Sweden’s Eslöv Civic Hall is a monument to ambition. As the mid-century building is restored, we find out how it is making elite architecture a part of everyday life.
“We give out keys to the hall because we want people to feel a sense of belonging,” says Emil Ahlqvist, while walking through the warm-toned oak-panelled entry foyer of Eslöv Civic Hall in the southern Swedish town of the same name. He’s the operational manager of the building, which was designed by young Swedish architect Hans Asplund in the late 1940s. Ahlqvist has been assisting on the lengthy restoration of the hall, which is often described as one of the country’s most extravagant public buildings and has recently had its interiors added to the national heritage list.
Housing a theatre, assembly spaces, local government offices and rooms for communal gatherings, Asplund’s aim was to design a building that would foster “good citizens” through beautiful and intimate architecture. It’s an idea that remains today. “We want the hall to provoke happiness and warmth, as well as responsibility and care for the public rooms we share,” says Ahlqvist.
On a late autumn day when monocle visits, Ahlqvist begins a tour in Room A, which has a site-cast concrete-glass dome and a grand stage embedded in Oregon pine panels, and Ekebergs marble, accompanied by a red thematic textile artwork. Every detail is accounted for. The stage’s curtain made according to a design by Asplund – bears a symbolic message in Latin: “Ars longa” (“Art is for ever”). In the back seats, local politicians are preparing for a meeting.
“How does preserving delicate details of the hall affect elected politicians in their decision-making for the future?” Ahlqvist asks out loud, before pointing to the room’s fine woven upholstery and crafted brass for an answer. “I believe that the art and design that surrounds us transmit a greater respect for longevity, a reverence for ambitious civic projects – hopefully making people vote in favour of beauty and intimacy for the generation to come,” he says.
“When it was first built in 1957, there was a sense of awe but equally resentment towards the magnificence of the hall,” says Ahlqvist as he walks into Room B, the second in a line of four generous assembly rooms. Here he highlights curved walls and hand-blown glass globes and, while talking about local newspapers once reporting on “Civic Hall deluxe”, he addresses the idea of extravagant functionalism – a concept seemingly at odds with itself. “The hall is modernist but bold,” he says. “With nearly palatial parts, some locals were asking, ‘Why do the citizens of Eslöv need something so grand?’ But then you might ask, why would the citizens not deserve a communal palace? Why can a hall not be both beautiful, comfortable and functional? Could fine materials be the answer to a greater civic appreciation for true craftsmanship?”
The result of a competition calling for a new communal centre for the town, Eslöv Civic Hall is an ambitious site in many ways. Asplund’s proposal, “Diagonal Balance”, was the then 26-year-old’s effort to bring international architecture to Scandinavia. The hall itself consists of three volumes flushed together: the horizontal cone holding the assembly halls, the four-storey block housing offices and a unifying round body containing social areas. At its heart is an oval garden room, bringing plants and light into the building. This round and rectangular, horizontal and vertical patchwork was inspired by American modernists such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Wallace K Harrison. At some stage, Asplund joked, the civic hall was a smaller copy of Manhattan’s UN building – a project he was working on at the time with Harrison.
Asplund, then New York-based, won the competition against 158 other entries, with an outstanding international concept but it would take 10 years and a return to Sweden to complete the project. What anchored the idea, however, was the plea for civic sophistication. In the wake of the Second World War, the notion of civic education through architecture gained a hearing and the American playfulness and diversity of expression resonated with the desire to foster a “good society” in Sweden. The intention of the building was to provide Eslöv locals with a healthy, voluntary social, cultural and civic life.
“When people come to the hall, we tell them stories of Asplund and his enthusiasm, transmitting his energy through the building,” says Ahlqvist. In a group of leather armchairs in the foyer, he explains the demands that the building is facing. “The challenge is the choice of materials and the technical matters included,” he says, moving his hand along the soft armrest. “The exclusive character of the building involves an array of skilled subcontractors.” Having been nicknamed the most expensive civic hall in Sweden, budgets for maintenance remain a political battle.
For forthcoming restorations, Liselotte Magnusson, property manager at Eslöv municipality and head of the maintenance team at the Civic Hall, is doing everything she can to get the numbers on her side. When the roof blew off last year, her first thought was how to get specialised craftsmen on site, as she knew that specific tooling was needed for the folding of the sheet metal. “I got the phone call at lunchtime and I could not believe it,” she says. “With the arched construction, the roof and the façade make one massive piece of interwoven fabric, one that unfortunately took to the air like a sail. I later learned that the head of the municipality was walking within metres of the crashed aluminium body that day. It’s a miracle that no one got hurt.”
This year marks the beginning of An Arts & Crafts Guide, a restoration plan authored by Magnusson. “We are creating a descriptive manual to help raise a financial buffer for unforeseen events. It will be a backbone for the specific craftsmanship needed, parallel to our systematic maintenance of the building,” she says. “To give you an example, we recently had to replace two light fixtures. We urgently drove to the traditional glass factory of Kosta Boda, three hours away, to develop two new moulds based on the original forms. We then had replacements hand blown into the correct shapes.” She smiles. “These trips are a given but come at a steep cost.”
Much of the plan also points to energy use. Magnusson is involved in discussions arguing for Civic Hall to be properly lit, despite many other communal buildings having to turn their lights off for much of the day this year. “With the hall interiors being newly listed, the requirement of keeping certain welcoming lights on should be mandatory,” she says. Apart from energy costs, Magnusson worries about vandalism but points back to the idea of good citizenship. “We are largely spared from this type of unnecessary damage due to a strong collective sense of care.”
Magnusson’s role is to turn civic pride into increased annual budgets. “We do continuous work, oiling the pine panels or cleaning the marble balustrades but getting the funding to restore detailed craft needs dedicated investments,” she says. “My responsibility is to explain to the politicians why the restorations are needed. So far my tactic is to invite them to spend time at the hall. The best persuading power lies in the architecture itself.”
As we begin to pay close attention to the adjoining rooms of the hall, the historic Swedish art and crafts movement – prominent in the early 20th century – makes itself apparent in the material palette. You can also experience the direct link between Asplund and his father, Gunnar, one of Sweden’s most beloved architects. At the Chapel of Hope at the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, there’s a renowned wooden bench that seems to grow out of the wall, designed by the older Asplund. Here, at Eslöv Civic Hall, that same fixed bench can be seen breaking out from the wall in the foyer, clearly acting as an open salute from son to father.
“The hall speaks to your soul: it is beautiful, human and alive,” says David Nordenstridh from the cultural department at the Civic Hall. “Historically, we had dance events here and many people have met across these diverse rooms.” Born in Eslöv, Nordenstridh frequented the space from a young age as part of the theatre ensemble. “Some 370 people can fill the theatre on a Saturday. And all the meeting rooms are booked daily by local associations and groups. Every month architects come from afar. I often guide international students coming from countries as varied as Japan and Brazil.”
The original budget for the hall in the 1950s was about sek1m (€93,000) but the building ended up costing three times as much. “One of the contractors sued Asplund for having too many exuberant ideas but his unrestrained energy is what we thrive on today,” says Nordenstridh. He brings us down to the social areas to explore the tree-like Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired columns. “The bar, restaurant and club room are popular today and we try to keep details of the hospitality close to the spirit of the house,” he says. “What menu would resonate the best? What tableware would Asplund have picked? I find myself pushing the details, decluttering new additions, trying to take away things that do not speak directly to the architecture.”
Nordenstridh points to the stairs going from the foyer to the cloakroom. “First they widen, in the middle they straighten and towards the end they open again, just like an hourglass,” he says. “The result is an illusion that seems to pull you downstairs. There is no doubt that Asplund used every centimetre to draw you in. It took two craftsmen 28 months to reach this level of precision. Today, that cost would resemble the cost of an entire new hall.”
Also exemplary are the warm light fixtures in the club room, highlighting intimacy and human scale. “I see the building as an embassy of Asplund’s postwar ambition to enlighten and educate civic responsibility and passion for the arts,” says Nordenstridh. “The material choices in the hall can be seen as methods to foster a civic appetite for good quality, echoing Winston Churchill’s famous device: ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’ I hope that the hall continues to transcend the value of owning and sharing true architectural beauty.”