|Nybrogatan today: no trace of the hills of Tyskbagarbergen|
If one looks closely, Stockholm is covered in reminders that the city’s topography wasn’t always conducive to city-building. Some old streets are impossibly steep and there are more than a few signs of older buildings and streets sitting atop inconvenient granite topography that was later blasted away on adjacent lots. I’ve written a bit about the new invention dynamite and its effects on the city’s development before, especially in conjunction with the railroad, but I think it’s worth “tunneling” in and looking a little closer at dynamite and its impact on the city.
|Two examples on Södermalm where newer streets were blasted through granite topography leaving older buildings high and dry.|
First of all, dynamite: It’s a Swedish invention, and Alfred Nobel was the scientist who created it. Before dynamite, blasting rock was an inexact science, extremely dangerous, and very time consuming. Blasting with chemicals wasn’t Nobel’s contribution: the Chinese had been using black powder since the 9th century and Europeans had been using a more modern form of gunpowder for blasting rock for at least a century before Nobel. Nobel’s contribution was making blasting predictable, calculable, and safe. He patented the chemical and the process in 1864 and became almost overnight one of the world’s wealthiest men. It is dynamite that funded the Nobel Prize which was created and still operates according to Nobel’s will.
Dynamite has of course been used in all manner of ways—from tunneling mines to explosives in war—but I am primarily interested in how it affected Stockholm. Suddenly, bothersome granite bulbs could simply be removed. Hills were no longer impediments requiring traffic to either climb steeply or circumvent. Streets could continue marching in their orthogonal grid without interruption. Lots which were previously “useless” could be made buildable.
According to my sources, the removal of the hills at Tyskbagarbergen was the first major dynamite undertaking in the world. The blasting began in 1861, three years before Nobel’s patent, so there does seem to be an experimental element to the project and it very well could be the first example of dynamite being used to create or enhance a cityscape.
Tyskbagarbergen was a series of steep, granite bulbs sticking out of the relatively flat topography of northern Östermalm. The name of the hills literally translates to “German Baker Mountains” and refers to a windmill for grinding flour situated on a high point that was apparently run by a German baker at one point in time. These hills were steep and tall enough to create an inconvenient barrier between the neighborhood of Östermalm and the green, open park spaces of Norra Djurgården.
|I've enhanced Akrel's map from 1805. The red street is Nybrogatan, which dead ends into the hills at Tyskbagarbergen. The orange area covers a series of obstructive hills depicted on Akrel's map. *|
The city did not initiate the blasting away of the Tyskbagarbergen hills. Instead, a private citizen built up a group of investors who lobbied the city (the king?) for permission to blast. The investors were hoping to make money by selling the granite leftovers as street cobbles, and park access was a good justification (although contemporary maps show that the neighboring street already reached through toward the park). The city (king?) granted permission and the blasting commenced. Nybrogatan, an already existing street, was in fact extended northward, but the investors lost money in the deal.
|The granite canyon through the hills at Tyskbagarbergen and the extention of the street Nybrogatan. Photo taken around 1890. **|
The new canyon through the granite was named after the current king (who officiated the opening ceremony) and was heralded “Carl XV:s Port” or “Carl XV’s Gate.” The “gate” through the granite didn’t last long—once the street was blasted through, the adjacent property became more valuable and the lots on either side of the street were successively blasted down to street level.
Today, there isn’t even a hint that this streetscape was once a large, obstructive granite hill. Today, the block seems like a perfectly natural extension of the Östermalm city grid. An entire topographical feature has been irrevocably lost, and a cityscape has been built on top of it.
At the end of the 1800’s, city planners started working with the topography instead of blasting it away. This trend lasted in different manifestations well into the 1950’s when suburban apartment blocks were carefully and individually situated amongst ancient trees and granite bulbs. But by the 1960’s, all respect for nature and topography was lost when efficiency became the most important dictator over architecture and city planning. Suddenly, giant suburban zones were completely leveled to allow for repetitive and efficient buildings and neighborhoods. Even though the last 40 years have more-or-less been a constant backlash against such planning and architecture tenets of the 60’s and 70’s, Swedes are still quick to wield dynamite and blast away significant tracts of topography in the name of progress and growth.
Case in point: Nya Gatan in Nacka (a suburb community outside of Stockholm) which, until a year ago, was a 40 meter-high tree-covered granite bulb. The area is now reduced to a flat landscape of rubble. Sure, an entire new neighborhood is going to be built on top of it, holding up Nacka’s part of the deal which will grant them a much-needed extension of the subway in return for building 13,500 much-needed new apartments. But did the development have to be so destructive and brutal? Weren’t there any other more creative solutions that would have yielded new apartments while still retaining the unique character of the topography? It’s not the new neighborhood that I’m reacting against in this case—I’m all for development in these types of areas that are already relatively spoiled and too isolated to be very valuable as natural reserves—what I’m reacting against is the lack of creativity. Nacka is creating a neighborhood of apartment buildings that will be just like every other recent neighborhood built in Sweden, when it could have developed something unique, something place-based, and something much more appealing than the current plan.
|Nya Gatan, Nacka ***|
Gösta Selling, Esplanadsystemet och Albert Lindhagen: Stadsplanering i Stockholm åren 1857-1887 (1970)
Raoul F. Boström, Ladugårdslandet med Tyskbagarbergen blir Östermalm (2008)
Images are my own except for: