Tuesday22 July 2014

Tony Fretton's inspiration: Woodland Cemetery

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Tony Fretton explains why the calm beauty and powerful symbolism of Stockholm Woodland Cemetery, designed by Asplund and Lewerentz, makes it a place to which he repeatedly returns.

Inspiration Stockholm Woodland Cemetery
Architects Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz
Completed 1915-1940
Location Enskede, Sweden

I first saw the Woodland Cemetery about 15 years ago when I came to lecture in Stockholm one winter and the beauty of its composition was all the more evident in the snow. There is something very calming about this big landscape. Daily life rarely offers such moments. Everywhere you look there are lovely incidents that cohere empirically into a whole.

The force of the cemetery is in the landscaping, which was the formative idea in the competition that Asplund and Lewerentz won when they were young. Asplund worked on the cemetery for 25 years, his style changing as he explored modernism. Lewerentz, was asked to leave the project and went on to design extraordinary buildings such as the church at Klippan.

The competition-winning design was made in 1914, at the same time as highly abstract buildings were issuing from the modern movement in France and Germany. In comparison, Asplund and Lewerentz’s reworking of traditional elements and their embrace of sentiment was old-fashioned. But there were more routes to modernism than the modern movement. Schinkel found a vocabulary in classicism with which to address the functional and social issues of modern industrialising society and to some extent Asplund and Lewerentz did the same.

Woodland Cemetery plan


1 Main entrance
2 Woodland Crematorium and chapels of Faith, Hope and Holy Cross
3 Hill of Remembrance
4 Woodland Chapel

In the Woodland Cemetery, the issue was what to do with the dead of a growing urban population, functionally and meaningfully. Cremation, in which Lewerentz seems to have been an expert, was an answer. The landscaping, which is principally by Lewerentz, is the main means of resolving the functional and representational issues of this new way of interment. It conceals the crematorium by placing it underground, and provides significant settings for the chapels above.

The symbolism of the landscape is affecting and powerful but not through an appeal to any one faith. Sweden had already begun to acknowledge the diversity of faiths and beliefs of its population. In some way it is almost pagan, for example in the shallow pond and outdoor catafalque surrounded by blazing braziers in front of the Chapel of the Holy Cross, and the crooked trees on the top of the hill behind them.

In the buildings and landscape there is a very real sense of birth and rebirth, through subtle references to literature and buildings from antiquity. This is announced at the entrance to the cemetery by the striking asymmetric composition of the hill to one side and graveyards and chapels to the other, leading to the portico of the Chapel of the Holy Cross. The scale of this chapel allows for state funerals, its window-wall able to be lowered into the ground, allowing space for a very large group under the portico.

Woodland Chapel

Source: Gareth Gardner

Woodland Chapel: Completed in 1920, this simple wooden chapel is Fretton’s favourite building at Woodland Cemetery. Its only decoration is the golden Angel of Death sculpture, by Carl Milles, on the roof above the entrance.

In contrast, the Woodland Chapel further on is a place for a discreet ceremony of a few people in the forest, while Lewerentz’s Resurrection Chapel provides a classical setting that is dignified and plain.

Asplund’s work was not in the foreground when I was studying at the Architectural Association.

Instead I was looking at architects like Cedric Price and Hannes Meyer, where use and form closely coincide. I admired their view that modern buildings should be free of conventional meaning and simply provide conditions for sociability and interpretation by their users. I was also very interested in adaptable building forms that occupants could use obliviously, even crudely and destructively.

At the same time, I was affected by Alan Colquhoun’s essay in Charles Jencks and George Baird’s book Meaning in Architecture. This described Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis’s attempt to strictly derive the form of the Philips Pavilion from its functions, and their discovery that it was impossible and choices had to be made using intuition and precedent.

These positions were at play in my diploma project, a highly utilitarian building for the AA that found its place in polite South Kensington through relations with the spartan form of the Albert Hall and the Imperial College Laboratories.

The full reconciliation of these ideas occurred when I was designing the Lisson Gallery and understanding, through minimal and conceptual art, how meaning and use could coexist.

Making architecture purely for formal reasons seemed unreasonable to me and still does, when there are so many other interesting non-visual qualities that buildings have to offer. But I had not reckoned on the impact of a younger generation, in the form of Mark Pimlott and Peter St John who at the time were working together and for a short time worked for me.

Le Corbusier, who was not formative to my generation as he was to the preceding one, was seen by them as a master of forms and ideas. The Smithsons, who were heroic practitioners to my generation, were gurus to theirs. And Asplund, who was a source of wonder to them, seemed from my hard-line position like a decorateur. Lewerentz, who I got to know through an exhibition at the Architectural Association and lectures by Sandy Wilson and Peter Smithson, was much more credible and affecting to me for his acute and existential understanding of materiality.

Although I admire Asplund’s architecture very much, I cannot say that it had any influence on my work. The interplay of modernity and tradition that I see in his work, and which preoccupied me in the Red House, came to me much more strongly through Stravinsky, Joyce and Picasso.

Portico of the Chapel of the Holy Cross

Source: Gareth Gardner

Portico of the Chapel of the Holy Cross: This provides shelter for larger congregations. The wooden soffit gives the space a domestic feel despite its imposing scale, says Fretton. The sculpture is Resurrection by John Lundqvist.

The architecture and landscaping of the Woodland Cemetery confidently addressed the collective functional and representational issues of its time. Now that those issues have become normative or no longer current, I have to look at it like a historical artwork, for qualities that perhaps were not consciously willed by its designers but which show the true greatness of their work. In this I am wary of the kind of position laid out by Peter Eisenman in his book Ten Canonical Buildings that sees value only in the formal and arguable aspects of a work of architecture and disparages function, or in my terms, human engagement.

The Woodland Cemetery is far more alive than deathly East Coast theory, because Asplund, at least, was extremely skilled in understanding human experience and providing for it in his architecture. It is here, if anywhere, that I can relate to this work.

But for me that issue has to be dealt with more stringently, with the recognition of the tensioned relationship between the purely cultural aspects of architecture and the way it will be used and misused. In this way the positions set out by Hannes Meyer and Cedric Price are still vital, as is the intellectual probity of the recently republished collected essays of Alan Colquhoun.

Whenever I am in Stockholm, I revisit the cemetery. You have to see it many times and in different seasons to be able to understand its different aspects.


A place for quiet contemplation

Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz won joint first prize in 1915 in the competition for a new cemetery for Stockholm. Asplund worked on the project for 25 years until his death in 1940. Lewerentz was involved for 10 years until his removal from the project following the completion of his Resurrection Chapel in 1925.

The cemetery was created on 100ha of former quarry, transformed into a carefully created landscape of pine forests, grassy mounds, graves and chapels.

Visitors enter and progress up to the imposing loggia of the crematorium and beyond to the groves of remembrance pine forest.

Asplund’s first building on the site was the modest Woodland Chapel 1918-20, which combined classicism with Swedish vernacular. He designed all the furnishings including candleholders and a tray carrying earth to sprinkle over the coffin.

Asplund's modest headstone.

Source: Gareth Gardner

Asplund’s headstone at Woodland Cemetery, Enskede, Sweden.

Asplund completed the Woodland Crematorium and its Faith, Hope and Holy Cross chapels from 1935-40, each with their own antechamber and courtyard gardens for privacy and quiet contemplation. Along with Lewerentz’s austere Resurrection Chapel, these offer a choice of funeral locations depending on the number of mourners to accommodate and the kind of atmosphere desired.

The first ceremony to take place at the crematorium was Asplund’s own in 1940 - a “fantastic gesture” according to Fretton.

All visitors progressing up the main path to the chapels pass by his modest headstone, which reads “his work lives on”.

During the ceremony, a screen that formed the back of the crematorium wall was lowered to remove the division between the interior and the woodland.

The cemetery was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994.

A competition for a new crematorium at the cemetery was recently won by Johan Celsing, the son of Peter Celsing who designed the Kulturhuset arts centre in Stockholm. Work is due to start on site this summer. The original crematorium’s chapels will continue to be used for ceremonial functions.

Pamela Buxton



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