A dark brick box perforated by cool, pale light forms an austere yet serenely numinous setting for Lutheran worship in a Stockholm
There was a particular type of soft Scandinavian Modernism that greatly appealed to British architects. It was a humanised, bricky style with gently pitched roofs and Protestant self-effacement. The Stockholm suburb of Årsta dates precisely from this movement. Designed in the years following the Second World War by architect brothers Erik and Tore Ahlsén, Årsta is a gentle, socially cohesive suburb on a rocky site built around a core of community structures. Johan Celsing’s new church abuts one of these community buildings at the rocky edge of the settlement.
The existing buildings on the site exist from 1968 - and a slender campanile already stands in a kind of profane space, setting up a civic realm that has been patiently waiting for a church for decades. The new building is, in its way, every bit as Scandinavian as its neighbours yet also radically different from the gentle suburbanity of Swedish modernity. Instead, it is rooted in an offshoot of that style, something closer to the raw, elemental experience of the churches of Lewerentz or of Celsing’s father, one of the great and relatively unsung 20th-century church architects, Peter Celsing.
The massing is blocky and severe, the volume clad in stark brown brick and capped in a layer of concrete, which also forms the head of the huge windows, suggesting that there must be something dramatic going on inside. The church may be entered either from the existing community centre or from its own western door - a tight lobby squeezed by a children’s chapel to the right and a sacristy to the left. The space for worship is a generous more-or-less cube, 13m square by 10m high, a powerful, impressive volume.
Celsing explained to me that he had initially spent much effort attempting to create unseen light sources - to bring a spirit of numinosity through cleverly concealed illumination, but that he ultimately felt he was trying too hard and that this was, after all, a church and not an art gallery. Instead, the walls are given a classical tripartite sub-division with a 2.3m datum of glazed brick acting as a base and a 5m plane of limewashed render, which also accommodates the enormous windows capped by that in-situ cast concrete crown.
The base is characterised by a built-in glazed brick bench, which envelops the whole interior, creating a kind of skirting and a surface for candles. The glazed brick above this is perforated, producing an almost woven effect, a Semperian idea of wall as fabric and an evocation of the oldest notion of the church as a mobile tabernacle. That same idea is made deliberately visible elsewhere, in gestures that knit the liturgical furniture into the fabric of the architecture.
The limestone baptismal font is placed on the central axis and its round basin is pulled towards the western entrance (like a slipped fried egg) in a gesture of arrival emphasising the principal direction of the church. However, the stone font is also embedded into the floor, its base intricately woven into the brick in a complex tessellation. The starkly simple, almost clinical glazed brick altar is similarly bonded into the brick at its base. This means that when the church is being used for other activities than worship, the principal liturgical elements stay rooted in its physical fabric as reminders of the purpose of the building.
Conversely, the seating is loose and almost ephemeral. Celsing says he conceived the space in the spirit of a standing Orthodox congregation and consequently the building’s sheer verticality, together with the almost anthropomorphic scale of the tall windows and the attenuated font, appear to lend themselves to a standing rather than a sitting position, as if sitting might be centrifugally pushed to the glazed brick benches.
After the rigorous cubic nature of the interior and a geometry defined by the critical humanising unit of the brick, the ceiling is a surprise. Deep cast concrete beams do not run orthogonally but are irregularly splayed. This introduces a discordant note, a hint that not everything may be as regular or as easy as the geometry below suggests. The depth of the beams also casts dark shadows on the perforated ceiling plane, creating a complex, mysterious crown from which hang delightfully simple white glazed light fittings, which the architect salvaged from the neighbouring community centre.
Celsing has clearly and deliberately eschewed making a big issue out of the junction between the existing and the new buildings. Both are enveloped in brick and there is a marginally more handmade quality to the construction of the new church. In making the church part of a larger community facility, he has been able to create a richer and more complex structure, which melds an existing and established pattern of use and familiarity with this more symbolic building. In this way, both the old and the new structures add meaning and depth to each other.
That this is a building for a Lutheran congregation is never in doubt. Sparse, elegant and pared-down (without being reductive), it is nevertheless clearly a building for a specific place and a specific community. The church both enriches and is enriched by a Swedish tradition of an austere, ineffably elegant architecture of contemplation and a blending of the humane and the existentially harsh. It comes as no surprise to learn that Celsing is currently working on the Woodland Cemetery, where Asplund and Lewerentz created the tradition in which he is so eloquently operating.
Architect: Johan Celsing
Structural engineer: Tyréns
Photographs: Ioana Marinescu