Block party: OMA and BIG take on Stockholm


In a city that has resisted architectural innovation since the 1980s, two new landmarks from two of the 21st century’s leading practices have risen, commissioned by the same developer. What do these new apartment blocks from OMA and Bjarke Ingels Group contribute to Stockholm’s skyline?


Words by Veronica Simpson

OMA
Norra Tornen

‘Welcome to the best residential tower of the 21st century,’ says OMA partner Reinier de Graaf at the opening of the first of OMA’s two residential apartment blocks, together called Norra Tornen. He is being site-specific (I think) and semi-ironic: Stockholm has very few tall structures and at 125m, this is the city’s tallest residential building yet. But he is probably speaking the truth.

Above the lofty marble foyer where the opening takes place are 36 floors of apartments: an irregular zigzagging stack of brutalist concrete-clad blocks that cantilever and recede in a pleasing binary pattern, all the way up to the two-storey, as yet uncompleted penthouse, which on the November day we visit is shrouded in standard Stockholm wintry mizzle.

The tower appears as an irregular zigzagging stack of brutalist concrete-clad blocks. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Åke E:Son LindmanThe tower appears as an irregular zigzagging stack of brutalist concrete-clad blocks. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Åke E:Son Lindman

OMA loves to design unfeasible buildings — buildings that subvert expectations of what buildings should look and feel like, through manipulation of scale, form, technology or materials; ideally all four. This first tower, called the Innovationen, has 182 apartments and is the taller of the two. Its counterpart, the Helix, will have 138 in its 110m stack, but construction has only just started; it should complete in 2019 and will share the same structural DNA, which does not look particularly radical at first glance: brutalist concrete blocks with cantilevered elements are not rare. But there is originality, in spades.

This scheme is a reworking of a pair of fairly bland towers that a Stockholm city architect had already secured planning for when developer Oscar Engelbert, CEO of Oscar Properties, acquired the site. It had been designated as commercial premises. To translate modern office dimensions to this kind of residential density is no mean feat, never mind doing so to a standard that would meet the ambitions, budget and programme of Engelbert. But after OMA won the 2013 competition to design the new towers, the decision was confirmed that maximum speed and ceiling heights between floors would be achieved with prefabricated concrete units, from the sixth floor up (the lower floors are also concrete, poured in situ).

The precast concrete blocks, embedded with aggregate pebbles, are bush-hammered in vertical grooves. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Åke E:Son LindmanThe precast concrete blocks, embedded with aggregate pebbles, are bush-hammered in vertical grooves. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Åke E:Son Lindman

The real creative genius of the OMA team is in the way they have wrought the greatest possible variety from a small number of prefabricated elements; subverting the modular stereotype. As de Graaf tells me: ‘Prefabricated buildings don’t need to be boxes. Because it’s prefab you can build it very fast, and you can build a much more generous facade than you normally could, because the extra cost of the generous facade is offset by the time you save. And in the western world, time is money.’

The facade is also made of precast concrete blocks, pigmented a pale sandy brown the better to blend with the city’s more antique and distinctive structures tinted ochre, gold, rose and red. Each panel is bush-hammered in vertical grooves, which reveals the equally sympathetically hued aggregate pebbles embedded in the concrete. ‘Although it’s concrete, it really is reflective of a lot of the brick buildings nearby,’ says de Graaf. ‘However, the brick buildings have a horizontal line, with this ribbing it’s a vertical line.’ So while the structure, in its alternating, layered rhythms, mimics the brickwork around it, there is a tension, an opposition, set up in this vertical detail within the panels.

‘It’s implausibly abstract,’ de Graaf says of his building. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian Ghinitoiu ‘It’s implausibly abstract,’ de Graaf says of his building. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian Ghinitoiu

There is also tension, or intrigue, provoked by the peculiar, pixelated, almost two-dimensional quality to the building, caused by its chunky, zigzagging Jenga-block construction and OMA’s decision to glaze as much as possible of the protruding blocks: 9m-wide bay windows stretching the full size of the room fit snugly into the protruding blocks, with no transoms or mullions. Opening doors and windows are placed within the balconies that are tucked into each inverted block, thus meeting the apartments’ ventilation requirements.

The residential interiors, overseen by Oscar Properties’ in-house design team, have a Scandi-luxe aesthetic. Image Credit: Oscar PropertiesThe residential interiors, overseen by Oscar Properties’ in-house design team, have a Scandi-luxe aesthetic. Image Credit: Oscar Properties

Tucking the balconies into these recessed pockets is a clever move, providing protection from harsh winter winds while buffering occupants from the noise of the freeway to the north of the tower. Meanwhile, the clean, glazed barriers embedded into the lower edge ensure that nothing interrupts the simplicity and clarity of the overall pattern of the facade. I suggest it looks like a Minecraft creation come to life, and de Graaf agrees: ‘It’s implausibly abstract. In terms of detailing it looks like it’s impossible.

‘With a limited manipulation of the given form, without breaking any rule, we made something that looks quite different, quite surprising, and something that is in a way ambiguous from any side. The twin tower is a monumental typology but here they ooze a certain amount of domesticity, which is not something you relate with monumentality. It’s a high-rise but it tries to have a human face. It’s a highly industrial project. It’s about repetition. One detail or two: in out, in out; reversing it every floor. From that one repetitive industrial detail you make a form that is highly varied.’

The untreated oak and glazed barriers of the sheltered balconies give on to sweeping views of the Stockholm cityscape. Image Credit: Oscar PropertiesThe untreated oak and glazed barriers of the sheltered balconies give on to sweeping views of the Stockholm cityscape. Image Credit: Oscar Properties

What of the interiors? ‘Cave-like’ is how de Graaf described them, prior to the site visit, and it is weirdly accurate — like caves carved out of an inhabited cliff. Despite the sheer expanse of glass and lofty vistas, you feel hugged in to the core of the apartment; a feeling that persists even on the balconies. With their uninterrupted vistas, residents could hardly ask for more of a sense of being set into the Stockholm cityscape, its largely low-rise, harmonious street plan and russet-tiled rooflines unfolding pleasingly below.

We were shown a three-bedroom, 16th-floor apartment (currently priced at SEK 13m (£1.15m) for 105 sq m) whose styling is all sleek Scandi luxe: white oak floorboards inside with untreated wood on the balconies; endless variations of beige and ivory and grey in the furnishings; bronze fixtures, and blankets piled on every surface for that ‘hygge’ feeling. Oscar Properties’ own in-house design team led by Herman Persson has masterminded the interiors on this and all its other schemes.

The tower’s concrete blocks cantilever and recede in a pleasing binary pattern. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian GhinitoiuThe tower’s concrete blocks cantilever and recede in a pleasing binary pattern. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian Ghinitoiu

They seem to have got the formula right: to date, every single one of the 16 floors of finished, inhabitable apartments in this first tower are now occupied (and mostly by locals, judging from the overwhelmingly Scandinavian surnames on the letterboxes in the foyer). Many of the as-yet-unfinished apartments are also spoken for, including the two-storey penthouse (costing a cool SEK 60.5m (£5.3m) for 281 sq m). Aimed at young-ish, affluent professionals, for their money (the cheapest costs SEK 4.1m (£359,000), for a 44 sq m one-bed) residents also get a gym with spa/sauna, a screening room and a large dining room for parties.

There are quibbles, however. In places it feels as if the logic of interior spaces and sequences seems to have been compromised by the modular imperative — most of the bathrooms were also prefabricated — in order to accommodate the visual integrity of the envelope. The rooms are compact, especially bathrooms, some of which seem to be tucked in strange spots (right next to the front door, for example); there are no en-suites, and no bathroom has natural light; all the views are reserved for the big impact spaces — bedrooms and living rooms.

When both towers are finished, Norra Tornen will form a distinctive sculptural marker at the city’s northern edge. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian GhinitoiuWhen both towers are finished, Norra Tornen will form a distinctive sculptural marker at the city’s northern edge. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian Ghinitoiu

But these are minor quibbles, in light of the major architectural and structural achievements. Certainly, when both towers are finished, Norra Tornen (‘north towers’) will form a distinctive sculptural marker at the city’s northern edge.

Given the restrictions — or because of them — de Graaf seems happy with the project. ‘Normally every project you realise is a percentage of what you intend,’ he tells me. ‘And I guess you can be happy when it’s more than 50%... In Holland Green (the luxury apartments behind London’s Design Museum, which helped fund the museum makeover), we made just above 50%. I would say the Timmerhuis (Rotterdam’s new central city hall building) we made it up to 70–75%. This is in the 80s or 90s.’

Bjarke Ingels Group
79&Park

The starting point for the design was a typical Scandinavian courtyard apartment block, on which Ingels has given his own particular spin. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian GhinitoiuThe starting point for the design was a typical Scandinavian courtyard apartment block, on which Ingels has given his own particular spin. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian Ghinitoiu

The location of 79&Park was something of a gift: right next to a large public park, and facing a small, forested rocky outcrop on the western edge of Stockholm’s centre.

Inspired by Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) landmark projects in Copenhagen, which prioritise views and connections with nature, Oscar Properties invited the Danish practice to do something suitably aspirational, nature-orientated, sociable and inventive, aimed at professionals with young families.

‘I’ve seen the work of BIG before and for me it was important to have a building that would address the causes of nature and sustainability — with wood and greenery,’ Oscar Properties CEO Oscar Engelbert said at the press launch. ‘The most important thing was to have a building where most of the residents would have a balcony or a terrace and enjoy that view.’

The gently sloping, cedar-clad block overlooks Stockholm’s Gärdet park. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian GhinitoiuThe gently sloping, cedar-clad block overlooks Stockholm’s Gärdet park. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Laurian Ghinitoiu

BIG’s starting point was a typical Scandinavian courtyard apartment block — but with a twist. As Ingels said at the launch: ‘We were blessed with a south-west exposure to the park and [had] an obvious desire to make sure all the inhabitants benefit from this. So we thought that if we build much lower on the southern side, we can build the same amount higher to the north.’ Replicating the curve and massing of the nearby forested hill, the southern apartments step up in gentle increments, topped with roof terraces. This means that the interior courtyard receives ample southern light, which also pours into the entirely glazed south-facing elevation of the rear, northerly block.

So far, so very BIG. The 25,000 sq m scheme was commissioned in 2011, shortly after the VM Houses, Mountain Dwellings and 8 House in Copenhagen had sparked Ingels’ trajectory into the starchitect firmament, where he is now so firmly lodged. As with 8 House, the idea here was to create its own little neighbourhood within one city block. But where the earlier scheme wove internal cycling and pedestrian routes into each layer to enrich social connection, this one gives each of the 169 apartments their own little piece of the park in the form of individual roof terraces or balconies, as well as shared roof terracing. As Ingels says: ‘We wanted to invite the park into the city.’ Which extends to covering the entire facade in cedar; fragrant and warm-hued now, it will fade eventually to silver.

White walls, white-oak floors and full-height, timber framed windows define the apartment interiors. Image Credit: Oscar PropertiesWhite walls, white-oak floors and full-height, timber framed windows define the apartment interiors. Image Credit: Oscar Properties

BIG, like OMA, was required to incorporate modular, prefabricated blocks into the scheme, for economy and speed, each one measuring 3.6 x 3.6m, and rising at the highest point to 35m in the northerly block — a similar height to the office block it backs on to. To break down the mass into more organic, individual chunks, the apartments follow the site’s square grid but rotate 45 degrees ‘in order to create nooks and niches’, Ingels explains. In this way, ‘we always create privacy on one side or another.’ Vertical wooden panels set up a rhythm at various points to break up the glazed facades and frame the balcony views — every so often that timber line is broken with slim, slatted panels tilted another 45 degrees to facilitate light while maintaining privacy. 

A kindergarten and doggy day care facility are tucked within the northerly block, and the preschool play spaces spill out into the courtyard, advertising the open, family-friendly atmosphere of the scheme.

White walls, white-oak floors and full-height, timber framed windows define the apartment interiors. Image Credit: Oscar PropertiesWhite walls, white-oak floors and full-height, timber framed windows define the apartment interiors. Image Credit: Oscar Properties

The interiors enjoy full-height, timber-framed windows, looking on to Gärdet Park, the roof terraces, or into the wood and glass facades around the courtyard. There is the same white-walled, white-oak floored Scandi-luxe feel as Norra Tornen. Ingels’ team, working with Oscar Properties’ designers, decided to leave the bones of the structure — where the steel beams intercept the concrete modules — visible, albeit with a coat of thick white paint. They have also kept ceiling heights to a maximum by revealing the considerable variation within each of these unique apartments, caused by the stepped layering of the whole scheme. The steel beams and generous headspace — with minimum ceiling heights of 2.7m, compared to Stockholm’s average of 2.4m — do give the apartments a slightly loft-like atmosphere. Ingels describes them as ‘quirky’.

However, the irregularities don’t always make sense, leading to peculiar moments such as when a handsome, 2m-high wooden door in one apartment leads not to some master bedroom, but to a tall and skinny cupboard (perhaps for skis?). And while the roof-terraced elevations have a joyfully sprawling, inhabited ant-hill/garden quality, there is something not quite resolved about that glazed south-facing facade in the northerly block.

Keeping ceiling heights to a maximum has given the apartments a loft-like atmosphere. Image Credit: Oscar PropertiesKeeping ceiling heights to a maximum has given the apartments a loft-like atmosphere. Image Credit: Oscar Properties

Ingels almost admits as much: ‘One of the challenges of a multi-family [block], where everyone has a balcony, [is that] there’s a rhythm of openings, and it’s hard to make a sculptural statement.’ But he is pleased with the changing character of the building envelope as one moves around it: ‘From Gärdet, the facade is almost entirely glass. As you move around it becomes 50:50, with a sawtoothing aspect… From the northeast corner, if you look back, you have this incredibly sculptural presence of an all-wood facade; not a single window to be seen, even though they’re all there, they are just facing away from you.’ This rear elevation, he says, ‘is unlike almost anything I’ve seen in the city’.

There are obvious precedents to BIG’s approach — Moshe Safdie’s landmark 1960s scheme of stacked, prefabricated, brutalist but lushly planted, concrete blocks in Montreal, Habitat 67, was name-checked at the launch. But the extensive timber cladding and glazing softens this scheme’s impact on the landscape substantially, as intended.

The extensive timber cladding and glazing softens 79&Park’s impact on the landscape. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Åke E:Son LindmanThe extensive timber cladding and glazing softens 79&Park’s impact on the landscape. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Åke E:Son Lindman

Ingels also mentions that he’s a big admirer of Swedish modernist architect Peter Celsing, whose brutal, heroic Filmhuset (1970) sits on the opposite side of the park to the new BIG structure. He was pleased to have his new building ‘bookending’ the park with Celsing’s. A visit to Celsing’s landmark reveals some pleasing resonances: the dialogue between its generous concrete planes and timber details — wooden door and window frames and stepped wooden benching along the huge concrete ramp, for example. But somehow — and it may have more to do with construction quality than design — the scheme feels a little flimsy. Where OMA’s tower looks like it might last at least to the end of this century; BIG’s not so much.

The southern apartments step up in gentle increments, topped with roof terraces overlooking the park. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Åke E:Son LindmanThe southern apartments step up in gentle increments, topped with roof terraces overlooking the park. Image Credit: Oscar Properites / Åke E:Son Lindman

Stockholm is apparently now the fastest-growing city in Europe. According to Swedish economist Kjell Nordström, the city’s population, which has grown from 741,082 in 1950 to 1.6m in 2018, will almost triple by 2045 to 4.5m. With more newcomers arriving in the city than ever, it is not surprising that there is a shortage of affordable housing — and this problem is only likely to get worse.

With the cheapest one-bed flats in Norra Tornen and 79&Park priced between SEK 4m and SEK 4.1m (£350,000–360,000), it doesn’t compare too badly to Stockholm’s average for a one-bed, of SEK 3m (£262,000); as starchitect-designed residences go, they are still far more affordable than anything of that calibre in London or New York. And neither of these two schemes — nor the one Herzog & de Meuron is currently constructing, also for Oscar Properties — are comparable with the toxic towers of cities like London, where the epidemic of high-rise, starchitect-designed luxury blocks built for overseas investors, most of whom will never inhabit them, only adds insult to injury for the hardworking, low-paid locals who are so poorly rewarded in terms of housing, given that it is they who keep the city running. Judging by current occupancy levels, these new homes are intended to be fully lived in and loved.

While these two newcomers are certainly guilty of targeting high-earners, they are also a real achievement as icons of contemporary design. ‘Nothing has been built in Stockholm of any quality [since] 1985 when the Globe Arena was being built,’ explains Mark Isitt, a Stockholm-based publisher and architecture critic. ‘There is a whole generation of architects that are not visible on the skyline at all. As someone living in Stockholm, these two buildings are not just one but two buildings going up of quality. From an architectural point of view, I’m very enthusiastic.’

Questioned on the contribution of his towers to Stockholm’s cityscape at a post-launch press conference, OMA’s Reinier de Graaf said: ‘I like that they are confident about their modernity. Every old building that is supposed to conform was a new building that didn’t… I like the fact that our towers stand out, the fact that they are high, because I think they’re good. And I think a good building is always worth looking at.





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