A journey to Oskar Fredriks Kyrka, Gothenburg

We recently returned from Gothenburg, where we took a veritable raft of photos (some better than others). Some of them appear below with annotations and observations.

One thing that particularly stood out from our visit is how impressive the architecture in Sweden’s second city looks from a distance. This may sound like an odd consideration, but we found it difficult not to make comparisons with Stockholm, where so many of the key royal, governmental and religious buildings are clustered together in a small space around the Gamla Stan area of the city. It is possible to get a good overview of all of these monuments by heading to a hill such as the one where the Skansen folk museum is based, but the same is to say that plenty of buildings in Gothenburg appear to leap up and create arresting vistas irrespective of whether one is on flat land or on an incline.

Conversely, the same buildings can appear slightly flatter and less momentous (albeit in purely relative terms) when examined close up. A good example is the Vasakyrka (1909) in the south of the city centre, impressive from a few feet away but exuding a more subtly shaded level of appeal than when one suddenly sees it when walking alongside the main E45 road route by the Göta River, well to the west of the church itself. Then it remarkably seems to fuse the properties of a beacon or a citadel, the main tower improbably inviting comparison with a minaret even though the church clearly belongs to the late 19th/early 20th century Northern Lutheran tradition.

Vasakyrka - even more spectacular (and quite Oriental) from a distance

Vasakyrka – even more spectacular (and quite Oriental) from a distance

 The building which forced us to think most protractedly about the idea of perspective, and indeed about what a single building might signify, was the Oskar Fredriks Kyrka (1893). It is not a perfect construction, and yet it is iconic from a purely local point of view and sharp in its impact upon a stranger who may not know this (maybe this is the sort of conjecture which would appeal to John Berger). It does not belong to the Modernist tradition, and yet it seems to say a lot more about the modern Swedish (or Scandinavian) nation state than several buildings built in the century since.

We go into this in more detail in the photos as presented below. This post will show all of the photos we took up to and including our visit to Oskar Fredriks Kyrka. We hope this gives some idea as to how we journeyed around the city and how our assessment of the cityscape evolved over a short period of time. 

Inside the city boundaries on the way from City Airport and everything still looking pretty rural (maybe that’s another reason why the main buildings in Gothenburg appear so auspicious when you get round to seeing them; see also our previous comments on Skanskaskrapan).

 

Hagakyrka (1859), in the district of the same name. Calm and stately (and less of a visual event) compared to Vasakyrka to the east and Oskar Fredriks Kyrka to the south west. Preparations were being made for a funeral in the church on this particular day; we hurried out, not wishing to outstay our welcome, just as a handsome middle-aged lady who apparently owned the business providing flowers on this occasion emerged from her van, strode up to the entrance, smiled broadly at us and said melodiously, ‘Hej!’ Possibly a good example of sturdy Swedish civility and definitely not a semi-mumbled English-style ‘Hello’, anyway.

 

A view from the 17th-century Skansen Kronan fortification. Gothenburg is described as a post-industrial city, but it hardly looks like a bucolic museum piece here, certainly not the Communistic building complex in the distance. We saw some similar tower blocks that resembled swollen pillboxes.

 We don’t really seem to get balconies in abundant numbers like this in England. That or they don’t lend themselves to being noticed. The irony being that there is such an owner-occupier culture in the UK and that balconies say something very telling about ownership.

 

Difficult to imagine this wasn’t formerly a warehouse or factory. This very functional style of building seems far more conspicuous than in Stockholm – but we’d need to go back to the Swedish capital and check.

The bakeries and cake shops of Gothenburg do stand out. This one looks like it’s stayed the same since about 1956. Pound for pound, the city seems to have a coffee and cake culture to compare with Amsterdam and Vienna – and the tradition to go with it.

The moment of truth. Oskar Fredriks Kyrka is in the Neo-Gothic idiom similar to St Pancras Station in London or Calais Town Hall in Northern France (see images below). Like the former, it seems to denote a climactic point of arrival, especially in the way it has been conspicuously placed above, and aside from, every building in the vicinity.

St Pancras Station, London

                                          St Pancras Station, London

Calais Town Hall, France (photo: calais.org.uk)

Calais Town Hall, France (photo: calais.org.uk)

Like Calais Town Hall, the church appears as much a civic building as a religious one, especially when one goes close up (see below).

 

The quatrefoils and the main windows in which they are incorporated, as well as the trefoils, are bereft of any kind of staining or embellishment. They are startlingly plain, possibly in a bid to suggest in very Protestant fashion that there is no mystery about God. But the net result is that one can also easily imagine observing a public meeting, rather than a service of worship, through them. To return to our original hypothesis, the church does look more majestic from a distance, and yet it works close-up as some kind of accountable civic focal point within the wider community, a motif we previously discussed with regards to the nearby Skanskaskrapan (built nearly a hundred years later – there’s a nice element of Gothenburg continuity here).

Interestingly, the Oskar Fredriks Kyrka windows do a have a subtle, soft blue-pink tint or burnish which becomes more visually obvious on closer examination. Inside the church, on a relevant display board, there was a first-hand account from the Göteborgs Handels-och Sjöfartstidning in 1893 describing the inauguration of the church on 2nd April that year, and noting how the light streaming into the church was mitigated by the very colours of the windows: ‘..ljusat flödar in genom väldiga fönster, mildradt af deras färgade rutor.’

oskar fredriks kyrka first rose window

One of the two understated yet effective rose windows by Reinhold Callmander (1840-1922) inside the church. Here the lack of pomp really does make the church valid as a spiritual outlet. The complete lack of adornment and the centripetal arrangement genuinely create a small piece of theatre (but not melodrama) in suggesting various levels of an extending cosmos, especially given the luminosity of the glass.

Even so, everything is small-scale enough to suggest to those who do worship that a higher being is within access. Even allowing for atheistic or agnostic considerations, I deem this a triumph as an uncluttered yet tangibly religious visual text (even without any godly images). By way of comparison, I would offer the Notre Dame de Paris rose windows, the most famous of their kind in the world and fantastic works of art, but ones where it is difficult to tell where God fits into proceedings, probably because the dense detail of the art makes one think more of the earthly artist than the deity.

The second rose window works for the complete opposite reason, ie in terms of purely regional and very earthly cultural connotations. It doesn’t seem coincidental it looks like a doily or a daisy and is blessed with homely and reassuring reds and greens. It reminds of me of a tablecloth or a dense dress pattern one might expect to see in a wooden house in rural Västergötland, not particularly far away from here. In that sense the window is very unpretentious and seems to celebrate craftmanship itself.

oskar fredriks kyrka gothic arches

Some nice, simple, straightforward Gothic arches. One of the few things in the church one might have expected.

Possibly the one occasion where the opposite to my original Gothenburg architecture hypothesis applied – ie, on this occasion there are relatively fewer obvious gains to be made from looking at the detail from a distance.

Regarding this 2014 vista, this is all a bit too much for the eye in one go and I am not mad keen on either the clash of styles or the windows themselves. They don’t fit in with the original 1893 design (Callmander also designed the original windows here but they proved susceptible to wind and weather and were replaced by Albert Eldh in 1939). I would love to have personally seen those original windows given the high quality of Callmander’s rose window designs.

Point proven, I think. Much easier and more restful to look at the small detail.

Ditto. These Biblical murals (1913-15), also by Albert Eldh, are fine if you look at them on their own but not with the stained glass windows and roof paintings in one sweep. That said, Eldh also did the mural paintings in the nearby Vasakyrka, where the broader interior visual spectacle is far more cohesive.

Interestingly, the Göteborgs Handels-och Sjöfartstidning article from April 1893 also highlighted the merits of looking at the intricate detail of Oskar Fredriks Kyrka, although that article lays a greater emphasis on the ‘total effect’ (‘…totalintrycket stärkes, när man fått tid att se sig om bland mängden af fina detaljer’). Which may mean the article author was more unambiguously taken than we were by the overall interior vista, although of course the church in 1893 would have looked very different to the church in 2014.  

oskar fredriks kyrka pews

Back to the idea of the public meeting, possibly. These look like more like seats in some regional government committee room than pews, but the green does create a calming ‘ripple’ effect similar to that seen with the seats in Vasakyrka. As such, the pews are not particularly austere (no bad thing).

 

The main church tower again. Once more, like St Pancras, the clock seems very consipicuous even if it isn’t that large. The commodity of time plays no small part within the visual narrative (possibly because of the marked absence of obviously religious iconography, gargoyles, buttresses etc. on the building’s exterior, that cross beneath the clock notwithstanding). The words ‘sensible’ and ‘responsible’ – as if to describe a citizen rather than a building – come to mind before ‘ethereal’ does.

All in all, Oskar Fredriks Kyrka is an accomplished building that marries ideas relating to the spiritual, the civic and the homely. This is why I think it says a lot about the modern Swedish (or Scandinavian) nation state; in the way it has been built, the building itself seems to implicitly acknowledge the importance of public institutions and democracy in forging a stable society. The church also acknowledges the importance of the Swedish citizen/burgher/artisan, and is certainly not a piece of puritanical propaganda, but it also doesn’t sell spirituality short. In terms of the church’s symbolism, there seems to be a very consensual and unfussy sort of co-operation at play between church, state and individual – something which could easily describe Sweden at its best in the last hundred-odd years.

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