After walking literally every block of Gamla Stan as well as good portions of Norrmalm, Kungsholmen, and Sodermalm and thinking about my wanderings for a couple of weeks, I realized something about Stockholm: it is a gorgeous city, but it is comprised of background buildings. No single building stands out as an iconic landmark. There is no Eiffel Tower, no St. Peter’s Basilica, no Chrysler Building (although the city hall building comes close to this iconic, landmark status). However, there are very few ugly “shed” buildings either—except for waaay out in the suburbs, there are no giant, nondescript big-box stores. Nearly every building in the city is beautiful in a simple, well-designed, and understated manner.
So if it’s not really the individual buildings that create such a strong impact of a gorgeous city, what is it? Is it the watery location that makes Stockholm so beautiful? Yes, but I would argue that it’s more than the location: it’s the purposeful and consistent urban design through the centuries that has created Stockholm’s unique and pleasant urban character.
In 1636 the city barely consisted of 15,000 people and except for the waterfront locations closest to Gamla Stan, most of today’s central Stockholm was still farmland or wilderness. Even though expansion into the areas now known as Södermalm, Kungsholmen, Norrmalm, and Östermalm was well in the future, the king commissioned Quatermaster-General Olov Hansson Örnehufvud to prepare a street plan for these areas. With this commission, purposeful urban design began in Stockholm.
Örnehufvud’s plan is essentially a radial street pattern with the Tre Kroner Castle at the center. Each area consists of a rectangular grid pattern that is angled to point toward the castle. Geography determines the divisions between areas and thus a new angle of street grids. In the case of the islands of Kungsholmen and Södermalm, water is the division, but between Norrmalm and Östermalm, an ancient ridge deposited by the glaciers separates the different grid patterns.
Some of these areas were developed quickly after this city plan, but several of these areas were not developed until the turn of the 20th century. And yet, even 250 years later, developments in these areas still extensively followed Örnehufvud’s radial street plan!
I don’t think there is anything particularly astounding about Örnehufvud’s plan. Any number of plans would have created a striking city. But it’s the fact that the plan was followed, for so long, though so many architectural eras, and through so many governmental epochs—this is astounding. Adhering to this 1636 city plan yielded an organized, pleasant city that is at a very human scale. Even though there are few architecturally exceptional buildings, Örnehufvud’s plan yielded an architecturally exceptional city.