- The Royal Dramatic Theatre was inaugurated in 1908
- The theatre is considered the most adorned building in Sweden
- Swedish materials were almost exclusively used to build the edifice
- It was inspired by Viennese Wagner School of architecture
The Royal Dramatic Theatre, or Dramaten as it is colloquially known, is a building that you can hardly miss if you walk around the more modern parts of the Stockholm’s city centre. As you will shortly see, there are many good reasons for admiring this eye-catching construction but as usual, we start with a little background story.
The institution that now resides at Nybroplan was founded in 1788 per initiative of King Gustav III who was known as an art aficionado. Over the course of its life, the Royal Theatre has resided at several prominent locations but, to be fair, it also had to move quite often.
Bollhuset, located on Slottsbacken near the Royal Palace, was the first official venue where actors of the newly formed theatre performed. Later, they moved to perhaps the most prominent location possible, the Makalös Palace. As you can read in my earlier post on Kungsträdgården, the monumentality of the Makalös Palace was barely matched by any other building in Stockholm.
However, the theatre became homeless when their famous residence burned down. Following this disaster, the Royal Dramatic Theatre joined their colleagues from the Royal Swedish Opera and for almost forty years, these two institutions shared the facilities of the former Opera House located on Gustav Adolf’s square, just like the current one.
After their next home on Kungsträdgårdsgatan was condemned, the discussion regarding plans for a new theatre building gained traction. The city selected two locations in which the new theatre could stand and assigned architect Ludvig Peterson to draw proposals for each of these two.
One of these locations was the corner of Strandvägen and Artillerigatan while the other was the open area west of Nybroviken bay. Additionally, a proposal to place the theatre in Kungsträdgården was brought up but the authorities wanted to keep the park free of buildings.
Eventually, Peterson created another design, this time specifying the dimensions of the theatre as well as estimating the cost of realising the proposal. None of the three plans drawn by the architect between 1897 and 1899 was executed, though.
Since the plans did not seem to be going anywhere, a private consortium led by the director of the publishing house Norstedt & Söner, Gustaf Birger Anders Holm, was formed. The consortium picked the location at Nybroplan even though the face of the entire quarter needed to change to house the new theatre. They also engaged architect Fredrik Lilljekvist to draw an architectural proposal.
The property on which the theatre stands had to be moved forward a little to create a smooth continuation of Strandvägen and a new street, Almlöfsgatan, which had not existed before, was created on its other side. Lilljekvist liked the idea of moving the property forward but not quite to the level of the houses on Strandvägen. If you pay enough attention, you will notice that the theatre is set a bit deeper than the residential buildings, which gives it a more prominent position in the street landscape.
Axel Anderberg, the architect of the recently completed Opera House, created an additional pair of proposals for the theatre after he himself had initiated contact with the consortium. While they allowed him to present his designs, he was never really considered a threat to Lilljekvist’s proposal despite having more experience in the field.
It is also interesting that Lilljekvist’s design that was accepted by the consortium differed from the building you can see today significantly. The architect presented a total of six different versions of his plans over the course of three years and some of the key elements were only born in later versions. These include the central tower and the design of the entire bottom floor, as well as the main entrance.
It is thanks to these changes that the whole building looks as if it stood on a giant base and the actual theatre only started with the first floor when you stand a little bit further from it. This effect was achieved by setting the walls and columns of the bottom floor deeper into the façade, as well as having the loggia on the first floor, which drops shadow on the entrance. The rustication of the bottom floor only helps enhance this feeling.
Looking at the building from outside, it appears as though there is only one floor and a mezzanine above the ‘base.’ There are, in fact, three floors, two of which are lit by the tall windows and the top floor is of equal size despite the small size of the windows.
With many sculptures, reliefs, and ornaments decorating every aspect of the theatre from its façade, to its interior, to the finest details of the furniture, the Royal Dramatic Theatre is considered the most adorned public building in Sweden.
All decorative elements, including the four lamp posts made of stone with gilded apparatus marking the theatre’s site, took around six percent of the total budget and that still does not include craftsmen’s work and other details. For comparison, only two percent of the budget for the Opera House completed about a decade earlier had been used for adornment.
When you see the theatre, you might get the impression that you have not seen many similar buildings in Stockholm. Well, you would be right, it is in many aspects unique. It is one of Sweden’s very few examples of the so-called Wagner school originating in Vienna, Austria. The school named after Otto Wagner is characteristic, for example, by the combination of white and gold elements, use of natural stones in combination with metals, and ornaments depicting domestic plants.
Moreover, this construction is one of the few where many artists and craftsmen collaborated to create the final masterpiece. This was achieved, among other things, thanks to the competence of prominent artists who collaborated with the consortium and persuaded the leaders that an artistic competition was not the way to go. This was due to the fact that the best artists seldom participate in such competition and that it would be very difficult for a single person to complete the project within the given deadline.
On the other hand, the theatre has a plenty in common with other contemporary buildings in Stockholm. One of the key principles during the construction was the use of Swedish materials and engagement of Swedish craftsmen only. The principle was followed almost perfectly and therefore, the building is proudly Swedish, just like other public buildings built in the early twentieth century including the Court House and Stockholm City Hall.
Following the inauguration on 18 February 1908, the new theatre became immensely popular among the public. The opening was such a big event that even foreign press covered the occasion. Although other notable architects did not approve of every single detail of the building, their opinions were mostly positive, too.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the theatre was its central tower. Even architect Lilljekvist commented on this issue and said that the tower topped with a cupola caused him a lot of trouble but ‘it had to be there.’ We can only assume that he referred to the practical and visual purposes the tower serves.
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Birgitta, Manners Stålhammar, 2009. Dramatikens hus 100 år.