The young couple saw the ad and replied. They liked the area and had friends nearby. There was another bidder, but he pulled out. Buying a 1930s functional style house was not a given. They might as well have gone for something older, National romanticism or 1920s style with a steep, mansard roof.
The house needed quite a bit of renovation. Had the couple known how much, it is unlikely they would have bought it. But they have no regrets. A few days after they moved in, a neighbour dropped by and told them that the world-famous architect Le Corbusier designed the house.
From the top of Prytzgatan, right angles are sharply silhouetted against the sky, a dazzling white cube in the pale sun. Vaulted stairwells lead up to a small cabin on the roof, with round vents and railings. The house stands there, cut out of its own context, an architectural eccentricity.
A few years ago it was moored and hidden in the dark arborvitae. You couldn’t see it in the turn-of-the-century surroundings, interspersed with 1920s classicism. The house had forgotten its own past.
But then the young couple moved in. They tidied up the garden and rummaged through the archives. They found a house and discovered a history. The Le Corbusier story wasn’t true, they knew that much. But the past was captivating nonetheless.
The house was designed by Ingrid Wallberg, the first Swedish female to run her own architectural firm. She was from a wealthy background in Halmstad; the family had made its fortune from bricks and textile. Ingrid was young when she met Albert Lilienberg, who later became the first county engineer in Gothenburg.They fell in love, but it was love with impediments. Ingrid was only seventeen. It would take another couple of years until they became an item. Lilienberg was one of the pioneers of the Garden City and its main proponent in Sweden. They got married in 1909 and moved into Stora Gårda’s Manor in Örgryte. Money was not an issue.
In 1912 Ingrid studied city planning at Fachschule für Architektur in Berlin. She lacked other formal education but was passionate about architecture and city planning. Along with her husband she partook in architectural competitions. They won prizes and it wasn’t long until Ingrid had established herself within the profession. In 1917 she gave birth to a son.
Ingrid was a businesswoman in her own right. She ran a garden centre alongside her architectural firm and also managed Rex Bicycle Factory together with her husband in her hometown of Halmstad. Halfway through the 1920s, the architect couple parted ways. Albert moved to Stockholm and Ingrid left for Paris, along with the couple’s eleven-year-old son Björn.
Ingrid’s sister Lotti Rääf lived in Paris. She also had a broken marriage behind her and now shared her life with musician Albert Jeanneret, brother of Charles Édouard Jeanneret, famous under the name Le Corbusier, the great prophet of Functionalism.
The Swiss had developed his idea of Purism, a kind of cubistic architecture. His five points of architecture prescribed detached pillars, pilotis, to provide structural support for the house, roof gardens, open floor plans, strips of ribbon windows and a free façade.The construction with the reinforced concrete pillars enables the free façade. All the walls are non-supporting and it is therefore possible to have strips of ribbon windows and an open floor plan. With his free-floating concrete houses, Le Corbusier was defying the law of gravity.
His hyper-modern ideas were inspired by an antique architectonic order, the megaron of Ancient Greece; a rectangular hall with the entrance on one of the short sides, like a box. It was very common around the Mediterranean and can be found in Asia Minor, Levant and North Africa since the beginning of time.
In the spring of 1928 Ingrid Wallberg did work experience with Le Corbusier. The studio was a 40-metre long box called S35, after the street address rue de Sèvres in Montparnasse. Villa Savoye was one of the projects on the drawing table. On the roof of the famous modernist villa in Poissy, built in 1929, the arched wall creates a curved room. With Villa Savoye Le Corbusier manifested his five points of architecture. Perhaps Ingrid helped with the blueprints. In Paris she met young architect Alfred Roth, compatriot of Le Corbusier. When she returned to Gothenburg, he followed.
Together they opened architectural firm R&W in the gardener’s residence in Stora Gårda. If Le Corbusier was the great prophet, then Ingrid became his apostle in Scandinavia. The first project, two tenement houses on Stora Gårda’s estate, fell through. But in one corner of the land they designed a house for Ingrid and her son, a functional villa in the spirit of Le Corbusier.
The blueprints were approved, but the planning permission was appealed by the neighbours, who thought it would be an abomination in the Garden City. Modern style was under debate. The following year, in 1930, the Stockholm Exhibition was arranged.
Led by Carl Malmsten, the critics went on the assault. The atmosphere was spiteful. In Gothenburg the county architect sided with Ingrid Wallberg’s house. ‘Aesthetically superior to the surrounding houses,’ he noted in a statement. Unfortunately, to no avail. The highest authority went with the neighbours. Some years later the house was built anyway, but Ingrid never moved in.
Her house is an homage to Le Corbusier, even in its altered state, and a stunning example of functional style – the simple cubistic shape, the strips of ribbon windows, the arched volume, the cabin and the roof terrace. But she was no epigone. As an architect Ingrid Wallberg has her own temper and language. She is instantly recognisable.
With the thorough, yet gentle restoration, the new settlers have revered the building’s past. The realisation has come gradually. Not only are they renovating a house, they are also cherishing a memory. Along with their two young sons, the couple have travelled from room to room, periodically living and cooking under camping-like conditions.
At the beginning, the kitchen was small and crowded, in accordance with the current functional style norm. Previous owners had taken down the wall to the maid’s room and the new owners extended it by a metre at the back. Now, the kitchen is enhanced and spacious, with a garden exit. Through the strips of ribbon windows, the northern light floods in; from the other directions, southern light seeps through the dining area, into a magnificent L-shaped room. The kitchen is not exclusively for prepping anymore, this is where you get together and eat.
How do you find the right kitchen? You google ‘functional style’ and end up at Kvänum. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The choice fell on Banér with plain cupboard doors and soft white frame. There are teak handles on the top cabinets with sliding doors, the snap handles and knobs are stainless steel.
Fridge and freezer are brushed steel, the sink sections stainless steel, and the worktops feature whirl-pattern laminate edged with oak. Jacobsen’s chair Seven in teak, and coasters with Josef Frank’s Manhattan motif set the scene. On the odd occasion, they have sacrificed the antique in favour of the functional. Practicality is, after all, the heart of functionalism.
New windows with aluminium frames were put in and the old interior doors were swapped for designer Olle Anderson’s grey ribbed ones, with a round window, a small wink to the vents on the roof top cabin. The doors’ ribbing describes a wave of a sinusoid. The texture captures the light beautifully.
Nothing is doctrinaire about this place. It is playful and improvised, freely based on functionalism and the 1950s. The house on Prytzgatan is a magical box, a time machine.
So what happened to Ingrid? She re-married and kept on working. It was an architectural deed with a social tendency. A light, healthy and functional living space for the majority of the population was her mission. She collaborated with the newly-formed co-operative HSB, and R&W represented them at the Stockholm Exhibition with interiors such as kitchenettes and other compact living solutions.
After a couple of years, Ingrid’s business partner Alfred Roth returned to Switzerland. He came to be one of the century’s most influential architects. From time to time he must have thought of his days in Sweden – of the house by the sea. A tailor in Kungsbacka wanted a non-Swedish summerhouse, and ended up with a box on pillars with a breath-taking view from the roof terrace, overlooking the fjord.
They had never felt this free. With Villa Simonsson R&W could realise their vision, and implement in detail an aesthetic programme with volumes marked in the signal colours of modernism: red, blue and yellow – a little functional style light house. There is no trace of the house today. The only thing left is a newspaper photo, a grainy mirage amongst the dwarf pines on the foothill.
But the house on Prytzgatan still stands, on the plot that was once Ingrid’s. She was meant to live there with her son Björn. It never happened. Ingrid got tired of the legal processing, divided up the plot and sold. Some years later, her boy died in an accident. In 1935 the blueprints were approved and the construction could start.
After her father’s death in the 1940s, Ingrid Wallberg returned to Halmstad to take over the family business. She continued to design houses; the last one, an industrial building, was finalised two years before her death in 1965. Today, the sight of the villa on Prytzgatan would have filled her with happiness, a small boy’s bike leaning against the wall.