Skeppsbron 44, Stockholm Old Town

I love the Old Town’s denseness and richness of associations. Almost any fact or feature that you examine will lead to a fascinating chain.
Last week I was at a 50th birthday party at Skeppsbron 44, a building I’ve often passed with a cursory glance at its famous old restaurant Zum Franziskaner. But now I know that it was built in 1907 by the Jugend-inspired architect Fredric Dahlberg (whose work is also in Lärkstaden, a favourite area). The building has a justly praised staircase with window and wall paintings by Georg Pauli, of whom I knew nothing but want to learn more.
My focus at the party was, of course, on folk and not the building (you can get a bad reputation if you spend long periods at parties standing on the stairs staring at the ceiling…). But I will go back to see this as well as the Jugend details that I know are in the restaurant (I might have to eat there to see them, collateral profit rather than damage).

But I did get time to see the cuckold on the facade of the building (and to learn a new Swedish word “hanrej”, the Swedes like the Germans and Dutch choosing to describe cuckolds as castrated cocks, while the English went for “cuckold”, reputedly related to “cuckoo”).
The cuckold on the façade is a horned male face with an expression of pain and despair. According to the story when it rains, the water runs down the façade across the face and makes it appear to be weeping (I shall go there some time when it’s raining to check this). Under the face is a female sexual organ (how I hate the way that English voldemortises genitals and bodily functions, our only choice being medical overkill, tweeness or vulgarity…).
The story goes that the sculpture was intended as the cuckolded builder, Carl Smith’s revenge on his wife. I suspect this story may be apocryphal as I can’t quite see how it adds up – as an act of revenge, it rather seems to backfire on Carl, portraying himself in a wretched light and it seems unlikely to bring the errant wife dashing back to her hub’s side. But it’s an amusing detail which I’m pleased to know.


Some time I shall take a trip to the village of Henstridge in south Somerset and ask people the meaning of the name of the village. I suspect that most people wouldn’t know (I was equally ignorant when my parents lived there). Once you know Swedish though, it’s not so difficult – we have another village up the road called Horsington and then a village where the Knights Templar used to be so that Henstridge is probably simply the ridge where the stallions were kept (“hingst-rygg”).

Unlike Swedish place names, our English place names are often opaque, especially the ones formed during the period that Anglo-Saxon was spoken (500-1200). Anglo-Saxon is still a foundation of modern English but it has been so heavily overlaid with Norman French after England’s Norman rulers spoke French for 300 years that it’s almost a foreign language. I learnt hardly anything about it in school and I suspect that this is still the case. It’s taught as part of some university English Literature courses but I believe it has to fight for survival there and may often be an optional extra course at just a few universities. This lack of knowledge is not helped by there being so few inscriptions in Anglo-Saxon – they had quite an extensive literature but only the odd inscription has survived in churches.

It fascinates me though and improving my Anglo-Saxon will definitely be part of my personal plan for 2018 (it’s a very green plan as it consists largely of recycled goals).

Swedish is a great help here as the Scandinavian languages of the first millennium were not so far removed from Anglo-Saxon and speakers of the two languages could probably understand one another after a fashion (once they’d stopped hitting one another). I wonder whether some of the confusions in modern English spring from these meetings – for example, our horrible mess with “shall” and “will”,where two verbs have become entangled.

Knowing Swedish and Anglo-Saxon makes not just place names but other bits of English more comprehensible. For example, we have some churches that have a “lych gate”, a roofed gate used for sheltering coffins until the clergyman arrives. It doesn’t make much sense in Modern English (a vague meaningless association with “lichen” perhaps) but when you know that the Swedish word for body is “lik”, it all falls into place.

It’s amusing to think of what English might have been like had the Norman conquest not happened.

We would probably call a doctor a “leecher” and the science of medicine “leechcraft” (these words were “laece” and “laececraeft” in Anglo-Saxon).  In fact, I’m cheating a bit here as the words “leech” and “leechcraft” actually exist in English with these meanings but the words are archaic and hardly known (perhaps in Chaucer, I shall check).

We have similar words in Swedish, “läka” to heal and “läkare”. Oddly enough I’ve found no trace of a similar word in German where the word for doctor “Arzt” is derived from the Greek Archiatros (chief something…). Perhaps a word likes this exists in some German dialects. I have to include the history of German in my plan for the year….

Another interesting word here is “leech”, a worm-like parasite once used in medical treatment for removing blood from sick people. It seems to come from the same Anglo-Saxon word, laece. Could it have originated from an umbrella word for people (or animals) that heal before the profession of doctor/läkare/laece crystallised as a profession?


Architecture and Berlin

We’re not taught much about architecture in school but we are surrounded by buildings, we use them all the time and they are important for what we do and how we feel.
Our lack of architectural education is a often a weakness in public debate where discussions on new development are frequently stymied by a kneejerk reaction against the new (although arising from a justified rejection of modernist architecture’s weakness in incorporating the reactions of users into its theoretical scheme of things).

For me, when I look at the cityscape a false familiarity arises. I recognise a building and I also know whether the building makes me amused or relaxed and at one with the world or whether it feels crushing and alien and makes me feel that I don’t belong. But if I attempt to take these feelings further, to develop them by writing them down, I’m immediately aware of the crudeness and inadequacy of my architectural “taste”.

Being a Samuel Smiles self-improvement type of person, I want to do something about this but it’s not altogether easy. The available reading material reflects how architecture, knowledge of buildings and urban design are taught (or not taught..). There are specialised guides about buildings (the Pevsner series in England is an excellent example) which are appropriate for the general public interested in this field. However, I’ve found it more of a struggle to go beyond these.There is a wealth of material by and for architects but these are often too technical for my needs. A trawl through architectural magazines would probably produce articles that served this purpose.

I’m now in Berlin, a fascinating place for architecture. It’s a city I know well and hardly at all.The subject initially overwhelms me but after blundering around in the fog for a while (trying not to panic), a few ideas emerge, which I sketch here but not in any particularly well digested form.

I want to know more about the various building styles – neo-classicism and historicism before the modern period. Here, as often, I find what I already know a barrier to understanding. The historicist period differs from Victorian England’s preference for the Gothic. In Berlin, churches often refer back to the Gothic during this period while other types of buildings used classical or renaissance models so that the historicist period is broader here (and trying to sub-divide into a classical and gothic period, a Kings Cross and St Pancras approach, won’t work.
To understand, you need to examine the same material from different perspectives – from the point of view of the architects (Schinkel and Hobrecht, for example), the building, broader urban design, etc.

The attempt to heal the city’s wounds, from the war and its division, is a fascinating process. The GDR sometimes demolished badly damaged older buildings (and even not so badly damaged buildings that didn’t fit the new agenda) and sometimes produced a replica of lost buildings.
More interesting for me are the efforts of architects like David Chipperfield to “marry” the old and the new as in the cases of the Neues Museum, to repair what can be repaired and to complement with distinguishable new building,in such a way as to harmonise with the old while serving the needs of the present.

But one also has to analyse what the needs of the present are (or were thought to be in the building process). There are a large number of spectacular new buildings in Berlin (among other places, aruond Potsdamer Platz) but what and whose needs do these serve, in particular how does the spectacularity of the building answer these needs?

To get to grips with all this, you would need to look carefully at particular buildings and projects/areas, to study particular architects, to look at city plans, and then perhaps return to the buildings again. Probably not a five-minute project…..