Capitalising on a surge of interest in the work of Lewerentz, this reprint is timely, but fails to spark new considerations
The reprint of a 30-year-old monograph could quite easily go unnoticed by critics, especially given how thoroughly that exact same content was scrutinised at its first appearance. One might expect that, after so many decades, a strong argument would need to be made for the book’s renewed relevance, its historical interest or the endurance of its subject-matter. And yet, Sigurd Lewerentz, Architect appears to be quite different. The book’s new publisher provides little justification for its timeliness, saying only that the ‘classic and much sought-after monograph on Sweden’s most eminent architect’ is ‘available again’. Certainly there has been a sudden and surprising surge of interest in Lewerentz in recent years - a popularity that seemingly doesn’t require introduction or explanation.
At the time of the monograph’s first publication in 1985, Lewerentz’s work was praised for its unusually high quality - of both conception and execution - as well as his distinctive attention to the site in each design. His work seemed to beautifully synthesise competing elements of modern, local and historical architecture, best seen in his sacred projects - churches, crematoria and cemeteries. Unsurprisingly, Lewerentz’s rigorous use of Classical elements and proportion made him a prime target for Postmodernists to illustrate their arguments. It would be interesting to know what Lewerentz would have made of these foreign interpretations, which mostly came from England (and continue to do so). Indeed, Lewerentz never built anywhere else but Sweden and practised a particular kind of Modernism that reacted specifically to the aesthetic and political dilemmas of his own place and time. Additionally, when considering his entire life, he appears to have been sympathetic to the Modernist and Functionalist project, rather than critical of it. Lewerentz’s classicism and the perfectionism are likely to be the result of specific requests of the clients, coupled with his own highly singular and demanding character.
Unlike his contemporaries, who often applied their architectural framework to industry only when it suited their political and economic agenda, Lewerentz had a strong industrial background. He was, in this sense, first an engineer and then an architect (and not the other way around, as was more common of the period). Born in 1885, he grew up in provincial Sweden before studying engineering and construction in Gothenburg. He completed his degree with an apprenticeship in Berlin under Bruno Möhring which led him to work in Munich with some of the founders of the Deutscher Werkbund. Upon his return to Sweden, he first joined the Academy of the Arts, but quickly quit in favour of an independent school opposed to the conservatism of the Academy.
If the famous cemeteries are left aside, Lewerentz’s early practice was closely involved with the Functionalist sociopolitical project. He produced several plans for workers’ towns (characterised by experimental domestic solutions like open-plan kitchens), as well as furniture conceived for industrial production. Most notably, he was involved in the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition where Swedish Modernism was officialised through the Acceptera manifesto. This moment remains a reference of Scandinavian architectural culture and is still said to be at the origin of the ethos of companies like IKEA.
In reality, even Lewerentz’s early cemetery projects and cremation chapels were firmly focused on modern questions. His involvement with the Swedish Cemetery Authority was part of a necessary reform of funereal customs, intended to cope with the new demographics of industrial cities. As death became a governmental issue, cemeteries became a planning question that was to be solved through the institutionalisation of cremation. It is in this context that Lewerentz developed a new building typology to house this new ritual. The novelty of his plans and the innovative use of Classical elements have no obvious precedents but echo some of the Republican temples projected during the French Revolution. We can only speculate, given his later work, that the Classical language might have been just a means of addressing existing conceptions about religious architecture, or even an outcome of his collaboration with Gunnar Asplund, who was more Classical at the time.
Besides design, one of the most interesting aspects of Lewerentz’s practice was the fact he owned and managed his own factory. From the 1940s until the late ’50s, his main business wasn’t architecture but the manufacture of doors and windows. This experience not only gave him the possibility to finally control the production of architectural detailing to the extent he wished, but it also allowed him the economic autonomy to be more selective and exigent in the architectural projects he undertook. In today’s context, when it has become increasingly difficult to produce buildings of quality down to their details, the recent appreciation of Lewerentz for his wealth of design solutions may not apply beyond specific practices and projects. Refinement and craft have to be on the agenda, or part of the brand.
The œuvre of Lewerentz is most often introduced through the persona of the architect: his obsessions and paradoxes, as much as his seclusion and silence, aid in pulling the diverse and discontinuous projects into an intelligible career. This is certainly the strategy used here by Janne Ahlin, who structures the content and sets the tone in such a manner that, at times, one forgets it isn’t a biographical essay, but a specialist study. The text is comprehensive, well written and, most importantly, free from any particular ideological appropriation. Janne Ahlin’s enthusiasm and empathy for Lewerentz is palpable but her admiration is that of a passionate researcher. However, the book could benefit from a more elaborate contextualisation within the architectural discourse of the time. There is hardly any mention of other contemporary projects, nor much on the international or historical references that could have influenced him. It was surprising not to find any mention of Schinkel, for instance, especially when Lewerentz spent such a defining time of his training in Berlin.
In spite of the quality of the text, the book suffered from a paucity of images. The two volumes of photography and drawings published by Byggförlaget in 1997 - the original Swedish publisher of this monograph - turned out to be indispensable and complementary to understanding this architect who notoriously speaks solely through his drawings, materials and architecture. Finally, a longer and critical foreword on this re-publication would have helped understand the growing mythology around his figure and his architecture which is likely to be enhanced with the years passing.
Sigurd Lewerentz, Architect
Author: Janne Ahlin
Publisher: Park Books