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Outrage: branding The King’s Garden in Stockholm is philistine

OlleEksell Kungstradgarden

It is the very absence of shops in parks that endows them with dignity

Stockholm has been tragically seduced by Apple. It is not the first time a city has been starstruck, and in this case it has led to a sell-out of epic proportions. Apple is going to build a store in Kungsträdgården – The King’s Garden – the epitome of public realm in the Swedish capital for more than two hundred years. Not only will the computer industry land a building, designed as a cellphone shell, in the park; its location at one end of the oblong space will transform the entire faux-Baroque garden into a foreground to their flagship store.

The King’s Garden will be Apple Park and the store an Apple Palace, opposite the Royal Palace.

This text is written on a Mac. I checked the proposal on an iPhone. Apple is part of my everyday life, and I am happy with that. But brands are transient, that is the essence of a market economy, just as longevity is the essence of architecture. The iArchitecture signed Foster + Partners is handsome, but a building is not a walk in the park. It will define the space, whatever happens with the image of the brand.

‘It is not the first time a city has been starstruck, and in this case it has led to a sell-out of epic proportions’

There is a dull restaurant on the site today in a shack nobody will miss when it is gone. It is a temporary building, and the plan was once to replace it with a new stage instead of the one that presently blocks the middle of the park. The park is a great place for events, and the back of the long space would be the most natural location for the stage. The Apple box will not only seize the park, but also block its potential for a better future. A combination could, of course, be arrived at.

Few places would have been better suited for the current vogue for accessible roofs, on top of a street-facing shop. But I presume Apple do not think in terms of a joint venture. Still, to hold the line between public and private is the essence of urban ideology. A versatile building can very well be private (or corporate) on one side and public on another. Once there were hothouses on the site, a delight all year around as well as storage for the fragile plants during the winter. When the plants moved out it was a place for parties and dancing and finally, before its demolition in 1851, a public salon. The buildings were there to serve the park and the people, not an enterprise.

‘The Apple box will not only seize the park, but also block its potential for a better future’

Not that brands cannot bring about great changes. When Potsdamer Platz in Berlin was recreated in the early 1990s, it was with the economic muscle of two of the most praised brands of its time: Mercedes-Benz and Sony. The Walkman was to the ’80s what the smartphone has been to the ’10s, and Sony’s heroic image gave the massive project air. But it was a building for the site, not a site for a building. Whatever you think of Potsdamer Platz, it is not a tape recorder you see. And it was not built in front of the Altes Museum.

Apple Stockholm

Apple Stockholm

Sony was used to fill a vacuum with prestigious content. Without a doubt branded buildings do fit in the city. Rotterdam has its Van Nelle Factory, New York its Chrysler Building and London the Michelin House, but none of these profited from public space; Seagram’s in New York actually created one. In a world where the strong support the weak, can the superpowers of an Apple store be a powerful boost to an area? An opera house or a national gallery should be located in the centre, because they define public life. Apple may think that they belong in this league, but they don’t.

Strictly speaking, Apple’s self-esteem doesn’t matter. It is neither a planner nor a politician, and not to be blamed for whatever spectacular idea it comes up with. But those who should have withstood its charm did not have the guts to save the park from branding; or the brains to understand the missed opportunity to use Apple as an urban incentive. If guts and brains were fully operating, this astonishing step appears even more remarkable.Is it a sign that no public building or public space can compete with shopping when it comes to public attention?

‘In a world where the strong support the weak, can the superpowers of an Apple store be a powerful boost to an area?’

It will of course be a remarkable building, created with a rare perfection and most likely with a budget beyond any similar public works. It would have been an impeccable strategy on almost any other lot. If a common quality, as a view or greenery, is exploited, people will at least be compensated with architecture. The problem is not Foster’s design but the branding of public space. It is the very absence of sell-outs that gives places like the King’s Garden their dignity. There are some things that lose their function with a logo, like an evening gown or a black tie, practically everything we do in order to promote our self. A logo would just mix up the message.

The city needs places to promote its self-esteem as well. Some paragons of grace and dignity must have an undisputed integrity. If not, their identity gets confused. The King’s Garden is such a place, legendary also for an urban planning battle in 1971. Then, a group of large elms were to be felled in favour of a metro station. The protesters won against the city. The elms were left standing and the authorities fell. It was a conflict that changed planning in Sweden for decades to come. If the Apple store is to be built – and today, nothing points in any other direction – it will mark another remarkable shift: City planning by New Public Management – every value has a price.