The Gothenburg Lipstick: part of the Anglo-Swedish architectural school?

In his latest tranche of documentaries on BBC4, acclaimed and idiosyncratic journalist, cultural commentator, gastronome and original opinionator Jonathan Meades discusses the advent of Brutalist architecture. What stands out as of particular interest is the way the first programme looks at the common ground shared between Sweden and Britain as far as architectural theory and practice is concerned. 

The series charts how the Swede Hans Asplund is credited with originally using  ‘brutalism’ in an architectural context, albeit as part of a compound word, in this instance nybrutalism (new Brutalism). However, the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson are credited with first using the expression without any kind of prefix, having done so in 1953 (three years after the Asplund neologism).

In characteristic laconic juggernaut fashion, Meades crams a veritable mass of information and insight into sixty minutes, interlacing some historical background regarding figures such as Asplund and the Smithsons with some typically outspoken hypotheses. The 1951 Festival of Britain is fondly remembered by many as a showcasing of modern British endeavours in the fields of science, design, technology, and architecture, but for Meades it should have been renamed the Festival of Scandinavia, such was its debt to modern Nordic architectural thinking.

Jonathan Meades: convinced the 1951 Festival of Britain was Scandinavian in spirit

Jonathan Meades: convinced the 1951 Festival of Britain was Scandinavian in spirit

Certainly the Royal Festival Hall, opened in 1951 as the main showpiece within the showpiece of the Festival of Britain itself, the South Bank, owes something to Scandinavian modernism, but the links to Brutalism itself are less clear. Just because the building is concrete does not mean it is not endowed with a certain grace; by the same token, the more obviously Brutalist works that appeared on the South Bank at a later date, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery and the National Theatre, are not as much Scandinavian as downright assertive, not really invoking any sense of regional ‘place’.

Even so, Meades’s observations do strike a chord given the amount of cultural osmosis between Scandinavia and Britain on an architectural level. To give one striking example, the clocktower of the City Hall in Norwich, completed in 1938, obviously invites comparison with the main tower of the City Hall in Stockholm (completed 15 years earlier) for anyone who has visited the Swedish capital; the same can be said of the main tower in Northcote House, Exeter University, built some fifteen years after the Second World War.

Tracing a link from City Hall, Stockholm..

Tracing a link from City Hall, Stockholm.. City Hall, Norwich.. Northcote House, Exeter - over the best part of forty years

…to Northcote House, Exeter – over the best part of forty years

The reciprocal process (ie British architects or architecture surfacing prominently in Sweden) is of particular interest to us as we prepare to visit Gothenburg, having become aware in greater detail of the life and works of Ralph Erskine. A Northumbria-born architect who lived most of his life in Sweden, he is renowned for work both in his native and adoptive countries. Two of his outstanding achievements are the Byker Wall housing estate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (there is a 1988 ten-minute documentary airing on iPlayer alongside the new Jonathan Meades programmes as part of a BBC4 series on post-war architecture) and the Skanskaskrapan building in Gothenburg, aka Lilla Bommen, aka ‘The Lipstick’, completed in 1989 when Erskine was in his mid-70s.

To us, the appeal of the Skanskaskrapan building lies in the fact that it is both imposing and airy at the same time. Not for nothing has it been likened to a giant piece of Lego, but we would also add that the weightiness of the building appropriately gives it the feel of a maritime authority building in this historic port (although it is used by the construction and development company Skanska). It is the finishing touch of the very pinnacle of the tower itself that strengthens the building’s claim to greatness; it resembles an old-fashioned ship mast or a far more modern funnel, with the very tip-of-the-tip even more reminiscent of a moden ferry or ship’s radar antenna, heightening the nautical associations and somehow turning the solid object into something extremely fluid in appearance.

Skanskaskrapan. Note also the circular window below the 'mast', almost porthole- or periscope like in appearance

Skanskaskrapan, Gothenburg. Note also the circular window below the ‘mast’, almost porthole- or periscope-like in appearance

In the BBC documentary on Byker Wall discussed above, Bea Campbell discusses how the estate triumphs in effortlessly blending the public space (and in particular, the extensive incorporation of natural greenery) with the private domestic one. One may also note that the Skanskaskrapan hovers tantalisingly by the main bridge on the entrance to Gothenburg city centre from the west side of the Göta River; along with the noted ‘maritime building’ connotations, this is also effective in making the private, or a privately-owned building, appear public even if it isn’t, especially when one considers that the west side of the Göta is far less built up than the east side. To the individual in transit, or at leat to us when we first took this route in 2002, the Skanskaskrapan marks some kind of threshold, a point of common association upon coming into Gothenburg that renders it more accessible than more anonymous (or more obviously financial or mercantile) office buildings.

In the case of both Byker Wall and the Skanskaskrapen, however, the clever realisation of public and private connotations is not just due to the respective environments in which the buildings are located. It is also due to the private and public connotations of the buildings as self-enclosed entities. The use of simple (and yes, Lego-like) red and white blocks of colour in the Tom Collins House portion of Byker Wall accentuates the balconies and relatively small windows, sharply defining the former as a more open and public entity and the latter as portals behind which domestic living space is securely secluded.

Tom Collins House, Byker Wall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England

Tom Collins House, Byker Wall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England

This is taken to a new level in Skanskaskrapan, where the alternating of red colour or white colour with narrow slits of glass window creates a layering effect. The windows now denote the public rather than the private, with the effect of transparency (and therefore accountability) going hand in hand with the illusion of the building being blessed by open-air spaces (and therefore not cordoned off or buffered like a fortress from public scrutiny, the complete opposite of somewhere like MI6 in London).

Conversely, the reds and whites symbolise something solid and yet elusive which we are not meant to see all the way through, giving the building some kind of sense of civic responsibility and discretion (characteristics which might tally with the non-Scandinavian’s idealised view of the private Scandinavian citizen).

It is extremely tempting to suggest that public-mindedness and discretion are just as much idealised English concepts as they are Swedish ones, and in this sense we wonder if Skanskaskrapan can, in its own quirky way, be considered part of an Anglo-Swedish idiom for every reason as far as architectural practice is concerned. Perhaps it’s apposite that The Lipstick is not too far away from the Anglican St Andrew’s Church in Gothenburg city centre, arguably a noteworthy piece of Nordic and not-so Nordic fusion in its own right.

Replete with St George flag: St Andrew's Church, Gothenburg

Replete with St George flag: St Andrew’s Church, Gothenburg

Being inside that church nearly twelve years ago prompted us to tell an attendant in the church that Sweden does resemble a more spruced version of what England would like to be. For all that, we’d argue that Byker Wall and Skansksaskrapan do transcend simple ‘regional’ architectural conceits – and are all the more sophisticated for it.

Thanks to Craig Connor-Woodley for helping with a random query associated with this article

Earning that 'Lipstick' moniker from another visual angle

Earning that ‘Lipstick’ moniker from another visual angle