Wednesday30 July 2014

Tim Ronalds’ inspiration: Gothenburg Law Courts Extension

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Tim Ronalds explains why he rates Asplund’s building not only for its beauty but also for the way it marked the evolution of modernism and its reflection of a more democratic society

Inspiration Gothenburg Law Courts Extension
Architect Erik Gunnar Asplund
Completed 1937
Location Gothenburg, Sweden

There is something about Asplund’s Law Courts at Gothenburg that confirms that being an architect is really worth the effort. All sorts of things make it difficult to build something good, and modern buildings so often seem quite shallow in their thinking. But then you see something like this and are reminded of what architecture at the very highest level can achieve.

Asplund was involved with the project for 24 years. He won a competition for a new courthouse in 1913, then there were various schemes for extensions to the existing courthouse, and finally, in 1934, the project proceeded. Through the sequence of designs, you can trace his journey from national romanticism to classicism and then right at the end, just in time, this flowering of modernism (his great leap into modernism took place in his Stockholm Exhibition project in 1930).

There is an amazing difference between his 1925 design and the built scheme – you would think the time gap was a century, not a decade. Asplund was still changing the design of the front elevation as it was being built. My colleagues say that is really why I like Asplund so much – I too keep wanting to make late changes to our buildings.

Asplund must have been talked of when I was a student at Cambridge. Sandy Wilson and Leslie Martin were very keen on the alternative modernism he represented, but I was not impressed by the gloomy black and white photos of his buildings. It was a revelation when, in 1988, I saw Martin Charles’s colour photos illustrating a marvellous essay on Asplund by Peter Blundell Jones. Instead of black and white Nordicism, these were full of sun and life. At the time, in the eighties, all was po-mo and almost everyone was stuttering backwards towards conservative and authoritarian attitudes. Here in Asplund was an example of what modern architecture could do to contribute to a humane and optimistic society.

I have visited the law courts three times now and the building has stood up incredibly well over the decades. I chose it not just because it is beautiful inside, but because of the spirit it embodies and the contrast it makes between the modern and the classical, the 20th century and the 19th.

It represented the new spirit of its time - not just in architecture but in society as a whole

The old law court is a classical building with columns and pediments. It expresses the power of the law and visitors feel they shrink in size as they enter. Then they turn right to enter the extension and they find quite a different kind of architecture, representing a different vision of society. This is not concerned about the power of the law and the state. Instead, it sets the scene for humane justice.

In the old building you feel that you might get “sent down”; in the new, that you will get a fair trial. It is dignified, but not intended to intimidate. It represented the new spirit of its time, not just in architecture but in society as a whole, and changes to what democracy meant. That spirit in architecture didn’t appear much in England before 1950. The generation of architects who had trained before the war and been influenced by Scandinavian ideas had to wait 10 years before they could build. The Royal Festival Hall, with its splendid foyers and sense of public space, is a good example of its influence and has a similar feel to Asplund’s law courts.

Asplund designed every element of the building – the furniture, the beautiful lights, the transparent sinks. It is very rare for an architect to have that much control of a design (or the talent to be able to do that); for a building to be a complete and consistent entity. Nowadays someone else usually does the fit-out and there is no notion that a building will be permanent: people always want to change it.

The outside of the Law Courts extension isn’t the best bit – Asplund kept on changing it and you can imagine him not ever being quite convinced. The back is more successful, but the front looks rather like a contractor’s stacked temporary accommodation, and it certainly doesn’t convey the great quality of the interior.

I enjoy the procession through the extension up the long, gentle staircase which takes you up in a calm and dignified way to the courtrooms on the first floor. Imagine the atmosphere in a courthouse – everyone’s nerves on edge, the defendants, their families, the witnesses, the lawyers – but when they come in they find the warmth from the wood and all this light streaming in through the roof lights and through the glazed facade to the internal courtyard that separates the old and new buildings.

Asplund was extremely inventive and had the capacity to reflect on how life operates through design

Inside, there are festive elements that simply lift the spirits. There is a wonderful dog-leg stair which feels a bit like a diving board and its finish seems to flow down like a pool of liquid at the bottom. Attached to it is a clock looking like a sun with tiny light bulbs around its edge. Asplund loved curved and non-orthogonal forms in architecture, and was always trying to take the hard edges out of buildings.

The courtrooms themselves are womb-like with their curved wooden walls creating a scene for the theatre of a trial. The defendants sat with their backs to the public in front of the lay assessors and the judge, whose chair is distinguished only by its leather back. The lights in the courtrooms are fantastic – almost like Venus flytraps about to snap shut. The atmosphere is so different from that of traditional English courts with their crests and symbols of the state.

Asplund is one of the architects whose work I look at repeatedly for inspiration; not so much to copy ideas or forms directly, rather to recharge my aspirations. That said, I am surprised, coming back here, to realise how some of the elements of our latest building (a new music building for the University of Kent) obviously have their origin in Gothenburg. The long louvred rooflight and sun falling on timber panelled walls – these images stick in the mind and resurface years later.

I know little about Asplund as a man, but his way of working seems inspiring. He was immensely inventive and had the capacity to reflect on the way life operates through design. Every aspect of the building has been studied creatively and thought through with originality. What distinguishes him from others is that he approached things from such a human point of view, making architecture that sets the scene for human theatre.

We spend a lot of time thinking about how people move through and experience buildings – more about what they feel like than what they look like. The Gothenburg building has a serenity about it that appeals to me. Through the use of wood, the building has a lot of warmth, and that is something I find myself endlessly thinking about in my work, no more so than in our recent Performing Arts Centre for Sevenoaks School. Like Asplund, we take time to work at an idea – at Hackney Empire, there were some 40 different versions of that new elevation before the idea of the giant letters emerged.

Walking around the Law Courts now, I see Asplund dealing with exactly the same issues as we deal with everyday; from the basic plan, the difficult elevation, down to the detail of the door handles. There is a good sense of continuity – he simply does it so much better.

Reflecting Asplund’s stylistic journey

The Gothenburg Law Courts extension was the last major work by Erik Gunnar Asplund, widely regarded as the leading Swedish architect of the 20th century. The final version was built between 1934-7 but Asplund had begun working on the project more than 20 years earlier, having won a competition in 1913 with a design that would have involved demolishing most of the existing building.

Asplund redesigned the scheme many times over the intervening years. His 1913 design completely reworked the original building, which dated from the 17th century, and reclad the facades in the then-in-vogue national romantic style. He was invited to rework the scheme to retain more of the original, and this time produced a neo-classical design.

In 1918, he won a competition for the design of the whole of Gustav Adolf Square. Various neo-classical revised designs followed before the project was shelved in 1925. When it was revived nine years later, Asplund was asked to retain the vocabulary of the original building on the main square elevation, but the city authorities eventually accepted his modern approach.

An Asplund drawing from 1925 envisages the law court interior in a very different architectural language.

Source: Asplund Collection at Arkitekturmuseet, Sweden

An Asplund drawing from 1925 envisages the law court interior in a very different architectural language.

The eventual steel-framed design creates a courtyard between the old and new buildings with a glass wall forming the internal facade of the extension. A shallow staircase rises though a grand central hall, with wood-clad law courts arranged around the perimeter of the first floor, offices on the second and a staff restaurant on the third.

Asplund died at the age of 55, just three years after the completion of the extension. New Gothenburg law courts were built recently, leaving the Asplund building redundant. The city authority is currently carrying out a feasibility study into turning the building into its own offices.

An exhibition on the extension’s design is being held in the building from October 27 till December 5.


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