Room 606: The SAS House and the work of Arne Jacobsen By Michael Sheridan. Phaidon, 2003. 272pp. £39.95
Arne Jacobsen’s SAS House was a great Gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art and architecture in the tradition of the Joseph Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet, or CR Mackintosh’s Hill House; the architect designed everything down to the fish knives. In the 40 years since the SAS House was completed, Jacobsen’s reputation has been less for his architecture than his ubiquitous designs, such as the Swan chair (Fritz Hansen), the taps (Vola), his ironmongery, cutlery and cruet sets. Jacobsen also designed the most exquisite fabrics that are a crucial part of the sensory experience of his interiors.He could draw and paint like a dream; thus as a Jewish refugee who escaped from Nazi-occupied Denmark in a rowing boat, he spent the war designing fabrics in Sweden, Little had been published on Jacobsen until the mid 1990s, and only recently has a substantial oeuvre compléte appeared (AJ 20.12.01).The critical fraternity ignored him.
One can see why - he wasn’t out of the alphamale architect mould, like Corb and Mies.His work was too domestic, too contented, too feminine.No Banham, Frampton or Tafuri would write about such a simple and unheroic achievement as making Mies habitable.
Of the original SAS House, only Room 606 survives intact, saved by one of the hotel’s managers - and guests can still reserve it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the hotel has been remodelled as part of the Radisson chain. But ironically, with the interest in retro-modern, Room 606s now crop up all over the place; you can buy them at Habitat. I recently stayed in one in Edinburgh, a dead-ringer, right down to the curtains.
The author uses this single surviving room, both as a historic time capsule and a portal into - and simulacrum of - Jacobsen’s entire work. It is a brilliant idea for structuring an architectural essay, and more importantly for bringing the period to life; for portraying the essence of the post-Second World War vision of a humanist modern world as exemplified by the Scandinavians.
Yet the author would have benefited from a novelist or scriptwriter to help realise the inherent potential of that idea, and make a powerful work of literature/criticism. That said, the first and last chapters sum up succinctly the importance of Jacobsen, and the photos from the early 1960s, of the hotel, its occupants, and the Fritz Hansen factory, illuminate, as the author says, ‘a much larger setting, a world of sensuous utility and industrial craft that is essentially timeless and utterly contemporary’.
Of course, another Jacobsen Gesamtkunstwerk of that period survives intact: ironically, not in sophisticated Scandinavia but philistine England - St Catherine’s College, Oxford.
Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor