Observations on Urban Form: Architecture + Iconography by Anne Tate
A Series on Architecture, Planning, and Urban Design
While walking in Stockholm I discovered an astonishing pair of doorways. The building is (or was) the headquarters of the municipal electricity utility. It had the usual grandiose architectural details of its era—elaborate cornices and arches, medallions and cornices—expressing serious purpose and municipal importance. The gilded letters over the door stated: Stockholm Eletricitetverks. A closer look at the apparently Romanesque-style detailing revealed a much richer and more inventive design and raised questions about what we have lost in the contemporary architecture of the city.
In the place of traditional elaborations of structure or decorative naturalistic motifs, the designer chose instead to celebrate the wonders of an emerging technology and its distribution to the urban populace. Every piece of the carved decoration is derived from the technical parts of an early electrical power system. The pilasters are decorated with braided wires, the archivolts with banded cables, the capitals with transformers. Moldings are made with capacitors and transformers, and light bulbs replace traditional egg and dart motifs.
The theme of conductivity is pervasive and compelling, since every element is connected to others with sinuous cables winding over the architecture. The keystone is decorated with transformers, and waves of light or energy emanate from the entries. Wittily the traditional female figure presiding over the door wears a halo of light bulbs.
Young people who look carefully today may not even recognize the old-fashioned technology of a system whose infrastructure is now almost always invisible in the city. WiFi will never provide such compelling imagery of interconnection and parts to a system.
The modernist dictum that form follows function assumed a close permanent fit between building form and a specific use. But expecting a building’s form to articulate use can be inappropriate in two ways. First, an urban building should continue to contribute to the city long after its initial client and program have moved on. And second, buildings with a “loose fit” to their program are more durable, sustainable, and responsive to the evolution of human uses. Furthermore, great public realms are often formed from simple buildings that contribute to a harmonious street wall.
Another dictum of modernism was the removal of explicit decoration on buildings unless it expressed structure. But in adopting that ideology we have lost the ability to craft an architecture that speaks overtly and explicitly about function—or more importantly—purpose through its detail. If one assumes that architectural honesty and integrity are linked to an explicit articulation of the building’s content, then the lifespan of the building is limited to the period of its original occupation. But when a building can tell us stories about its occupants and their role in society, those stories inform the passersby about the aspirations of a moment in the history of their city. The transitional architecture of the early modern era and specifically the Works Progress Administration are among the best American examples of using iconography in architectural detail. This pre-modern example in Stockholm is remarkable for its confident ingenuity and exuberance.
The building adorned with these beautiful doorways filled most of an urban block, with regular large windows and, one assumes, a simple floor plan. It may or may not still be fulfilling its original purpose of housing the offices of the municipal utility. However the building is used in the future—and it is a strong adaptable building that should endure for many more years—it will always tell a story to those who look carefully, a story celebrating an important technological moment in time, when the wonder of electricity was made available across the region and when the men and women who worked inside dedicated themselves to providing power and light to the citizens of the city.
The architect of this building was interested in telling a story that went beyond naming the functions housed inside his building. He wanted to celebrate the majesty of a public purpose: bringing light to the citizens of Stockholm. One wonders how today’s architecture could communicate more powerfully to the general public?
Is avoiding explicit decoration, iconography, and storytelling in our buildings a form of “honesty” or a refusal to grapple with the more difficult task of expressing shared stories, defining bold aspirations and memorializing our own time? Perhaps we should try to do better.
Anne Tate is a Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a particular focus on large-scale sustainable urban design challenges. She has been a policy advisor to governments at the state, region, and city scales. At RISD, she teaches studios and an interdisciplinary course “Beyond Green Urbanism” with sociologist Damian White.
Header photo of building in Stockholm by Anne Tate.