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BOOK

REVIEW

Gunnar Asplund By Peter Blundell Jones Phaidon, 2006.239pp. £45

AJ readers with good memories will recall the origins of this monograph in a series of Masters of Building studies of Asplund's major works.

Copiously illustrated with archival drawings and Peter Blundell Jones's photographs, the studies have been reworked into a chronological rather than topical narrative and augmented with a wealth of new material to offer by far the most comprehensive account of Asplund's work yet produced.

Born in 1885, Asplund lived through the dying embers of National Romanticism before becoming a leading exponent of the Classical revival which spread like wildfire through the Nordic countries after the First World War. As a 'close reader' of a project's development Blundell Jones has few peers, and in Asplund he has an ideal subject. Several of the projects - most famously the Gothenburg Law Courts and Stockholm Crematorium - began life as essays in National Romanticism that were later 'Classicised' then 'Modernised' over almost a lifetime of work.

By assigning these phases to different chapters, something of the intensity of the original essays is lost, but we gain by seeing their development in the context of less familiar buildings and designs - of which there are many.

Discounting the austere exterior of the Stockholm Library, Asplund's work betrays as little interest in Classicism's universalising tendencies as it does in the International Style, abounding rather in the qualities that Blundell Jones values above all: responsiveness to particularities of site and use, and orchestration of movement and space. Hefi nds Asplund's mastery everywhere: both in expected places, such as in his own summer house, Stennäs; and in more surprising locales, such as the rushed Stockholm Exhibition, with its adjustments to the waterfront, 'frozen contours' and running stairs in the glass-cornered Paradise restaurant. Like the later, curiously curved walls of the potato-shaped Gothenburg Law Courts, these are seen to anticipate the uid spatial compositions encountered in mature Aalto and Scharoun.

In focusing on such experiential qualities, Blundell Jones gives little attention to more speculative readings.

Stuart Wrede's psychoanalytic interpretation of Asplund's love of swelling, womb-like forms is quoted but not explored. More surprisingly, perhaps, while the enchanting piazza-by-night interior of the Skandia Cinema is discussed as a playful representation of an outdoor space, the similar rendering of the Lister Courthouse lobby - where, in contrast to the painted exterior, we encounter stone dentils and 'outdoor' paving - goes unremarked.

Asplund did much to make attention to detail a hallmark of Scandinavian architecture and his mastery extended to all aspects of a project: his working drawings were apparently so complete that few enquiries or site visits were needed. This was in contrast to his longtime Stockholm Crematorium collaborator Sigurd Lewerentz, whose inability to produce drawings on time was one of the reasons for the city's refusal to appoint him to complete the scheme with Asplund, leading to much bitterness and the breakdown of their friendship.

The Crematorium's claim to being one of the century's major works rests on its uniquely potent synthesis of buildings and landscape - in which, it is increasingly clear, Lewerentz played a major role.

Among the central buildings the only fully satisfying 'interior' is the great portico; Blundell Jones generously eschews criticism of the chapels, which hover uncertainly between a kind of Post-Modern Classicism and the proto-Modern work of architects like Auguste Perret.

Essentially a designer and refiner, not a builder, Asplund depended on external sources rather than construction resources to express his ideas, and here - in striking contrast to the tectonic mastery of Lewerentz's late churches - he seems to have been at a loss.

Asplund died of heart problems in 1940. He was 55, at which age, Blundell Jones reminds us, Le Corbusier was yet to build the Marseilles Unité and Louis Kahn had barely started. It is idle to speculate what he might have achieved, but his mastery of siting and spatial planning were alive and well in several projects left unfinished at his death.

The skills that Asplund deployed in realising a succession of memorable, deeply humane projects were formidable and he could hardly have wished for a finer testimonial than this thoroughly researched and sympathetically written monograph.

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