AAt the age of 77, the architect Sigurd Lewerentz (1885-1975) was commissioned to design a church. Some parishioners feared he was too old to handle the project, others that his low-key designs looked like a garage. The building he created is, like a late play by Samuel Beckett, austere in means but luxurious in thought and imagination. Everything – walls, floors and ceilings, interior and exterior, pulpit and altar – is as much as possible made of a single material – brick – which works a kind of magic. The interior is like an exhalation, a bubble which, since the bricks are different from the soapy film, seems miraculous.
St Peter’s, as it is called, in the southern Swedish town of Klippan, has since its completion in 1966 become an object of reverence for architects around the world. In Britain, Lewerentz inspired a generation for whom the poetry of architecture comes above all from the facts and actions of construction, with the exception of the laying of bricks or the fixing of glass over an opening. Adam Caruso and Peter St John, for example, who won the 2016 Stirling Prize for London’s Newport Street Gallery, designed for Damien Hirst, have significant and acknowledged debt. Their admiration resembles that of musicians for those who have a deep knowledge of their instruments – they like to see the tools of their trade honored.
Everyone who knows his work agrees that Lewerentz was a craftsman. He went daily to the St. Mark’s construction site on the outskirts of Stockholm in BjÃ¶rkhagen, a church he had built just before St. Peter’s, discussing every detail with the builders. He banned the common practice of cutting bricks to make them fit in a given location, insisting they stay whole, a rule that requires forethought and skill to follow. He worked with brickyards to get exactly the tone and finish he wanted on their products. He had a powerful sense of sparkle on a bronze rail or a copper shade or the crisp shadows of a classic molding. He invented new ways to make steel framed windows and doors and started a company to make them.
It is also widely believed that he was in a certain spiritual sense, but it is a quality that can take many forms. As besides the craft industry. And beyond their recognition of his spirituality and his art, the architects choose their own version of Lewerentz. For some, it is the deep shadows of its churches, from which areas of light emerge. For others, it is its expression in the architecture of modern religious experience. One or two focus on the new life he gave to old classic details in his early designs.
âAnyone who enjoys Lewerentz’s work feels like they are discovering it for the first time,â explains Kieran Long, director of ArkDes in Stockholm, he said. This institution, which is the Swedish National Center for Architecture and Design, now organizes a powerful exposure, his installation designed by Caruso St John. With 550 pieces taken from the ArkDes archives of more than 13,000 articles related to Lewerentz, and accompanied by a 700 page book, it can only multiply the number of possible interpretations.
The book and the show are called Sigurd Lewerentz: Architect of death and life. The “Death” part of the title is easily explained, as Lewerentz launched his career by winning a competition to design a woodland cemetery south of Stockholm, in partnership with another great Swedish architect, Gunnar Asplund. This magnificent work, where chapels and tombs are subtly placed in a landscape of hills and trees, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lewerentz designed another major cemetery without Asplund, in MalmÃ¶.
Long also wants to underline the “life” part of the title. For, if Lewerentz’s career is framed by churches – at the cemetery near the beginning and in Klippan at the end – and if the best-known images show a gaunt old man in a long black coat, inspecting winter yards like a smoker raven cigar, he had another side of his character. He designed places for frivolity and recreation, especially in the 1930s: restaurants, shops, even a proposal for a flagged floating dance floor for the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition. His office made colorful drawings of young people. intelligent and languid enjoying these modern spaces. Lewerentz, says Long, “dealt with the immortal and superficial, the deepest and most trivial aspects of human being and nothing in between.”
Like other great mid-century architects – Gio Ponti, for example – he worked fluidly between media. He designed everything from landscapes and churches to government office buildings, factories, stores, furniture, advertising posters and wallpaper. He was sometimes questioned for the superficiality of some of these works, for what critics called his âpseudo-functionalismâ. It also evolved easily between historical and modern styles and between artisanal craftsmanship and industrial production. There was, for him, no catastrophic conflict between the two.
It all came together in the two churches at the end of his career, St. Mark’s and St. Peter’s, which use a similar palette of reddish-brown bricks encased in thick layers of mortar. One can see, for example, the influence of landscaping in their arrangement, as in the approach of St. Mark on an oblique path through the birches. In the wooded cemetery, Lewerentz has altered mounds and plantations to guide you through the landscape. Light and shadow areas work in a comparable way in churches.
The paving of St.Peter was inspired by the patterns in a crossword puzzle he cut out of a newspaper, by the weather-ruffled stones of the ancient Roman Via Appia, and by the cosmatesque cobblestones adorned with the ‘Medieval Italy. Thus, an ephemeral diversion of modern life is combined with lasting works of antiquity. Lewerentz described its masonry as âPersianâ – with its Italian inspirations, it brings a touch of southern warmth to this Nordic building. The never-cut bricks give the churches a relentless feeling, but apart from a few details, they are lush.
There are elements that stop you in your tracks with their out of nowhere weirdness, such as a seashell font perched on a thin metal frame above a clean cut in a mounded brick floor. Windows are frameless sheets of glass placed over rough brick openings. In both churches, raw bricks are offset by refined ironwork and warm tapestries. The doors are in glued laminated wood, the knees in sheepskin. Then, in Saint-Pierre, a large T-shaped steel pillar stands in the center like a conceptual sculpture, a tree or a cross perhaps. It is the structure that allows the brick arch to hover above the space, which creates this bubble effect.
In the end, it is the solemn aspect of Lewerentz that defines him the most. With St Peter’s, Adam Caruso said, âHe forces us to confront the condition of our existence all the time. But without its sensual and playful side, Lewerentz’s spirituality would become heavy and its solemnity tedious. Because, after all, frivolity is also part of existence.
Sigurd Lewerentz: Architect of death and life is in ArkDes, Stockholm, until August 28, 2022
Sigurd Lewerentz: Architect of Death and Life by Mikael Andersson is published by Park Books, Â£ 100. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply