Monday, October 17, 2011

Riddarholmen--The Knights' Island

Just west of Gamla Stan is Riddarholmen, a small island whose name translates to The Knights’ Island.  This island is a little time capsule of Swedish history—many of the important events in Swedish history directly affected and shaped the built environment on this island.

King Magnus Ladulås founded a Franciscan Monastery on the island in 1270, granting the monastery the entire island and providing funds for the construction of a large church.  As far as history can tell, the only string attached to this considerable gift was Ladulås’ request to be buried in the church.  This request was significant for the history of Stockholm, because previous rulers had been buried in the city of Uppsala.  Uppsala had always been the favored and popular city; by requesting to be buried in the new town of Stockholm, Ladulås was effectively removing royal favor from Uppsala and bestowing it upon Stockholm instead. 

Nothing remains of the monastery except for the church (map 1).  In 1521, Gustav Vasa was crowned king of Sweden for his efforts of freeing Sweden from the yoke of Denmark and the Kalmar Union.  These wars plunged Gustav into debt, mostly to the Germans who had financed and even fought in the battles.  Meanwhile, Gustav was also bickering with Rome over the confirmation of the new archbishop of Sweden.  Gustav unsuccessfully requested a Swedish-leaning archbishop to replace the Danish-loyal archbishop that had been deposed during the wars with the Danes.  To gain control over the church in Sweden and to enable repayment of his loans, Gustav eventually seized control of church tithes and properties (then 21% of farmland in Sweden).  With these new resources, Gustav was able to repay his German debts. 

At first, the monks were allowed to stay in the Riddarholmen monastery, but eventually, as the king and country became more and more Lutheran, the king asked them to leave.  The monastery functioned as a hospital, then as a college.  Later in the 17th century, the crown gave land on Riddarholmen to favored families of the higher nobility who built Renaissance and Baroque palaces on the island.   
The Wrangleska Palace (map 3) was refinished several times.  On the left is an etching of it in the 1660's, on the left, its current state.
These palaces merged with the fortification wall and towers that Gustav had built around the island in the 1500’s.  Although it is now flanked by 17th century palaces, Birger Jarl Tower (2) is still a prominent landmark on the Stockholm skyline.
Left: 16th century tower incorporated into Wrangleska Palace.  Right: Birger Jarl Tower
If you look at a plan of the island, these palaces are seemingly haphazardly placed.  There is no overriding order or grid.  However, upon a closer inspection, it is apparent that most of the palaces feature interior courtyards that open toward the church and public square (4) around the church.  Additionally, each of the palaces are also angled to have views out over the water from at least one wing.

In the eighteenth century, Sweden swung from an enlightened parliamentary system to an absolute monarchy.  King Gustav III quarreled with the nobles and in 1772, led a coup d'état to seize power from the parliament.  In the process of breaking from the nobles, Gustav III seized the Riddarholmen palaces for use as state administration buildings.  Currently, these palaces still house Sweden’s supreme courts.

Through all of these changes, the Riddarholm Church remained the burial place for Sweden’s royal families.  The simple but large brick gothic church gradually mutated as each new royal family built an adjoining burial chapel in the latest architectural style.  Today, if you look at a plan of the church, you can hardly tell that it is a church at all because of all the chapel projections.  The spire was destroyed by lightning in 1835 and was rebuilt in cast iron—today, this lacy spire is a landmark visible throughout downtown Stockholm. 

The church’s congregation was dissolved in 1807, meaning that the church is no longer used for regular services but only for royal funerals.  Nearly every Swedish royal from King Magnus Ladulås in 1290 until King Gustaf V in 1950 is interred in the church.  One of the most scandalous exceptions is Queen Christina who converted to Catholicism, abdicated the throne, and fled to Rome in 1654.  Upon her death, she was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  The most recent royals are buried on a tiny island in Haga Park.

As you walk through Riddarholm Church, you are surrounded by dead royals.  You walk upon their gravestones which pave the church floor.  They are inserted into the gothic walls enclosing you.  They are stacked in medieval coffins in the crypt below you.  They are displayed in chapels flanking you.  Sweden doesn’t celebrate Halloween, but if it did, Riddarholm Church would be the place to go.     

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


I have added a new Travels page to my blog.  Living in Stockholm is pretty amazing, but while we're here, my husband and I are excited to explore other parts of Europe, too.  This weekend, we took a little jaunt over to Helsinki--even easier and quicker than taking a weekend trip to Dallas from San Antonio! 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Gamla Stan -- Stockholm's Old Town

Only in Gamla Stan can you sense Stockholm’s original medieval character.  A magical island of narrow lanes and crowded buildings, Gamla Stan developed after the founding of Stockholm in 1250. Two defensive towers were built on the highest part of the island; the larger tower became the core of the Tre Kroner (Three Crowns) castle after centuries of expansion (map 1).  Just south of the castle is Storkyrkan (Large Church, map 2), then the Town Hall (3), then Stortorget (Large Square), a large market and gathering place (4).  Because this arrangement of castle then church then town hall then market square was common in contemporary Hanseatic towns, we can assume that the locations of these buildings were planned.  The rest of the original town, however, appears to have grown up organically over time.

The placement of castle/church/town hall/market square on the high ground in conjunction with the boat access to the nearest islands formed a major north-south axis through the town.  Streets flowed parallel to this axis so that buildings could front the city’s most prominent buildings.  Even today, the north-south streets are comparatively wide and level and are more commercial at ground level with shops, cafés, and galleries.  The east-west streets are narrower and cross the island’s contours; the buildings along the east-west streets are mostly purely residential.  In such a crowded town, the residential buildings are more private in character and they barely acknowledge the street.  
solid shutters offer complete privacy; when open, the interior mirrored surface brings a little extra light into the apartment and provides a reflected water view
I’m sure it is not coincidence that the cobblestones on these steep east-west streets are placed so that the top of each cobble angles outward, giving more grip during the icy winters.

While most of Gamla Stan is pleasantly cramped, the streets occasionally open up into small squares.  It seems that originally, the public water pumps were the social and functional focal point of these squares, but today, they provide vegetated relief from the dense urbanity.    

In addition to the original towers, a defensive wall was built around the town in the 13th century.  (The  location of this 13th century wall is marked in red on the map above.)  Stockholm’s perpetual housing shortage seems to have begun in the 14th century: inside the walls, the town became too crowded, and people built new houses outside the walls and on fields, also eventually infilling the marshy shoreline to provide more land to build upon.  As the town grew, parts of the defensive wall were destroyed and other parts were incorporated into new buildings.  The original wall is now only visible where the topography was too steep to build upon (5).  On the west side of the island, building activity directly on top of the wall resulted in an extremely narrow block of buildings (6).
this 13th century defensive wall fragment now serves as a little square and helps to negotiate the steep grade between streets
In the 14th century, approximately 100 years after the original town wall was constructed, a new defensive wall with new towers was built to encompass the entire island.  Especially fortified towers were built at the north and south ends of the island to protect and control the narrow waterways that connect the freshwater inland Lake Mälaren to the saltwater Baltic Sea (7).  Although frequently under siege, Stockholm was never taken by storm due to its island location and its defensive walls and towers.  Nothing remains of the 14th century wall other than some foundation segments.  

The easternmost blocks (8) were built during the 14th century and consist of frequent narrow lanes leading downhill from the center of the island toward the waterfront.  While basically parallel, these blocks still retain the organic character of medieval Stockholm.  In contrast, the western blocks (9) were rebuilt in a planned grid pattern after fire destroyed this part of town in 1625.

As in all medieval towns, fire frequently wreaked havoc on the city and none of Gamla Stan’s original wooden houses survive.  In 1350, Stockholm’s first Town Law was implemented to try to force citizens to build with fire-retardant materials such as brick and stone in lieu of the more common wood and peat.  Two building inspectors were even appointed to try to enforce these laws!  Subsequent building laws were more effective in enforcing building material restrictions, but the 1350 Town Law was effective in its efforts to control the town’s development—due to this law, most streets built after 1350 are at least five meters wide.      

While the original wooden houses no longer exist, all of Gamla Stan’s buildings are composed of pieces that were built and reconfigured over the centuries.  Walking around the island, you can see runestone fragments from before the city was founded, brick vaulted cellars from the 1300s, iron wall ties from the 1400’s, and door lintels from the 1600’s.
Plaster ranging in colors from ochre and amber and daffodil, to lime and lavender and gray, to peach and rose and saffron now cover most of the buildings, but underneath the layers and layers of plaster, the brick walls are hundreds of years old.  Many of the plastered facades are relatively plain, but other buildings bare witness to passing architectural styles--some facades have Baroque Dutch stepped gables, others are inspired by the Renaissance, others have a neoclassical columned facade, and still others feature cast iron pilasters and large shop windows.  Later buildings tended to be a mish-mash of the above styles, their facades covered in applied decorative elements.
There is something magical about walking around Gamla Stan.  Each new block yields a slightly different character, and the narrow, maze-like lanes make you feel like you’re on a treasure hunt to discover the next little gem of a building.

Click here if you’d like to peruse more photos from my wanderings around Gamla Stan.