Ralph Rapson – Part II: The Scandinavian Embassies

December 9th, 2011

This past spring, while researching Sweden's mid-century approach to mass housing projects, I had no idea there was any connection with the most famous modernist architect of my home town Minneapolis, Ralph Rapson. As I walked the streets of Stockholm, unbeknownst to me, perched on a rocky hilltop in the Djurgarden district overlooking the city centre, still sits the 1955 US Embassy designed by Rapson and his former Chicago partner architect, John van der Meulen. Rapson was granted US Embassy commissions in Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, and The Hague. When the pair reached Stockholm, they set up an office inside the well-established practice of architect Anders Tengbom. Several local architects from Copenhagen and Stockholm assisted on the projects, basically turning Rapson's designs into working drawings for the review boards and contractors.

 

With hardly any monetary or design limitations from the US government, Rapson designed at will, but met disapproval with the mighty overarching force of Sven Markelius, Stockholm's master urban planner. Markelius was the mind behind the 'ABC' cities – Arbete-Bostad-Centrum [Work-Housing-Center] that dotted along the high speed rail lines radiating out of the city "like pearls on a string". His planned cities were, and still are, regarded as some of the most successful modern solutions to mass housing shortages. With a city in crisis, Markelius was given the power and burden of alleviating the cities housing shortage and providing its citizens with comfortable, affordable housing on a very limited budget. Miraculously, he did accomplish this, and to my knowledge, his ABC cities are still well loved by their inhabitants today. By the time of Rapson's arrival, his opinion was not one to be reckoned with. Rapson noted that every building planned for the city required a room-size model to be studied judiciously by Markelius before any plans went forward. "Everything in Stockholm went through that man" noted Rapson, including a foreign embassy. 

Markelius edited out details of Rapson's design that didn't meet his taste, such as the barrel vaults that had no special precedence in the Swedish architectural vocabulary. Markelius insisted the building must not tower over its surroundings, and Rapson's design was reduced from 6 stories to 3. Even with the strong personalities and differences in opinion, construction was underway in a matter of months. What came of it was a modern building with an American personality but a Swedish mind to function. The strong geometric forms spoke of the interior hierarchy and function, keeping the public services in the one-story wing wrapping around the central 3-story tower. Natural light filled the interior through the floor-to-ceiling windows and reflected off the polished granite sheathed walls. A dramatic main stair ran the full height of the building, showing dramatically through the expansive glass wall. As far as I know, the building still stands and is still in use by the US Embassy. Pictures of the building have been hard to come by, so if you have any on hand, please send them onward.

  

The site in Copenhagen was much more restrictive, requiring Rapson and van der Meulen to fit the embassy between two existing buildings along a historic square. Though a modern esthetic was approved, the design had to correspond with the adjacent cornice lines and the facade had to be set back 23 feet from the others as to not be too loud in the the cityscape. As Rapson said, he "sort of shoe-horned the thing into the site." 

Though the building in Copenhagen caused much less commotion than that in Stockholm, reviews of the Stockholm embassy tended to be in favour of it, if begrudgingly. Sven Markelius reportedly wrote in 1954 after a thorough inspection, that it was "the best office building in Stockholm". The size and stark modernity was unsettling to many in a group of 350 Swedish artists and architects that toured the building, but many conceded that the trend in architecture was going that way, and it would be senseless to revert to earlier, less challenging styles. The structure was awarded the AIA First Honors Award in 1955. The US embassy in Copenhagen was awarded the Danish Medal for Good Design by the Danish government in the same year. Of course, not everyone liked it, some criticizing it for it's "melancholy undertaker's interiors", but on the whole, it were regarded as a success and some ventured to go as far as calling it "one of the most beautiful, functional buildings in Copenhagen." 

For a full account of Rapson's work for US embassies abroad, reference The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies, by Jane C. Leoffler. [quotes are taken from p. 72-75]

Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

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