The AR’s Critic-at-Large Ellis Woodman meets the clients behind the Nobel Prize’s new home by David Chipperfield in Stockholm
Given that it ranks among the world’s most celebrated and generously endowed charities, you might imagine that the Nobel Foundation would have encountered little difficulty in building itself a home. However, over the 115 years since the annual awards were established in response to a bequest by the chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel, repeated attempts to realise a Nobel Centre have failed to take flight. ‘The most famous proposal was in 1923 when Ferdinand Boberg designed a National Romantic building in the centre of Stockholm,’ explains Susanne Lindh, the Chief Executive Officer of Nobelhuset AB, the body presently tasked with fulfilling this long-held ambition. ‘There was a heavy debate about whether this was the right building and then the recession came and it faded away.’ As Nobel’s will had stipulated that his bequest be used solely for the awards programme, the Boberg proposal and a number of subsequent schemes were predicated on securing public funding.
Each time that money failed to materialise but with 80 per cent of its £91million budget now secured through donations from two of Sweden’s wealthiest families, there is good reason to believe that the latest proposal may fare better. The scheme also has the advantage over its predecessors of a plum waterfront site – donated by the Stockholm city authorities – which lies immediately beside the Swedish National Museum. And as of this month it has an architect too, after David Chipperfield’s office was declared the winner of an international design competition.
Stockholm’s recent experience of major architectural competitions has been less than happy. In 2007, an open competition for the extension of the city library attracted 1,160 entries and was ultimately won by the German architect, Heike Hanada. Two years later the project was put on hold, partly in response to opposition to the scheme’s impact on Asplund’s celebrated building but also out of concern about whether Hanada – who at the time had yet to realise a building – was equipped to deliver the scheme. ‘I worked for the city and saw that process from the inside,’ says Lindh. ‘One explanation of why the competition failed was that it was closed to the very end.
When the jury chose a winner they did not know who that was so there was no time to ask the crucial questions about how they were going to cooperate with the city and whether they had the experience of doing this kind of complex project.’ The structure of the Nobel competition was framed in response to that experience. Twenty-three architects were asked to develop anonymous proposals from which first 11 and then three were shortlisted. At that stage, the jury was notified of the identity of the practices that had made it through: Chipperfield’s office and those of two local architects, Johan Celsing and Gert Wingårdh.
Crowned by the 1,400-seat hall from which the prizes will now be presented, Chipperfield’s design stood out for its combination of formal sobriety and material opulence, with brass-clad mullions being employed to lend the structure a suitably golden presence.
A number of key programmatic questions remain to be addressed, however. Not least is the issue of how the hall will operate in the 51 weeks of the year when it is not being used for awarding prizes. ‘We are discussing with Chipperfield how we can divide the room, whether the raked floor can go up and whether the acoustics can allow cultural events to happen,’ says Lindh. ‘A number of scientific academies are interested in having smaller conference spaces so we are looking at the most effective techniques for changing such a room.’
The building’s other major component is a museum devoted to the life of Alfred Nobel and the achievements of the 890 past award winners. A smaller museum currently operates from the city centre but the move will require it to expand its collection significantly and find new ways of communicating to an anticipated audience of 600,000 visitors each year.
There has been no major public building realised in central Stockholm since the completion of Rafael Moneo’s Museum of Modern Art in 1998. New development invariably proves controversial and Lindh acknowledges that the exceptional height of Chipperfield’s scheme may yet prove an issue. ‘You never know,’ she says. ‘It’s always a harsh debate but I think we have a very strong case and the architect we have with us now will be a great help.’ After close to a century of failed attempts, there are strong grounds for optimism that the Nobel Prize Centre is finally set to be built.
All images courtesey of David Chipperfield Architects