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About to be conserved, but still in danger?

Gunnar Asplund’s State Bacteriological Laboratories



Two were the options, when discussing in early 2008 the programme for our third workshop, this time in Sweden. The first option was to focus on Asplund’s Law Courts in Gothenburg, first developed in the years 1918 to 1925 to be than revised and finally built between 1934 and 1937 (fig.s 1), a complex offering many qualities but receiving not as much public appreciation. Located in the very heart of Gothenburg, the addition to the guildhall built by Nicodemus Tessin the Older thematizes first the relation of Old and New, of a historic context and modern additions to this. Whereas, in the very beginning, when the scaffolding came down, this theme was discussed most controversially, later the extension was more and more recognized for the subtlety of its response to the context. The second important theme has been considered differently over time, the design of the interior and in particular of the law courts. Soon their design was appreciated for Asplund’s sensitiveness to the ideals of justice in the socialist Sweden of the 1930s and for the architectural refinement and the material elegance specific to their design. This long standing appreciation seems nowadays, with the moving not long ago of the law courts to another – more secure – building, completely vanished. The proposal put forward recently to change this once important institution of the Swedish welfare state into luxurious apartments is speaking for itself. This ignorance is at the same time a serious danger to Asplund’s design considered still by many a most important modernist monument. A workshop could have provided, in response to this danger, alternative proposals more adequate to its former status and to the monument. Maybe it could even have assured the necessary publicity, so important to find support in Gothenburg among the inhabitants. But certainly, it would have been most difficult to find the attention of the responsible authorities and close to impossible to exert the necessary pressure over a sufficiently long period of time on the public administration, in this case to be characterized as of much stubborn disinterest.[i]

Different the case of Asplund’s State Bacteriological Laboratories in Solna close to Stockholm, equally an important institution of the Swedish welfare state and an architectural masterpiece (fig.s 2). Also the State Bacteriological Laboratories (or abbreviated SBL), designed and built by Asplund as the law courts between 1934 and 1937, thematizes primarily two aspects. First, a very subtle response to its context, in this case to its site in the open landscape, and second, a most precise response to the scientific requirements of the functional programme. Although lesser known to a broader public, in its isolation both due to its location and for its former task, the SBL-complex was and still is very much appreciated by the most renowned experts in the field.[ii] The SBL-complex was for the decades it was in use also much appreciated by its users, in particular for the quality of the working environment, as Lars Olaf Kalings, former director of the SBL, pointed out to us. Despite this fact the SBL had to move about a decade ago primarily for safety reasons to a different location leaving the complex since than without a use. A constant non-use is of great danger to all architecture as it means neglect and decay, eventually even partial losses of the original substance (fig.s 3). But – at least – this danger seems now all gone with the recent sale of the SBL. The new owner, one of the biggest construction firms and real estate developers in Sweden, Skanska, is intended to conserve the complex, to add at the same time more than 100.000 square metres in the direct vicinity (fig.s 4). Is this a new danger? The first proposals both for the conservation of the complex and for the additions seem to be of a considerable impact. Neither the proposed uses seem to respect sufficiently the former status of the SBL as an important institute of the welfare state. Nor the scale proposed for the additions seem to correspond with that of the architectural masterpiece. A different kind of neglect, determined by a shift of values, is here the very danger. The maximisation of return rates seems to have taken the absolute lead. The consequence of this form of neglect is certainly not decay but can be the irrecoverable loss both of the references to its former status and of its architectonic qualities. How big is this danger? And is this danger - for this moment regardless the good intentions expressed by the owner and the quality of the conservation work, the here involved architectural office of AIX is known for - as great as the one of non-use and decay?


To explore this danger and to formulate strategies to respond to it seemed the perfect task for our workshop, the more so all parties involved showed great interest in our work. The office of AIX showed great curiosity in discussing our views, the more different they were the better.[iii] Whereas Skanska’s interest of course was more focussed, asking us for realistic and feasible solutions. Finally, the authorities, here the office of urban planning and the heritage board, which in the time of our workshop were not all decided yet which way to take best, were interested in alternative proposals. In our workshop, we took these partially diverging interests as a great chance and as great challenge.


In last year’s workshop brochure it was argued that we normally consider our built environment and the monuments in the process to be listed, but also the ones already listed, all but equally. When it comes to monuments of the Modern Movement including here its followers after 1945, the list of endangered buildings seems endless, as is the list of destroyed buildings long. Such lists indicate, that the ‚sites of the every-day live’ are running many more risks than the ‚monuments of high culture' as do monuments of lesser known architects compared to the masterpieces by the more famous architects. Of course, this is only of a relative assurance, considering cases such as Richard Neutra’s Maslon House (fig.s 5). In 2002 the Maslon House (1962), close to Palm Springs, was sold by Sotheby’s for 2,4 Mio. Dollars, to be torn down 4 weeks later. A destiny which Neutra’s famous Kaufmann House (1946) was about to run some years earlier as well to be than, instead, painstakingly conserved in the attempt to refer as closely as possible to the original (fig.s 6).[iv] In the case of Asplund’s SBL in Solna the destruction of course seems not to be a serious danger, but also the conservation as in Palm Springs seems not to be intended. Between these two extremes which should be the strategy in Solna? Many alterations have occured over the years. Taken one by one these might seem of a lesser impact, only when considered all together it is possible to understand how much they have damaged the integrity of the original design. The Bredenberg Department Store in Stockholm, which Asplund designed in the same functionalist phase as the SBL[v], for instance has kept mostly its original use but has lost much of the subtle design of its interiors and exteriors (fig.s 7). Back to Solna, to which extent should the existing be conserved, should additions be removed and lost parts reconstructed? To develop this understanding for the relative integrity of a monument has been the first task of our workshop.


This leads to a second important argument, Asplund’s SBL complex allowed us to discuss in more detail. It is an architectural but also an economic argument. A private owner always will understand a monument also as a form of a financial investment, which should not loose money but assure more or less acceptable interest rates. If this seems to request interventions in and changes to the monument, the private owner will ask for them. Whereas, who is engaged in the protection of the monument, has to defend the monument against all interventions and changes which could result to become non adequate and non coherent with the monument. An example: Close to the Bauhaus School Building in Dessau, one finds the Masters’ Houses: three semi-detached houses and one single villa, built after Gropius’ designs in 1925/26 for the Bauhaus professors. Since 1996, this ensemble is Unesco World Heritage Site. The still existing houses have been conserved after 1990, financed partly by private means. The Klee-Kandinsky-House has been converted into a museum exhibting primarily works of its former inhabitants, whereas the Muche-Schlemmer-House stayed a semi-detached studio-house, exhibiting today mainly itself (fig. 8). With the choice to convert the Klee-Kandinsky-house into a museum among others an additional air conditioning system became necessary as well as a security-system, which both are of a considerable impact on the exisiting substance. The Muche-Schlemmer-house could stay free of all these. It is a problem, which has been well understood in the case of Asplund’s crematorium building in the Woodland Cemetery (fig. 9). Here a quote from the competition request for proposals: „The Woodland Crematorium has managed to operate according to the original concept over the years, thanks to the continual renewal of its technical facilities. Now, however, the increasing demand for higher standards of technical performance and in the working environment mean that the existing crematorium in Gunnar Asplund's building can no longer be modernized without causing unacceptable changes to his original concept and design. [...]The City Cemeteries Council has therefore decided to move the entire cremation facilities to a new building alongside Asplund's, while yet permitting the necessary functional and technical connections. Asplund's original building with its three chapels will continue as the setting for ceremonial services as before and the new building will be located at a respectful distance so as not to harm the current crematorium's setting in the Woodland landscape.“[vi]


Of course, not all monuments can become museums exhibiting primarily themselves. This applies, very likely, also to Asplund’s SBL-complex in Solna.  In this case, which would be the best strategy to approach its architecture in its landscape respecting both the many qualities of Asplund’s design and the all legitimate request of the owner for more or less acceptable interest rates? Change is, without doubt a challenge, but so is also the masterpiece. To better understand the reciprocal interdependency of change and perservation in conservation has been the second task of the Intensive Programm which will be introduced on the following pages.


It is on these grounds, that students and professors coming from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art, School of Architecture in Copenhagen, the Fachhochschule Frankfurt, Studiengang Architektur, the Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the Eesti Kunstiakadeemia in Tallinn, the Fachhochschule Kärnten, Studiengang Architektur, and last but not least the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the school of Architecture and the built environment, in this third Intensive Programme year have focussed on Asplund’s State Bacteriological Laboratories in Solna. The primary aim has been to develop strategies to protect and to investigate techniques to conserve this monument as well as to think about how to introduce the same time progress.

For more information about the premises, the conceptual approach, the general structure of this Intensive Programme, and the tasks the students have worked on the interested reader might be referred to the following article „Reworking the SBL or maximising a rate of return“. Dick Sandberg and Ola Wedebrunn will than concentrate on the many layers of history of the SBL and on the current discussion about how protection and progress can here interact. Finally the Intensive Programme’s specific structure will be introduced by Stefan Heßling. The second part of the brochure is all given to the presentation of the student’s work, in part of the preparative work, but in particular of the workshop-work. Of great importance for this work were the reviews, talks, and guided tours, renowned experts from Sweden, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany gave or participated in. All contributions, which we received in written form and well documented, we have included here in full length.

An undertaking such as this Intensive Programme requests considerable energies. As the coordinator of the Intensive Programme I would like once more, in the name of all participants, to thank all who dedicated much of their energy to this Intensive Programme. In the first place I would like to thank the European Community, Education and Culture, Socrates Programme, Erasmus, for having accepted our proposal for this Intensive Programme, funding generously much of our work; further all presidents, directors, and deans of the participating schools and departments, from Copenhagen, Frankfurt am Main, Leuven, Tallinn, Spittal an der Drau and Stockholm for their generous support of the programme.

My thanks go  to the team which organized the pre-workshop in Berlin, Stefan Heßling and Stephan Bohlender, both from Frankfurt. Our thanks go in particular to Marian Engel und Andreas Preisner, Franz Jaschke from the office Winfried Brenne, Claudia von Grote, and Wolfgang Schoele from the Förderverein Bauakademie, to have shared in Berlin their knowledge with us. Many thanks go equally to the team, headed by Torbjörn Almquist from the office of AIX, and Dick Sandberg teaching at the KTH, who together with Ola Wedebrunn organized the Stockholm workshop with a lot of energy and much dedication. AIX was a wonderful host, my special thanks go to Mikael Uppling, so was KTH, here my many thanks go to its Pro-Dean Leif Brodersen, so was Skanska, here all our thanks go to Mikael Dimadis. Torbjörn Almquist after having posed the initial question responded to all our questions as well as to the critique most patiently. Dick Sandberg removed all organisational obstacles, assuring together with Mikail Dimadis even – this was certainly his organisational masterpiece - that the workshop could use the SBL main building as studio; he also gathered much of the basis information on the SBL and invited the most important experts on Asplund and the SBL. Whereas Ola Wedebrunn  reminded us in all crucial moments how important it is to consider the broader Swedish cultural context and in particular the concept of the welfare state in order to understand the SBL. But what we appreciated most, was the great atmosphere of cooperation our Swedish hosts were able to create.

I would also like very much to thank all the experts, which found time to join us, to sit on reviews, to come with us on our field trips and to introduce us to their work, to Lars Olof Kallings, Eva Eriksson, Eva Rudberg, Torbjörn Almquist, Johan Rittsel, Mikael Dimadis, Britta Roos, Helena Persson, Peter Blundell Jones, Volker Giezek, Torbjörn Andersson, Stuart Wrede, Mascha Onderwater, and Johan Celsing as well as to all cultural institutions and private owners, for having invited us to their sites, and for having provided the studio with most helpful material for the workshop.

I would like to thank Stephan Bohlender, who has been in charge of the e-learning platform, for his attentive work, Jan Przerwa for having designed and curated our website, and Stefan Heßling both for having helped much in the general organisation and for having coedited  and designed this brochure. Last but not least, many thanks and compliments go to my colleagues from the partner schools, to Dick Sandberg, to Ola Wedebrunn, to Holger Techen, to Luc Verpoest, together with Barbara van der Wee, Paul Lieverouw and Sara van Rompaey, to Mart Kalm together with Epp Lankots, and to Peter Nigst, together with Nils Peters, and – very importantly - to all the participating students for having contributed to the workshop with great commitment and even greater enthusiasm, beforehand, during and after.



[i] It is Indicative in this context, that the Department of Architecture Transformation and Conservation of the local Chalmers University, after having developed many proposals for a respectful conservation without, however, finding much attention, have optioned for sarcasm, suggesting to convert the law courts into the head quarters of the Hells Angels.

[ii] See among others Peter Blundell Jones’ most attentive reading here in this brochure.

[iii] It was Torbjörn Almquist of AIX who introduced us, here Ola Wedebrunn and myself, in Karlsruhe, in the occasion of the conference “Das architektonische Erbe. Zum aktuellen Umgang mit den Bauten der Moderne – Schweden”, on January 25, 2008, to AIX’ proposals for the State Bacteriological Laboratories asking us for our opinions.

[iv] „[Strikingly] photographed in 1947 by Julius Shulman, it stood vacant for several years after Kaufmann’s death in 1955. Then it went through a series of owners, including the singer Barry Manilow, and a series of renovations. Along the way, a light-disseminating patio was enclosed, one wall was broken through for the addition of a media room, the sleek roof lines were interrupted with air-conditioning units, and some bedrooms were wallpapered in delicate floral prints. Little more than a decade ago, it attracted so little notice that the Kaufmann House was being offered for sale as a teardown. [...]  Instead it was acquired by the Harries. [...]  After purchasing the house and its more than an acre of land for about $1.5 million, the Harrises removed the extra appendages and enlisted two young Los Angeles-area architects, Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner, to restore the Neutra design. They sought out the original providers of paint and fixtures, bought a metal-crimping machine to reproduce the sheet-metal fascia that lined the roof and even reopened a long-closed section of a Utah quarry to mine matching stone to replace what had been removed or damaged.“ here quoted from „A Landmark Modernist House Heads to Auction“, by Edward Wyatt, published in the New York Times, October 31, 2007.

[v] See Peter Blundell Jones’ paper here in the brochure.

[vi] For more information please see the website of the Swedish Association of Architects.







Intensive Programme 2002-2005:                                                       Web Development: Jan Przerwa, August 25, 2016