Lewerentz: faith in bricks

If Swedish minimalism floats your boat – where decoration is for the unconfident, where every single move holds a secret – sit up. The church of St Peter in Klippan is where it’s at, and Sigurd Lewerentz is king. We are meeting the Swedish architect at the end of his professional life. He is finally returning to architecture after years out of the profession running a window factory. He gets the commission for St Peters in 1965, and with it designs one of the most succinct buildings in the world.

The whole complex is brick. The floors walls and ceilings are all made from the local stock; they have a dark, earthy texture. Bricks are a standardised size (75 x 102 x 215) which makes them easy to handle; laying bricks is essentially a human way of building. Lewerentz’s faith in the brick referencing the history of vernacular (labour-intensive) construction reminds you of primitive man building a shelter in which to worship. Bricks are made of clay, carved out of the Earth and fired. God’s house is made of the earth.

The cardinal rule on site in Klippan was that no brick should be cut; Lewerentz considered it both wasteful and untrue to the material to break it apart again simply for convenience. It takes modernist honesty of construction to a new level. Lewerentz himself was said to arrive on site whenever he heard of a brick being cut. He didn’t allow this rule to dictate the form; walls are not tailored to the right length to accommodate a multiple of bricks. The inevitable result is that things don’t quite fit together. Instead of finishing a wall tidily as a good bricky should, Lewerentz allows bricks to stick out or not line-up as they negotiate corners or meet other walls. It also forces a usually strict pattern to break up, squash up or stretch out – like words justified in a paragraph. Large gaps in the pattern are merely filled with mortar (mixed with slate to make it stronger).

This curious rejection of traditional language and method portrays an aura of carelessness; a rough-cut looseness and a delightful playfulness. Perceived lack of care is a complete illusion: Lewerentz spent 3 days a week on site, personally directing the placing of each brick. What appears at first to be roughshod is actually a painstakingly crafted sculpture; Lewerentz creating a whole architectural language with which the building can be read.

He’s most creative with his new language on the church’s floor. Different patterns denote thresholds between ‘congregational’ and ‘sacred’ spaces: sacred depicted with rows of upended bricks in a rigid formation of squares. So as you kneel at the altar rail, the ground before you seems richer, darker and more ordered despite being fashioned from the same material. There is a subtle threshold in the floor that draws a line between the congregation and the sanctuary. The altar is written in the same language, the sacred floor lifted up from the ground to form a table.

On my illustrative map you can see the pulpit from where the sermon is preached. The sermon is a bridge between the liturgy and the everyday; Lewerentz therefore sets the pulpit on this threshold – on the break between ‘holy’ brick and ‘congregational’ brick. Further up the map, a subtle change in floor texture suggests that even a layperson can become part of the mass while reading from the lectern.

Still, though, that curious lack of attention is in play. Lewerentz drew every single brick onto his elevations at 1:20, but then insisted his builders didn’t use spirit levels or plumb lines to set them out. This violent contradiction between obsessive precision and almost deliberate sabotage is one of the many mysteries of his work and character. In this dictate, Lewerentz forced his builders to become artists. Removing the tools with which you are familiar both handicaps you and encourages creativity as you seek alternatives. The building displays moments of beauty alongside human error; inconsistency in mortar thickness, wobbly bits and so on. To spend time here is to understand the words of the church’s liturgy: ‘through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made.’

But enough about bricks, time for light. You enter this one down a gradual slope, which draws you to a modest entrance in a small side chapel. Once inside you are plunged into darkness; the change is immediate, dramatic and disorientating. A low vaulted ceiling splits overhead allowing a deep light shaft to draw a single line of light on the floor before you, directing your path towards the main body of the church. The only other source of light is a thin wall crack, illuminating the wedding chapel altar. Low ceilings, low level lighting and a single material again suggest a prehistoric cave. And brick – fired clay and thus matt – soaks up light: the darkness is rich and dense…but I said I wouldn’t talk about brick.

Into the nave and the light levels remain low. Punched holes in the wall are positioned to highlight the baptistery font. Rather than flood the church with light, Lewerentz echoes the dark Swedish winter by exploiting light’s scarcity. Levels are low enough inside the church for each spot of light to wield power. A roof light casts a beam onto the floor, marking the route of procession from the vestry to the altar and at the same time creating small area light enough to read music by (no prizes for guessing where the organ is). Another window casts light over the altar and a carefully placed vase of flowers at the end of the altar rail.

Early in his career Lewerentz proved himself a master of Classicism. In this later work there’s the same density of articulation as found in the Woodland Cemetery Chapel of the Resurrection, but in a reworked, modernist language. Lewerentz has rejected much of the arsenal of his early work –style, decoration, even window frames (odd considering his earlier career choice). Here, at the end of his professional life, he has concluded that excess is unnecessary – a distraction. By stripping away and cutting back, he is revealing architecture for what it really is: taking the stuff of the earth, evolving material into language, construction into poetry and building into Architecture. A true master of his craft.

-Donna Macfadyen

Photos by Donna Macfadyen & Andrew Laurie