In 1914, the Stockholm City Council convened an international architectural competition for the construction of a new cemetery, Skogskyrkogården, in the southern part of the city, with the intention of unloading the already centenary Norra Begravningsplatsen, located in the northern part.
The young architects Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz presented a joint project and in the jury’s decision, 1915, he was the winner among the other 53 proposals. The project was presented under the motto Tallum, Swedish apocope of Pinar and the jury alluded that he had been awarded the first prize for his attentive and noble character, assessing that the main requirement of the proposal was the preservation of the area and its properties of singular beauty.
Work began a year later. From the beginning the architects were assigned the works for which they would be responsible, Lewerentz would be responsible for the landscaping, although he also designed the Classicic Resurrection chapel in the southern part of the cemetery, and Asplund would take care of the main buildings, the Woodland Chapel, the Woodland Crematorium with its three different chapels and the Tallum Pavilion.
In 1994, UNESCO included Skogskyrkogården, Forest Cemetery, as a place of universal and exceptional cultural and natural value on the World Heritage List. An outstanding example of the combination of architecture and landscape turned into a cemetery that would influence the design of cemeteries throughout the world.
Visitors to the Forest Cemetery find themselves entering a beautiful and undulating landscape, with no grave or gravestone in sight as they are in the depths of the forest. These are all the same size, small, representing that all human beings are equal before death.
The cemetery is inhabited by numerous animals that live in freedom, such as hares, squirrels, foxes, bees and even roe deer. The lily pond is home to the only population of large crested newts in southern Stockholm. Birdwatchers can see nests of northern azores, crows and hawfinches. Also some endangered species such as the “red ring rot” fungus or the “reliktbock” beetle, both thrive in pines with many years.
The tombs are distributed in a forest with almost 10,000 pines, some with more than 200 years. To prevent these from diminishing, young trees grown from seeds are planted.
When the new Skogskyrkogården cemetery was thought of in the early 1900s, the goal was to create something special, something original, a cemetery that blends nature and architecture into a seamless whole. Until the time of its construction, cemeteries in general were considered the “Gardens of the Dead”, grandiose parks with tree-lined avenues and large gravestones. The idea of the committee that called the contest was to change that concept and create a cemetery where the main object was the underlying landscape.
The architects based the development of their project concentrating with a large clearing, next to the forest, most of the constructions, leaving the forest almost without alterations. An essential concept in this project was its articulation based on the opposition of opposites. In this case the two opposites are a great clearing and a great forest and from there the design was developed, with clearer and more clear paths within the forest, some artificial, small and collected, others natural.
Skogskyrkogården directly addresses the question of how architecture can articulate the passage of time. Inevitably there is a sense of an end about it. But Asplund and Lewerentz tried to create an experience that emphasized not the purpose of death, but the slow and circular rhythms of the natural world. Skogskyrkogården is a choreographed passage through a landscape, with episodic experiences of chapels, tombs, colonnades and, above all, nature.
For the next two decades after the end of the contest, the cemetery gradually took shape. From the crest of pine-covered rock the two architects created a sacred landscape with several chapels perfectly nestled in the natural environment, with the graves arranged in blocks between the forest. As they had established from the beginning the landscape architect was Lewerentz, who also created the Almhöjden Meditation Grove, the Skogskyrkogården memorial garden and the Chapel of the Resurrection. Asplund designed all the other chapels and buildings. Some of Sweden’s most prominent artists, such as Sven Erixson, Carl Milles and Otte Sköld, contributed decorative elements.
The cemetery is designed on a grid of three streets that organize it and establish a spatial hierarchy. The main streets are from north to south and link the various open entrances to car traffic. These dirt track streets with pavement on the side are one level below the cemetery, as is the entire perimeter. In this way, some privacy is maintained for the graves. Other streets are from east to west and intersect with narrower streets that connect the burial sites.
In 1920 the “relief and emergency workers”, the unemployed people of Stockholm, began to lift with stones extracted mainly within the limits of the cemetery itself, the perimeter wall of approximately 3.6km long. The works lasted until 1932.
Almhöjden and the Garden of Memory
To the right of the main entrance and on a gentle hill Lewerentz designed a forest dedicated to meditation, the Almhöjden. To reach the top visitors must climb a ladder whose steps are lower as they climb so that when they reach the top of this place of meditation they do not feel tired.
To the right of Almhöjden and also on a hill is the Garden of Memory, inaugurated in 1961. The original design belongs to Lewerentz, within his responsibility as a landscaper, but from the beginning he has made an addition designed by Göran Bergquist and Jan Wahlman to turn it into a memorial site where cut flowers carried by visitors are placed.
Woodland Chapel is the first and smallest of the cemetery. It was designed by Gunnar Asplund and began to be built in 1918, was inaugurated in 1920.
Asplund’s first thought was a stone chapel but the committee considered it too expensive and the architect had to redesign it. This second time the inspiration came from a visit that Asplund made in Denmark to a farm on the island of Møn. Both the estate (Liselund) and the surrounding area gave him the inspiration for the Woodland chapel, a simple wooden chapel surrounded by trees and a low concrete wall.
The chapel is almost square in plan with a high triangular roof that refers to typical Scandinavian buildings and inside it expands into a white hemispherical vault, supported by columns and illuminated by two overhead skylights, without windows. The design of the coffin vault is like an ancient cave of roots, which symbolizes the return to the land of the dead.
The porch, with a low and oppressive ceiling, is guarded with twelve columns that allude to the trunks of the trees that surround them and on the roof, above the entrance, is the only decoration of the chapel, the little angel of the death of Carl Milles. Woodland’s chapel has been carefully thought out, to the smallest detail, with many features and symbols. For example, the keyhole in the door is the eye of a skull, opening to death. The iron gate also contains many Christian symbols.
Despite the reduced space of the Chapel, Asplund used a resource that he would use again at the Stockholm Public Library, a change in outer-inner spatial perception as it passed from the low, dark atrium to the white and diaphanous interior.
This building, also designed by Gunnar Asplund, was completed in 1923 and the premises for cemetery personnel and services are located. It is located in the southern part of Skogskyrkogården, between the Woodland Chapel and the Resurrection Chapel.
Its unusual design has baffled many people. It is a wooden building formed by four square pavilions of a plant, with a somewhat playful shape in green tones and very pointed ceilings, similar to tents covered in metal.
The building housed a dining room and a locker room for Skogskyrkogården staff, divided so that women had one side and men the other. Renovated in 1998 to house a visitor and information center, it was renamed “Tallum Pavilion”, alluding to the project that Asplund and Lewerentz presented at the time of the contest with the name of “Tallum”. This renovation responded to the inscription by UNESCO of the Forest Cemetery in the list of places considered World Heritage and to the interest of the general public in cultural places
The Woodland Crematorium has three chapels: Faith, Hope and the Holy Cross.
As a result of the practice of cremation beginning to gain adherents during the twentieth century, the Cemetery Committee decided to build a crematorium with three chapels in the mid-1930s. At first it was thought that Asplund and Lewerentz were in charge of its realization, but the latter was marginalized and the project was carried out by Asplund, being completed in 1940.
The architecture of the crematorium joined the new functionalist current that at that time began to make its way. It is a flexible and practical space, but at the same time intimate and reflective. At no time there are sharp corners which gives a feeling of hug and softness. From the waiting rooms placed between the chapels together with small gardens, the mourners can see through the doors the undulating and green exterior landscape. These separations between chapels allow funerals to be performed without being disturbed between the three chapels.
Giving chapels and other buildings different heights emphasizes the rolling slopes to nearby columbariums, where the polls are located, and the main entrance.
The interiors of the chapels focus on the catafalque carried by the coffin, placed in the center of the room. Asplund placed a stone floor inlaid in front of the benches for the main mourners, next to the catafalque. The idea was that the mourners, in their moment of sadness, had something to fix their gaze.
Gunnar Asplund died in 1940 and his urn is buried in one of the columbariums next to the Chapel of the Faith. A simple memorial stone bears the inscription: “His work is still alive.”
The Way of the Seven Wells
With a length of 888 meters, the impressive Seven Springs Way, named as the Way of the Seven Fountains, the Way of the Seven Springs or the Way of the Seven Wells, runs directly from the Meditation Forest to the Resurrection Chapel.
Running along an old border line that existed in 1915, when work began in Skogskyrkogården, the road is intended to be followed by those attending a funeral in the Chapel of the Resurrection. The road is full of weeping birches, common birches, pines and finally spruces. The idea behind the different trees is that the road becomes increasingly dark as the mourners progress creating an increasingly melancholic frame. After the ceremony, the mourners leave through the west door of the chapel and return by a different path.
Chapel of the Resurrection
In 1925 the construction of the Chapel of the Resurrection was completed, it began in 1923, design by the architect Sigurd Lewerentz. Its construction was necessary to verify that only with the Forest Chapel was not enough.
The chapel built in the southern part of the cemetery has the appearance of a neoclassical temple. The position of the chapel arises from the main axis of the cemetery, the Way of the Seven Wells, and the door with its 9 Corinthian columns can be seen from the beginning of the road. Once you cross the entrance, you are quickly directed to the east, where you can find a quiet chapel with an attractive floor of small mosaics and a decorated canopy on the altar. It has a unique and elegant three-body window near the altar and the catafalque, on the south-facing wall, whose meaning is to highlight the importance of the chapel as a link to the sky. This location of the window is unconventional since in most churches the light enters behind the altar. The organ gallery is high and hidden from view so that heavenly music can rain on the mourners.
Lewerentz wanted a chapel with a separate entrance and exit so that, after the ceremony, the mourners could walk down a different path and thus return to their lives. In its original design, the chapel was to be placed so that visitors could enter from the north and leave from the south. However, the proposal was flatly rejected. The chapel had to be built in accordance with Christian tradition along an east-west axis, with the altar at the east end, the direction of dawn and rebirth.
However, Lewerentz was a stubborn man, so the chapel was built from east to west, but the portico with the Corinthian columns faces north, to the long avenue. This means that visitors enter from the north and leave to the west, through an unadorned facade that announces the elementary and simple architecture of modern tradition.
In 2014, the New Woodland Cemetery Crematorium was opened, designed by architect Johan Celsing. The name of the project submitted to the contest was called “A stone in the forest”, with its red brick structure it adapts to the forest landscape. This building received the most prestigious architecture award in Sweden, the Kasper Salin Prize.
The materials used in the development of the cemetery were native, mainly wood, stone, concrete, although in its use it is possible to see a deep knowledge of the modern architectural culture reflected in the purity of the volumes, almost total absence of ornaments and tendency to the abstraction.
In 1939 Asplund designed the great granite cross that breaks the horizon by crossing the main entrance of the cemetery. Its construction was funded by an anonymous donor.
Skogskyrkogården is a multi-ethnic cemetery that serves other religions than Protestant Christianity, the cross is not intended to represent a symbol of faith, but rather a symbol of the circle of life and death.
In the Chapel of the Forest the roof tiles are rectangular wood, without any ornament. The interior pavement of the chapel was resolved with rustic stone slabs that also cover the entrance atrium creating continuity.
The doors of the chapels are decorated with bronze reliefs of the artist Bror Hjort. In the portico of the Chapel of the Holy Cross is the sculpture Resurrection of John Lundqvist. He also made the golden figure of Christ on the crucifix inside the chapel. The great fresco of the Life-Death-Life chapel was made by Sven Xet Erixson.
The Chapel of Hope is decorated with a marble mosaic of Otte Sköld, who also created the enameled crucifix of the altar. Ivar Johnsson was the creator of the stucco work in the Faith Chapel and the onyx altar crucifix.
Bricks and concrete walls with plaster details were used for the construction of the Resurrection Chapel. The door separated from the entrance was built with Ignaberga limestone. The interior walls, including those of the door, were covered with stucco or lime, the surface had a matte, hard and fine finish. The plastered exterior walls were painted with oil-based paint and the internal walls plastered with wax-based paint. Complex details, such as capitals, bases, etc., were made with plaster. The exterior coloring of the building was carried out with a water-based solution of vitriol iron, lime, dextrin and pigment.
The chapel is partially heated by independent radiators and partly through a system of channels in the bricks that heat the floor. Due to this system of channels, the finish on the pavement is as thin as possible, using stone tiles. To avoid the noise of cars during speeches and singing, a layer of cloth and cotton was added to the roof of the chapel.