Obituary: Stefan Berg

Art & Culture

Stefan Berg, who has died aged 92, was one of the most original architects of the last century and a major proponent of the Swedish Minimalist movement that continues to exert great influence today.

Born in the Swedish port town of Gothenburg in 1918, we know from documents that he exhibited an interest in architecture at a very early age, winning third prize in the under-11 category of a village model building competition. Precocious even at that age, Berg drew on the local docks for inspiration and designed a town house, the roof of which echoed the graceful curve of a gulls wings in flight.

At the age of 20 he made the inevitable move east, enrolling on the architecture course at Stockholm University. By this time the prevailing mood was shifting towards the less is more influence of Mies van der Rohe and Berg threw himself wholeheartedly into this new architectural language. In an interview in the 1960s Berg spoke of his time as a student: Everything was so exciting around that time all the talk amongst my friends was of De Stijl, Rietveld and Mock Tudor. We wanted to see how far we could push this new mode of simplicity. Swedens neutral position during the Second World War also meant that Berg and his colleagues could pioneer this method in safety. It is a fascinating quirk of history that whilst many eminent European architects of the day were forced to follow Mies van der Rohe and emigrate to the United States, the Stockholm Collective as Bergs group became known remained in Sweden and developed in a far more experimental fashion. When asked his opinion on this matter, Bergs response was that the War had been good for building free from structure (this rather flippant comment, given the countless millions dead, was rightly criticised though Berg pointedly refused to apologise, an early example of the stubborn self-belief that would become his trademark).

In 1950 Berg won national attention with his design for a new concert hall in Malmo, though this was ultimately rejected by the committee, who felt that his inverse pyramid was bold but acoustically nave. He secured his first major commission soon thereafter however the now famous Glass House located in the outskirts of Kristinanstad. Heavily influenced by the paintings of Piet Mondrian, the house featured all-surrounding glass walls (now, of course, a familiar trope in many modern buildings) broken into rectilinear blocks of differently coloured glass. It was an instant triumph though the owner Sven Svensson later complained that it was most annoying as the sun looks crazy in blue, then pink, then green and also, the toilet does not work properly.

Berg next secured the commission to design a public library in neighbouring Norway. The council of Bergen had asked for innovation and were not disappointed; the building followed minimalist rules in combining free-flowing space of inter-connected rooms. Startlingly modern in it construction materials steel frames, plasticised polymerised plexi-crete the library was an instant hit with the general public. It was only later that problems with the internal composition came to light for example, the lack of bookshelves and the library is now Scandinavias largest ten-pin bowling alley.

Bergs reputation was secured and during the 1960s he designed a string of buildings around Europe that built on the modernist style being pioneered in America. Heavily influenced by the Stahl House in California designed by Pierre Koenig, Berg pushed the boundaries with buildings such as his Reverse Bungalow (1961, Frankfurt) in which the only living space was upstairs, the School of Medicine, University of Bremen (1963), a cuboid composition of floor to ceiling glass walls (which ultimately had to be painted over due to students of other faculties expressing distaste at the autopsies in particular) and the Helsinki Tower (1968). It was whilst the Helsinki Tower was being constructed, however, that problems with Bergs working style began to emerge. His refusal to alter the design in any way led to a perception that he was becoming impossible to work with when questioned over the unusual scale of just sixteen feet for example, Berg claimed that a tower was anything taller than two men and threatened to abandon the project. Unfortunately it was also around this time that difficulties in his personal life came to the fore and rumours of heavy drinking abounded.

When he walked out on a project for a primary school in Gdansk in the early 1970s, after an argument regarding chairs which Berg felt should under no circumstances be a feature as sitting rots the mind he effectively became unemployable. He spent the best part of the next two decades struggling with alcoholism and at one stage was committed to a Gothenburg asylum, where he spent his days working on the seemingly impossible problem of constructing a house with a ceiling where the floor should be. It was a sad demise and by the 1990s, when he had successfully pulled himself free of his addiction with the help of new friend Ingrid Larsson, architecture had moved on and Berg was forced to accept that he would never recover his former prominent position. Well into his 70s by this stage, however, he was content to retire to his self-designed and unusually traditional maisonette overlooking the sea. His influence, of course, can now be seen in almost every major public building and students of architecture have come to recognise his singular genius for taking geometry to the absolute limit. In 2004 he was presented with the lifetime achievement award by the Swedish Architectural Academy.

By Michael Gosden

He is survived by his wife, Ingrid Larsson, and thirteen year-old short-haired daschund, Maximillion.

Re-used by very kind permission from the excellent Tiny Dancing, Issue 4.
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