|The Stockholm Public Library, which was started in 1922 and not completed for over a decade, marks the period in the history of Western architecture during which classicism – in reinvigorated form – was re-establishing itself after the nineteenth-century dominance of the Gothic Revival. Other examples are the classical commercial architecture of Sir
Edwin Lutyens, such as the Midland Bank Headquarters of 1924–39, in the City of London, and McKim, Mead, and White’s glorious but now destroyed Roman-bath-like Pennsylvania Station in New York City, started in 1910. The library also marks what was, in many ways, a final flowering of classicism before Modernism overwhelmed it. The dethronement was not without its paradox, for Modernism, although antipathetic to the ornament and architectural hierarchies of classicism, was deeply dependent on classicism’s systems of proportion and composition.
Even after the triumph of Modernism, from the 1950s until almost the end of the century, much classical architecture was built, but usually as a self-conscious riposte to the Modern. Thus after the Second World War classicism became a minority and reactionary architecture, while after the First World War it was – in the hands of a master like Asplund – very much a living thing, capable of inspired evolution and reinvention, in which sources were explored and exploited and forms chosen in response to function and landscape. In the process the innate compositional advantages of the classical tradition could be utilized to great effect, notably because classicism is capable of architectural rhetoric of varying degrees of intensity and because it represents an architectural language with a recognized meaning that can be comprehended. For example, traditionally in classical design an important public building proclaims its status in its urban or rural setting through the use of a portico, colonnades, or a large entrance door reached by a noble flight of steps, as in the Altes Museum in Berlin. This solution is as effective as it is obvious. Modernism, having rejected traditional forms and ornament, long struggled to find equally effective equivalents for expressing meaning or function.
At one level the Stockholm Public Library is a case study in the creation of a minimal architecture in which meaning is expressed in elegant manner. The architect’s most obvious design strategy is to combine elemental forms – cubic podium, vast cylindrical drum, and hierarchy of square and double-square window proportions – that proclaim the classical roots of the building and suggest its importance. The design also, to a degree, suggests the building’s function, with the drum as a direct expression of the library’s reading room and book stacks. Asplund was an inspirational and experimental designer whose architecture developed from a rustic Arts and Crafts vernacular to an inventive and attenuated classicism that was a most individual expression of a style that became something of a fashion in Nordic countries in the inter-war years. From this, Asplund moved to a proto-Modernism – infused with the spirit of elemental classicism – which found sublime expression in his chapel, crematorium, and landscape at the Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, completed at the time of his death in 1940.
The library, classical in its fundamental conception and details, also marks the transition in Asplund’s architecture towards the simplicity and functionalism of Modernism. Asplund’s early designs, produced from 1918 to 1920, were inspired by the solemn and simple late eighteenth-century French architecture of Étienne-Louis Boulée and Claude Nicolas Ledoux, which features large-scale primary geometric forms. The library, a fusion of drum and cube embellished with porticoes, was initially envisaged in heroic manner as a temple of learning on a low-rise acropolis. One particular building by Ledoux – the 1789 Barrière de la Villette in Paris, which is distinguished by a huge, flat-roofed drum rising above a lower, square-plan structure sprouting porticoes – provided the initial model for Asplund’s design. But this evolved as Asplund gradually stripped away details so that, by the time construction started in 1924, the Stockholm Public Library largely proclaimed its classical allegiance through its system of proportions, with its windows no more than holes punched in flat walls colour-washed a strong, Mediterranean, orange ochre. Achieved through traditional pigments, such dramatic colour washes – warm ochres and blue and green verditer – reflected eighteenth-century Swedish traditions and became a distinguishing feature of early twentieth-century Nordic classicism.
The external details that Asplund retained are telling. The ground floor of the three-storey ranges wrapping around the drum, and which give the building a plan that is almost square, are rusticated and incorporate a finely detailed neo-classical frieze. But most importantly, the tall main door (modelled on the courtyard door of the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen) is approached by a stepped ramp framed by a classical architrave, proclaiming that this is a significant public building and making its main point of entry clear.
The door leads to an entrance vestibule that is dark, solemn, and with the character of an Egyptian tomb, its walls decorated, in low and subtle relief, with scenes from The Iliad. Stairs wind around the outside of the drum, serving galleries, while a straight stair rises into the drum itself. This, in contrast with the dark and constrained outer spaces, is lofty, spacious, and well illuminated, with light reflected down to the reading desks from its high white walls – the epitome of intellectual enlightenment.
Cruickshank D. A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings. Harper Collins UK., 2015.