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Who does the king of Sweden think he is? Prince Charles?

Paul Finch
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The controversy over Chipperfield’s proposed Nobel Centre in Stockholm feels very familiar, says Paul Finch

When it comes to architecture, social democratic Sweden is just as likely to get its proverbial knickers in a twist as little old England, judging by the furore over David Chipperfield’s planned Nobel Centre in Stockholm.

The debate about whether the proposal (a) is in the right place; (b) should involve demolishing historic buildings; and (c) is too big, has all the hallmarks of the very familiar planning and heritage debates we have come to know and love in London.

As ever, different parties project their attitudes and perceptions on to design proposals, which are treated as though they are real buildings. So the king of Sweden describes the architecture as ‘very domineering’, which would be a good description of the history of hereditary monarchy. He further complains about ‘gigantic’ volume, rather as though he is describing a palace with accommodation for hundreds of servants.

A representative of the city authority, which has approved the design, says: ‘We have a system in Sweden where the royal family does not interfere in political issues’, automatically suggesting that the controversy is about more than architectural aesthetics. That view was in a sense confirmed by David Chipperfield in a radio interview (before the king’s comments) in which he noted that ‘it’s not exploiting the value of the land … it’s not a developer building, an office building or a hotel’.

Suppose, however, the brief had been to design a hotel with x number of rooms on the site. Suppose that, broadly speaking, the same height, volume and materials were being deployed. Would the building be too big just because it was a hotel? If the answer to that is yes, on the basis of context, cultural heritage, views and so on, then why is the proposition different if it is the Nobel Centre?

The significance of the Nobel programme might be given as an explanation, especially if one ignores some of the bizarre decisions taken in respect of its peace prize (as they say, satire died the day it was awarded to Henry Kissinger, bomber of Cambodia). It is difficult, however, to accept the argument that the building has to be its current size because of precise functional requirements. It has already been lowered once. The director of the prospective centre claims that any change would mean a new project – which suggests the brief is so brittle that it would be a good idea to question it.

David Chipperfield Architects' Nobel Centre

David Chipperfield Architects’ Nobel Centre

David Chipperfield Architects’ Nobel Centre

In short, the debate about this building has generated heat rather than light, especially since the heritage brigade cannot answer the question of what they actually want, only what they don’t want to see interfering with the aspic urbanism they so much enjoy. (When the city museum complains about the size of the interloper, it looks awfully like jealousy.)

But on the basis of reported comments, the client’s attitude looks a bit rigid, and since Chipperfield is a listening architect, perhaps there is a case for a short review. Suppose the building had to lose a floor. Would this completely wreck the architectural proposition? It doesn’t seem very likely, and the idea that the architect would not be capable of a creative compromise lacks credibility.

Personally, I would prefer to bet on Chipperfield, and a practice at the height of its powers, contributing a fine addition to the city, which would rapidly become part of its heritage after a brief period as a controversial talking point. But it needs to be the right building for the site, not simply right because it meets client requirements. That’s the argument of the cynical developer.

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