Chapel

S:t Petri has fared better but like other buildings from that time period, alterations are inevitable.When asked by Nyberg as to whether the exposed conduits were a statement he replied that it was simpler to do it after the fact as such things are difficult to coordinate, and besides, things would always be changing. (7) He could not have been more correct. As the current minister Anne-Marie Nelson describes, the acoustics have always been good, but these daysloudspeakers are needed and the installment of them was sensitively done with approval from the national heritage board. New attitudes however are not so sensitive; radiators have been mounted to the walls, there are complaints that the space is too dark and programmatic demands challenge the existing plan. Recently the exterior pool was renovated, but in place of the once subtle transition from brick to earth at its shallow edge, there is now a hard line of concrete. (8) Such struggles are common for aging buildings, especially those as uncompromising as S:t Petri, yet in many aspects the building is hard to date for those that do not know its history. It looked like a ruin when new, and many years later it still maintains this timeless presence.
Researching Lewerentz’s and Nyberg’s work in the archive and interviewingtheir surviving collaborators has brought a wealth of new information to the surface. Nyberg’s relationship with Lewerentz offers us perhaps the earliest insight on Lewerentz as a man and a designer, and like Lewerentz, Nyberg left us with documentary artifacts, objective film and candid recorded interviews that present an open view of an architect and his work without the interpretive rhetoric so common to today’s discourse. Nyberg had plans for a series of project monographs on Lewerentz beginning with S:t Petri. The first book was to include academic texts by “Lewerentz connoisseurs” Per-Olof Olsson and Sven Ivar Lind (eventually published much later in other venues). The architects’ viewpoints were then to be contrasted through “interviews with the collaborators and craftsmen from the building process. The occupants are also expected to contribute with their experiences.” (9) In short, the plan was to contextualize the work beyond the iconoclastic struggles of a single canonical figure.
Nyberg would have been the first biographer of Lewerentz. Countless archival documents overlap the archival collections of both architects to illustrate their collaboration and Nyberg’s interest in promoting Lewerentz’s work internationally though grants, publications and exhibitions. By tracing the letters between them and the subsequent notes that Nyberg kept, one can see how a judiciously planned formal meeting involved into casual discussion, friendship and intense collaboration for the remaining years of both architects’ lives. The product of their work together may be best illustrated in the radical competition project for the Riksdagshus in Stockholm and their unbuilt design for a Church in Växjö. Documentation also suggests that many of the details of Lewerentz’s 1969 Flower Kiosk in Malmö can be attributed to discussions between both architects, and in turn, Nyberg’s own work evolved towards a more archaic and primal expression in his designs for the Landsarkivet in Lund and the funeral chapel in Höör. Unfortunately, Nyberg’s project to produce a film and book on Lewerentz died with him in 1978, and the nature of their work together and Nyberg’s impact on subsequent scholarship has been left either undiscovered or overlooked up until this point.

              Höör’s Kapell, Höör 1972, Bernt Nyberg

              Höör’s Kapell, Höör 1972, Bernt Nyberg

Context, Fragments & Influence

The recent exhibition in Klippan this past summer celebrating the fifty-year anniversary of St Peter presented a venue to further explore these themes through contextualization of a legendary singular work within a body of architectural experiments spanning Lewerentz’s sixty-seven years of practice and the subsequent fifty-one years of insight, history and theory beginning with Nyberg’s documentation.

Through fragments of process, sound, images and film the exhibition prompts the question: what influenced the design of St Peter, and what has it influenced? In response to this question a publication was completed to accompany the exhibit serving as both a manual and opportunity to critically revisit the building in our current times.These days it is increasingly difficult to be surprised, or at the least, impressed by architecture. Shock and awe formalism is pervasive as forms and their authors seek to set themselves apart.

The valorization of the new or conversely, economically minded status-quo construction have become our two extremes, often only experienced as a transient image on a website. In wake of such a context we are perhaps prompted to revisit work that is more real, essential, primal and authentic; work that is made of what it appears to be made of, cutting deeper than mere surface attraction.
It may be considered odd to produce a publication bursting with text for a “silent architect.” Can’t we simply let the work exist, and through existence leave it for direct experience, fascination and interpretation? The intense scholarship on Lewerentz’s work and the essays contained in the upcoming publication potentially become ironic, as they praise the directness of experience as prerequisite for an understanding, yet stretch the limits of language in an attempt to explain the work. Lewerentz produced work that demands an intense dialogic relationship rather than passing fancy; a body of work deserving of new texts from prominent scholars reflecting upon and advancing their theories as the next generation of Lewerentz connoisseurs introduce theirs.
Fifty years later S:t Petri, like its architect continues to defy classification and objective explanation. It is simply an architectural masterwork,toiled over and perfected by a patient architect in close dialog with brave clients and a meticulous builder. The upcoming publication should perhaps have one page and the exhibition one massive statement on the wall: “go there,” and once there, think about the places you have been that vibrate with such sublime power. Consider the spaces you have been in that humbly requested reverence, and if you had the time and patience to actually pause and take notice.
Matthew Hall is an assistant professor at the Auburn University College of Architecture, Design & Construction and a founding member of the anti-disciplinary practice Obstructures.

The exhibition “Lewerentz’s S:t Petri at 50: fragments, context and influence” opened in June second at the Klippan Arthall. Sponsors include Klippans Konstförening, The Klipan Parish of the Swedish Church, and The Swedish Architecture & Design Center, Stockholm.  Inquiries can be directed to Klippans Konstförening or info@endangeredarchitecture.org.

  1. Ahlin, Janne, “To Build a Church” Lewerentz’sS:t Petri @ 50: context, fragrments and influence. (forthcoming)
  2. Banham, Reyner, “Hard Cases, The Brick Brutalists” New Brutalism, 1966, Reinhold Publishing Company, New York
  3. Caldenby, Claes, “Lewerentz and the haven of beauty” Lewerentz’sS:t Petri @ 50: context, fragrments and influence. (forthcoming)
  4. Lewerentz, Sigurd, quoted in written description of meeting between himself, Bernt Nyberg and photographer Karl-Erik Olsson in 2/1967
  5. Interview conducted in late March of 2016 at the office of Tham &VidegårdArkitektur, Stockholm
  6. Endangered Architecture: the work of Bernt Nyberg, exhibition and publication joint sponsored by Skissernas Museum, Lund Sweden and The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, Copenhagen Denmark.
  7. Interviews with Sigurd Lewerentz conducted between 1965-70 by Bernt Nyberg
  8. Nelson, Ann Marie “S:t Petri and I: thoughts on thirty-five years as priest and participant” Lewerentz’sS:t Petri @ 50: context, fragrments and influence. (forthcoming)
  9. Nyberg, Bernt, from description of the planned monograph of S:t Petri Kyrka. Book mock-up held at The Swedish Center for Arhcitecture and Design, Stockholm, AKRM Nyberg, Bernt Box 01/AM 1985-16

 

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