“One shouldn’t be afraid to be boring”
Josef Eder and Olof Grip from General Architecture about the palace’s obvious role in the city, how public space was once created and how an understanding of quality is about to be lost.
Why is Kungsträdgården (The King’s Garden), a public park located in central Stockholm, a good place for a conversation about public space and the themes addressed in the exhibition Public Luxury?
Olof Grip: Kungsträdgården is a clear example of a public space that came about through private money. Urban planning and private investments have contributed to creating a space that has longevity and benefits society. The public gets a park and the owners get visibility in the urban landscape.
Why is it important to point that out?
Josef Eder: Because it’s been joint efforts that have created public space and that’s why it should be a joint responsibility to develop it.
Olof Grip: A builder who owns and manages a property during a long period of time can capitalise on contributing to a good urban environment. Several buildings around Kungsträdgården are a good example of that kind of long-sightedness.
Is it a comment about how the discussions and debates around these issues are being conducted?
Josef Eder: Very much so. One might say that the debate is in some way completely non-existent. The urban planning debate about Stockholm today is more focused on whether the Nobel Center should be built or not, instead of how the expansion and transformation of public space in general should be handled. By focusing on one place and one building, which is also an example of good architecture, we miss ninety-five per cent of everything else that’s built in the city.
Why is that so?
Josef Eder: Part of the explanation is that we have difficulty dealing with more than one thing at a time.
Speaking of your comments on long-sightedness, Olof, I think the profession has become more shortsighted. There was a time when both companies and governmental institutions built their own buildings, and even had their own property management departments. That competence doesn’t usually exist within organisations today, which are now tasked to concentrate only on their core business. On top of that is the fact that buildings should now suit any tenant.
Josef Eder: For us, it’s clear that clients have different attitudes. We’ve been lucky enough to have many clients with a long-sighted view on ownership – who recognize that a property’s value is largely defined by its surroundings.
Olof Grip: In the case of the building Skären, which is owned by the property company Hufvudstaden, the project is part of their development of Bibliotekstan (the area around the upscale shopping street, Biblioteksgatan). This development isn’t being pursued by maximum extensions in every situation, but rather through a deliberate effort to get the best tenants and the best international fashion companies to move there.
Skären is represented in the exhibition Public Luxury. What does public luxury mean to you?
Josef Eder: Our approach to the theme was to say that when the property owner and architect take responsibility for the entire building, there’s a possibility to create an experience that benefits the general public, which may perhaps be described as “public luxury”. It’s not that luxury is gold and stone – rather that the building is managed in a way that is both considerate towards the building and towards citizens.
Olof Grip: Then one can wonder if it should be classified as luxury or as a right of sorts, that the city should demand quality from anyone who wants to build in the shared city.
What have you done for the exhibition?
Josef Eder: We’re working on a remodelling and extension of a building in the Skären area. It’s an exciting building to start with. It was built in the eighties, with the ambition to adapt to the urban environment and interpret the historical context of the surrounding area. Uhlin & Malm embraced the ideas of the time about a chameleon-like architecture that would show traces of history in the facade. The office building claimed to look like something that functioned as a palace against the stately urban environment around the Norrmalmstorg square and as residential architecture towards the lower street Norrlandsgatan. The need for new spaces is driving a change of Norrlandsgatan and as the street changes, the possibility has arisen for palazzo-fication, giving the building a magnificence it didn’t have previously. For the exhibition we’ve made a model of a section of the facade that illustrates the building from the street, showing the existing section and the extension above it.
Olof Grip: It also shows the facade in its totality. It’s not so clear where the transition is between what’s old and what’s new.
Josef Eder: In that way, the building as architecture becomes part of the emerging city and has a connection both to its own origins in the eighties but also to the history of the place in general.
“The Palazzo-fication of Stockholm” is the title you’ve given your work in the exhibition. You mentioned the word palazzo-fication recently yourself, Josef, so it doesn’t sound as if you have anything against the epithet.
Josef Eder:Yes and no. There’s a passage in the text that says that the building doesn’t give anything to the city and that’s something we obviously protest against. The building doesn’t contain public functions in the way a library or other similar buildings do, but in all other ways, it contributes to giving something back to the city.
Olof Grip: Palazzo-fication may sound like an unnecessary luxury, but palaces exist in any city you visit. Governmental buildings, for example, are also an interpretation of a palace. A big hotel is also a palace in some sense because it aims to make the city more beautiful.
Josef Eder: It’s not a matter of private ownership per se. Take the Kulturpalast in Berlin from whenever it was, the sixties. It also took care of public space in its own way, but in another economic and political context.
I imagine that palaces, regardless of whether they’re private or public, are built to manifest wealth and power. The consequence of their need to express something is that they are carefully designed and built with quality. For those reasons, they are buildings that are appreciated by many. But the discussion about public space tends to focus on practical aspects, such as what this building contributes to public space in the form of rooms that are accessible to everyone, or have a clear function. How do you see that discussion?
Olof Grip: One might say that in the city as a whole there’s a limited volume of buildings that can be public institutions. The large bulk of them will be residential and office buildings and so on. They contribute to and shape the public space for everyone. Even shopping areas are a form of semi-public spaces. And the shops have a functionality that’s needed.
What changes do you see public space undergoing at the moment?
Josef Eder: We’ve reflected on the lack of responsibility when additions are made in the dense urban landscape and the fact that there’s a forgetfulness about the meaning and symbolic value of a building and about the public in general, which is important. If we want to protect our institutions and our democracy, buildings that are cherished by us all must have a place in the centre of a city. This also applies to urban spaces and street environments.
Olof Grip: It’s easy to feel nostalgic when you compare what it was like to pick up a package at Ferdinand Boberg’s Central Post Office Building in Stockholm to what it’s like picking one up from the deli counter at your local Ica supermarket. That difference also influences the perception of what constitutes society’s basic services. The power stations of long ago looked like palaces, now they’re usually hidden in a metal box somewhere. I think that influences what importance they’re viewed to have in society.
Do architecture and design play an active role in that change, or are they victims? And as architects is it all you can do to follow along and make the best of the situation?
Josef Eder: I have a hard time seeing architecture itself as the driving force. Maybe one can say that if we don’t value buildings and don’t build them with sufficiently high quality, then the ability to see what is good will be eroded. The absence of subjects like crafts and handicrafts in school makes people gradually lose their ability to judge what is good and what is bad. In the end, it’s no longer possible to feel the difference between real wood and plastic. That’s also the case with architecture. If the execution declines more and more, eventually it will undermine everyone’s ability to judge quality. I find that frightening.
Olof Grip: Architecture may have another role today. Our most successful companies manifest themselves with colourful interiors instead of with buildings. It’s not possible to infer from the architecture of the buildings what role companies have for the economy or in society.
What have been the controversies around Skären?
Josef Eder: There haven’t been any at all, even if I’m sure there have been comments among architects that the project is boring or historicizing. But the project has progressed friction-free through all the mills, which can often be quite destructive.
What have you learnt from the project?
Olof Grip: It has developed our work methods.
Can you tell us something about that?
Olof Grip: First of all, we don’t see an extension as something that should stand out, but instead we start with an analysis of the situation at the location. What qualities does it have and how can we reinforce them, and what things have changed since this was built and how do we respond to that?
Josef Eder: It isn’t so that contrasts can’t be made. But to choose not to, and to instead reinforce the qualities that already exist makes it somewhat easier to anchor a project and there is an intrinsic value in anchoring when it comes to public space. It’s a positive thing that change occurs slowly. That way, it doesn’t feel like the new destroys our everyday life, but at the very best enriches it. Slowness and adaptation have an intrinsic value when it comes to creating more pleasant urban spaces. But as always there’s a trap of conservatism, which I believe we need to question ourselves about, so we don’t become locked in a reactionary discourse.
It doesn’t sound like you’re opposing your colleagues who think your architecture is boring or doesn’t stand out?
Josef Eder: I don’t think one should be afraid of being boring.
Olof Grip: The primary task of architecture is perhaps to create good and sustainable spaces. Arbitrary choices, like random window placements, don’t help to achieve that.
Text: Daniel Golling