Dislocating the spaces of death and life with ArkDes and Sigurd Lewerentz
Last October a major retrospective exhibition about the enigmatic 20th-century architect Sigurd Lewerentz opened at Sweden’s national architecture and design museum, ArkDes. The exhibition, curated by the institution’s new director Kieran Long, is accompanied by a voluminous tome of some 700 pages of photographs, sketches and commentary put together by Long, Johan Örn and Mikael Andersson. Book and exhibition both circle around the notion of Lewerentz as an ‘architect of death and life’. Despite the dangers inherent to any biographic approach, the museum’s organization of space ensures that the death and life theme is not reduced to a simplistic cradle-to-grave chronology of Lewerentz’s career. Throughout the exhibition, death and life are presented as problems and provocations for the architect and designer—as complex and deeply human concerns that can be worked through by engaging with the material world—rather than distinct, personal events.
This approach is exemplified by how the exhibition is introduced with an eerie, full-scale reconstruction of the completely windowless and tinfoil-clad ‘Black Box’ studio Lewerentz spent his last years working from. Experiencing the reconstructed Black Box confronts visitors with the architect’s own uncanny attempts to stage his youth by displaying some of his most iconic designs as his life was ending. The Black Box cleverly illustrates Lewerentz’s apprehensive relationship to his life’s legacy as he faced it´s imminent end and considered how his work would live on. Even at the cusp of death, Lewerentz refused to allow the end of his own life to be another event in a settled chronology, and carefully designed space to speak to a multiplicity of temporal connections that dislocated conventional approaches to the architectures of death and life.
After placing the visitor in this mournful scene made up of fragments from fleeting past, the exhibition quickly introduces a kaleidoscope of views into Lewerentz’s work with their distinct temporal rhythms and spatial sensibilities. Visitors get acquainted with the young, modernist Lewerentz of the interwar avant-garde and his eager visions for the future. Another scene captures the cyclical repetitions of the laying of bricks and a sense of being bound to the time and place of physical construction. Lewerentz wrote himself into this situation by personally instructing the craftspeople about minute details of their slow, hard and meticulous work. The architect’s presence within the repetitive rhythm of bricks and mortar layered into buildings is contrasted with the glacial temporality with which Lewerentz and crafted pastoral, modernist landscapes, which took years to design and decades to mature. The focus of Lewerentz’s landscape work is, unsurprisingly, the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery which he worked on for two decades alongside Scandinavia’s modernist pioneer Gunnar Asplund – a place now seemingly frozen in time by its UNESCO World Heritage credentials.
ArkDes’ engagement with death and life highlights a significant thread running through Lewerentz’s work as an architect and designer. The choice of theme strikes a chord with his groundbreaking contribution to modern cemeteries and churches as spaces of both mundane practices and the moments of mourning, which are emphasized throughout both the book and the exhibition. Somber video sequences of his Skogskyrkogården and Östra Kyrkogården cemetery in Malmö are projected in dimly lit rooms next to sketches of austere vistas and salvaged artefacts like carefully designed benches and bronze gates bearing the marks of chemically removed graffiti. In another dark room, ArkDes dives deep into Lewerentz’s final major work, the 1966 church masterpiece Sankt Peterskyrkan in the southern industrial community of Klippan, built with local Helsingborg clay burnt into bricks of a characteristic deep umber hue.
In contrast to these ascetic spaces torn between mourning and the repetitions of everyday life, ArkDes also assembles a set of more colorful views on the architect’s attempts to capture and inspire more intense modes of living and life. Visitors are introduced to Lewerentz the inventor and manufacturer of technical construction parts, and the interwar dandy living life to the fullest with two extravagant flats in central Stockholm’s most fashionable area. Then there is the equally lavish design of public buildings, most prominently Lewerentz, David Helldén and Erik Lallerstedt’s 1944 Malmö City Theatre, a magnificent example of how modernist aesthetics—despite their austere sensibility—could be used for what only can be described as the design of public luxuries. The exhibition also offers glimpses of the quirky intellectual artist who envisioned new kinds of leisure landscapes in new colors—most famously the scenes of sleek, upscale clubs and the (quite literally) floating dance pavilion of modernist near futures displayed at the 1930 Stockholm exhibition.
ArkDes’ exhibition’s distinction between life and death as deep but profoundly different human concerns for architecture is an interesting framework to study the work of a single individual. Yet what makes this approach speak to the present is how the conventions of spaces for life and death— so mercilessly dislocated by interventions of people like Lewerentz—have been turned upside down by the massive disruption of everyday life brought by COVID-19. As the deadly pandemic swept the globe, new ways of living seeped into the very spaces officially designated as landscapes for contemplating loss.
During the first pandemic winter, Lewerentz and Asplund’s beloved Woodland Cemetery was appropriated as a sleigh slope for quarantining families. This episode made national headlines and caused conservative pundits to go berserk at this disrespectful use of what they suggested was a conventional space of mourning. Lewerentz’s subversive dislocation of the 1920s landscape architecture of death and life was thus a century later claimed as a new spatial convention of mourning. Yet, this convention was only first openly proclaimed in response to how these spaces were appropriated for everyday leisure and relief by Stockholm’s southern mass housing estates’ residents.
In the opposite way, the pandemic has also made death and mourning a painfully present concern in both our most shielded private spaces and communal everyday meeting places constitutive of cultural and civic life. Indoor spaces of community life were suddently understood as deathtraps of possible contamination to be feared and avoided. Few historical situations have been as suitable to consider architects’ designed dislocations of the geographies of death and life as our own time, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made these kinds of dislocations a socially salient force defining the moment itself. The way that life and death in the pandemic no longer seemed to be in their proper places speaks directly to the big questions raised by ArkDes’ engagement with Lewerentz’s unconventional work and his grappling with death, life and architecture.
So what would Lewerentz have made of our moment’s dislocation of the spaces he so carefully designed for the dead and the living? Both Kieran Long’s (2021) historiographic essay and Johan Örn’s (2021) biography describe Lewerentz as a ‘member of the resistance’, with Long emphasizing how his work was ‘at odds with the prevailing orthodoxies’. These accounts rightly emphasize Lewerentz’s nonconformist but bourgeois traits, citing that he, unlike almost all his peers, stubbornly stayed clear of the social democratic mass housing programs and never signed political manifestos or sat on one of the countless postwar public committees on architecture, planning and design. There is, however, a risk in overstating Lewerentz’s role as an outsider to the postwar world of Swedish social democracy. In his youth, he rubbed shoulders with all the radical soon-to-be-technocrat-architects who did write manifestos and sat on public committees, and in his old age he inspired a circle of prolific young architects who designed countless schools, gym halls, museums, university buildings, parks and other public amenities as social planning shifted away from the then completed mass housing estates. Indeed, Lewerentz’s built designs consist almost exclusively of civic buildings and public spaces.
Lewerentz had a genuine interest in inventing new ways of organizing the built environment and dislocating the settled order of things. What Long calls ‘creative resistance’ in the face of technocratic conformity can be seen in Lewerentz’s defiance of the traditionally efficient grid pattern of cemeteries and cleverly crafted churches to be viewed at countless unexpected angles. We will never know what Lewerentz would have said about sleigh riders using the Woodland Cemetery. Would his bourgeois traits have won in an embrace of this landscape as a new convention to be venerated? Or would his mischievous spirit have celebrated the reinterpretive appropriations to turn this ideal upside down? One thing is clear: without Lewerentz’s ‘creative resistance’ to the conventional designs of commemorative landscapes in his own time, the cemetery would have been impossible to use as this kind of improvised recreational winter landscape.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewerentz’s contrarian designs appear more useful than ever, with many of the core premises of space-making briefly appearing less fixed, and with the architecture of death and life turned upside down. The exceptionally interesting architecture of Sigurd Lewerentz, carefully curated by the ArkDes team, presents us with didactic ways to address concerns made unavoidable by the pandemic’s disruption of death and life’s conventions. Experimenting with new ways to design space and reimagine mourning and celebration, solitude and communality, is something planners and architects will spend significant time with in the years to come, as we collectively deal with the pandemic and its legacy. ArkDes’ exhibition on Lewerentz might not provide a guide for how to do this, but surely helps us think about the questions at stake in new and worthwhile ways.
Long, Kieran, Andersson, Mikael, Bergström, Anders & Örn, Johan (red.) (2021). Sigurd Lewerentz: architect of death and life. Zürich: Park Books