Often called “Venice of the North”, built on a cluster of fourteen islands by the Baltic Sea, opposite the Gulf of Finland, Stockholm is one of the most pristine capitals in the world. Surrounded by a rich heritage and past, the city of Stockholm has it all, from a vibrant cultural core to iconic cutting-edge architectural and technological advancements.
Stockholm has a vivid collection of traditional and contemporary masterpieces of architectural design dating as far as the late 13th century. During the period of industrialization in Europe, the Hanseatic League promoted the rapid growth of Stockholm as an emerging city when Sweden rose to power. Tearing away the old city walls, new districts grew in the Northern and Southern parts of the “city between bridges,” and Stockholm became the cultural epicentre of the Scandinavian region.
Although early Swedish architects have been known to be influenced greatly by art movements abroad, they have reinterpreted prevailing styles of art and design on their own terms to conceptualize their buildings and spaces. When Art Deco came to Sweden, it was redefined to meet the Swedish taste and gave way to Nordic Classicism. Even in the case of modern Swedish architects, while their design vocabulary revolves around sustainability in tune with nature, their works reflect their love for clean lines and minimalism.
Gothic and Medieval Architecture
Narrow winding cobbled streets, frescoes from the Middle Ages, vibrant and gilded Hanseatic facades, the island of Gamla Stan is one of the largest and most well-preserved city centres of the world. Also referred to as the “Old Town”, it is the heart of attractions, tourist sites, and public activities and is the birthplace of Stockholm.
Gamla Stan is one of the oldest and most pedestrian-friendly islands of Stockholm and houses most of the cultural hotspots, museums, and churches, including the Stockholm Cathedral, the Medieval Museum, and the Nobel Prize Museum. With its untouched old-world charm and bustling activity, Gamla stan has a unique and vivid spatial character and looks like a scene in a Swedish Fairytale.
One of the liveliest public squares and urban landscapes in Gamla Stan and all across Stockholm is the Stortorget. What was once the site for a brutal bloodbath in the dark times of Swedish history, is now a charming public square in the heart of the old town lined with quaint and colourful Hanseatic buildings famous for its traditional Christmas markets and handicrafts.
The Stockholm Cathedral, also called the Storkyrkan, is one of the oldest buildings of Gamla Stan and has a tumultuous yet illustrious past. Originally built as a chapel in the 12th century, it was destroyed in a massive fire in the 14th century and rebuilt as a basilica. It is a fine instance of Gothic brick architecture on the outside but was redone in the Baroque style subsequently owing to the regular reconstructions it went through. However, the interior spaces still retained Gothic in appearance.
The church was built in bricks rather than stones with all the typical elements of the gothic style, including pointed arches, rose windows, and rib vaulted ceilings.
Gems of Baroque Architecture
The rapid rise to power in the 17th century in Sweden resulted in a frenzy of astounding examples of Baroque architecture among the aristocracy in Stockholm. From churches to palaces and statehouses, detail in design, complicated shapes, and extravagance in their spaces became a symbol of power and an expression of wealth among the newly emerging nobility.
Taking up the northern corner of Gamla Stan, the Royal Palace of Stockholm is one of the most prime examples of classic baroque architecture built as a Roman Palace in Sweden. The eleven-storeyed palace is the king’s official residence and houses three museums across four wings, each named after a cardinal direction. Constructed in brick and stone, with a distinct inward sloping roof of oxidized copper, all the facades of the palace are designed to be unique and ornate.
Other such fine examples include the UNESCO listed Drottningholm Palace, Kalmar Cathedral, the House of Nobility, also called the Riddarhuset in Swedish, among a lot of notable others.
Era of Neoclassicism and Revival
As the Swedish empire lost its Baltic dominance and most of its power in the 19th century, Stockholm was still a major port city and saw an age of expeditious modernization owing to the Industrial Revolution. This was the age of industrial growth and infrastructure during which many important public buildings, railroads, and bridges were built.
Some of the most notable examples of neoclassical architecture are the semicircular Riksdag, or the house of the Swedish Parliament, located on the island next to the Royal Palace, and the Royal Swedish Opera House on the waterfront in Norrmalm. The Stockholm central station is another such case of one of the most iconic train stations built in the neoclassical style in the age of industrialization to link Stockholm to the other major cities in Sweden and across the Nordic region.
Until the 19th century, most market squares and commercial hubs were outdoors or in the open. However, with the rise of industrialization, the concept of covered market halls rose to prominence all across Europe. The Östermalm Market Hall is one of the first and still functioning market halls in the city of Stockholm and has become a vibrant spot for tourists and local vendors.
The age of Art Nouveau and National Romanticism
As Sweden remained untouched from the ravages of both the world wars, the building boom continued across the Nordic regions, with Art Nouveau as the dominant design vocabulary of the time. This eventually evolved into Sweden’s own National Romanticism that borrowed elements from long-standing Swedish building traditions.
One of the most notable examples of this era was the Stockholm City Hall, which showcased a lavish combination of varied classical styles like Italian Renaissance and Venetian Gothic, along with an extravagant selection of materials like marble, copper, and gold mosaic tiles. Other examples of such lavishness and art nouveau were the Royal Dramatic Theater and the “Diplomat” and “Esplanade” Hotels which are major tourist spots in the city of Stockholm.
A stark contrast, yet striking example of this era was the Stockholm Public Library, opened in 1928 that belonged to the Nordic Classicist style of architecture at a time when National Romanticism was becoming modernist. Reducing its more classical and decorative elements into simplified lines and geometries, the red and orange hue of the building gives it a vernacular feel and directs the shift in architectural thinking from classicism to functionalism. Inside, the entire bit of space is utilized to its full potential and is one of the first libraries in Sweden to allow open access to all books.
The rise of Modernism and Contemporary Architecture
With the rise of Stockholm as one of Europe’s leading tech and service-based economies, there has been a tremendous rise in the international visitors and migrants who brought with them their own cultures and architectural styles. This influx has led to the development of a new language of architecture in Stockholm based on the principles of Swedish Minimalism.
Another striking example of the rising modernist and unconventional architecture in Stockholm is the Ericsson Globe, also called the Avicii Arena. As a prominent part of Stockholm’s skyline since 1989, the Globe is the world’s largest spherical building with a diameter of 110m and a height of 85m. It is mostly used for ice hockey and concerts and holds a number of shops, restaurants, and bars.
Other such cases of Modern and Contemporary architecture have emerged across various sites with the turn of the 21st century in Stockholm and include works by some of the world’s most famous architects like the “79 and Park” Apartments by BIG, “Aula Medica” by Wingårdh Arkitekter and the Skandiascenen Cirkus Theater by White Arkitekter among a whole list of others. These modernist buildings on the urban skyline of Stockholm add a vivid character to the city, complementing their traditional and classical predecessors.
This shift to modernism was not just limited to architectural projects, but extended to the realm of urban design and transportation terminals as well. Kulturhuset Stadsteatern in the main commercial square, Sergels Torg in Norrmalm is also the epicentre of arts and culture in Stockholm and has the ethos of a “brave new world” with culture at its heart. Made in modern materials like steel and glass, the house of culture is strikingly modernist in contrast to the rest of the city’s traditional Belle Époque architecture.
The subway system in Stockholm features bare rock exposed walls resembling cave-like structures, but with an innovative twist. Almost every station in the city features artworks by local artists and is regarded as one of the longest “Art Galleries” of the world with an organic feel and unique identity.
Another such example is the Strömkajen Ferry Terminal, based on the simplistic concept of conjoined conical geometries framing different views over the water. Placed in close proximity to the traditional core of Stockholm, the terminal is a radically contemporary sculpture clad in brass and has become a major landmark for both tourists and locals.
Stockholm is one of the most iconic cities of the world, not just in terms of culture and lifestyle, but also in terms of architecture that has evolved consistently through time. The city is not bound to a singular vocabulary when it comes to design but is a living collection of changing styles through the ages. While one part of the city is deeply rooted in its traditional culture, the other parts of the city are growing rapidly with their own language of design. Each of these holds its own significant place on the city’s growing skyline.
Stockholm continues to evolve maturely and confidently through ages, without being brash and boastful, along with respecting its heritage core. It is a beautiful and refreshing mix of “Old and New” that is neither too much nor too little.