A modernist shift: Ivar Justus Tengbom

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

The Royal Gold Medallist broke his romanticist habit for Torsten Kreuger's office and hotel block

View across the square to six storey office and hotel block Citypalatset, Norrmalstorg.
View across the square to six storey office and hotel block Citypalatset, Norrmalstorg. Credit: Architectural press archive / RIBA collections

RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner 1938
Citypalatset, Stockholm (1932)

There’s something telling in the fact that Ivar Tengbom’s (1878-1968) Royal Gold Medal citation in 1938 made no direct mention of his modernist Citypalatset for Swedish banker and newspaper magnate Torsten Kreuger, built six years earlier. For British architects only had eyes for  Sweden’s unique blend of national romanticism and classicism – exemplified by Tengbom’s 1911 Högalid Church, 1920 Stockholm Concert House and 1928 Swedish Match Company offices. On the night, Grey Wornum waxed lyrical over Högalid’s west towers, Edward Maufe calling it ‘the most completely satisfying modern Swedish building I have seen’ – and TA Darcy Braddell hailed his Swedish Match Company offices ‘the most lovely building of all’ in his oeuvre.

But there was an elephant in the room – perhaps two. Was Wornum vicariously critiquing the Citypalatset when he continued: ‘The Swedish Match offices…should at least provide compensation to those unfortunate people whom Kreuger failed’? And did Tengbom make a Freudian slip when expressing his honour at being the second Swedish recipient of the Medal (after Ragnar Östberg), ‘the equivalent of the Nobel Prize’? Tengbom, smarting at losing to Östberg on the 1911 competition to design Stockholm City Hall – which hosts the Nobel Prize banquet – made Högalid’s west towers a tad higher than the city hall’s grand campanile.  

 

Main entrance from the square to Citypalatset, Norrmalstorg.
Main entrance from the square to Citypalatset, Norrmalstorg. Credit: Architectural press archive / RIBA collections

Perhaps Tengbom, with his overtly international modernist 1932 Citypalatset, was conceding to the younger Asplund and Lewerentz the nuanced territory of classicism and modernism that would be the apotheosis of Swedish 20th century architecture. In his Gold Medal acceptance speech, Tengbom admitted he lacked ‘the ability to let my imagination entirely disregard the economic and technical aspects of my art,’ a sentiment Alan Powers seconded 60 years later, at an AA Tengbom retrospective; calling him ‘a ‘safety first’ architect where style was concerned.’

In contrast to earlier work, the Citypalatset eschewed brick and copper, running white marble, steel and plate glass unrelentingly across a whole city block, acknowledging the inevitable tide of industrialisation and political change sweeping Europe in the run up to World War II. But ‘was the abandonment of 30 years’ work really so easily achieved?’ asked Powers. ‘The political changes around 1930 seem to have shaken all architects, and Tengbom kept himself in the swim.’ A noted national romanticist, he would, Powers felt, prove to be a lacklustre modernist; ‘his later work quite unmemorable compared with what had gone before.’ 


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