Walking into the sanctuary of St. Peter’s church in Klippan, in southern Sweden, is like entering a time machine. You have the sense of being transported to another age, but you’re not exactly sure which—it could be the future or some very distant past. The dimly lit worship space is at once modern and primitive, technologically advanced yet possessing the atmosphere of a pre-Christian pagan temple, with its clamshell baptismal font supported by metalwork that could be from the Bronze Age. In lieu of conventional windows, glass is clipped to the exterior wall in the crudest fashion, to preserve the interior’s cavelike character.
The church is as enigmatic as the man who designed it, Sigurd Lewerentz (1885–1975). A new book and exhibition (opening at Stockholm’s National Center for Architecture and Design, ArkDes, on October 1), both called Sigurd Lewerentz: Architect of Death and Life, seek to demystify this “architect’s architect” known primarily through two late-career churches. Lewerentz didn’t write much, which contributes to his shaman-like reputation, and his architecture has always presented a problem for historians because it defies easy categorization. This explains why much of the scholarship on his work has been written by architects, notably publications by Janne Ahlin (1987) and Wilfried Wang (1997). The latest, by ArkDes director Kieran Long, curator Johan Örn, and historian Mikael Andersson, is a somewhat less reverential account of Lewerentz that seeks to broaden the overall framing of his career and provide fresh insight into his legacy. No exercise in hagiography, it looks at the architect’s professional life with a sober detachment, exploding some of the myths surrounding this figure of cultlike devotion and providing a fuller picture beyond the caricature of a cigar-chomping loner who designed idiosyncratic churches.
The well-researched book is organized into three parts, beginning with an introduction by Long, followed by a description of the many artistic periods of Lewerentz’s career, which Örn breaks down chapter by chapter. The second section includes photographs of the built work, and the third part consists of selections from the ArkDes and other drawing archives, with notes by Andersson. Large-format, printed in full color, and more than 700 pages, the book weighs in at a hefty 8 pounds. Lewerentz was famous for allowing no cutting of the bricks on his jobsite, and a similar rule seems to govern this book.
Even the most ardent Lewerentz enthusiasts will find something new, learning perhaps for the first time that the architect designed—in addition to buildings—pianos, buses, wallpaper, luxury furniture, posters, logos, typefaces, neon signs, and headstones; and that he co-founded a company that produced steel windows, doors, and storefronts. The book includes insightful detail about Lewerentz’s research and working methods, such as the influence of ancient Persian masonry techniques on his work, or how he sketched over photographs of partially built works to refine the design. He was chronically late delivering projects to his (frustrated) clients, who sometimes wound up firing him. An anecdote about how one residential client “cut out pictures from interior-decorating magazines and sent them to Lewerentz as helpful suggestions on how to deal with particular details” will resonate with many designers today.
While the book does an excellent job of chronicling the shifting focus of Lewerentz’s long career—kick-started by a competition win for the Woodland Cemetery (with Gunnar Asplund) when he was just 30 years old—it is less successful in “connecting the dots” between periods and resolving the seeming contradictions of this complex figure. For example, how does one reconcile the young Lewerentz’s enthusiasm for flamboyant decoration—a desk he designed had 18 different woods, with inlays of silver, enamel, ivory, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell, earning him the disdain of functionalists—with the almost monomaniacal focus on a single material of the late churches, in which even the altar, pulpit, and confessional are made of brick? How does an architect who once owned a steel-frame window factory and attempted to patent an innovative spring-loaded glazing assembly resort to crude metal clips and caulk to secure the windows in his most mature work? While the book contributes invaluable new information about and insight into this enigmatic figure, it is silent on these and other intriguing questions, leaving room for future scholarship.
What is prompting this fresh examination of Lewerentz now? What is it about his work that makes it particularly relevant? The first retrospective on Lewerentz opened in 1968, a time similarly turbulent to our own, when his work was held up as “a shining light in a time of decay.” The generation of Swedish architects who followed him saw a resistance fighter, an architect who swam against the tide of homogeneity, prefabrication, and devaluation of craftsmanship then inundating Scandinavian building culture. Perhaps the story of this architect of thoughtful “one-off” buildings from the land of IKEA, who elevated the handling of materials to an almost spiritual level, might help us understand how architecture might move forward in our own time.