Monday, 21 December 2009

New books: Carl XIV Johan’s favourite architect

Fredrik Blom (1781-1853) was an officer-turned-architect who became a leading protagonist of Swedish neoclassicism and the favourite architect of King Carl XIV Johan. Among his best-known works are Rosendal Palace, the former Carl Johan’s Church (popularly known as Skeppsholmskyrkan) and his transportable houses, but he also put his mark on Stockholm through several other monumental buildings. Blom valued functionality and his works are mostly quite simplistic – in my view sometimes too simple to be called elegant.
The art historian Carine Lundberg never finished her planned book on Fredrik Blom, meaning that until now no major study of him has been available. The military historian Thomas Roth tries to rectify this with his new book Fredrik Blom – Karl Johans arkitekt, published by Bokförlaget Signum in October, but does not quite succeed.
The author takes a mostly chronological approach to the life and work of Fredrik Blom, interspersed with some more thematic chapters. He identifies Blom’s buildings and gives quite detailed descriptions of what they look like. Roth is mostly concerned with the exteriors, and we learn little about Blom’s interiors. Rosendal Palace, arguably Blom’s most important work, is not dealt with as thoroughly as would seem natural – the author is content to note that the small palace has been the subject of another book some years ago.
The greatest problems about this book are that it seems the author does not really understand architecture and that he sees Blom in a much too isolated way. His buildings are seen in relation neither to each other nor to the works of other architects of the time. The author’s knowledge of architecture seems to stop at headings such as “neoclassicism”, “empire style” and “neo-Gothic”, but of course these styles are diverse and complex. Roth several times refers to “Blom’s style”, but does not say much about what was characteristic of his style and what set him apart from other architects’ works.
Without further ado, Roth includes Krontorp Manor among Fredrik Blom’s works, proclaiming that he is convinced by the art historian Hans-Olof Boström’s theory that Blom is a more likely architect than Hans D. F. Linstow, to whom Krontorp has traditionally been ascribed. He does not enter into Boström’s arguments (which are debatable), but only says that “the style and the similarities with Elghammar” indicates that Blom was the architect. There are other possible explanations for the similarities between Krontorp and Elghammar, and in fact Krontorp is very untypical of Blom’s style, in fact of Swedish neoclassicism in general. It is also difficult to understand how Roth is thinking when he writes that Norrnäs Manor is reminiscent of Rosendal Palace.
Only in the penultimate paragraph of this book does the author try to put Blom into context. Then he says that Blom’s style was most strongly inspired by Desprez, Quarenghi and Palladio, but that the architect most closely related to Blom’s style was Carl Ludvig Engel. It is beyond me how Thomas Roth has reached such a conclusion – in fact Engel’s elegant, richly ornamented buildings must be considered almost the opposite of the simplicity characteristic of Fredrik Blom’s works.
The author is obviously very knowledgeable about Fredrik Blom and has apparently put much work into this book. But this isolated knowledge is not enough and the absence of a context coupled with Roth’s limited understanding of architecture in general makes it a less valuable book that in might otherwise have been. As it is, it demonstrates that knowledge and understanding may in fact not be as closely related as is generally assumed.

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