- Nordic Classicism: Scandinavian Architecture 1910–1930 by John Stewart
Architectural history doesn’t usually know what to do with Nordic Classicism. As John Stewart astutely observes, in the opening line of this first dedicated survey in English, “Nordic Classicism is a rather inconvenient period in the history of twentieth-century architecture.” The problem is that it doesn’t fit comfortably into the heroic, teleological narrative of Modernism that sees World War I as a rupture with the old world, and the 1920s as the heady decade of new utopian social ideas. Appearing in the interwar period, Nordic Classicism is an “embarrassing interlude”; it “represents an apparent break—a backward look—a wrong turning or an unexpected distraction from the development of Modernism” (Introduction). This is further complicated by the fact that much interwar neo-Classicism elsewhere in Europe is tainted by its association with ideologies of rigorous control, from the French retour à l’ordre to the totalitarian behemoths of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.
How, then, to explain what is seemingly just another example of retrograde historicism? Some commentators, like Christian Norberg-Schulz and Charlotte Ashby, have explored it in terms of its relationship to National Romanticism. Another, perhaps more popular, approach is [End Page 295] to see the seeds of Functionalism in Nordic Classicism’s stripped forms, balanced proportions, and modular units, a narrative used to justify the striking change of architectural language in the work of Modernist giants like Erik Gunnar Asplund or Alvar Aalto. Others have tried to weave it into the grand democratizing mythologies of Nordic twentieth-century design, claiming that it distilled a “universal style” that was simultaneously national and “related both to pan-Scandinavianism and pacifism” (Barbara Miller Lane, National Romanticism and Modern Architecture in Germany and the Scandinavian Countries, Cambridge University Press, 2000, 282).
Stewart, on the other hand, addresses Nordic Classicism on its own terms. Rather than representing the tail end of, or prelude to, another movement, he presents it as a separate, valuable, and distinctly Nordic phenomenon. This is the book that those of us who teach Nordic architecture have been waiting for, a clear and concise account of key works and architects that allows non-native students to access material that was hitherto disparate, patchy, and frustratingly underexplored. In Stewart’s hands, Nordic Classicism ceases to be an uncomfortable caesura between National Romanticism and Functionalism and is valorized as a unique architectural moment of Nordic civic poise and extremely high-quality design.
The great strength of Stewart’s work is that it is written by an architect who intimately understands the nuts and bolts of buildings and the processes of their commission, procurement, and construction. He writes with refreshing clarity and concision, giving the reader precise insight into plan, space, function, and decoration through deft handling of architectural terminology and detailed analysis of parts. He even provides his own crisply legible plan and section drawings of key buildings. In particular, he helps the reader to understand Nordic Classicism in not just its spatial, but also its temporal dimensions, taking us step-by-step through what he calls “architectural promenades in which the route is carefully considered in terms of its [emotional] impact on the visitor” (chap. 2). Thus, Asplund’s City Library in Stockholm (1922–1927) is presented through its upward journey from street-level daylight, to darkness, to the literal and metaphorical enlightenment of the glorious, top-lit circular reading room. Similarly, Carl Petersen’s Faaborg Museum (1915), one of the first works of Nordic Classicism, is seductively unpacked via Petersen’s elegant perambulatory sequences of contrasting space, color, texture, light, and shade.
The structure of the book is straightforward and largely biographical. Chapters focus on a single (inevitably male) architect, beginning with a brief biography and near-chronological discussion of their main works, [End Page 296] followed by in-depth analysis of what Stewart has decided is their Classical magnum opus. It is a rigid and slightly old-fashioned format that, while easy to navigate, leads to some...