The Suburbs Strike Back

The Suburbs Strike Back

Swedish prefab specialists Smedshammar + Holmberg are on a mission to rescue their compatriots from boring suburbs—and their deep-seated suspicion of architects.
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Anders Holmberg is tired of apologizing for being an architect. "It sounds ridiculous, but Swedish people still blame the architecture profession for the massive program of building we had here between 1965 and 1975," he says. "The problem is, it resulted in lots of monotonous high-rises surrounded by greenery—very influential in Europe at the time, but a social disaster. People felt disoriented and disconnected in their new high-rise homes."

Holmberg, who founded the Stockholm-based architectural office Smedshammar + Holmberg with Carl-Johan Smedshammar in 2001, believes that the subsequent backlash is why Swedes, despite their fabled design literacy, are simply uninterested when it comes to contemporary architecture. So, when Smedshammar + Holmberg was approached by property developer Skanska to create a new development in the Stockholm suburb of Silverdal, Holmberg jumped at the chance to "create a ‘good’ version of suburbia." A major inspiration was a certain construction system that the Swedes have nothing against: that Scandinavian classic, Lego.

"We began by designing the houses as four Lego blocks," says Holmberg. "Even before we started work on the design, we met with the construction company to decide the dimensions of the prefabricated sections, as determined by the manufacturing and transportation requirements. Since the factory making the units is located far away, in northern Sweden, the building sections had to fit easily onto trucks."

Faced with a clear size limitation of 13 by 42.5 by 11.5 feet (the maximum size of the prefabricated units), and the demands of the area’s master plan, which specified that one side of each house must border the street, the architects devised a set of Lego-style blocklike units, which they could "manipulate  to create the best possible layout." Yet the resulting 18-house complex is anything but boxy.

Rather than creating a flat frontage on the street, the architects pulled back the upper module of each house to form a more sculptural profile, adding a raised terrace topped by an asymmetrical white frame for attaching plants or fabric screens. This feature, which lends the development a greater feeling of privacy as well as more visual interest, would become a major selling point, and give the development its name: Silverdal Terrace I.

The layout that Smedshammar + Holmberg achieved through the considered use of simple, repeated elements is complemented by the bold use of contrasting colors—white for a home’s public areas (the entrance walls), black for the rest—which provides a modern take on the traditional Swedish wooden façade. "The houses change character depending on the angle you see them from," says Holmberg. "This creates variation—which is important to have in a suburban area."

The Terrace could become the basis for Smedshammar + Holmberg’s first international foray: a possible new development in the UK, also in partnership with Skanska, and a major step for the firm. With their backgrounds in engineering, Holmberg and Smedshammar share a highly pragmatic and technical approach to their vision, which made the realization of their design a seemingly effortless process: The Terrace houses required only one day for basic construction, with all finishing completed within five weeks.

"Generally speaking, we build houses today like we built cars around 1910," says Holmberg, who admits that he almost became a car designer. "It’s an old technique—the construction industry hasn’t caught up with other manufacturing industries. You wouldn’t build a car piece by piece today, out in the open and exposed to all the elements, so why build a house that way? If architects are smart, they’ll focus on getting construction companies to invest in new techniques."

Nevertheless, Holmberg stresses that the firm’s priorities remain strictly architectural: "While technical limitations are always our starting point, we never let structural factors inhibit our designs," he says. "Our structural knowledge is the key to our work, because it means we can be sure of realizing our ideas."

For Holmberg, such pragmatism is a defining feature of Swedish architecture: "The climate is extreme—cold winters, warm summers—so here building has always been focused on materials and structure. We have to be practical, given the weather—but that doesn’t have to mean boring."

Practical often means using Sweden’s traditional building material, wood, which is both affordable and sustainable. Sweden remains a densely forested country, and by European standards it is sparsely populated, so the natural landscape is very present. "We think the best projects connect with the surrounding landscape," says Holmberg. Their work, in particular a series of houses for private clients, demonstrates a close relationship with the natural environment: A villa in Essingen is rooted in the ground like a tree, while the Kiw mountain lodge balances on a peak like a pebble. Others, like the Villa Oscar, have wooden frames on terraces or roofs that seem to exist solely to fuse house and landscape together.

In the Marinstaden ("Navy City"), an upcoming housing development of 12 luxury apartments anchored onto a concrete raft, water, light, and reflection tie together the exploded lines and planes of the design. The development could be built in a naval dockyard, and then towed into position.

While Holmberg bemoans the lingering suspicion of architects in Sweden, he admits that his firm has benefited from the recent boom in home building (triggered by low interest rates and a long national tradition of home ownership). He also corrects the assumption that his villa clients are wealthy: "The simple fact is, it’s often cheaper to buy land and build a house on it than it is to buy an existing house. Our private clients often have strict budgetary constraints, so building these homes means making very smart choices in terms of materials and so forth. While they don’t have huge amounts of money to spend, they do tend to have a big interest in architecture, and they want something unique. This is encouraging, because an awful lot of boring architecture is still being built in Sweden."

Holmberg adds that a major factor in this is the over-regulated nature of municipal master plans, resulting in cookie-cutter developments on the outskirts of every Swedish city. As an antidote to such suburban dullness, Smedshammar + Holmberg has recently begun to take a more polemical direction. Their visionary V-House, a 300-foot-high, V-shaped structure in the town of Västerås, was a conceptual design intended to provoke debate—which it certainly has.

"Media coverage was huge," says Holmberg. "We’ve now been asked to submit proposals on developing the town. We will do more of this sort of conceptual work in the future, because architecture in Sweden desperately needs to improve its reputation—and that’s exactly what we are trying to achieve."

Silverdal Terrace I gets its name from the raised rooftop terraces created by pulling back the upper module of the houses from the street. The terraces were very popular with buyers. “The houses change character depending on the angle you see them from,” says architect Anders Holmberg.

Anders Holmberg (right) and Carl-Johan Smedshammar take a moment to reflect on their work.

Silverdal Terrace I, Holmberg and Smedshammar's version of prefabricated suburbia, uses black and white to demarcate public and private spaces.

Marinstaden, or “Navy City”, is a proposed design for a prefabricated floating community.

Villa Oscar is a typical example of a Smedshammar + Holmberg private commission, where a wooden frame is used to “frame” the house in the landscape.

The visionary V-House is a 300-foot-high structure designed for the Swedish town of Västerås, and is intended to counteract typical suburban designs. “An awful lot of boring architecture is still being built in Sweden,” explains Holmberg.

Each of the homes in Marinstaden, or “Navy City” feature exploded planes tied together by water, light, and reflection.


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