The architect who has succeeded in putting Swedish architecture back on the international map is keen on high-rise buildings. By preference, skyscrapers up to several hundred metres high. But the Swedish public tends to be less enthusiastic about the idea and many high-rise projects have remained unrealised. However, they are intensively discussed and arouse wide public interest.
When Gert Wingårdh, for he's obviously the architect we're talking about, came to New York for the first time in the 1970s, he was disappointed. Manhattan's skyscrapers were simply not high enough, not at all the cloud-grazing monoliths he had imagined.
“Big cities should have high-rise buildings”, he liked to declare every time one of his skyscraper visions was under discussion.
But he's known for more than just high-rise buildings. Since his breakthrough at the end of the 1980s, he has been prolific to say the least. Huge industrial buildings for Swedish multinationals such as Astra Zeneca, first in Mölndal, Sweden and then across the world; Waltham in Massachusetts, USA, and Manchester in England. The air-traffic control tower at Stockholm's Arlanda airport, which has attracted considerable attention and is the only one of his high-rise buildings actually built so far, also incorporates a work of art: coils made up of letters and words wind their way around its slender stem. Then there's the students' union building at Chalmers University and the Universeum Science Centre, both in Gothenburg. Several residential projects have appeared in the press, from magnificent individual villas interspersed among the cliffs of Bohuslän to the irregular glass façade in Malmö's Västra Hamn, which conceals a number of unconventional and luxurious apartments. And his brief for two embassy buildings reflects modern Sweden in the architecture, the first in Berlin, where the Swedish embassy designed by Wingårdh was completed in 1999. And by summer next year, it will be time to inaugurate the new Swedish embassy in Washington.
One of his very latest assignments is still no more than an agreement on paper – a building is to be designed and built just outside Tranås in Sweden. How it will be organised and what it will look like is still far from clear, as the project has hardly even reached the idea stage. It will be a new office and factory block for furniture manufacturers Materia and Klaessons, both now autonomous companies within the Kinnarps Group. The idea that a small Swedish provincial town will be graced by distinctive architecture of international class clearly appeals both to the architect and his client Lars Bülow,CEO of Materia and Klaessons.
“A very exciting project”, the two of them concurred.
The first of Gert Wingårdh's buildings to receive wider attention was the Öijared golf club in Lerum, completed in 1988. For the first time in decades the Swedish public was presented with an interesting and well-planned piece of architecture, bearing the signature of a newcomer just 35 years old at the time. This aroused considerable interest – after all, the discipline of architecture has its own age structure, and 40 is considered to be very young.The profession is so complex and multi-facetted that an architect's golden age often occurs very much later in life. The clubhouse that harmonised so well with Öijared's wooded hillsides was distinguished by its individual and striking material, and therefore caused many an eyebrow to be raised within the profession. But Swedish architecture had been languishing somewhat in the doldrums since the 1970s. The grand old names such as Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, internationally famed for projects like the Forest Graveyard in Stockholm, now declared a world heritage site, had departed the scene.New big names such as Peter Celsing and young radical architects like ELLT and FFNS had run into opposition from public opinion as the environmental program of the time and major demolition work in almost every Swedish city suddenly affected the response to all new architecture. Anything new and daring was bad, old and charming was good – a more provincial view of architecture was now purveyed by the media. As this became established in time, it did little to encourage new creations with international impact.
So it's not until now, 30 years on, that the situation has begun to brighten. Gert Wingårdh is a prominent trailblazer, a contemporary Swedish architect who has succeeded in combining a comprehensive output both at home and abroad with abundant results of high quality.
“Light and the democratic tradition are probably the most typical features of Swedish architecture”, he says when I reach him in his car on his way from Gothenburg to Scania. “These themes characterise my buildings too.”
What exactly does he mean by that?
- There's a tradition within Swedish and Scandinavian architecture to focus on the special quality of our northern light, he says. The sun that lies low in the sky, the ruddy twilight, can be used as a dominant theme in architecture. And our attitude to democracy is reflected in the way the buildings are organised. In his international assignments for Astra Zeneca and Ericsson, we can observe how Swedish corporate culture – which is not at all hierarchical and "vertical" as is often the case in other countries – is interpreted in an inspiring and interesting way. Among Gert Wingårdh's most prestigious current assignments is the Swedish Embassy in Washington, whose construction is currently in full swing. Ideas about the quality of the Nordic light play an important role here. The embassy, which is partly translucent, is designed to radiate, almost like a lantern lit up from behind. The materials include expanses of glass and pale wood that reflect and mirror their surroundings. Artistic decorations by glass designer Ingegerd Råman disperse the boundaries between water and glass, and so strengthen this impression.
“I am a part of the Swedish tradition”, he says. But he also expends considerable effort on debate and questioning. In turning up and down ideas of what Swedish cities ought to look like – above all their skyline.
His projects have included the Scandinavian Tower in Hyllie, Malmö. This 274-metre high office and residential block was disrespectfully dubbed the “Hyllie cock”. And the Sergel Tower, a largely residential sky-scraper, was designed together with Thomas Sandell to be built on Sergels Torg, in the centre of Stockholm. Both these projects have been put on ice until further notice.
Most recently, Gert Wingårdh has boldly proposed that four striking residential towers be placed in the centre of his hometown of Gothenburg.The Heden (heath) area is extensive and flat, consisting largely of gravel expanses where football is played and a circus pitches its tents at times. A debate flared up immediately but this time local support is strong. So perhaps this will become the first of Wingårdh's spectacular high-rise projects to actually be realized.
“One of the great things about skyscrapers is that they take up so little space”, he has declared. For example, most of the present area of Heden would remain – while a thousand new apartments will be added at the same time.
His career continues to prosper, both on the artistic side and in terms of debate and business. Are there still any assignments that he dreams of?
“Yes indeed”, he replies. “I haven't yet designed a museum that's been built. Or a concert hall! That's something I would really like to fit into my programme.”