If getting back in time and exploring the architectural journey of Stockholm through the history sounds like an exciting experience to you, I have a treat that is just right for you. Katarinaberget is a well-preserved historical area in the north-eastern part of the Södermalm Island in Stockholm and a unique opportunity to explore the continuous evolvement of the urban environment in the Swedish capital.
With the oldest structures at Katarinaberget coming from the Middle Ages, here you can see how the city used to grow before relevant regulations were put in place. By the lack of clear organisation of streets and the road grid, you can recognise places originating before the 1640s when the first city plan was introduced in Stockholm.
Particularly in the 15th and 16th century, the development on Södermalm varied a lot from decade to decade. At the time, the great majority of the city’s population was concentrated on Stadsholmen which was the only place where Stockholmers could reside permanently during wartime.
Houses on the island were often deliberately destroyed by the locals when enemies threatened the city so that they could not use them as shelters during the siege.
As the population grew, simple wooden houses were accompanied by other buildings marking an important change slowly making its way to the island. Among these were the Helga Kor’s Chapel (Helga Kors kapell) and the Sture Chapel (Sturekapellet) built in the 15th and 16th century, respectively, in the location of the present-day Katarina Church (Katarina kyrka).
Increasing centralisation of power in the capital, as well as the continued military success of Sweden, brought unprecedented growth to Stockholm in the early 17th century. In relative numbers, the population growth the city experienced at that time has been unmatched throughout its history.
To bring some order to the seemingly randomly organised urban areas, a then-modern city plan was introduced defining straight major roads and right-angled quarters. While the plan affected Katarinaberget, too, the natural terrain in the area is to thank for the preservation of the medieval street layout in the area around Klevgränd and Mariagränd.
As you might expect, most of the existing development was altered or demolished without special consideration if needed. Perhaps more interestingly, though, moving buildings to new locations was commonplace.
Although stone houses were strongly preferred over wooden structures for obvious reasons, the financial situation of most of Södermalm’s residents caused that in the 17th century, there was only a handful of stone buildings on the island. The oldest one that has been preserved to this day is estimated to come from the period between 1580 and 1630 and sits at Klevgränd 3A.
Arguably the two most prominent buildings from the period are Katarina Church and the Southern City Hall (Södra Stadshuset), today home of the Stockholm City Museum (Stadsmuseet i Stockholm), both completed in the latter half of the 1600s.
Together with the Swedish economy, the construction pace slowed down during the last few decades of the century, and not much had changed by the early 1700s. Even worse, a disaster hit Katarinaberget in 1723 when large parts of the area were demolished in a fire, including Katarina Church where only the walls were left standing when the fire was over.
In large part, the magnitude of the tragedy was amplified by the prevalence of wooden structures resulting from the economic situation of the borough’s population. To tackle this issue, the City issued the first Construction Order two years later.
This document established that all squares and major streets, for example, Götgatan, Hornsgatan, and Stora Bastugatan, were to be lined exclusively by edifices made of stone. It also brought the requirement for construction permits where architectural drawings of each new building were to be approved by the city architect and a couple of additional authorities.
Thanks to the establishment of this law, we now have preserved original drawings of many historic sites standing in Stockholm.
However, rules are often of little practical value if they are not enforced, and that was also the case in the 1720s at Katarinaberget. In an effort to rebuild the neighbourhood as fast as possible, many structures were erected without the required permits from the relevant offices even long after additional legislature tried to eradicate these from the city.
Despite every effort to restore the living conditions in the area quickly, the progress was being stalled by the lack of material and other factors during this era of little prosperity in Sweden. Generally, the 18th century was dominated by smaller houses, many of which have been preserved to this day at Katarinaberget.
Interestingly enough, it is noticeable that buildings located in parts of the borough that are harder to access, usually due to the terrain, are closer to their original form than those lining major streets which have often undergone more thorough reconstructions.
While the first half of the nineteenth century was very quiet when it came to construction works, the latter one brought some extraordinary buildings which stand in the neighbourhood to this day. Most notably, the Southern Theatre (Södra Teatern) at Mosebacke Torg is now renowned just as much for its architecture as it is for the extraordinary entertainment venues it offers.
The construction of the theatre began in 1852 but, once again, a big fire damaged not only the theatre but also many of the adjacent structures. Eventually, though, the Southern Theatre opened its doors to the public in 1859.
Likely the most sudden change was brought to Katarinaberget by the industrial revolution when the whole city of Stockholm experienced what historians regard as the worst housing crisis in Stockholm ever.
Large-scale construction took the city by storm in the 1870s and 1880s, though Södermalm was not as severely affected as other parts of the city including Kungsholmen, Vasastan, or Östermalm. Several notable public buildings at Katarinaberget come from the late 1800s. For instance, a pair of massive schools – Södra Latin and Katarina Norra – were built during the period.
The twentieth century also brought a few extraordinary structures to the borough. The bank house of the Enskilda Banken by Hornsgatan designed by the renowned architect Ivar Tengbom is certainly one of them. A number of buildings standing along Stigbergsgatan or the functionalist Post House on Folkungagatan are some of the foremost representatives of the decades that followed.
Throughout this post, I presented the story of Katarinaberget strictly in chronological order. This way, I aimed to illustrate perhaps the most original feature of this area which is that Katarinaberget presents an almost perfect overview of all important eras of the Swedish architecture. From the humble medieval houses through impressive 17th-century buildings to functionalist structures dominating the architecture of the mid-20th century.
A slow walk through the streets of Katarinaberget with your eyes wide open gives you a thorough introduction into Stockholm architecture and, at the same time, a chance to experience an authentic historic place at its best.
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Katarinaberget : utredning och bevarandeförslag 1972. [stockholmskallan.stockholm.se].