Stockholm: where cutting edge meets Old World
Designers even manage to inject elegance into the subway stations
CanWest News Service
8 April 2006
Stepping off the Arlanda Express -- the high-speed train that runs from Sweden's largest airport to the centre of its tidy, bustling capital -- I felt I'd been transported in time. Back to the future, that is.
Laid out on 14 small granite islands, Stockholm is a favourite destination of style hunters lured by an abundance of flashy design shops and cutting-edge hotels and restaurants. Yet there is a decidedly Old World feel about the place. That's not especially surprising, since the city was established in the 13th century as a Baltic seaport and fortification.
Buildings dating to the 17th century still attract visitors to the city's original settlement on Gamla Stan, one of the city's smallest islands, where Sweden's imposing royal palace stands. Historical sites are scattered everywhere, but they aren't what brought me to Stockholm. Instead, I came to witness the changes that time has brought.
What I discovered was a city still in transition, from the old to the new. Stockholm has only recently emerged from a decade-long economic slump, brought on by a bust in Sweden's high-tech sector and massive public-sector layoffs, one result of the country's relatively late entry into the European Union.
So adept have the Swedes been at refashioning their capital's image, from boring to brilliant, that even the row of five faceless office towers shoved into the middle of Norrmalm a generation ago has become fashionable.
The so-called Haymarket buildings were once despised, says my guide, Stockholm native Elisabeth Daude. "They were considered ugly and impenetrable, and no one really liked them." But the identical towers are now hailed as modernist-chic; while their bland facades haven't changed, their linked foyers have been refitted with pricey restaurants and design stores. Renting office space has become almost impossible.
Most symbolic of the new urbanism sweeping the city is a stunning residential project two kilometres south of the historic centre, called Hammarby Sjostad. Built on top of a reclaimed industrial site and beside a freshwater lake, the project is an architectural and environmentally friendly showcase.
Hammarby Sjostad was conceived 15 years ago, but has only recently been developed. The high-density neighbourhood houses 20,000 residents in gleaming new five-storey apartment blocks with large balconies, gorgeous penthouses and lots of windows.
Canals wind through the area, allowing for boat traffic in summer and cross-country skiing in winter. Car traffic is minimal; Hammarby Sjostad is connected to the rest of Stockholm by pedestrian bridges, ferries and a new light-rail transit line. The area warrants a quick visit just for a glimpse of its unique garbage-disposal system. No hauling trash to the smelly dumpster here: Residents merely have to toss their refuse into any number of vacuum tubes outside, and the waste is immediately sucked via underground pipes to a large central depot where some of it is converted into biofuel, which is then used to power and heat homes.
After strolling about the area and almost poking our heads inside the vacuum tubes, Elisabeth and I caught a small passenger ferry and headed back to the old city. She was keen to show me a strip of trendy fashion shops that have recently popped up in Sodermalm.
From there, it was just a five-minute walk to the top of Sodermalm, and to an old, yet very chic, restaurant called Eriks Gondolen. True to its name, it sits inside a long tubelike cabin that rests on a skinny steel scaffold, high above the city. Opened in 1932, the interior is made of wood floor to ceiling. A favourite haunt of Stockholm business leaders and the media, this is also a great place for visitors, as the views from the gondola are spectacular, if vertigo-inducing.
After lunch, I made my way down to street level by way of a creaky elevator, and then darted across a pedestrian bridge to old Gamla Stan. Stockholm is an easy city to get around, either on foot or using public transit. A few minutes later, I was back in the heart of Norrmalm, at Central Station. Descending an escalator, I passed into the city's efficient subway system. And once again, I found myself agog at Swedish elegance and innovation. This, inside a tunnel.
Like the system's two older lines, the Blue line was blasted through rock. But rather than cover the walls and ceilings with mundane tiles, designers left the surface unadorned and the tunnel rocks exposed, creating a stark, raw beauty and the impression of being inside a spacious mine shaft. The effect was somehow inviting, not claustrophobic.
It was time to return to my hotel, next to Central Station and the Arlanda Express train. No longer a zone of sleazy takeouts and budget flops, the area has returned to its old Nordic roots. I capped off my day with a visit to the original and now much-copied Ice Bar across the street.
"You must wear this," said the hostess, standing at her station outside the bar. She handed me a light poncho made of fleece and covered with a shiny metallic fabric, the better for maintaining body heat. Gloves were mandatory as well. And I would need all this gear, for the bar was a frosty -5C inside.
A bundled-up server handed me a vodka-based concoction, poured into, what else, a glass chiselled from ice. Taking a sip, I wondered if this cold-bar concept was another tip of the hat to the old days, before central heating was invented. I was freezing, but no matter. The Ice Bar was packed, the mood warm.