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A cemetery that showed the way

The Skogskyrkogården, a Swedish cemetery that fused the classical and the modern

KIERON LONG | November/December 2014

When you arrive at the main entrance, you are presented with two possible routes. One path rises up a gentle hill towards a large granite cross and a severe colonnade. You’d probably take this route if you were attending a funeral: the pillars and the space just outside them signal something like an institution. This is the crematorium, a communal place.

To the right is the path you might take if you were visiting a loved one’s grave, a journey you are more likely to make alone and at regular intervals: weekly, monthly, less frequently. It begins by climbing irreg­ular steps to the top of a large, artificial mound or tumulus, where a group of trees is planted and a high hedge stands. The hedge creates an enclosure, and all you can see as you stand there are the sky and the canopies of trees—deciduous, so they will change with the seasons. This is Almhöjden, the “grove of contemplation”. It takes you away from the city: the mound obscures the view of the railway station that probably brought you to the cemetery, and puts you in another place. The hill and the grove at its summit remove you from the world of train timetables, and prepare you for a more mortal journey. 

The right to build Skogskyrkogården (literally, “woodland cemetery”) in southern Stockholm was won in a council-run design competition. It was 1914, and the winners were Sigurd Lewerentz and Gunnar Asplund. Then both 30 years old, they would become two of the most influential architects of the 20th century; in their contrasting ways they define Swedish architecture to this day. Asplund’s red rotunda at the City Library, a building on the cusp of modernism but with its stylistic roots in an older architecture, is one of Stockholm’s defining monuments. Lewerentz went on to build several religious buildings of unmatched power, in particular the churches of St Mark’s in Björkhagen and St Peter’s in Klippan with their elemental brick walls and thick mortar joints—a stylistic quirk that has often been parodied. 

Skogskyrkogården tackles head-on the question of how architecture can articulate the passing of time. Inevitably there’s a sense of an ending about it. But Asplund and Lewerentz tried to create an experience that emphasised not the finality of death, but the slow, circular rhythms of the natural world. Skogskyrkogården is a choreographed passage through a landscape, with episodic experiences of chapels, graves, colonnades and, above all, nature. 

Your senses are activated by the walk through the place: the smell of pine trees, the darkness of the forests, the sounds of birds. The journey takes time, and, as on a pilgrimage, you are made ready for it by stopping points, places of spiritual and psychological preparation for the next stage. Places like the Almhöjden mound, which prepares you for the long walk down a densely wooded avenue called Seven Springs Way. The cemetery is not so much timeless as operating with the longest and slowest chronological rhythms: of the cosmos, of ritual, of life and the afterlife. It is a very powerful place. 

Asplund took the lead on most of the buildings, designing the Woodland Chapel, the crematorium and the visitor centre. But it is Lewerentz’s Chapel of Resurrection that faces you at the end of the Seven Springs Way. As you head towards its Corinthian portico, stone graves are arranged either side of you, not in rows, but scattered at the foot of tall trees. It has a special quietness from the thick pine needles on the floor, or, in winter, from the snow; there is only a narrow fissure of sky above the path. Every gravestone is the same size, and they recall stone circles or rune-stones. Ancient Scandinavian spirituality combines with modern Swedish egalitarianism.

In the resurrection chapel, Lewerentz saw an opportunity to unite different architectural languages from across the millennia. The nave of the small chapel is oriented east/west, in the Christian tradition. But the Corinthian capitals of the portico’s columns—a reference to the very beginning of European architecture, in Greece and Rome—face north along the avenue. The exit from the church is in the western façade of an otherwise unadorned exterior that heralds the elemental, plain architecture of the modern tradition. The interior too is stark, with a decorated canopy above the altar and little else. Three south-facing windows pour light onto the nave from the side. This is highly unconventional—in most churches, light enters from behind the altar. It’s a tiny building, but an extraordinary synthesis of secular and sacred, ancient and modern, Christian and pagan.

This is the great achievement of the Skogskyrkogården. At a moment when historical styles of architecture were being sacrificed in favour of the scientific and rational demands of modernism, the cemetery showed the 20th century a way forward. It showed that design could be in touch with the deepest roots of European civilisation without being enslaved to old architectural languages. As a result, it transcended its time in a way that very few other works of modernism could manage.

Lewerentz was later dropped from the design team, and the two young men fell out over the direction of the project. Their relationship would never recover. Asplund carried on, completing the crematorium and visitors’ centre without Lewerentz’s input. Asplund is buried there, in laconic style. His tombstone reads simply: “His work lives on”. 

Skogskyrkogården open every day

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