From Vernacular to Modern in Sweden
From Father to Son
Transforming such ideas into stone got a lot easier when Sweden became an absolute monarchy in the 1680s. Nicodemus Tessin the Younger was trained as an architect by his baroque virtuoso father. His own townhouse is one of the gems of high baroque, with its splendor hidden from the world behind a discrete facade. Continuing his father's philosophy, Tessin the Younger's life and art were dedicated to the glorification of Sweden, which became synonymous with the warrior iconization of King Charles XII.
When Stockholm Castle burned to the ground, Tessin the Younger got a rare chance to form the worldly home of an idealized hero. The imposing facades of his Royal Palace are clearly influenced by Gianlorenzo Bernini, his beloved teacher.
Then, as suddenly as it had risen to glory, Sweden collapsed when Charles XII lost his army to the Russians in Ukraine and fled to Turkey. King Charles and his architect maintained a lively correspondence of drawings and aesthetic philosophy — over a distance of 1500 miles (2500 kilometers) — but Sweden was undeniably reduced to a country of minor political and architectural importance.
In spite of hardships, Swedish artistic ambitions lived on, reflecting and modifying those of continental Europe. The Swedes had rapidly become citizens of the modern world and now thought of the classical heritage as their own.
Whether due to philosophy, economic reality, or tradition, Sweden's rococo was different from its baroque. Whereas the baroque used foreign elements to express a domestic idea, the rococo was a foreign idea translated into Swedish. The rococo was straight from France, but during the journey it had time to "think things through." The Parisian pulse had settled down, and the haute couture was changed to a functional provincial costume.
French rococo could be restless and lascivious, while in Sweden it was modest and at ease. This may well have had to do with national personality, if there is such a thing. In any case, the choice of Bernini over Francesco Borromini was self-evident to Tessin. Another moderating factor may have been that Swedes have often been forced or inclined to use wood in their buildings. So a natural moderation of size and expression and a rural charm grew from a necessity into a value in itself.
In the Svindersvik manor, the characteristics of Swedish rococo were boiled down to their essence and even enhanced by its minute size. Architect Carl Horleman's sense of proportions, his detailing, and his light atmospheric brushing has had an influence on Swedish taste ever since.
Enlarge the pattern and you'll have an aristocratic manor; use timber instead of stone and you get the Swedish gentry homes of often great charm. At the same time, the interiors of the regal lodgings kept up the appearance of grander days.
The Drottningholm Gardens recreational building known as "China," built for daytime use only, gives an idea of the ambitious style. Increasingly through the 18th century, two equally appreciated directions were pursued: the French lust for elaborate splendor paired with a desire for reticent grace through clarity and restraint.
Claiming a Classical Heritage
These two directions continued during the classical movement: a rich Roman style with lavishly decorated interiors, glimmering from gold, contrasting with a functionalistic Doric taste. Fresh from their studies of Doric ruins, Swedish architects tried to forcibly apply the ancient Mediterranean heritage to the Baltic Sea.
Despite Sweden's cold climate (the capital Stockholm sits at a latitude of 59 degrees north), weary aristocrats loved to romanticize about lost and higher ideals from a distant, sunny land. For instance, a full-size wooden replica of an Athenian temple might be erected in a manorial garden.
The Roman and Doric styles in alliance formed the original Swedish grace, a precursor to the art deco of the 1920s. The beauty concealed the fact that the new optimism was hollow. The baroque classicism had been to a certain degree motivated in an arguably heroic age. In the 18th century, King Gustav III's favorite architect was a stage decorator — although an accomplished one — and the era ended in political disaster. Listonhill represents how the 19th century would turn radical classicism into a practical but elegant art of building.
The new styles at the close of the 19th century were taken up in Sweden in a historically characteristic manner. They tuned down in adaptation to Swedish taste, merging after some time into a romantic nationalism, embracing art nouveau and Jugend motifs as well as retrospective back-to-basics ideals.
In the 1920s, the decorative neoclassicist style won its triumphs, in a way preparing the ground for the equally decorative functionalism. With few exceptions, functionalism in Sweden was a matter of aesthetics, not of ideology. On the Norr Maelarstrand avenue, classicist motifs were gradually modulated into a functionalistic appearance, as the taste of the educated middle class evolved gradually toward what we now recognize as early modernism.
Olof Kallstenius is a Swedish freelance writer and photographer.