Nighttime rendering of the planned Nobel Center David Chipperfield Architects

Not in His Majesty's Backyard?

If you thought an organization as prestigious as the Nobel Institute could do no wrong in its home country, think again. Right now Stockholm is hosting a fierce debate over a new headquarters for the world prize, in which the Nobel’s various committees could host cultural and scientific events. You might expect this flagship project to be welcomed with open arms, but the planned center, designed by British architect David Chipperfield, has been met with a fierce backlash.

The new center, featuring exhibition space and an auditorium and costing a little under $150 million, would give a year-round home to an institution currently scattered around several sites. To its critics, however, the new building is just too big and visible, would destroy too much in its wake, and isn’t even needed. Now Sweden’s king has waded into the fray, saying last week that the planned center was in the wrong place and “needn’t have this huge volume.”

This royal condemnation needn’t be taken all that seriously. Sweden’s king is something of an oddball whose previous contributions to public discourse have included warnings to Swedes not to eat too many gumdrops. But when you look at the planned site, in the heart of the city’s harbor, the wider furor makes a little more sense. Short of demolishing the city’s royal palace, the Nobel Center could scarcely have picked a more prominent, sensitive site in all Stockholm.

The new center would on the Blasieholmen Peninsula, which bisects the harbor waters between Stockholm’s Old Town Islands and its most expensive neighborhood, Östermalm. The royal palace is just across a narrow channel, while the site is metaphorically boxed in by the city’s main opera, concert hall and modern art museum, which all lie nearby. Occupying its peninsula’s prow like a ship’s figurehead, the Nobel Center would be visible for miles around and jostle historic buildings that have been around for centuries.

Indeed, given the central location, it’s remarkable there’s any space here at all. That a sliver of partly underdeveloped land is still available here is down to changing fashion’s in Stockholm urbanism. After World War Two, parts of central Stockholm underwent a massive reconstruction program. Even though neutral Sweden had received no wartime damage, Stockholm looked wistfully towards bright modern reconstructions of war-damaged cities such as Rotterdam and decided it wanted something similar. The Blasieholmen site was left unbuilt because it was slated as the site of a cloverleaf junction into which cars would be fed from a sub-harbor road tunnel. That road tunnel was never built, and by the 1970s the plan had mercifully been scrapped, leaving the site occupied by a few low historic buildings and a little park.

A view of the Nobel Center’s site as it appears today, with the low historic buildings that need to be removed in the foreground.: Source Jeppe Wikström/Nobel Center

If Chipperfield’s design is built, those historic buildings, which include a late 19th century customs house will have to be removed, if not demolished entirely. That would be a loss, given that they’ve already been rescued from the jaws of the redevelopment beast once. But beyond the understandable anxiety about these buildings’ fate, what’s surprising about the backlash is that Chipperfield’s design possesses a sobriety that you don’t expect to provoke strong feelings. It’s modest in appearance, albeit not in bulk—though even here its planned height was reduced by 4.5 meters (15 feet) after protests. While certainly large, the Nobel Center’s wood-clad cube is a world away from the eye-catching starchitecture you’d expect from the Gehrys or Calatravas of this world. It looks—not inappropriately, given the Scandinavian setting—like a giant sauna. Ultimately, it seems that resistance here is not to the Nobel Center plans, per se, but to any insertion into a familiar, well-loved cityscape. This ambivalence about inserting anything contemporary into the city is both entirely understandable and faintly depressing. Let’s see if public opinion swings in the king’s direction.

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