Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Medieval Södermalm

The most unexpected and enchanting area of Stockholm that I have walked so far is the historic sector of Södermalm.  Rising out of the water just south of Gamla Stan, the granite-cliff island of Södermalm roughly translates to “South Area.”  The granite cliffs of Södermalm were first built upon with farmsteads in the 13th century to supply the new city with food, but the earliest settlements have long since burned away or been replaced by much larger apartment buildings.  However, on the very edges of the cliffs where it would have been nearly impossible to build new, more extensive buildings, a few small, very old cottages have survived for 250 years.
unexpected cottages in the middle of Stockholm
Additionally, a few historic pockets of a more urban nature have also survived intact for 350 years on the flatter ground that is slightly inland of the cliffs.  
350 year-old urban buildings on Södermalm

These historic cottages and neighborhoods are mingled with urban apartment buildings built from the 1850’s through today, making the district diverse and wonderfully unpredictable.  Walking down a street of party-wall-to-party-wall seven-story plastered apartment buildings from the 1930’s, you suddenly come upon a smattering of one and two story wooden cottages on small, cobblestone lanes.
literally two adjacent blocks of the same street

Farther inland, the street grid becomes regular, indicating a more modern building pattern.  But at the very northern edge of the island, the difficulties of negotiating the cliff face allowed the medieval network of streets winding upward to remain.  The longer, flatter east-west streets tend to be paved now, but the steeper north-south streets are generally still narrow cobblestone lanes. 

In Victorian times, two towering iron structures for elevators were built to help pedestrians negotiate the 300 foot elevation gain between the water’s edge and the neighborhoods above.  These elevators are not in operation at the moment as they are in need of renovation, but they still provide excellent platforms for viewing the Stockholm skyline.   
1883 etching of Katarina elevator
Additional iron bridges/walkways were constructed in the neighborhood to provide access to these elevators over dips in the topography.


Sudden changes in the topography are also evidenced by “double” streets where half of the street flows upward to meet the buildings on the uphill side of the street and half of the street flows downward to meet the buildings on the downhill side of the street.   
Because granite outcroppings are at the surface, it was difficult to create a flat streetscape; this would have required extensive use of dynamite (dynamite is a Swedish invention).  I am glad that the topography was not leveled for convenience—I love the quirky atmosphere that results from building at several different levels at once!  If you’re on the lookout, you can see that many buildings are built directly on the granite outcroppings.

And just for fun: I love this advertisement from 1909; it is apparently one of the world's oldest electric signs still surviving.

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