Erik Gunnar Asplund, Swedish Grace

“Always in touch with the great and simple things that lie at the bottom of all human experience.” –Bjorn Linn

Erik Gunnar Asplund, born 1885 in Stockholm, Sweden, was a neoclassical (Swedish Grace) and functionalist architect. Regarded as a “sensitive interpreter of a changing society,” Asplund is credited with introducing functionalism to Sweden.

Erik Gunnar Asplund
Asplund’s original aspirations were to be an artist, but it is said that his father encouraged him to pursue a “safer profession.” So, in 1905, Asplund enrolled at Stockholm’s Kungliga Tekska Hogskolan (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) where, in 1909, he earned a degree in architectural engineering, after which he enrolled at the Kungliga Konsthögskolans Arkitekskola (School of Architecture of the Royal College of Fine Arts) for three years of aesthetic training in accordance with Sweden’s requirements for architectural students. However, in 1910, having become disillusioned by the traditional teachings of the academy and their disinterest in recognizing emerging artistic movements and social issues, Asplund left the school and, with several fellow students, created the privately financed night school, Klara Skola, where progressive architects, Carl Westmann, Ivar Tengborn, Carl Bergsten and Ragnar Ostberg were invited to teach. After finishing his studies at Klara Skola, and brief positions at the Stockholm Municipal Building Authority and the architectural practice of Isak Gustaf Claso, Asplund opened his own private practice in 1913.
Due to a robust architectural competition system in Sweden, Asplund’s practice, as well as his reputation, developed quickly. Industrialization was sweeping Europe, and Sweden was undergoing social and political movements that reflected a desire for change. In addition to the public projects awarded through the competitions, he undertook a broad range of commissions including private villas and industrial buildings.
Asplund’s practice was never more than 4 to 5 employees as he wanted to maintain a “hands-on” involvement with every facet of the project, including designs for the furniture used in the completed project. He was said to be meticulous and paid “painstaking attention to detail.” Not only did he drive himself hard, but he expected his assistants to do the same. Asplund and his staff maintained a grueling 16-hour day; 8am to midnight, with a 4-hour break at 4pm. Regardless, a position in Asplund’s practice was coveted. Alvar Aalto was among the many applicants that were unsuccessful in their attempt to join Asplund’s renowned practice.
With the success of his practice, Asplund was able to self-fund his “Grand Tour,” a traditional pilgrimage taken by European architectural students in the final years of their studies. Having dropped out of the Academy prior to graduation, Asplund was barred from applying for Stipendieresa (travel scholarships), which were awarded to outstanding students. In late 1913, Asplund traveled to Paris, then Italy, where he spent 6 months recording the architectural sights and cultural experiences in over three hundred pages of notes and sketches. Upon seeing the ancient Roman temples at Paestum, he wrote in his journal, ”The temples need the height, the need to get there increases the reverence.”
Upon his return to Sweden and throughout the 1920s, Asplund’s work took a slow and deliberate departure from the Classical elements of architecture that had been the primary focus of so many Swedish Neo-classical architects during the beginning of the twentieth century. The emerging industrialization and democratizing of Sweden called for change, and Asplund fully embraced the Scandinavian humanitarian social movement that was developing at that time. The acceptance of those changes was most evident at the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition.
Built on the banks of Djurgården, an island in the Swedish harbor, the Stockholm Exhibition hosted nearly four million visitors between May and September of 1930. After Le Corbusier rejected an invitation to design and organize the Exhibition, Asplund was invited to fill the role Le Corbusier turned down. As head architect of the Exhibition, he displayed his most radical departure from his previous Neo-classical work and designed the entire exhibit in a functional style inspired by the Bauhaus.
In conjunction with the Stockholm Exhibition, Asplund, along with co-authors Wolter Gahn, Sven Markelius, Gregor Paulsson, Eskil Sundahl, and Uno Ahren, published Acceptera!, a modernist manifesto extolling the virtues of functionalism. Asplund said, “We have no need of the old culture’s outgrown forms in order to maintain our self-respect,” and went as far as to criticize his previous designs.
Throughout the 30s, Asplund continued his usual exhausting pace. Notable designs such as the Bredenberg Department Store, furniture for the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, multiple summer homes, and the State Bacteriological Laboratory, were among the more than seventy projects Asplund had designed by the late 30s.
In addition to his architectural practice, he was a worldwide lecturer, and a professor of architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology and the Royal Art Institute of Stockholm (1931-1940). This demanding workload, however, took a toll on his personal life. In 1934, his first marriage to Gerda Sellman, already strained due to his wife’s increasing interest in fundamentalist religion, ended in divorce. Asplund then became embroiled in a controversial relationship with Ingrid Wahlman, the wife of friend and colleague, Lars Israel Wahlman, which ended in divorce for the Wahlmans and a second marriage for Asplund.
Erik Gunnar Asplund
In the late 30s, Asplund completed the final plans for the Göteborgs Rådhus, a competition won in 1917. The design was revised to include such modernizations as glass elevators, water fountains and telephone booths. When designing chairs for the defendant’s “dock,” Asplund asked “why should someone who was innocent until proved guilty sit in a less comfortable seat than anyone else?”
In 1940, Asplund’s greatest architectural achievement was realized — Skogskyrkogården (the Woodland Cemetery) in southern Stockholm. In 1914, upon Asplund’s return to Sweden from his Grand Tour, he and Klara Skola classmate, Sigurd Lewerentz, entered and won a competition to design the Woodland Cemetery. Considered to be Asplund’s most important contribution to Swedish modernist architecture, the planning of the cemetery would take a quarter of a century to complete. Their approach was to integrate the cemetery, chapel and mortuary into the existing Nordic forest landscape. Comprising nearly 250 acres, the landscape is said to be an “emotional experience” and the Woodland Crematorium is said to be “one of the truly compelling buildings of the twentieth century.” The 25-year project underwent multiple changes, including the addition of two additional chapels and the eventual dismissal of Lewerentz from the project. The project was completed in late 1940 — four months before the death of Asplund.
Erik Gunnar Asplund died at the age of 55. His funeral was the first to be conducted at the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Skogskyrkogården. His ashes are memorialized with a plaque inscribed “hans verk lever” (“his works live”).
Skogskyrkogården was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

ROW 1: Paradise Cafe and Swedish Pavilion Entrance, Swedish Exhibition, 1930; Stockholm City Library (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Author Arild Vågen); ROW 2: Göteborgs Rådhus (Gothenburg City Courthouse) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Author: B****n); Snellman Villa,1917 (Photo: Andreas Buschmann); ROW 3: Gunnar Asplund (public domain); Armchair (designed for the Göteborgs Law Courts, 1935 (Photo: Phillips); Skogskyrkogarden (Woodland) Crematorium Portico; ROW 4: Model 501 Göteborg 1 Chair, 1936 (Designed for the Göteborgs Rådhus (Gothenburg City Courthouse)(Photo: Archiexpo); GA-2 chair for Källemo, 1930 (Photo: Bukowski’s)

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