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The quiet poet of brick


Bengt Edman is a name not known in Britain, but his architectural intelligence and sensibility have been quietly recognised in Sweden for years. Last summer, I visited the lonely house he is building for himself in the countryside. Ostensibly simple, resolutely of its material, it is potentially a beautiful place to inhabit. The shell was up, its walls raised from 52 tonnes of reject and broken brick.

It is not so unusual for young architects to build their designs for themselves (though less usual that they can lay bricks), but Edman is unusual. It was a critique of his first brick house which, over 40 years ago, coined the phrase 'New Brutalist' (Architectural Review, August 1956).

After a quarter of a century of careful practice, one or two works in the 1970s were so criticised by their users that Edman had no commissions for the next 25 years, and turned to teaching. The mixed winds of Post- Modernism blew his career sideways in the same way as they blew the career of Peter Smithson - who contributes an essay here. But Edman designs and builds today.

'I have not really understood comfort,' admits Edman. 'I have not been able to add layers of comfort. The constructive materials are enough on their own. I want the material that composed the structure nearest my body, so that I can understand how it was built and know that it won't fall apartaround me.'

Both Edman and Klas Anshelm, his equally interesting but unknown compatriot, bring to mind their other colleague Sigurd Lewerentz. His work, St Peter's, Klippan, now widely renowned, is the key link, and indeed Edman has added necessary elements (such as a handrail) to the church. This strand of Southern Swedish late-Modernism is shy of theories and steeped in material.

There are other influences - a haunting archaic quality from Louis Kahn, for instance, while the rectory at Sovestad (1965) also brings Dom Hans van der Laan to mind. Characteristic of Edman are sharply cut shapes, built (like Lewerentz's church) of reject and half bricks, and using coved bricks with pale mortar to lighten a wall (the bricks appearing thinner between the deep horizontal joints). 'He is like a poet,' says one essay, 'who determined to use only the most common words.'

While concerned to engage his users, Edman does not pander to them. 'This respect for the internal logic of construction perhaps does more to place the architect and user on the same plane than anything else,' writes a colleague; 'both must wrestle with forces that set limits for what they are willing to stand for.'

This tradition is a long way from the picturesque 'Swedish empiricism' which, according to Reyner Banham, the Brits invented Brutalism to counter. It has a wonderful 'thereness'. Giving no decorative signals, the spaces simply await our presence. And the book echoes that sensibility. Barely a handful of the many photos are taken in sunshine; the drawings make no attempt to seduce; Edman's comments on each project quietly demand a careful reading (and always generously credit any collaborator).

It is not a vast oeuvre, virtually stopping in the mid-1970s. There are some fascinating house plans clearly shown here and urban constructions. There is the optimistic potential of both the People's Park in Lund ('hardly a building, more a territory' as Peter Smithson notes), and a current community centre in Bosnia. And there is the Sovestad rectory which just, beautifully, stands there.

One writer suggests that this could be placed in an exclusive little collection of late-Modern achievements: 'works that with concentration and originality show the way forward.' That little group (which includes Lewerentz' tiny flower shop at Malmo Cemetery) are a world away from the post-International Style minimalism which brings 'late-Modern' to British minds.

'I have at times been in buildings that despite being small and quite simple, seemed like a whole world. But how is this done?' Edman asks this question when describing the little house he has now nearly completed. This careful and quiet book takes us into a dialogue with one architect, his works and various architect critics. We are refreshed by a genuine architectural conversation, loaded neither by theory nor rhetoric.

John McKean is professor at Brighton School of Architecture

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