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02 September 2010


On our return to Rome we passed through Stockholm for a few days at the end of August. I’ve wanted to see the palace of Drottningholm since Thomas Rajkovich and I won the International Competition for the Minnesota State Capitol Grounds in 1986. Minnesota, heavily populated by Nordic immigrants, has a spectacular State Capitol building by Cass Gilbert, but the grounds he reserved in front of it had never been developed. Our competition winning design projected formal terraces and gardens, along with bridges connecting the Capitol with downtown St. Paul. Despite winning (albeit by a narrow margin) we met tremendous resistance to executing our project, partly driven by a native sense that our scheme was too “Mediterranean,” somehow not connected to the reality of the Minnesota climate and landscape. Nostra culpa: we should have immediately after winning gotten on a plane and flown to Stockholm, to photograph Tessin’s Royal Palace and the gardens at Drottningholm. The latter is a spectacular sequence of spaces beginning at the water, through the palace and on to a series of terraces, parterres, and woods (where you’ll find a ‘Turkish tent’ and a ‘Chinese pavilion’). Somehow the provincialism implicit in the idea of regionalism has embedded itself in our culture, making moderns immune to influences not, seemingly, indigenous. Drottningholm is gloriously dependent on French and Italian precedents; at its marvelous theater the king imported French actors and designers and Italian opera singers. To do this was the height of sophistication, an acknowledgment that culture was absolute, and one either had it or imported it. “Too Roman” would not have been a critique; instead, it was trumpeted as a claim to a place on the cultural stage. Since then, however, even Sweden hunted for a “national style,” like so many other European cultures: anything but classical.

National Romanticism was the rather bizarre late phase of pre-Modernist culture, where a desire to detach individual nations from the unifying effects of classicism led them to some very convoluted constructs: neo-medievalism, eclecticism, proto-classicism. Sweden, where Italy and the Renaissance held sway over their consciousness even in the middle of the nineteenth century, and where there really was not much notable culture to speak of before the Renaissance, tried desperately to invent something uniquely theirs around the turn of the last century. The pinnacle of this project was Ragnar Östberg’s Stockholm City Hall. I admit to being quite partial to this building in my early transition from modernist to classicist; and many who never really left that post-modern middle ground still love it. But it is, to a classicist, so odd to see the desire for a “national” style manifest itself in a highly personal pastiche of Venice: the Doge’s Palace rendered with the palette of the Frari! Neither its idiosyncrasies nor its Venetian-ness merit the term ‘national,’ and yet modern histories will be more sympathetic to its spirit than to that of Tessin’s Royal Palace—so powerfully Roman in its formal structure (and yet no pastiche of any Roman building). It draws on Bernini’s work most deliberately—the Louvre, St. Peter’s, Ariccia— and yet it is of its place and time.

What makes the Royal Palace ‘Swedish’ is a patron’s willingness to do it, something Bernini didn’t have at the Louvre. And what makes Tessin a classicist is that commitment to the Beautiful as manifest in the best of the classical tradition, wherever it is found.

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