the big cover-up: peter celsing


stockholm’s huge municipal cultural megacenter (“kulturhuset”) - a truly majestic modernist public palace, contemporary to, and inspired by the same ideals as, the centre pompidou/beaubourg in paris - was designed by (the late) peter celsing, after having won the 1966 architectural competition.

the center was, however, not opened to the public until much later, in the 1970s, and at first only in part - as the national swedish parliament was also housed in the same building for a transitional period, while awaiting the remodeling of the old parliament building nearby. there was actually plenty of room for both exhibitions and parliament sessions, because a large section of the building complex consisted of a gigantic, empty “black box” space, originally intended for the main auditorium of the city’s own municipal, local government run repertory theater company (“stockholms stadsteater”). the parliament, in more desperate need for temporary shelter than the theater company, simply got inside the big empty box before the theater company did.

celsing was commissioned to design a large temporary assembly hall for the national parliament where the theater was supposed to be. and celsing’s parliament design was considered so successful that many parliamentarians say they would have preferred to stay for good.

but no such luck. the national parliament and the prime minister’s cabinet moved back to the old parliament building after a few years. which was a pity, many say today, because parliament gained nothing from moving back. and, in addition, i personally question the success of the remodeling and reorganizing. in my opinion the public, and the cultural center as institution, lost more than was gained when parliament moved out and the municipal repertory theater company moved in.

stockholm’s city theater is arguably the city’s most successful one, both when it comes to the size of its audiences (its main auditorium is the largest proscenium theater in town, i believe), and to the level of its artistic achievements (or so i hear - i’m not much of a theatergoer myself).

but for many, many years it had no proper home. until - some ten or fifteen years ago - the entire theater company moved from their temporary space in an inner city basement (albeit a rather large basement) to its new - and supposed to be permanent - home, smack in the middle of downtown stockholm; to its very own new proscenium theater auditorium, inside the very large “black box” cube of the already existing municipal cultural center.

when first i heard of the move, many years ago, i thought this could perhaps be a good idea. because that huge concrete-and-glass behemoth had after parliament moved out not ever been able to really make its mark as a major cultural institution in the swedish capital - in spite of its sheer size. nor had it ever really found a convincing way for profiting from, or serving, its immediate neighborhood. so i honestly believed, then, that moving in the municipal theater company might do the trick.

this meant having to close the whole center down for quite some time. so once the center reopened, the public was very curious to see what had changed inside from before. as was i.

but my first visit after its re-inauguration was a mildly chocking experience. the originally stark, utilitarian, and in their own fashion rather gorgeous late-modern interiors had for some reason been filled with droves of incredibly tacky knickknacks and kitsch (i.e. the adding/sticking pieces of “art” onto a building’s walls and floors and ceilings, to “beautify” its interiors and/or exteriors - paid for with public money, as part of a national government policy to “improve” new architecture - i.e. a bad case of “konstnärlig utsmyckning”).

all those “works of art” everywhere (especially frequent in the foyers of the brand new theater) were all of them, from what i gathered, produced by painters and sculptors who enjoyed great respect in the art world: experienced professionals, and not by any standard hacks or amateurs. but the total mess to which these participating artists became accomplices when agreeing to attach such masses of weird stick-on “artworks” everywhere - covering up and hiding from view pretty much all of peter celsing’s original design - was destructive and, worse, undignified. not a shred of artistic integrity, it seemed to me.

i have pretty much stayed away from the municipal cultural center and its theater ever since. after all, i was never much of a theatergoer in the first place. but just recently, for reasons i will not dwell on in this forum, we decided to pick up some last minute tickets and go see henrik ibsen’s peer gynt at the center.

to my horror - amused horror, i should say - i found all those knickknacks still to be around. but worse still - worse than stumbling over bad “sculpture” everywhere - was having to spend the half-hour intermission in the theater’s very unglamorous foyer (which doubles in the daytime as a sloppy, depressing public canteen/cafeteria). i swore right then and there never to return again to the stockholm city theater at the center, never again to go see any of their productions. not because sitting through the ibsen performance was any great chore (thanks to ibsen’s well documented proto-freudean insights into the human psyche). but because of everything else about that evening out: not least because having to spend intermission in a depressing canteen, surrounded by bad art, was such an insult to one’s senses and sensibilities.

in addition, the fact that theater performances take place at night also matters here: the business district where the center is located is totally dead at night. in the evening, when it’s time for ibsen, everything else in the neighborhood has closed. once the shops close, the street scape surrounding the center is completely emptied. there is nobody.

the cultural center was built right in the middle of its sad neighborhood for a purpose: to liven up the area, and to provide an alternative to drab commercialism downtown. well, it clearly succeeds better at this task during daylight hours, with those activities that are open (also) in the daytime: such as the intimate and very popular and much visited mediatheque-ish branch of the municipal public library, free and open to all, with magazines and newspapers in every imaginable language, (some books,) and plenty of music to listen to and videos to watch. the success of the city library branch inside the center (the only reliable and constant success since the center opened its doors to the public) proves that the center can function very well, and provide many services to the general public that are much appreciated and really popular - but really only in the daytime, during business hours, when there are people in the neighborhood in the first place. in spite of its hugeness, the center will never be able to “populate” downtown on its own at night. the time for the cultural center to be a safe, pleasant place to visit also at night lies, if anywhere, in the future. the neighborhood has to change first. the center can’t in and by itself change the neighborhood.

thus: devoting almost the entire cultural center complex to an activity which mostly takes place at night (theater) was a mistake. add to that the terrible cafeteria, and all that insultingly bad art, and you have to think “what could we change?” because change is of the essence here.

yes, i did indeed promise myself that night never to return, never to ever set foot in that ghastly foyer again, never to go see a play at the city theater again.

such a decision - to completely boycott the stockholm city theater from now on - might sound drastic, after just one bad experience. but my decision will in fact not cause any big changes in my lifestyle, since i rarely visit the center’s neighborhood in the first place (wrong part of town, wrong crowd, uninteresting shopping, bad restaurants, etc.), and even less frequently bother to visit the cultural center itself. my life goes on somewhere else, not in that godforsaken part of town.

but on one level, the bad ibsen experience did bring about sentiments that will have a major effect on me from now on: i used to simply not care about the center, or about the city theater. but the overwhelming unpleasantness of having to spend intermission in that awful cafeteria, surrounded by all that really bad art, suddenly made me freak out big time: this must stop! the tacky crap that fills “kulturhuset” from top to bottom has to be cleaned out, trashed, burnt, incinerated, made extinct! bring dignity back to peter celsing’s masterpiece! do it now!

so, all in all, it turns out, to redesign the cultural center - to make room inside it for the city’s big municipal repertory theater company - was the wrong thing to do, and wrong for oh so many reasons. because (1), generally speaking, without going into matters of personal taste: this is the wrong neighborhood for concentrating on providing a service (theater) which is not available in the daytime (when the area is full of people) and really only available at night (when nobody’s around). but also (2), on a more personal note: for having pretty much ruined the interiors (and to some extent affected badly the exteriors as well) of one of northern europe’s most magnificent late-modernist buildings.

all that add-on, stick-on “art” is so bad, so awful, and so detrimental to the existing setting, that it makes you wonder how clueless people can be. it makes you think: perhaps it wasn’t cluelessness that ruined the place. it’s as if ruining the place was the whole point of the exercise! it’s as if ruining the place was just what the people involved wanted! it’s as if the real reason for remodeling was to find an excuse to get to ruin the building.

why? because, generally speaking, people do not like architecture. the place was ruined - by covering up and hiding from view all imminent architectural qualities of the original design - to “protect” theatergoers, and visitors to the canteen, and visitors to the center’s art shows, from spotting even the smallest trace of “real architecture” anywhere: an architectural “hate crime;” a huge, misguided “architecture cover-up.”

as i have already explained elsewhere, architecture can be used to ruin architecture. but the example of stockholm’s municipal cultural center proves you don’t need an architect to ruin a building. you might prefer to use a painter or a sculptor for that purpose instead. it’s probably cheaper, for starters, to cover up and hide architecture from view with a few “art pieces” than with more “architecture.”

to sum up: i’ve recently had a major change of hart when it comes to celsing’s famous, but mistreated cultural center - i have in fact made a total u-turn: from years of total disinterest, to sudden deep concern. i am now convinced of the absolute necessity for making this cultural travesty stop once and for all (i’m not speaking of the performances on stage, i’m speaking of what to do about the building and its ruined architecture) - and, by golly, i think i now know exactly what to do about the situation.

and what i propose has the advantage of cleaning up another problematic architectural mess in the vicinity as well, thus killing two unattractive birds with one stone. i will make my proposal public in the very near future, right here, on this blog. (and those readers who have already seen the first installment in this “the big cover-up” series - about the mess the recent city library architectural competition left behind - will probably already have an inkling where all this is going.) i shall call it: “a modest proposal.” stay tuned!