The City Library in Stockholm is considered its architect Gunnar Asplund’s (1885-1940) greatest masterpiece and is also one of the internationally best-known Swedish works of architecture.
The interwar era saw a renewed interest in classicist architecture, a movement which came to be particularly fruitful in the Nordic countries until its monstrous misuse by totalitarian regimes and the emergence of functionalism pushed it aside. The City Library represents the peak of this “retro-classicist” trend.
Asplund began working on the library in 1920 and early sketches show a building with a more traditionally classicist façade surmounted by a dome. However, the library which was built between 1924 and 1928 found another expression.
Asplund reached back to French classicist architecture of the 1780s and 1790s, known as revolution architecture, and the City Library’s most direct “ancestor” might perhaps be found in Charles-Nicolas Ledoux’s custom house Barrière de la Villette (1786-1792) at Place de Stalingrad in Paris.
The result is a building based on pure geometrical forms. Viewed from the outside the City Library seems to have a quadratic, cubical body surmounted by a rotunda, but in fact it consists of four (originally three) rectangular wings placed around a cylindrical central block.
The City Library sits at the junction of Svea Road (Sveavägen) and Oden Street (Odengatan) and in front of it is a terrace where a staircase flanked by two functionalistic bazaar buildings (also by Asplund, 1928-1931) lead up to the Egyptian-inspired main entrance. Inside the staircase continue to the main library hall, which is to be found in the central cylinder, whereas the four wings contain reading rooms.
Three free-standing annexes were later built behind the City Libary, with entrances from Oden Street. As the City Library has now outgrown its premises, a contest for a major extension was held some years ago and won by the German architect Heike Hanada in 2007. However, such a modern extension would hardly harmonise with Gunnar Asplund’s masterpiece and it has since been decided rather to build another library elsewhere in Stockholm.