Alexandra Lange | Essays

Keeping Faith

All photos by Mark Dixon

Sometimes I feel as if all I ever am is cranky about architecture. That's why architecture critics do need to travel, because sometimes the reason they are cranky is that there isn't enough local material to work with. Or they have been blissed out by Lever House too many times.

On my recent trip to Copenhagen, Malmo and Stockholm, I had two experiences that reaffirmed my faith in architecture. I had new answers if someone asked me what it was I was searching for, or what was my standard. Ironically they were both in modern religious structures.

What I felt at Grundtvig's Church and the Woodland Cemetery, the first a church and planned development designed by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint, completed by his son Kaare Klint, and built from 1921 to 1940, the second a cemetery and crematorium designed by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz and built from 1917 to 1940, was a tremendous sense of peace and light. All the yammering that I usually hear when I enter a building was gone. I felt like the architects had thought of everything. They had used the best materials at their disposal in the best way imaginable. They had not used too many. They had not run out of money. The interior lived up to the exterior and vice versa. All I had to do was stand there and breathe the silence.

At Grundtvigskirken I felt buoyed by the golden atmosphere. The architecture of the exterior is strange and striking, perhaps the only example of Danish-Expressionist-Gothic, and reminiscent of many Hans Poelzig projects that now exist only in architecture history lecture slides. The inside is absolutely simple. Sunlight comes in through clear glass panes in high pointed windows, and falls on the brick walls, which are the color of butter with a hint of rose. To have it be so warm in temperature and tone in October in Denmark is no small feat. The chairs, all identical, likely designed by Kaare Klint, are blonde wood with high backs and rush seats, lined up in rows to create the traditional arrangement of nave, aisles, crossing. It seemed to be saying, This is all you need.

In fact it felt like a place in which even I could say a prayer. I might not believe in Grundtvig's god, but I do believe in the design gods. My son asked me about a simple brass basin of sand, where a single candle was burning. I explained it was a place where you could light a candle in memory or in hope. The son of dear friends of mine is very ill, and in all my communications with them it has been hard not to say cliched things like, I am praying for Julian. It is not true, and I don't usually believe it would help. But here I felt like lighting a candle could mean something, so we did.

I had the same feeling at the Woodland Cemetery. There the landscape helps: the long steps up the hill to the meditation garden, the straight paths through the spooky etiolated evergreens to the chapels, the clipped and hedgelike trees at the entrance. Every plant has been placed either in or along your path. The buildings are set like jewels.

This probably sounds rather "wet," my new favorite critical term, learned in Paul Simon's recent New York Times Book Review of Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat. "Maria" from West Side Story is wet. So is the last verse of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." But you have to love them right? (I spent a lot of time listening to my mother's LPs of classic musicals and drawing as a child, so I know all the lyrics. "The Street Where You Live" is a particular favorite.) It is much easier to be dry and cranky, revealing to be wet and sentimental. But if there weren't spaces and places that I could just fall in love with, then I really wouldn't be an architecture critic. Just a crank.

Posted in: Architecture

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