As Norway finds fresh ways to tell its story through soft power around the world (in sponsoring everything from London club nights to international design shows), there’s one example that’s stood the test of time. The Norwegian embassy in Stockholm embodies the country’s firm grasp of how architecture is a good way to express your nation’s strengths abroad.
Embassies were once ostentatious and exclusive places, designed to house diplomats but also to convey the wealth and might of the countries that occupied them. The Norwegian embassy in Stockholm, however, breaks from this familiar mould to show off its home nation’s design credentials too. Housing both the embassy itself and the ambassador’s residence, the property was designed by Norwegian architect Knut Knutsen in 1948, then little-known, and is located in the diplomatic heartland of the aptly named Diplomatstaden, in Stockholm’s Östermalm neighbourhood. Until last year, this modest two-storey building stood out from its fortress-like neighbouring embassies for the notable omission of a security fence – a thoughtful design choice that reflected the openness of the Norwegian nation.
Thanks to Knutsen’s efforts the embassy is an architectural masterpiece and a perfect showcase for Norway’s finest mid-century art, design and literature. Yet the building is not showy. “Knutsen was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Japanese architecture and one of his main ambitions with this building was to be low-key and to treat the terrain and nature with respect; he called the project ‘The Considerate’. He wanted the residence to blend into the terrain,” says eminent Norwegian design and art historian Ole Rikard Høisaether, who published a book about the building in 2012 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of its completion.
An oak tree, or tuntre (a tree rooted in Nordic tradition that traditionally stands guard over farmhouses to deliver prosperity), greets guests as they enter the property, while triangular slats of tarred pine – made into a graphic pattern inspired by the roofs of medieval Norwegian stave churches – decorate the front wall of the entrance to the ambassador’s house.
“It has been designed as a warm and informal place that conveys the values of the Norwegian people; a friendly country with a low population density that lives close to nature,” says the Norwegian embassy minister Rune Jensen.
As you enter and stand on the raised platform overlooking the main room, the contrast between the rich teak-and-brass interior and the pared-back aesthetic of the exterior is disarming. “Knutsen wanted to create a sense of surprise when you entered. When you stand at the top of the stairs and lean against the brass hull-like railings with their maritime motif, you feel like you are on a bridge of a huge ship,” says Høisaether. “This could be interpreted as Knutsen’s homage to Norway as the world’s greatest seafaring nation pre- and post-war.” The maritime motif is also echoed in the knotted iron staircase railings of the modernist and more functionalist chancery next door.
Throughout the vast interior space of the ambassador’s private residence, important works of Norwegian art are exhibited alongside pieces that illustrate the country’s deep connection with Sweden. The collection includes 12 important graphic works by Edvard Munch, including his portrait of Sweden’s famous playwright and novelist August Strindberg and three large paintings by the Sweden-born Norwegian artist Henrik Sorensen. “Through this – not least the art – the house inspires Norwegian-Swedish partnership,” says current ambassador Kai Eide. Exquisite Knutsen-designed furniture punctuates the entertaining area and includes cabinets, chairs and tables that have led historians to draw comparisons between Knutsen’s design skills and Sweden’s own icon Josef Frank.
Although every nook and cranny of the embassy is imbued with a sense of Norwegian character, Knutsen also added a sense of the exotic. “He was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, who he met in Paris. He was also greatly inspired by the Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa in Kyoto,” says Høisaether. Touches of Japanese influence are apparent in a graphic glass wall-cum-window that is a direct echo of paper shoji screens and the main dining room’s flexible brass-and-teak sliding door systems mimic the common sliding fusuma doors found in Japanese homes (it also allows the space to be broken up into more intimate rooms). Large teak-framed glass windows blur the boundaries of the interior and outside garden and also pay tribute to traditional Japanese architecture that typically prioritises views to nature outside.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Norway had yet to come into the oil wealth it is synonymous with today. By contrast the inauguration of the embassy project was hailed by Norwegians as an emblem of national optimism amid a backdrop of post-war poverty. The building was seen both as a chance for Norway to rise from the ashes of the Second World War and an opportunity to become part of the global lexicon of Scandinavian design that was then dominated by the Finnish and Danish.
Despite his then anonymity, Knutsen trumped submissions by Norway’s leading architects to win the commission in 1948 and worked to realise the embassy’s potential to represent brand Norway to the world. To achieve this goal, Knutsen worked with Norway’s cutting-edge and best craftsmen and cherry-picked a handful of his most talented peers: the painter Reidar Aulie; the lighting designer Jonas Hidle who had created lights for the Kennedy Center in the US and one of Norway’s first modernist porcelain and enamel artists Konrad Galaaen, who produced one of four Porsgrund pieces that are displayed throughout the building.
Although Knutsen’s creative vision largely remains intact, in recent years out-of-place pieces of contemporary furniture and ornaments have crept into the embassy building and garden, a source of mild outrage for design purists. “This embassy is exceptional for its beauty and character but it also has an even greater potential. The question is whether we look backwards or forwards in time, or do a mix,” says Norwegian product designer Andreas Engesvik. Ideally, the embassy would continue Knutsen’s legacy and use the building as a platform for new Norwegian designers while restoring original features of the building such as textiles designed by Knutsen’s wife.
Eide takes full advantage of the embassy’s rich design credentials to host a plethora of events with a welcoming open-door attitude that emphasises the personality of his Nordic nation. Over a lunch served with original J Tostrup silver cutlery from the 1930s – created by Norwegian art deco designer Jacob Prytz, who was put forward for the commission by Knutsen – Eide says: “This building is unique. It creates an intimate setting that you won’t find in any other Norwegian embassy.
“It’s the symbiotic relationship of Norway in architecture, fine art and design; it is very hard to replicate. Do current budgets and security circumstances allow for this to happen anywhere else in the world? Probably not. But here in Stockholm, we have it and we try and make the best use of it that we can.”
Norwegian architect Knut Knutsen’s work was formed by a rejection of his bourgeois upbringing. Greatly influenced by architects Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, Knutsen’s work was also inspired by Japanese architecture and philosophy where buildings historically have had a seamless and reverent relationship with nature (although a fear of flying prevented him from ever making the journey to Japan). Known for a modest aesthetic based in functionalism and an enormous respect for nature and environment, Knutsen was a politically engaged Social Democrat. An architect of the people, he was known for remarking, “Every building minor or large starts with a shed.”
1920: Educated at the Artist School (later named the Oslo National Academy of the Arts and the Oslo School of Architecture and Design)
1936: Starts his own architectural office, Knutsen Architects, in Oslo
1948: Wins the competition to design the Norwegian embassy in Stockholm
1952: Chair of Oslo branch of the National Association of Norwegian Architects
1966: Professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design