Hemnet is the largest online property marketplace in Sweden. It’s where many go to browse when looking to buy a house. With the thousands of brokers and hundreds of thousands of homes changing hands through its portal, I often lurk there – but not to scout out a home to buy. Rather, I’m fascinated by how homes for sale in Sweden are presented: spaces washed in shades of beige, warm greys, or soft pastels, books on shelves, wool blankets draping inner-city balconies, flourishing plants, unlit candles, high-end soaps by sinks, hardwood surfaces in kitchens adorned with bulle good enough to smell through the screen, a kakelugn or two (a typical Swedish ceramic fireplace), a smattering of IKEA peppered with Scandinavian design objects. More than any other, this marketplace has helped to transform the Swedish housing market into a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: in order to sell a space, that space must exude a character that satisfies a collection of aesthetic conditions. In turn, those buying a home demand that home to have a certain aesthetic. Property that is too shabby (not shabby-chic) or too bespoke may not sell as quickly nor as easily as one that fits the unspoken Hemnet mold: socially-standardised, homogeneous and oh, so boring.
For some time now I have mused on what could account for this representational rule. Are the lagom images of apartment interiors that flood the marketing of the marketplace more of a tool to allow you, a prospective homeowner, to project your own life onto the space? Or is this in fact how many in Stockholm, the largest city in Sweden, actually decorate their environments? A photograph for Hemnet necessitates some staging, of course. The clutter of daily life is expelled, and traces of occupation are neutralised. And yet, more often than not, the bare bones of a home remains, be it the colours of the walls or the finish of the worktops. Having visited more homes in the Swedish capital than I can now recall, I’d argue for the latter. The tone and character of houses on Hemnet are not too distant from what homeowners strive to spend their days in.
To date I have not been invited into a home in Norra Tornen – two residential towers that slice the skyline of northern Stockholm. They stand together, slightly apart, bisected by a road—Torsgatan—in a developing district of the city called Hagastaden, located at the edge of Vasastan’s older grain and building stock. (For the time being this area is predominantly occupied by Karolinska, the city’s largest university hospital.) Replace Torsgatan with a waterway and you have something akin to a hyper-formalist Colossus of Rhodes marking the boundary edge of the city. From my kitchen window on Södermalm, a large island due south, these towers soar, commanding the view entirely. In a city that is remarkably low-rise, with no other building neither as high nor as dominant as Innovationen and Helix, the names of the first and second towers respectively, they are hard to miss.
To date, there is not any other residential project in Stockholm able to compete with Norra Tornen’s scale, overt lagom-luxury, and contemporary international architectural pedigree. Given this, a long and divisive planning process underpins its birth. The site was first tabled in 2008. Two towers, conceived to be perceived and commissioned as one entity, were proposed under the provisional name Tors torn: the Tower of Thor. The site was demarcated—a height and a silhouette outlined—by Aleksander Wolodarski, the former city architect. The scale and location of the proposal led to considerable debate, during which Wolodarski and Skönhetsrådet, the so-called ‘Beauty Council’, an advisory body charged with inspecting city planning and construction proposals, locked heads. The competition by which OMA was commissioned had not yet taken place but the Beauty Council’s core concern centred on the sheer size of the proposed towers. The city architect was criticised for suggesting something too grand, too monumental, for Stockholm’s gentle skyline of green and black roofs and slender spires. Following years of discussion a building permit was approved, albeit controversially, in 2015 – and then bitterly and unsuccessfully contested by local residents and Sweden’s Civil Aviation Authority.
After the first developer tasked with the project withdrew, Oscar Properties entered the fray. This company, founded in 2004 and led by one Oscar Engelbert, has steered it to completion. As one of the very few Swedish property developers committed to commissioning nationally and internationally acclaimed architecture studios, their business concept, in their own words, is to build “the most attractive homes on the market with art, design and architecture as the foundation stones.” By this metric, they have lived up to their aspiration: with a completed wood-clad residential project by the Danish starchi-practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), and a project now in a state of limbo designed by the Swiss starchi-partnership Herzog & De Meuron, Norra Tornen represents the first major project in Sweden designed by OMA. This is something that should not go unnoticed; in the often protectionist commissioning environment that architectural practices tend to meet in Sweden, it is a considerable achievement. At the outset, the project promised much: “the informal appearance of the towers will express domesticity,” a press release published by OMA asserted in 2013 – “perhaps even humanism.” A publicly accessible bar and exhibition space was slated for the upper floors of one tower. A public library, alongside a children’s centre and retail spaces, were proposed for the ground floors. Seven years on, none have materialised.
Nevertheless, amid a housing market in which high-level mediocrity (lagom) is highly desirable to one portion of prospective buyers, Norra Tornen is an interesting case. It marks a simultaneous continuation of, and a deviation from, a foundational rule of thumb that has driven Swedish housing projects for decades. The apartments are deluxe and have a price tag to match. To search for “Torsplan 10” on Hemnet, the address now ascribed to the project, proffers for sale a number of the total three hundred apartments that make up the towers. One particular apartment, located on the twenty third floor of Helix and teetering sixty-five metres above the street, comprises eighty-eight square metres with two bedrooms and three independent terraces. (The smallest residence in the towers is forty-four square metres, while the penthouse is two hundred and seventy-one.) The building’s housing association, the property description notes, will offer when completed amenities including a guest apartment, a private cinema, a gym, and a garage. The list price for this apartment is 10,895,000 Swedish Crowns, a little over one million Euro, and constitutes an expensive apartment even by Stockholm’s standards – a symptom and a result of fledgling interest in the city from investors both near and far. It was reported that one of the larger apartments, a two hundred square metre space, had sold for forty-two million Crowns, cementing the high rise as among the most valuable real estate in the city.
The local response has been mixed, and charged. Some see the towers as optimistic symbols of the gradually increasing vitality of the city – that in a new phase of high-rise densification, long overdue, Stockholm can finally sit among other capitals that it ranks alongside. Others see the towers as an embodiment of the sweeping changes that the Swedish state has borne witness to in recent years. Until now, luxury apartments were heard about but never seen. Norra Tornen thrusts into the sky and, in so doing, reverses this logic. The debate that surrounded the project long before it broke ground continued when construction began. In 2018 Arkitekturupproret (The Architecture Uprising), a controversial Swedish group committed to eschewing contemporary architecture from the city (read: any architectural project that has not been designed to appear Classical, Medieval, or exemplar of Swedish Grace, and so on) nominated Norra Tornen for the so-called Kaspar Kalkon (Kaspar Turkey) prize. In the same way that the infamous Carbuncle Cup mocks architectural awards in the United Kingdom, this award, which mocks the Kasper Salin prize—an annual award given by way of a jury to a building in Sweden that exhibits high architectural quality—sought to label the towers as the year’s ugliest.
Reinier de Graaf, the architect in charge of the project, has been keen to reaffirm that the practice inherited the building envelopes first sculpted by Wolodarski. This envelope demanded a staggered form, and the architects’ response is, in many ways, a clever response to a somewhat limiting brief. To this end, it has architectural friends. It has some relationship to the escaping capsules of Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Tower in Tokyo, one of most brutally-charming residential buildings in one the most dense urban environments in the world. It recalls the cubic assemblage of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ‘67 in Montréal, quadrupling its height. It can appear to be a contemporary cousin of the residential towers of the Barbican in London, a seminal Modernist structure designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in the 1950s. And yet its differences to these projects are stark, and can only be observed at close-quarters. With what appears from a distance to be a warm, brown facade, adhering to Stockholm’s prescribed colour palette, the materiality is, by most accounts, highly sophisticated. Ribbed pigmented concrete, brushed with exposed multi-coloured aggregate pebble, gives the towers a benign radiance that, at certain moments in the day, softens their scale. This may be the “humanism” that the architect describes.
It is a boon for Stockholm to have a building executed by a practice so influential, and especially so given the fact that this phenomenon is tragically rare. It is, nonetheless, a “plattenbau for the rich”. De Graaf’s words highlight much: that, on the one hand, it is a prefabricated concrete structure that through the finesse of its outward material expression subverts the stereotypes of Million Programme era housing that weigh heavy in the minds of many. On the other hand, and in its totality, it stands for the precise opposite: as a place that very few Stockholmers will ever be afforded the chance to understand as anything other than two inaccessibly monumental towers. For this reason and others I myself, having not yet been inside, have become less curious over time to visit an apartment therein.
Norra Tornen stands out because it stands alone. It is, for many, a visage of a possible future that they would prefer not to see. Stockholm, for a complex myriad of reasons and opinions, has so far resisted high-rise densification in the city centre. It may in fact prove to be one of those rare architectural projects that sits outside of its own time – not due to its architecture per se but due to all that surrounds it: the city that it overlooks in solitude, the systems and procedures that were bested to permit it to exist, and the sentiments of those who look upon it from the street, the window of their workplace or, dare I say, their kitchen.