The Construction of Construction: The Wenner-Gren Center and the possibility of steel building in postwar Sweden

Frida Rosenberg has studies the construction of the Wenner-Gren Center which was built between 1954 and 1966.
The Wenner-Gren Center high-rise played an active role in the postwar process in which steel gained recognition as a structural material in Sweden. Understanding what was at stake in this seemingly minor change; i.e. the means for implementing a steel frame building at this point in time, requires an intimate understanding of the process that surrounded building projects in Sweden at the time.

What is the topic of your Doctoral Thesis?

My thesis studies the construction of the Wenner-Gren Center in Stockholm, which was built between 1954 and 1966. This building complex consists of three volumes dedicated to interdisciplinary and scientific research, designed by the architects Sune Lindström and Alf Bydén of the company Vattenbyggnadsbyrån, (VBB). The project was sponsored by a private individual, Axel Wenner-Gren, and received support from the Swedish state through the donation of a property at the northern end of Sveavägen, here in Stockholm. The main building of the Wenner-Gren Center is a high-rise structure.

In my thesis I consider how the building processes surrounding this high-rise can be seen as research. In other words, the Wenner-Gren Center high-rise can be understood not only as a specific building designed for research administration, but also as a collective and purposeful attempt to research construction whilst building the structure.

The pivotal point of my investigation is the fact that steel was re-introduced as a cost-effective building material in Sweden at the same time. The steel frame, which had been abandoned in Sweden since the beginning of the Second World War, was re-introduced with this office tower.

Why did you choose this topic?

I have approached this historical thesis from my interest and awareness of the challenges that concerns contemporary architectural practice.

  • How do we formulate a collaborative environment between different knowledge-practices, such as engineers and architects? The Wenner-Gren Center exemplifies and expresses the production of a building that originated from a collaborative sprit between the architect and the engineer producing the building form. 
  • How does the immediate environment effect and inform our urban environment? My thesis discusses the material steel. The process that I describe can be related to how the contemporary milieu currently research, implement and market wood as a building material.
  • How can innovation separate from regulatory building systems? The Wenner-Gren Center high-rise exemplify a project where innovation was premiered using the existing knowledge in standard solutions.

 What are the most important results?

My intention has been to allow the particularities of different knowledge practices related in the architecture project to speak: architects, engineers, and various construction consultants, as well as the investors behind the project. The thesis also implicates operational formats such as, financial calculations, and pre-construction matters in order to visualize how architecture is regulated. In other words, my investigation includes various agencies in the architectural process in order to understand the effect of the environment. The Wenner-Gren Center high-rise played an active role in the postwar process in which steel gained recognition as a structural material in Sweden. Understanding what was at stake in this seemingly minor change; i.e., the means for implementing a steel frame building at this point in time, requires an intimate understanding of the process that surrounded building projects in Sweden at the time.

Did you come across something unexpected during your thesis research?

Many things are unexpected when you approach a PhD-project. My thesis is primarily based on archival research at various institutions, such as the Swedish Institute of Steel Construction (Stålbyggnadsinstitutet), the Wenner-Gren Foundations, Center for Business History along with various image archives. I went into this PhD thesis with the ambition to formulate an understanding for architecture history that puts less focus on the architect in the narrative of the Wenner-Gren Center. I was surprised by how much archival material I was able to find that could support my standpoint, which has a wider significance in a contemporary context of architectural history writing. It represents a shift by certain scholars, focusing on architecture history from the perspective of drawings, technology, material, and other pre-construction documents. This shift indicates a criticism of the understanding of an individual – the architect – as a genius solely responsible for architecture. Instead, this tendency in scholarly writing seeks to understand the complexity and the particular roles and agencies of an architectural project.

Who will benefit from your results?

For me it has been important to contextualize contemporary challenges with a historical example and point to the relevance of academic research for contemporary practice.

What will you do next?

I am currently teaching 2nd year students and 5th year thesis-students in the architecture programme. I will also teach the course ”Project Development and Architectural Concepts” at the division Project Communication together with Tina Karrbom Gustavsson.

Frida Rosenberg defended her doctoral thesis The Construction of Construction: The Wenner-Gren Center and the possibility of steel building in postwar Sweden in the subject area Architecture with specialisation in Architectural Technology in September 2018.

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