Shadows of the South. Venetian fragments from Ragnar Östberg’s travelogue

After centuries of popularity, late 19th century educational travel began to change and lose something of the 18th century aristocratic Grand Tour. The South remained the focus of interest, the cradle of that culture from which Europe’s own had grown. Swedish master Ragnar Östberg (1866-1945) expresses this change in his entire architectural idiom. As a leading exponent of the National Romanticism movement, he sees this new way of ‘contemplating’ as the personal formation of a spiritual family. The title sums up the two contrasting cultural and geographical realities, South and North, and the attempt by architects of the day to create a national art form. Travelling fed Östberg’s imagination, supplied him with pages of sketches and notes on that Mediterranean culture which would later cool in northern waters and waft like a shade or aura along the Stockholm streets. The paper sets out on another voyage, one of discovery among a Venetian repertoire of references explicit, yet subtly concealed. Our focus will be on specific instances of Östberg’s artworks - the Stockholm City Hall as well as its unbuilt nearby part Commission Building and villa Geber- and their connection with urban design for the Queen of Lake Mälar. Stockholm has often been called “the Venice of the North”; but it is not till now that this description has become a fact. Historically, the expression had obvious roots in the topography of the two cities. Besides tracing the origins of the definition, the paper probes to overtake those mythic descriptions conveying only surface analogies. The different-scale projects presented here finally clarify the parallel with the lagoon city par excellence. In these public and domestic buildings Östberg manages to capture and condense disparate fragments of Venice. During the animate debate on designing the new Stockholm the review Arkitektur carried articles by promising pupils - E.G. Asplund and C. Johansson- in which Venice was mentioned as a model, so the master was clearly not a lone voice. Floating down the Canal Grande, the paper explores those architectural topoi that inspired Östberg: Ponte di Rialto and Piazza San Marco, Fabbriche nuove and Procuratie nuove, the Palazzo Ducale and Venetian palaces. The visual interplay between City Hall-Commission Building and Riddarholmen island in Stockholm’s historical heart is none other than the relation between the island of San Giorgio and the San Marco complex. The analyzed projects can be seen such as significant exempla of his designing process: from the imagination passive studies and selects references to that imagination active capable to assemble and combine inputs. Östberg claims our attention not just because he would strive to wean Swedish architecture away from the chameleon appearance that marks so many fin de siècle experiments, but also because he was able to express a personal idiom embodying a markedly Swedish character. These Venetian fragments reveal how Östberg’s Stockholm resembled that renovatio urbis under Doge Gritti.

Presented at:
International Seminar "Italy and the Nordic architect", Accademia di San Luca, Rome, ITALY, November 14-15, 2013
Organizers: Antonello Alici (Università Politecnica delle Marche, Italy) Luca Ortelli (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) Scientific committee: Antonello Alici, Luca Ortelli, Johan Mårtelius (KTH. Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan, Stockholm), Aino Niskanen (Aalto University, Otaniemi), Mari Lending (AHO. Arkitektur- og designhøgskolen, Oslo)
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 Record created 2016-03-31, last modified 2018-09-13

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