A Nobel Cause

Peter Steen-Christensen
Posted March 6, 2014 in More


If all goes according to plan a decision will be made in April on how Stockholm’s new landmark building – The Nobel Center on Blasieholmen – will look. The three architect firms remaining in the contest are currently slugging it out in front of the jury with revised proposals to see whose design will grace the Stockholm skyline.

Exactly how great an importance there is in having a strong architectural landmark could be debated, but most would agree that it is in a city’s interest to strengthen its brand with a strong visual focal point. For example, few would argue against the importance of Sydney’s opera house, while we are unsure of the significance of the new opera houses built in recent years by our neighbouring cities Copenhagen and Oslo that are supposed to assume that same landmark role. In our vicinity Hamburg might be the best example, with their new concert house – The Elbe Philharmonic Hall.

The difference in Stockholm would be that there is a significant added bonus in that this potential new face of Stockholm comes with a far greater meaning than just another opera or concert house. The Nobel Foundation and its Nobel Prize is already such an incredibly strong brand, with immense credibility.

The new project, which is instigated by the Nobel Foundation in tandem with Stockholm City, will cover close to 26,000 square meters and be situated waterside, just behind the National Museum. It’s very much in the heart of the city, but as the location is underused it actually feels a bit off the beaten track.

nobel snowflake

This project is not by any means a new idea. When the Nobel Prize was established over a century ago there were plans to set up a building that would accommodate activities related to the prize.

The Nobel Centre will accommodate public spaces for exhibitions and related programming, scientific conferences, meetings and events as well as a library, restaurant, cafe and a shop. It will also be the natural place for meetings with Nobel Laureates – both physical meetings and through stories, events and exhibitions. The vision of the Nobel Foundation is that it should be a place that engages and excites curiosity, where students, scientists, locals and visitors can meet and be inspired by the Nobel laureates and their work.

Although a lot of people think this is all a very sound and solid idea, a development of this scale in the middle of the city is unsurprisingly not without controversy. Criticism has come its way from many who advocate preserving Stockholm’s unique look and structural flavour – the general consensus is that if there is to be a building at this site, among the things to take into consideration is to keep the unique waterfront of inner-city Stockholm of universal height and not to go with the most extravagant structures of an excessive volume.

According to the Nobel Foundation we won’t have to worry – this project is to be given the best possibility to really stand out as a great landmark for Stockholm. They say it will combine modern architectural courage with the city’s historical roots, both in its vision and in terms of the physical place where it will be built.

Further criticism has come from fellow architects – while the idea of an architectural competition to find the best proposal is very good and healthy, strong voices consider the execution seriously flawed since The Nobel Foundation decided to sidestep the established rules set within the architectural industry on how such a contest is to be carried out.

The major gripe has been the decision to publish information on what architects were behind what proposal. The drawback is that if proposals are not anonymous, it will always influence any decision a jury is making, either as a consequence of bigger names having an advantage over lesser-known firms or because of nationalistic pride, for example. One of the world’s leading architects, Herzog & de Meuron (who are behind Hamburg’s aforementioned Philharmonic Hall) pulled out of the competition, which might have to do with a completely different reason, but The Swedish Association of Architects pulled out of the competition as well, leaving their places on the jury vacant.

Photo: Patrick Miller
Photo: Patrick Miller

Katarina O Cofaigh is acting president of the Swedish Association of Architects, and she cites these very conditions as their reason to pull out.

“They opted not to follow the regulations of the industry, the rules that all the various architectural organizations have agreed on. The first and main step is that all proposals are to be judged independently without knowing who is behind them,” she explains. “The integrity of the jury is threatened. Their work is supposed to be to decide on the quality of the different proposals – visually, functionally and so on – without letting anything else influence them. And because that wasn’t the case we simply couldn’t approve of the competition. It’s impossible to stand behind something that doesn’t live up to the rules you have partaken in creating. But having said that, you can of course run a competition without our involvement.”

Otherwise Katarina O Cofaigh agrees about the importance of the potential Nobel Center as an architectural landmark. She says it’s one of the most important locations in Stockholm to build on.

“It’s a waterside location with a lot of pedestrian traffic, for Stockholm it would be an exceptional building. It’s only the form of the competition that we don’t agree with. If you are to erect a building on that spot it’s important that it becomes a great building.”

The Stockholm City planners are in no doubt that this will be the case. They have great expectations for the architectural quality of the project and of the centre’s ability to increase Stockholm’s identity as the hometown of the Nobel Prize.

Jonas Claeson, Project Manager at Stockholm City Planning means that the project has the potential to create something unique.

“The city contributes with one of its most beautiful locations and in return Nobel will deliver a fantastic building, both in terms of form and content,” he says.

His colleague Victoria Zimmerman, Project Manager at Development Administration at Stockholm City adds that the centre will contribute to a more vibrant, attractive and safe urban environment before firing her great sales pitch in our direction.

“The Nobel Center will be situated at a fantastic spot in the heart of Stockholm and will become a very popular attraction. The hope is to create a modern building for both the Stockholm public and visitors to the city, and to make it an attractive place, in stark contrast to today where the location is mainly used for parking of sea vessels and for a certain amount of parking spaces. For such a prime location, it’s underused; the city wants to make this location and the Nobel Center into the face of Stockholm.”

nobel snowflake interior

Despite the best efforts of the yay-sayers some voices are still critical, with concerns regarding its size. Many claim that the construction violates the existing and venerable townscape. At Stockholm Stad, there is an understanding of this criticism.

“Sure, we understand that there are many viewpoints against a proposal to create something unique in the middle of Stockholm. But the fact that the building is likely to contrast with the surrounding buildings, both in material and design – will probably only strengthen the historical trend of allowing large cultural buildings to stand out,” says Jonas Claesson.

“The new building will also interact with the site’s cultural heritage, in particular with the National Museum and be part of the cultural passage extending between Skeppsholmen and the city centre,” he adds.

The Nobel Foundation are obviously in full agreement with this standpoint and points out that it is natural that a city is made up of architecture from different eras. The interaction with the surrounding buildings and cultural environment, however, is one of several factors that guide the evaluation of the current competition.

While many mentioned the benefits of The Nobel Center as a landmark for Stockholm, not everyone agrees. Konrad Milton of Stockholm architect firm Jägnefelt Milton gives his view as an independent architect.

“When you talk about landmarks and you look at the opera houses in Oslo and Copenhagen, it is something that is fairly dated and provincial. For the city itself it’s quite uninteresting, but for the Nobel Foundation it’s considerably more interesting as a physical symbol and location. But their own trademark or brand is so much stronger than a building, and I think it’s difficult to translate that brand into a building. So in that regard they should perhaps avoid it and concentrate on what they do best,” he says.

Konrad Milton is also critical of the way the architect competition was set up. “They should have done it in the usual way – follow the strict regulations that have been put in place. Even participating firms that are not Swedish have been critical. And it’s been obvious how the media has given more exposure to a Swedish contribution.”

But let’s see what the revised proposals from the three shortlisted candidates will bring to the table. There’s nothing wrong with the idea; for the City it would probably enhance an already-strong brand and further establish Stockholm as a significant centre of science and knowledge. It’s the execution that people worry about, and the possibility of making the wrong decision and that we in the future will see this as an opportunity gone amiss.

The inauguration of the Nobel Center is targeted for the end of the 2018, by which time its new neighbour Nationalmuseum will have re-opened after a four year long hiatus due to the major renovations.

For more information go to www.nobelcenter.se


In its assessment work, the jury attached great importance to the building’s adaptation to the surrounding cityscape and cultural environment, as well as how the external design fits together with the Nobel Prize and the identity of Nobel activities.

Nobelhuset –David Chipperfield Architects Berlin, Germany
From the jury’s review: The proposed building conveys dignity and has an identity that feels well balanced for the Nobel Center. The limited footprint of the building allows room for a valuable park facing the eastern portions of the site, with plenty of space for a waterfront promenade along the quay. The façade surfaces will also reflect light from the sky down into the street or open space on Hovslagargatan.

A P(a)lace to Enjoy –Wingårdh Arkitektkontor, Sweden
From the jury’s review: One of the foremost qualities of the building is the openness of its entrance level. Its glass façade is inviting and creates close contact between outdoors and indoors and between urban life and the activities in the Nobel Center. The grand stairway is a classic element that can give the building a dignity that fits the identity of the Nobel Center.

A Room and a Half –Johan Celsing Arkitektkontor, Sweden
nobel_a room and a half
From the jury’s review: The proposal is a coherent, classically proportioned building that connects to the surrounding cityscape. Because the building is placed at an angle to Hovslagargatan, this creates an attractive open space near the entrance. The proposal also leaves ample room for a waterside promenade and outdoor public areas. In many ways, its materials and appearance are well adapted to the purposes of the building.

Words by Peter Steen-Christensen & Anna Molin



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