Post-war Sweden experienced a surge of modernist public architecture—architecture, which as we have seen was often decorated with significant mid-century weaving in the form of rugs or tapestries. With a stable government committed to the philosophy that Sweden should be a “Citizens’ Home” (“Folkhem”) planners and architects of the period set about looking for ways to provide housing, schools, civic centers, churches and governmental buildings which would serve its population.
Although Sweden had been neutral during the war, maintaining that neutral stance had been an expensive and difficult governmental balancing act—sometimes allowing Germans soldiers passage cross Sweden, and selling iron ore, paper, and wood to Germany, but also allowing the Allies to use Swedish air bases and –when the Nazis marched into both Norway and Denmark –giving asylum to some 900 Norwegian Jews and taking in nearly all of Denmark’s Jewish 8,000 citizens. At huge cost, Sweden also armed itself, in order to have might to back up its neutral political stance. With both German and British naval blockades severely restricting imports, Sweden had also needed to generate its own domestic supplies of food and materials during the war years.
In the late 1940s, with the end of the war, there was a new public optimism and newfound governmental support on both state and local levels for constructing new public buildings. One of the most important of the small buildings designed during this period was a Civic Hall in Eslöv, a small city in Sweden’s southwest. Eslöv was essentially a rural inland town before it became a rail junction connecting six different rail lines during the 19th-century. The new transport hub in turn attracted industry and the city grew in both size and sophistication.
In 1946 the city of Eslöv appointed a ”Civic Hall Committee” to look into the possibility of building a new public building which could provide space for various constituent groups to hold meetings.* In 1947, the committee announced an architectural competition for the design of a new Civic Hall (“Medborgarhus”). The brief for the competition made clear that this hall was intended to provide space for social organizations to meet, for public meetings, theatrical events, dances, exhibitions and concerts, with rooms also to be provided for study groups and local trade unions, a bar and cafe, a kitchen, storage rooms, offices, caretaker’s apartment, and a coatroom. There were to be four assembly rooms of specific sizes, and space to accommodate a (new) town museum. The relationship between all these pieces was left to the architects, although a specific building site was designated.
The competition elicited 158 entries, which were examined by number with the name of the architects withheld. Some would-be designers ignored the constraints of the site altogether; others ambitiously added or subtracted program elements. The winning entry had been mailed from New York by a young architect, Hans Asplund, who was then working on the UN building in New York on an international team which included Oscar Niemeyer, LeCorbusier and Sven Markelius of Sweden under the direction of an American architect, Wallace K Harrison. Hans Asplund, aged 26, was the son of Gunnar Asplund, architect of a number of Sweden’s most iconic 20th century buildings including the Stockholm Public Library and Stockholm’s Woodland Chapel (“Skogskyrkogården”), but this was Hans’ first major design project.
Asplund’s winning entry was entitled “Diagonal Balance.” The architectural jury endorsed the architect’s submission statement, that the project as he saw it, embodied “[two] seemingly conflicting planning principles: simplicity and surprise” and he went on to explain that other he proposed to create a combination of enclosed and open spaces which would offer contrast and surprise. The jury suggested various changes and areas needing further study, but the plan and massing of the building as a whole were enthusiastically accepted. And yet, for a variety of reasons, construction on the building did not begin until 1955. It was finally completed in 1957, almost 10 years after the design competition.
In the competition design, the mass of the proposed building was broken into three parts: a long “funnel”-shaped mass which housed 4 assembly areas/theatres arranged linearly by decreasing size—and this large element was balanced by a one-story wedge-shaped block containing multiple public areas, and by a vertical five- story “tower” which housed offices, storage and meeting rooms, and a caretaker’s apartment. The “diagonal” created by the inner wall of the funnel became the path through the building.
The exterior of the concrete Funnel building was clad in aluminum, with separate exterior entries into each of the 4 halls, as shown on the plan above. Glass block windows arching over the Funnel originally aligned with the exterior entries; these have been covered in the main auditorium. Although the architect originally wanted to use white marble on the exterior, there were significant cost overruns, and a hard plaster surface with the sparkle of mica was settled on.
The entry, which combines a hard plaster surface and regular window openings, and a recessed entryway framing doors of a slightly art-nouveau character. let you know that this is not an “ordinary” modernist building. Instead, it is an idiosyncratic and almost hand-crafted version of modernism in which a cool exterior form encloses a warm and welcoming interior.
Inside, the building is more architecturally complex than the simple three-part spatial division would suggest. Large skylights provide both light and create a compelling (if unconscious) path for the visitor along columned pathway. The oval space at the center of the plan is open to the sky. This is a courtyard which brings light to the center of the building and which becomes an essential orientation point. You can always tell where you are on the first floor immediately in your relation to this little garden space. It has several small trees and benches, and is almost Japanese in its quiet quality.
The design of this courtyard also brings to mind a number of works by Hans Asplund’s father Gunnar. His Woodland Chapel with its domed, light-filled space, and also the intensely reflective space of the Stockholm Library main room. Gunnar Asplund had brought to his work a profound awareness of the quality of Nordic light, and how that light can be focused, reflected, and shared between spaces. The formal organization—that is, the floor plan and massing– of the Eslöv Civic Center has nothing to do with those of either the Woodland Chapel or the Stockholm Library, but the little courtyard at Eslöv nevertheless captures something of the still-centeredness of both of these other buildings. In its own way this building also explores how natural light can animate and amplify spaces.
Discussing the Eslöv Civic Hall, Hans Asplund asserted that he had both consciously and unconsciously drawn on elements of his father’s work in designing this building. He viewed these borrowings as a sort of homage to his father, who had died in 1940, just seven years earlier..
The long left hand wall which travels the length of the diagonal corridor in the Eslöv Civic Hall is faced with wood and punctuated with discreet wooden telephone booths (remember those?) and groups of furniture and lighting, all in wood and leather tones. The access to each of the halls in the Funnel is also through this wall. The doors to each auditorium use the “name” of each hall – A, B, C, D—as their door handle. Here too, there are quotations from Gunnar Asplund’s work, some direct and some indirect. The wooden benches integrated with the wall surface are an almost direct reference to the benches Hans’ father designed for Stockholm’s Woodland Chapel—with the improvement that the supports are not visible.
The fireplace grouping at the far end of the hall, with its over-scaled brick fireplace and brick floor area probably also draws on Han’s awareness of the summer house his father designed at Stennås in 1937 with its exaggerated sculptural fireplace flanked by a run of brick steps. (I say “awareness” rather than “memory,” because Han’s father and mother were divorced in 1934 when he was 13, and although he worked in his father’s office for a month or so while in high school, I don’t know if he spent any time in this summer house himself). At the Civic Hall, the seating area in front of the fireplace is a comfortable termination point for the hallway, but seems oddly domestic and “arts and crafts” in form for this modern public building. Perhaps Asplund simply saw this as a cosy spot for patrons to gather on a winter’s night after attending a theatrical performance. Or –as with the design of the very non-modernist front doors–was he intentionally challenging the expectation that a modernist building should not have historically-referential elements, let alone those with a crafts quality?
Nevertheless, the Civic Hall is much more than the sum of its multiple architectural borrowings. Its diagonal path, hugging the internal courtyard, works brilliantly as an internal street, becoming an almost-piazza in the fireplace area. And in a genuinely surprising way, the diagonal hall also invites movement around the courtyard and down into another space, this one, high-ceilinged, and well-lit.
This two story high space occupies the back zone of the public gathering spaces located on the first floor. Now a café, it was originally intended as a local museum and public exhibition space. While this semi-subterranean museum/café space is located in the deep center of the building, it doesn’t feel confining, because it borrows light and a view of the sky from the glass-enclosed courtyard above. The light well is a defined but transparent space, and it generates borrowed light for the adjacent spaces, particularly this one. The museum/café also has light fixtures beautifully suspended at a lower level to establish another plane of light—a kind of lowered visual “ceiling” — for this space.
Gunnar Asplund had also used light borrowed from an exterior courtyard to animate both a three-story passageway and an internal courtyard in his Law Courts Extension to the Gothenburg City Hall, completed in 1937. But it seems to me that what Hans Asplund has done here, that is, light a lower level space by means of light borrowed from an upper level one was a greater challenge.
The original museum space was given more verticality by Asplund’s use of concrete columns with broad circular “mushroom” tops. These are an architectural borrowing from Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Johnson Wax building completed in 1939.
In Asplund’s hands, the mushroom columns are less eccentrically shaped –that is, they don’t seem weirdly upside down. He uses them these columns in a variety of ways: not only as tall columns in the double-height space, but to engage corners and redirect traffic, to carry light fixtures, ashtrays and drinking fountains. Most have a plaster finish, but those carrying drinking fountains are faced with honed stone and marble basins.
What becomes more and more evident in the building is the level of care taken in the
choices of materials and in the details. Nothing here has been bought “off the shelf,” but instead, every single element expresses the architect’s personal design and oversight.
The range of custom-made lighting fixtures is amazing.
And the grand marble staircase, down to the lower floor is shaped and detailed so as to make both going down and coming up seem inviting.
On some level, the exterior of this building is simply an oddly-shaped box containing a bejeweled interior. It is the quality of meticulous custom-designed, hand-made detailing which makes this building so extraordinary. This is how architecture had been made by many architects, particularly before 1930 and the arrival of functionalism in Sweden. But it was this same approach which lead to enormous cost overruns in construction of the Eslöv Civic Hall. And it was this quality which even by the late 1950s made this building seem already a luxurious relic of an older period rather than a model of post-war modernism which sought efficiency through use of standardized parts and systems and repetition of design elements. At the time of the building’s completion, a number of critics noted that the “simplicity” which Asplund had identified as an early guiding principle was hardly evident in his ultimate choices of luxurious materials and careful articulation of each architectural element.
The textile part of this story is another part of Asplund’s hand-made quality approach to architecture. Room A, the largest auditorium, is immediately to the left of the front door. The room is warm and enveloping, paneled with oiled Oregon pine, curving from one side of the Funnel walls to the other. At the front of the auditorium hangs a brightly- colored curtain in warm pink, red, orange and purple tones, also designed by Hans Asplund.
At an unknown date, Hans Asplund drew up a proposal for the auditorium curtain. This was accepted and woven as drawn, in a tapestry weave that was to be lined and hung.
The weaving was contracted to the Malmö County Craft Association (Malmöhus läns hemslöjd). The original working drawings for the large curtain may be part of uncatalogued Asplund sketches and drawings located at Kulturen in Lund. A notation in the yearly account books from the Board of Directors for the Malmo County Craft Association for the year of 1957 (“Styrelsens for Malmöhus läns hemsölöjd u.p.a. berättelse över föreningens versamhet under år 1957”) has a useful note. This reads, in translation, “Among the major orders during the year is the stage drapery of Eslöv’s Medborgarhus, made after sketch by SAR-licensed architect Hans Asplund, and produced by textile artist Gunilla Fleming.”
Fleming was one of several young woman working as designers at Malmo County Craft Association at the time. She was 27 in 1957, and it seems amazing that she was able to weave this entire curtain (in several pieces) within a years’ time. At a time when there was some social divide between designers and weavers, it is also interesting that Fleming– who was from a quite well-to-do family, but also one with a strong craft tradition (her father was silversmith to the king)—undertook this very major weaving project. It certainly speaks to her own weaving skill that the large vivid curtain is still in use.
In a short film which can be viewed at the Civic Hall or via the online site of Eslöv’s Medborgarhuset, Asplund’s widow discusses some of the symbols visible in her husband’s curtain. Asplund was clearly interested in representing visually what he perceived to be the historical roots of the theatrical performance—from Egypt (with the Egyptian portal to left), Indian deities (under the large arch), to Greek worship (the brazier and Greek fret), Persian and and more modern performances (shown under small arches). On the right hand and left sides of the curtain, he tried to symbolize three parameters of a theatrical performance: time (the clock), space (the maze) and rising dramatic action (the steps from left rising to center).
On the upper part of the curtain, Asplund located Blue tragic and comic masks. He also spells out ARS LONGA, in reference to the Latin phrase, “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” or, “Art is long; life is short”: a phrase often taken to mean that that art will outlive human lives. But the Latin was translated from an older Greek phrase which had the meaning of craft or skill more than fine art– with the implication that life is a short time to gain mastery of one’s craft. Whether Asplund knew of this secondary meaning, I don’t know, but he would have undoubtedly agreed. He apparently also saw the GA of LONGA as a sort of visual pun on his father’s initials. The shape above the GA is supposedly the hands of two dancers engaging, but perhaps it could equally symbolize Han’s own engagement with the architectural legacy of his father– a handing of ideas from one to the other.
While this miscellaneous catalog of images may seem a bit silly and literal as symbolic schema, it helps to understand the curtain as a colorful graphic backdrop which Asplund wanted to provide for theater groups working without scenery. The curtain is long enough to wrap around the back curved wall of the stage, and this guaranteed that the room always felt well furnished. One would never be looking at an “empty” backstage in this theater, no matter what the use of the hall. And as Asplund clearly intended, its vivid cheerful colors and calligraphic motifs provide a lively focus for the auditorium.
An architectural detail at each side of the stage– exquisitely carved marble handrails for those coming on and off the stage—reminds us that this entire building really is a hand-crafted work of art on a public scale. And in fact, this was exactly Asplund’s intent and philosophy: that architecture should enrich and enliven; both draw on historical models and craft traditions and yet at the same time, innovate with modern technologies and building methods, so that users could take great pleasure in his buildings. And although it was extraordinarily expensive at the time of construction, replicating this building would be impossible today. As a result, we have a fantastic little gem of a building, which was designed exactly to give the delight we take from using and visiting it today.
With the quality of its architecture becoming more widely know, the building is actively visited. In 2001, The Year of Architecture, Medborgarshus was voted one of most popular buildings in Sweden in regional semi-finals of the competition titled “Tycker om Hus,” perhaps best translated “Think about a building you enjoy.” Thousands of people wrote in to explain why this particular building excited and pleased them.
The Eslöv Civic Hall underwent a major restoration in 2002-3, with building systems updated, finishes renewed, and several changed functions provided for. The architects for the renovation were the firm of BarupEdström from Lund. Matts Edström and his wife Kerstin Barup had studied with Hans Asplund at Lund University. A book written by Edström, on the history of the Civic Hall design and its construction, covers the original reception of the building and later perceptions of it by both the architectural world and the citizens of Eslöv itself. This book has been my primary source in preparing this blog post. It is also dedicated to their former professor.
Note* Of the seven original Civic Hall committee members, one is recorded as being a man named Helge Månsson. At this time there was a female textile designer named Helga Månsson born about 1900 and living somewhere in southern Sweden. Did she live in Eslöv, and was it she who was actually a member of this committee? I have not been able to verify this. As I have discovered, many Swedes share very similar or even the same names. It’s an intriguing –but probably unlikely—possibility that an active textile artist helped to select the architect who designed this lively theatrical curtain.
http://www.cavescollectstudio.com. Clothing and leather goods store in Melbourne Australia, with online journal of design images.
Codreanu, Andreea, https://homesthetics.net/100-architects-houses-series-4-erik-gunnar-asplund-home-stennas-hastnasviken-lison/ Sept 18, 2014
Edström’, Mats, Eslövs Medborgarhus / Eslöv Civic Hall, Architektur Vorlag AB, Second updated edition, 2017.
Eslöv: 9/ 14 /18 visit to Medborgarhuset arranged by Ralph Svensson, Operations manager. All photos not otherwise credited were taken by me on this visit.
Kristiansen, Peter, 3-24-2007 review of book Tyckt om Hus by Louise Nyström and Inger Berggrén at https://svenskhistoria.se/tyckt-om-hus/
Malmö läns hemslöjd archives in Lanskrona, Sweden. Thanks for access and research assistance to Åsa Stentoft, länshemslöjdskonsultent.
http://ofhouses.tumblr.com Photographs of Gunnar Asplund’s work curated by Ibo Avissar. Available under Creative Commons license.
Martin Schwartz, “Light from All Around: Asplund’s Stockholm Library” in http://thedaylightsite.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Light-in-Gunnar-Asplund%C2%B4s-Public-Library.pdf, from Sept. 2015 Velux Daylight Symposium
http://www.tripadvisor.com. Source of several photos of Eslöv Civic Hall by individuals identified with each photo.
Wollin, Nils G. Svenska textilier 1930. Swedish Textiles 1930. Schwedische Textilien 1930. Textiles Suédois 1930. Utställningsförlaget / Bröderna Lagerström, 1930.
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “Eslöv Civic Hall and its Theater Curtain,” theswedishrugblog (12/21/18); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)