In my post Flames and Consequences, I wrote about how devastating fires caused Stockholm’s building authorities to write restrictive building codes specifying how buildings were to be designed, built, and used. In this post, I will write about how the area around Maria Church (see #3 in this post) on Södermalm was redeveloped after a destructive fire created a blank slate.
|Maria Church and allée in the church yard|
The 1759 Maria Fire leveled or seriously damaged 300 buildings on 30 blocks. This area had previously been leveled in the 1640’s in order to carry out Torstensson’s city regularization. Despite the fact that building regulations already required buildings in this area to be built of brick or stone, many of the new buildings in the Maria area were modest wood buildings. When a fire broke out at a bakery, the combination of strong winds and wooden buildings created an unstoppable inferno.
|A few wood buildings at the edge of Maria Parish that have survived since the 1600's. It is this type of crowded, modest wood construction that Carlberg was trying to avoid in the 1760's.|
Instead of allowing the area to redevelop organically, Johan Carlberg, City Architect from 1727 to 1773, used the opportunity to deliberately improve the area. Carlberg ensured that the new construction followed the building codes and he also made several improvements to the city plan. Some streets were widened, others were extended to create a more regular grid pattern. Several extra-wide areas were included in the new street plan to provide places for wagons to turn around. A new street, Kvarngatan (map 1), was inserted into the grid in order to provide a monumental, on-axis approach to Maria Church (map 2).
|The trees have now grown up so that the Kvarngatan approach is now more green than monumental.|
And perhaps most significantly, Carlberg decided that a large area at the edge of the district would not be rebuilt. Instead, it would become Stockholm’s largest public space and a much-needed market (map 3).
|The area in red shows the extent of the fire. The overlapping area in blue shows the area that was redeveloped in Carlberg's new area plan.|
I will return to the new public square, but first, I will concentrate on the new neighborhood and streetscapes. As mentioned above, the new post-fire construction strictly followed building regulations regarding materials and heights. All new buildings were built of fire-retardant materials (brick or stone) and were 2-4 stories tall. The buildings were allowed to be taller at the bottom of Maria Hill, but toward the top, they were restricted to two stories so that they wouldn’t topple over other downhill buildings in the event of a future fire.
Even after a good bit of redevelopment over the centuries, widespread demolition threats, and road tunnel construction, there are still several blocks on Maria Hill (map 6) today that transport you directly back to what was built in Carlberg's time in the 1760’s. Walking these streets, one almost expects to meet men in wigs and women in bonnets. The streets are still cobbled, windows still open outward, and fireplaces still puff smoke on chilly evenings.
Many of the facades from the 1760’s are very simple with smoothly plastered surfaces and windows providing the only pattern and ornamentation.
Some buildings are slightly fancier with some rustication around the doorway or more prominent window surrounds.
The buildings lining Hornsgatan, the main east-west thoroughfare on the island, are even more ornate with classical window surrounds, watertables, quoining, and rusticated bases.
The basic pattern demonstrated above is that the closer to Hornsgatan or Maria Square the building was, the more ornamental the building.
Not much happened in the area after the big 1760's rebuilding effort of the until the 1890's when quite a lot of the Maria district around Maria Square was redeveloped. This resulted in a rich collage of classical, national romantic, and art nouveau buildings.
New waves of redevelopment in the 1930’s and then 1950’s also left their mark with simple, straightforward buildings in the 30’s and more modernistic buildings in the 50’s.
However, even after redevelopment around the square in the 1890's, 1930's, and 1950's, much of the area on the other side of Hornsgatan at the top of Maria Hill remained intact with its 18th century streetscape. That streetscape from the 1760's was threatened in the 1960’s when the city planned to demolish the entire dilapidated area to make way for new, modern development. Luckily, public opinion did not agree that the area was “worthless” and citizens were able to convince the city to invest in the area through preservation and renovation instead of demolition and redevelopment.
Despite the successes of the anti-demolition protests in the 1960’s and 70’s, a large stretch of the area was demolished in the 1980’s in order to make way for the Southern Tunnels. A large, multi-lane highway was built under the island of Södermalm. I am glad that the highway was built under the island in tunnels, because a surface highway would have spelled doom for the entire area. Most of the existing landscape was able to remain unchanged, but the entrance to the tunnel (map 4) at the northern edge of the island required demolition of at least six entire blocks. Unfortunately, much of the redevelopment after the tunnel was capped in 1991 is quite unsuccessful with over-scaled office buildings, a confusing network of pedestrian walkways, and sterile public spaces. The lack of apartments, cafés, bars, and boutiques means that the entire area feels dead and all the pedestrian walkways and public spaces are underutilized.
There is, however, a more successful area redeveloped in the 1990's with apartment buildings (map 5) spanning over the tunnel. These buildings are quite New Urbanist with obvious historical references to the surrounding 18th century landscape. Unlike the unsuccessful office blocks, the apartment buildings continue the historic urban atmosphere by filling the blocks all the way to the edge of the sidewalks. They have internal tree-lined streets and leafy courtyards. I’m not in love with the architecture of these apartment buildings, but I do appreciate their urban character and how they were successfully integrated into the historic framework.
And finally, more about the new public square that Carlberg carved out during his 1760's redesign of the parish:
Since the street grid regularization in the 1640’s, Hornsgatan had been the dominant thoroughfare and was hence the most attractive address in the area. When Carlberg added a new square to the neighborhood, it became a new counterpoint to the cityscape and immediately became a new desirable focal point. This was Carlberg's intention, as he was quoted as saying that a new square would “give the City, especially Södermalm, a large benefit and convenience.” Carlberg chose the particular block between Hornsgatan and Sankt Paulsgatan for the square because most of the burned-down properties were built against the 1736 building ordinance. The owners of these properties had not obeyed demolition orders and had unwittingly contributed to the fire’s power and reach. Therefore, they did not deserve the right to rebuild.
As City Architect, Carlberg drew two plans for the new square. The first is a very simple plan showing wells in each of the corners and a small but stately building at the head of the square. Because the square was above all meant to be a place of business and trade, the building would house the public scales and measurements. It would also contain a guard house (probably like a little local police station) and a room for storing fire-fighting equipment.
|the 1762 plan|
The second plan also shows wells in all four corners of the square, but it focuses more on the paving pattern and how the pavers were to be sloped for drainage. In this second plan, the building was moved off the square. I am not sure if the building was ever built, but in any case, it does not exist today.
|the 1764 plan|
The square was named Adolf Fredrik’s Square in honor of the then-current king. The king allowed his name to be used with the condition that no executions could ever take place in that square. When the subway was built in the 1950’s, the name was changed to Maria Square in order to avoid confusion with another place in the city with Adolf Fredrik’s name.
Maria Square was a food market until the turn of the 20th century. It had gradually been redeveloped into a park starting in the 1870's, and when a new indoor food hall was built a bit further down Hornsgatan at the turn of the century, all market activity at Maria Square was forbidden.
The park design is quite simple but elegant with an allée on either side of the park and a parallel flowerbed- and sculpture-lined walk leading through the park and around a central fountain by artist Anders Wissler.
The central walkway continues the trajectory of the tree-lined street Swedenborgsgatan (map 7).
Where the route transitions from street to path, the corner buildings are cut in as if they were framing the beginning of the street.
Today, Maria square and the area surrounding it is a bustling district of small, charming cafes and boutiques at street level with elegant apartments above. I believe that there are four distinct reasons why the district is so successful and attractive: first, the preserved charming 18th century atmosphere on some blocks invites one to wander and savor the ambiance; second, the leafy greenness of Maria Square and Swedenborgsgatan offer a distinct freshness compared to the surrounding dense city landscape; thirdly, the park is small enough that it is something that one naturally walks through instead of around (strategically placed crosswalks help, too); and finally, the sheer variety of buildings spanning 200 years create a visually dynamic character that invites closer inspection. To linger in the inviting Maria area is natural.
Johan Eberhard Carlberg: Stockholms stads arkitekt 1727-1773 by Henrik Ahnlund (1984)