Stockholm Woodland Cemetery

Ken Worpole
11 October 2009

Landscape is both a place and a story, and stories often start or finish underground. In this coda to openDemocracy’s discussion of landscape, I want to offer some descriptions and thoughts on what I, and many others, believe to be one of the most inspired human landscapes of the 20th century: the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery (1915-61). The eminent architectural historian, Marc Treib, has even gone so far as to describe this haunting setting as ‘the most perfect and profound modern landscape on the planet’.

Stockholm Woodland Cemetery: modest burial markers in and amongst the extensive woodland. Photograph: Larraine Worpole

At the outset I should say that I find cemeteries especially interesting because they represent both the beginning and the end of landscape and architecture. Architectural historians are in common agreement that the tomb represents the very first attempt to create enduring built structures, while the impress of death upon the landscape, whether in the form of pyramids, grave mounds, vast barrows or communal graves, remains an abiding presence throughout the world.

Yet in the 20th century we have witnessed a singular lack of architectural or aesthetic interest in the landscapes of death, with the notable exception of the many impressive war cemeteries and memorials which resulted from the catastrophes of the two world wars. In general, though, the modern cemetery or crematorium garden today - especially in Britain one would have to say - represents a bitter combination of cost-cutting efficiency and utilitarian design.

Bleakness is all: a modern public cemetery in Kent, devoid of all landscape meaning and consolation (Photo: Larraine Worpole)

It is the banality of so much contemporary cemetery design that makes the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery such an inspiring example. Nearly a hundred years after the first drawings were made, the Woodland Cemetery is recognised today as being as influential for our times as Père-Lachaise was for its historic era.

The ‘Woodland Cemetery’ was the result of a unique collaboration between Sweden’s two most famous architects, Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz (who also trained as a landscape architect). The varied interests and talents of the two architects involved - whether in expressionist art, in social democratic politics, in classical architecture, in the distinctive, though modest, palette of Swedish geology and flora (‘clear light, limited natural typology, glacially modelled country’ in the words of Swedish landscape architect, Thorbjörn Andersson) - enabled them to design and construct a completely new kind of burial ground. This was neither a landscaped garden cemetery in the English tradition, nor a city of the dead which one finds in the Mediterranean or Islamic tradition. This was something uniquely new: an apparently natural forest setting in which the importance of the individual graves would be subsumed within the larger impact of the woodlands and sweeping meadows.

Stockholm Woodland Cemetery: the 'Way of the Cross' with the Grove of Remembrance in the background.
(Photo: Larraine Worpole)

When my wife and I revisited the cemetery in July 2002, we were once again struck by the monumental scale of the site, which co-exists with its unthreatening simplicity. The path from the main entrance ascends alongside a walled garden and columbarium on the left; to the right there is just a rising grassed hill and an open sky. The first great distinguishing feature of the design is that as one enters the main gate, one is confronted by a rising hill with a single great cross planted half way up the incline, and beyond that, to the left, the empty square columns of what looks like a modern version of the Parthenon. This giant granite cross locks earth and sky together, though the symbolic meaning of the cross remains in dispute. It is based on the recurring wayside cross in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, signifying hope in an otherwise abandoned world, though Asplund and Lewerentz insisted that the cross was open to non-Christian interpretations, quoting Friedrich himself: ‘to those who see it as such, a consolation, to those who do not, simply a cross.’

No graves are visible at all until the visitor reaches the main chapel, and only then in the far distance, dotted among the columnar pine trees: just a vast rolling landscape, with deep forest beyond. On the top of the grass mound (The Grove of Remembrance) is a copse of trees surrounding a small walled sanctuary. It is the sheer luxury of space which so impresses: a full third of the entire cemetery is given over to this imposing empty landscape with chapel, emplaced by the long curves and high skies evocative of the ancestral, almost primeval, Swedish landscape with its barrows and sacred groves.

Created on the site of a former quarry, the cemetery occupies over 100 hectares, most of which is heavily-planted pine forest, within which small graves are located at regular though not mathematical intervals. Many critics have drawn attention to how absolutely different this cemetery is from the classical, highly formalised, Père-Lachaise, in which the visitor’s emotions are highly regulated by the formality of the setting. In contrast, in the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery, there are, in Andersson’s words, ‘feelings of landscapes of many different sorts, such as hope and happiness, sorrow and despair, death and resurrection. It is an environment full of feelings that facilitiate contact between the inner and outer landscapes.’

The cemetery is extensive and inviting: long forest paths cut through woodland, with distant views of Greek-columned chapels and sudden openings with circular garden settings and running water. There are tens of thousands of small headstones in these woodland forests, all immaculately maintained. It is clear that severe restrictions on the size of headstone are imposed, and there are no sculptural monuments, as befits the rather austere Lutheran culture which still informs much Swedish architecture and design. Although at times there may be more than fifty gardening staff at work at the cemetery - the scale of which suggests it was planned to act as the principal cemetery for Stockholmers in the decades, if not centuries, to come - it doesn’t feel as if it was designed to be maintained as a landscape of ‘mass production’. Quite the opposite: it has an intimate and other-worldly feel once one is alone in the woods.

There is no doubt that Asplund and Lewerentz were in close touch with the aesthetic and social movements of their time, and deeply influenced by them. One of these shifts was the rejection by many artists of the classical or picturesque tradition in landscape painting, in favour of wilder, more of marginal landscapes and forms of representation. The shift was from manners to moods. The art historian, Nina Lübbren, has described the new mood of this era, developed out of a suddenly discovered - or artfully constructed - passion for moorlands, pine forests, chilly streams and lakes, sand-dunes, coastal villages, and vast open skies, as an ‘immersive aesthetic’, where the untamed representation of nature almost overwhelms the viewer, drawing them not only into these wild settings, but at the same time seeking a new correspondence between the shadowy woodland interior and the inner self.

Pere-Lachaise: the most famous 'city of the dead' in 19th century Europe (photo: Ken Worpole)

It seems that each century in Europe creates a prototype for a wholly new way of thinking about the topology of death and mourning: Père-Lachaise in the 19th century, the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery in the 20th. In Italy and Spain there have been some very interesting attempts to create modernist cemeteries - particularly where most people choose to be interred in wall tombs - notably with Aldo Rossi’s rationalist designs for the mausoleums at San Cataldo and, very recently, the astonishing designs by the Spanish architect, César Portela, for a cliff-top cemetery at Fisterra (‘end of the earth’) in Galicia. Both of these are high in my admiration, but the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery remains a place which I think achieves that most difficult task of all: to naturalise death and make it a serene and consolatory experience, achieved only through the most artfully cultivated mixture of human sympathy, exquisite design and, most of all, a respect for the vulnerability and equity of the human condition.

Cementerio de Finisterre

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