Lynch Architects

'Lewerentz' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch

07 Jul 2008

You might expect that the self–styled ‘third generation of moderns’ might be a dull topic today, but I’d like to illustrate my interest in them. At Klippan in Southern Sweden, Sigurd Lewerentz designed a parish community with a chapel within it. St Peter’s is a mix of Islamic and vernacular forms that are bound together by an idea about construction that makes a brick the measure of the whole conglomerate. The material surface binds the disparate buildings together in the manner of bricks and pan-tiles in the hill towns seen on Lewrentz’s Italian holidays. The eclectic approach to historical precedents is resolved into an architectural idea that accepts the simultaneous similarities and differences of things. Lewerentz’s dogmatism about not cutting a brick (a brick is like a soul he reasoned), leads to the mess of mortar that becomes almost a concrete slab with very big bits of aggregate in it.

Such conceptual asceticism, and disciplined denial of easy ways out, evokes also an atmosphere of austerity in the building, but one which is leavened by the glorious ‘mis-junctions’ of things, the collisions of the architect’s attitude towards technique and the things he accepts as beyond this. You find that rather than attempting to design a brick font, Lewerentz lets the floor swell and break to form a miniature well within the chapel, and he places above this a conch shell. Drops of water pace out the space quite quietly, drip by drip. They also break the surface of the cleft pool, disturbing the rather monotonous interior and reinforcing the cave-like quality of the chapel.

When you look out you see no window frame, and openings appear like holes in rock in the metre deep walls. Eroded by light, the interior appears even darker, and the difficulty the eye has in reconciling the bright light of the white sky outside with the gloom of the chapel leads to interesting after shocks on the retina. It is as if Lewerentz is inverting the great Jesuitical tradition of the Baroque lantern, which denies you a view out of the dome of the source of light, but nonetheless makes it visible and almost tangible as beams of light, or in the curved surface of the cupola. Lewerentz plays the same game, but with him your eyes cannot focus on the architecture, it remains beyond you precisely because it feels like it is inside of you as much as you are in it.

What I mean is that what Joseph Rykwert calls the ‘metaphor’ of architecture is ‘a double one; a body is like a building and the building in turn is like the world.’ At Klippan the steel column that supports the central bifurcated roof beams occupies the centre of the dark chapel and focuses attention onto the altar. The column is like a body of course, and in the darkness it appears like your own body, the one that you are hardly conscious of. By disappearing from view it enters consciousness as a shadow and a memory. And this is his great achievement – you get a shuddering visceral shock of recognition - the Cross represents someone’s body under duress. It is always there anyway, regardless of your presence, but being in the space brings the meaning of the architecture to life in a way that reading about what it represents cannot do. Ideas about material and immaterial things are revealed over time in a carefully constructed space. His crucifix bears the weight of representational power and holds the sky and earth apart. In phenomenal and imaginative terms it succeeds in bringing both together.