I knew Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm mostly from a Kenneth Frampton lecture at Columbia more than 25 years ago. I remembered that funny little chapel with the hipped roof supported out front by three (yes, three!) rows of columns. But nothing else stuck in my head. I knew I needed to see the place or risk censure back home from some archi-travel know-it-all who would exclaim, “What, you went to Sweden and didn’t visit Asplund’s cemetery?!” So I dutifully got on the subway and headed south to Skogskyrkogarden (which is how you write Woodland Cemetery in Swedish. How you pronounce it is beyond me.)
In 2002, I had edited a special issue of Record on “Architecture for Remembrance,” which most of us on staff commonly referred to as “the death issue.” But I can’t say that going to cemeteries has ever ranked high on my list of spare-time activities. So I figured I’d take a quick look at Skogskyrkogarden, check it off my list of things to do, then head back to town for a nice bite to eat.
In other words, I was totally unprepared for the masterful weaving of architecture, landscape, and sky that Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz executed at Skogskyrkogarden. The place is simply magnificent. Just a couple of hundred feet from the subway stop, a pair of curving stone walls part the earth and usher you into a somber yet elegant realm where open spaces alternate with shaded, more protected ones.
Near the entrance to the cemetery, a sheet of water trickles behind a small portico.
At first you see no graves or memorials, just four short columns and a cornice set into one of the stone walls embracing you as you enter. Behind the columns, a sheet of water trickles down the rough surface, introducing a sound that is both comforting and sad. You walk up a gently sloped road where deciduous trees frame a view of the sky. When you reach the top of the slope, you’re met by a large rolling meadow with a few trees on a ridge and a large freestanding cross. To your left, you notice a path with a series of outdoor rooms with memorial stones and places to sit. Beyond this, stands the concrete form of the crematorium, an abstract Classical structure with a columned portico in front and a trio of chapels tucked inside. The crematorium is the largest building at Skogskyrkogarden and the last one Asplund designed before he died in 1940.
Looking back to the entrance from a path with a series of outdoor rooms containing memorials.
A freestanding cross and a ridge with trees provide vertical accents to a rolling meadow.
Asplund and Lewerentz won the competition to design the cemetery in 1915 and added chapels and other structures for the next 25 years. By using the land as a key element in their design, the architects created one of the most subtle yet powerful cemeteries in the world. They tucked that funny little chapel with the hipped roof and a number of other buildings in the woods, so when you find them you feel like you’ve discovered Grandma’s house in the forest. They also placed many of the graves between the tall trunks of pine and birch trees, something I’ve never seen before. Other graves are set atop burial mounds accessed by grassy paths and stone steps. Sometimes you feel all those trees closing in on you, then you come upon a clearing and catch your breath.
The crematorium offers a large covered space for people attending funerals to admire the landscape.
The Woodland Chapel was the first and smallest to be completed and is perhaps the most famous.
I visited Skogskyrkogarden on a perfect August day when just the right number of fluffy clouds were hanging in a deep blue sky, and I’m sure this influenced my response to the place. But it also underscored the way Asplund and Lewerentz used the sky itself as a critical part of their design, tilting our view up to it here and closing us off from it there. These architects understood that the plane above was as important to their design as the one they built on.
Some graves sit between tall pine trees, dappled by shade and daylight.
Other graves are set atop large rectangular mounds accessed by a grassy path and stone steps (not shown).