Sigurd Lewerentz - Drawing Collection 2
A+U 545
Februar 2016

The discovery of built essence as the real act of invention

Wilfried Wang

Modern architecture has taken numerous directions and courses. Underlying most of these courses was the thought that the depleted meaning of traditional, neoclassical architecture and concomitantly the principles of perimeter block urban design had to be overcome by more direct, simpler spaces and forms and open, serial construction respectively. For one of the largest construction programmes throughout the 20th century – social housing – the different courses of modern architecture found a fertile field of application. The minimal dwelling for those particularly in need of affordable or indeed subsidized accommodation was to be given the appropriate unpretentious, rational expression. This dominant discourse contributed to the standardization and mechanization of ever more economic space standards, a logic that in the end, ironically, resulted in the alienation of the underprivileged classes for which the standardization and mechanization was meant to serve in a beneficial manner. With the simplification of spaces and forms also came a lack of articulation, an absence of empathetic atmospheres that the consistent application of pure spaces and forms consequently produced. At a large scale of mass housing, the search for the minimal had turned into an environmental nightmare.

Those architects who had been aware of these danger from the start, on the one hand those of an older generation such as Adolf Loos or Josef Frank from Austria and Auguste Perret in France, or on the other hand the ones that emerged a few years late such as those in Scandinavia, for example Alvar Aalto in Finland, Knut Knutsen in Norway, Steen Eiler Rasmussen and Kay Fisker in Denmark, were to be sidelined by the uncritical positivism of what was soon to become the dominant ideology: the International Style, or simply orthodox modernism. The definition of what was considered to be essential about this modernism was given by Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer via Bauhaus pedagogy as well as Le Corbusier via his publications. At the crudest level, Le Corbusier¦s propagation of the Phileban solids, originally discussed in Plato¦s Timaeus – the sphere, the cube, the cylinder and the pyramid – as the forms which inherently mean and transmit aesthetic pleasure, was to become the alphabet of modernist configurational composition combined with the equally simplistic Five Points of Architecture. The force of attraction of these motifs was such that few architects could resist it.

In Lewerentz¦ case, however, the spell lasted for a brief moment in the early 1930s only. In a variety of projects, we see him absorb, transform and expel the motifs, culminating in the Villa Edstrand with its solid public faćade and its dissolved, neoplasticist garden faćade. In itself, this building internalizes the transformation process. Significantly, none of the variations leading to the final design indicate the subtlety of the final built project. To give an example of subtlety only found in the realized design, take a look at the roof. In all of the early versions the roof is shown as a flat surface. However, as is well known, even the flattest of flat roofs requires an inclination for drainage, and normally an architect would opt to incline the roof along the shortest span. In built reality, Lewerentz chose not to slope the roof of the Villa Edstrand across the short span, that is, from the public to the garden facades, but from the central cross axis of the house to the short sides. The result produces a vestigial pediment on the public faćade, a decision that can be seen in combination with the regular spacing of windows along the public faćade, symbolic of an architecture that goes beyond the simplistic orthodoxy of modernist precepts, instead establishing another expressive dimension, that is, a hint at classical architecture. In this manner, Lewerentz embraces architecture¦s history even through a process of abstraction.

During the mid�s then, Lewerentz engaged, grappled and ultimately questioned the central tenets of modernism both through his work on paper as well as through the discourse on the building site. It is true that the seemingly International Style interpretations of the central funeral chapels at Malmö Eastern Cemetery and the office building for Riksförsäkringsanstalten are closer to examples of extremely stripped classicism than to the style paquebot (naval architecture inspired by luxury liners). So, while the early variations for the Villa Edstrand show horizontal windows, columnar ground floors and roof terraces, in the final version there are no longer any strip windows; the columns have turned into steel I–posts, the roof terraces have either become terraces or decks. What brought about Lewerentz¦ fundamental rejection of the International Style?

Two key reasons could be stated. First, Lewerentz turned to hardware design and production in 1929. The design of hardware prepared the ground for relating performance to form: A door handle, an espagnolette, a hinge, a sliding door mechanism, later even an alphabet, a set of Arabic numbers. Second, Lewerentz¦ attention moved away from an architecture inspired by images to one constituted by materials and constructional details. These two reasons are two linked moments of recognition that the reality of architecture, its physical presence and endurance, far outweighs any image based or graphic conception of architecture. These two reasons profoundly influenced Lewerentz¦ thinking during the heydays of dominant modernism and paved the way towards Lewerentz¦ own architectural logic. What was a process of dematerialized abstraction as for instance in the case of the Dutch neoplasticists was reinterpreted in a form of materialized abstraction, as the garden faćade of the Villa Edstrand shows. The seemingly free placement of floors and walls in the Villa Edstrand was literally underpinned by a structural and constructional reality that could be “read”. Steel posts and beams, walls of individual bricks: the house documents its constitution element for element. The overall form of the Villa is far from the simplistic Phileban solids. Instead, the building configuration plays with the sublime and the picturesque (public vs. garden faćades), with the sublime allusion to the static image of a house (public) and the picturesque allusion to the dynamic image of a boat complete with masts, decks and captain¦s bridge. Lewerentz embraces the many–layered readings that a building offers, depending on the observer¦s proximity to it. From a distance, the individual bricks and steel elements are not discernable; what matters is the overall form, the building¦s configuration, its figurative quality. Being next to the building or inside it, the more immediate haptic relationship between the observer and the constructional element becomes relevant. But in either case – whether the distant, intermediate or close–up view – Lewerentz avoids the temptation of specifically drawing the observer¦s attention to the figurative quality of the building or the constructional detailing (as distinct from, say, Carlo Scarpa in the case of the detail). Reticence in expression is the principle in Lewerentz¦ design of the different aspects of a building; answer only when asked, but then, provide full disclosure of the building¦s constitution.

Lewerentz¦ late projects were a critique of the non–representational modernism of the Bauhaus while they offered a substantive alternative to postmodernism¦s surface game of motifs. Each one of the late projects were thus condensations of their particular type. Malmö Eastern Cemetery¦s St. Knut and St. Gertrud as soaring funeral chapels merging with their larger landscape, Villa Edstrand as a summer house with multiple prospects also connecting with the specificities of its site and the first project for its Extension as a litter of huts; St. Mark as a nave and St. Petri as a communion; the Flower Shop at Malmö Eastern Cemetery as a background shed.

The variants for the Extension (1961) of Villa Edstrand provide an insight into the breadth of Lewerentz search. While one may lament that none of the designs were realized, in this instance Lewerentz different points of departure were wider apart than those that gave rise to the Villa itself a generation earlier. The first designs for the Villa placed it right at the centre of the site, only the last versions began to treat the house as a quasi–occupied garden wall, so that the garden itself could be appreciated as an extension of the ground floor terrace. In short, the Villa was not the embodiment of human self–centeredness, but the architecture as a precise picturesque frame was there to provide terraces, platforms and decks for the real protagonist: life.

The first version for the Villa¦s Extension followed this idea of constructing the frame, this time at the other end of the garden wall, placing two square plan shaped volumes, set at 45° to one another, the one on the corner with a bulging convex mansard roof, the other with the opposite roof form: a concave roof with its four corners facetted upwards. In the series of sketches of the living room, there are a few showing a steel post at the centre, clearly foreshadowing the structural idea of St. Petri. The side faćade of the corner unit anticipated that of the parish hall at St. Petri. This first version of the Extension was to be his most radical, late, unbuilt design. Parallels to Louis Kahn¦s Fischer House can be seen, and, as a result, the significance of Lewerentz¦ two houses are cast into even clearer relief. Separately from the Extension project, Lewerentz studied the construction of an underground bar beneath an artificial domed knoll in front of the Villa. A few years later, a similarly shaped arched ground at the baptismal font became part of St. Petri¦s nave. At the age of 76 Lewerentz had reached an unfettered, liberated sense of formal exploration that rendered design components at all scales of architecture across the few projects on which Lewerentz was working.

Lewerentz¦ search for the built essence begins with the simultaneous identification of the constituting elements of a whole and their transcended absorption into that whole. In the case of St. Petri, individual bricks, each of variegated colours, set in mortar joints of irregular widths, constitute a wall in a picturesque manner that in turn is as homogenously elemental and variegated as each one of its bricks; brick floors, walls and ceilings in turn behaving together to form an overall enclosure in the way that the individual bricks are brought together to form a wall. In St. Petri there is an atmosphere of vibrant homogeneity. To be sure, this reductive description in no way substitutes for the real synthetic experience, as Lewerentz differentiated the tectonic elements of floors (sloping with a very specific surface pattern to indicated areas for the congregation and the sanctuary), walls (including openings such as windows, recesses for the air–conditioning and vertical voided perpends of different widths and heights in the two walls diagonally opposite to the organ to absorb a variety of frequencies from it) and ceilings (with a set of complex vaults that achieve a protective lightness of fluttering wings) as in a process of synthesizing numerous cognitive dimensions.

Thus, rather than to fetishize the idea of the elementary in architecture–whether at the level of the configuration or construction – as an object requiring a process of formal concentration, in studying hardware and constructional detailing Lewerentz “reassembles” or reconstitutes modern architecture as an expressive system of interrelated levels of cognition and perception, less focused on individualized, atomistic cognitive categories but understood rather as a synthetic experience of interlocking and overlapping orders of cognition and perception. In St. Petri Church the choice of variegated coloured bricks and the specific laying of the brickwork in a picturesque, irregular, non–mechanical way ensures that both the individual bricks lose their identity in deference to the wall as well as the walls in turn becoming charged, scintillating and living corporealities. The extensive use of the dark purple brown colour and the matt surface of the bricks in floors, walls and ceilings ensures a unifying background character, however a unity that, thanks to the specifically designed irregular vertical and horizontal mortar joints, is a subtly animated one. In St. Petri Church, Lewerentz demonstrates the mastery of the balanced composition between parts to wholes; between different colours within one brick; between mortar to bricks; between bricks to floors, walls and ceilings; between tectonic elements to the compartments; between compartments to each other; between compartments to the overall configuration and finally between the relatively direct configuration to the context. Lewerentz thus provides us with a definition of appropriateness at all levels of design.

In Lewerentz¦ late projects we see a definition of built essence. It is distinct from the simplistic reduction and fetishization of individual, discrete elements of dominant modernism, one that is predetermined by the graphic conception of architecture. Instead, in Lewerentz¦ late works built essence is the synthesis of a building¦s numerous parts brought together as a complex, yet coherent whole. Its parts are discernable, but not overvalued, and their compositional relationships follow a constructional logic that is not necessarily conventional but always comprehensible. The result is a work of art that expresses the cultural idea of the purpose with the appropriate number of elements, paying tribute to the inspirational sources while simultaneously opening yet uncharted territories. It is Lewerentz¦ version of Thomas Mann¦s Wunderbau,[1] an edifice capable of inspiring unfathomable amazement, however, in Lewerentz¦ case, without using any form of deception, on the contrary, through the direct and knowing synthesis of real and comprehensible elements thereby constituting a built essence.

[1] Thomas Mann, Doktor. Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, Erzählt von einem Freunde, ch. viii, Frankfurt am Main, 1980, p.87󈟄.