Contemporary Nordic Town House

Originally published in 
Guys and Walls

With their light, white house that owes equal debts to its Nordic surroundings and to the Japanese provenance of its architects, a pair of design-minded art lovers are boldly making their mark on their new home: the tiny town of Landskrona, Sweden.

The Town House

Turning off Landskrona’s main square, with its gracious Gustavian architecture, and heading down a narrow 18th-century cobbled alley called Gamla Kyrkogatan, you suddenly glimpse a different world altogether. There, among the traditional terraced cottages with their orange-tiled roofs, a white modern structure appears like a minimalist mirage. Completely unexpected in this small, rural town in southern Sweden, this resolutely contemporary building might have been transplanted from an avant-garde corner of Tokyo.

Johnny Lökaas, a retail design specialist, commissioned the building together with his husband, Conny Ahlgren, an art dealer and cafe owner. Jonas Elding, one half of Elding Oscarson, the fledgling Stockholm practice the couple engaged to design their home is fresh off eight years with Sanaa in Japan—“the kind of intense environment that you are part of even if you leave,” Elding says. It certainly shows. Completed in 2009, the Town House, as the building is officially known, displays the inventive use of light and space, compact scale, polar-whiteout aesthetic, modest detailing, and humble materials characteristic of the 2010 Pritkzer Prize–winning architecture firm.

Yet somehow, the rectilinear structure seems in harmony with its Scandinavian surroundings. Like a ghost, the all-white Town House has a certain immateriality among the colored cottages. This is enhanced by its transparency—windows and terraces pierce its monolithic shape, and see-through glass and metal grilles avoid making the modernist statement arrogantly emphatic. Inside, the building—like its occupants, who are enthusiastic new arrivals from more urban Helsingborg—shows a generous openness to its setting. There are unobstructed views of both the quaint streetfront and the intriguing backyard jumble behind the house.

The Town House’s responsiveness to its environment comes from the fact that it was built from scratch, on the site—unusual for Sweden, where the majority of homes are timber-framed constructions largely built in a factory for later assembly. “We did look at flat packs,” says Ahlgren. “But they didn’t fit here because of the awkward site.” It took about nine months to complete the structure, and the result is a house beautifully tailored to fit its context. “We focused a lot on heights, proportions, and how the house meets the adjacent buildings,” explains architect Johan Oscarson. “This decreases its size and makes it kinder to the surroundings.”

That was crucial, since the slender 16-foot-wide house occupies part of an empty plot backing onto two other buildings that the couple owns: As Elding says, “When you are on the roof terrace, you are so close to the neighboring roofs that you can almost   touch them.” Behind the house a tiny garden is sandwiched neatly between the main living space and its satellite, a compact single-story office with a grass-topped roof, adorned inside by rare Andy Warhol self-portraits and a Gilbert and George print with a personal message to Ahlgren, who is a friend of the artists. The office, like the house itself, is flooded with daylight thanks to a large expanse of glass; the interior forms an ideal white-walled backdrop for Ahlgren’s impressive collection of British and American pop art and photography.

“I bought my first painting about 20 years ago, and then found I couldn’t stop,” Ahlgren says. “Lots of wall space is one thing we specified in the brief. Making the most of the ever-changing daylight was another priority, since daylight affects our mood so much. Though our house is three stories high, it was so important to us to have the sun filter right down to the ground-floor kitchen.”

Elding Oscarson did it by staggering three slabs to create a sequence of distinct areas over the house’s three floors. Light enters from the roof, the garden, and the street to illuminate what is basically one large space. No slab fully extends across the building, so on each level there are both single- and double-height spaces—the tallest of which provides the perfect canvas for Ahlgren’s prize pieces, including an Andy Warhol print of Chairman Mao. 

Cool, bright Nordic daylight floods in, but lest the house become too exposed, the architects devised enough cover to prevent the long days of summer from becoming overbearing. And for those epic winters, subtle grooves in the ceiling conceal the unobtrusive track lighting system outfitted with dimmable Erco spotlights. The result is a home that affords a range of atmospheres in a region of luminescent extremes. At night the outside views recede and the house becomes cozily self-sufficient. As Ahlgren says, “The house changes its personality when darkness falls.”
As impressive as the Town House’s response to the Swedish sun is, one shouldn’t overlook Elding Oscarson’s deft work shoehorning a variety of spaces into the tiny house. “The biggest challenge was fitting everything that we wanted in,” says Lökaas. “We asked for a big kitchen, a living room, a separate office, and so on. Using the steel deck plates to create the three levels allowed us to have all that.”
So the kitchen, with its white Saari cabinets and cool marble worktops, flows into the dining area, with its double-height ceiling and glass doors opening onto the garden and facing the office—a smaller reflection of the house itself. The sequence of spaces, plus the range of domestic activities on show, lends the interior a lived-in liveliness that relieves the museumlike feel of the endless white walls. A wood-burning stove in the corner and homey furnishings enhance the warm, intimate effect. “We didn’t buy new furniture for the house, we just brought all our old things with us,” says Lökaas. “It was actually more a case of getting rid of things than of acquiring new stuff.”

Some of that new stuff includes the metal and rubber flooring for the simple staircase that leads upstairs to the living room, where the view of the street has been beautifully framed by the “library,” a purpose-built bookshelf designed by Elding and Oscarson that also hides the ventilation system. From the second floor, another staircase leads to the bathroom and bedroom, where heavy white drapes—which double as black-out curtains, “essential for shutting out the light at times,” according to Lökaas—afford a tentlike sense of privacy. Next to the bathroom, accessed via an industrial white metal-grille walkway, the roof terrace is open to the sky but semiscreened from the street by another grille. The higher you go, the more transparent Town House becomes.

“We wanted an open house, but with some shelter from the street,” Lökaas says, reflecting on the essence of what he, Ahlgren, and their architects have created. “Conny and I wanted contact with each other when we’re in the house, and to do something for Landskrona. This place is our new home, and we plan to stay. There’s a new openness to modern architecture here, and we wanted to help that along.” He looks toward the street, where two women are studying the house with tangible curiosity (a frequent occurrence) and smiles: “The locals either love it or hate it; but mostly, they love it.”

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