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Stockholm's Slussen, Ruins Magazine

Locked in time
Build new or renovate is a perennial question everywhere. Stockholm’s Slussen, one of Europe’s most ambitious urban renewal projects, has been a national debate in Sweden for 700 years. By 2015, Scandinavia’s capital will have a centerpiece worthy of its name.

Slussen, or The Lock, is Stockholm and Sweden’s most important landmark.

This car, bike, bus, subway, train, pedestrian and maritime thoroughfare smack in the middle of the capital sits at the confluence of the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren, between the island of Södermalm and Old Town.

After years, even centuries, of political logjams or lockjams, Stockholm is getting a shiny new 21st century city center worthy of its reputation as a sophisticated capital. Work started on this sensitive project in late 2014 after two decades of political debate. Some major hurdles remain before completion 2025.

Many Swedes wax poetic about their post-modern atrocity from 1935 that owes influences to Le Corbusier-approved and other grandiose solutions to urban planning.

The naysayers include former ABBA front man and local entrepreneur Benny Andersson, and Hollywood heavyweight Stellan Skårsgård. Both consider Slussen a city soul and like many, prefer refurbishment to a rebuild.

“If you don’t like the way it looks now wait till you see what it looks like in the future, says Skärsgård, who lives a short walk away, in a video for the ‘Say No to the New Slussen,’ campaign aired during national elections in September 2014.

The owner of a chic hotel also nearby, ABBA’s Benny Andersson has hosted red carpet events for similar groups.

“I am doing this as a resident of Stockholm,” he claims.

Rebuilt four times in the city’s 700 + year history, almost once every 150 years, give or take, Slussen is under the knife again. Taxpayer expense: USD 1 billion and climbing.

Most important cities have modern landmarks fostering civic pride. But Slussen isn’t high on the list of tourist hotspots. It doesn’t feature in glossy literature touting the city as a cluster for everything high tech, modern and progressive, which in most instances it is.

Any snapshot of Slussen reveals old windblown and soot-covered concrete, graffiti and garbage. Like James Dean on a rainy Times Square, there isn’t a Swedish photographer who hasn’t captured the loneliness of a dirty and tiled underground Slussen passageway - moody, b/w, cold, wet. Guidebook Stockholm paints a different picture.

Slussen is a communication hub in a fast growing city whose geography spans over 14 islands. There is no alternative. Every train, and every subway, bus, car or bike must pass.

King Birger Jarl founded Stockholm in 1252, a commercial hub for fishermen and traders moving goods between a large inland lake and the Baltic. Two-meter high rapids prompted a trading culture of stevedores and other services. A city was born.

The Queen Kristina Lock from 1642 was the first lock built 12 years after Stockholm was proclaimed capital with 30,000 residents. By 1850, the third lock, Nils Ericsson’s, served a city of 93,000.

The current Slussen dates from 1935. There were cars and 500,000. Population estimates today hover around one million of which 400,000 people pass Slussen daily.

Twenty years of debate, and half as many architectural competitions later, including designs by Foster & Partners, White Architects, and others, a kind of consensus was reached in 2011 by the City Council and a panoply of political parties (still a mess) to tear down and rebuild the under-dimensioned Slussen according to plans drawn up by now-deceased city architect Johan Nyrén.

The ‘New Slussen’ calls for two pyramid-shaped glass houses for cultural events, cafes and restaurants, an esplanade and park, an underground shopping center, a new lock system, new thoroughfares and bridges for bikes and cars, and new tunnels for trains and subways, and assorted new buildings.

Yet quiet protests continue, some with live music events and others on social media like Facebook arguing that refurbishing would cost less. Construction is nevertheless underway. It is a complex task considering the city has to function at the same time.

One major hurdle remains.

The current design calls for a commuter bus terminal to be blasted out of an adjacent mountain.

“There is one small problem. The land is still privately owned,” writes Swedish architect and another naysayer Ola Andersson in the national newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

“One can of course disagree with the current proposal. But the [City Council] can’t possibly believe that this solution will work any better than it does today. But the city seems determined to carry out its plans regardless.”