Thursday, November 11, 2010

A lunchtime sunbath at the roof, anyone?

Office girls sunbathing and showering at the KF roof gardens in Stockholm. Photo by C. Gemler, early 1940s.
Since the mid-90s, roof gardens have been earning a escalating following. Browse any garden related magazines and newspaper articles, and you'll find numerous pictures of the latest and greatest; from high-rise roofs filled with eclectic, recycled planters brimming with edibles to ecologically designed, sustainable native sanctuaries topping the sky-scrapers of the busiest cosmopolitan city centers.
The KF roof gardens overlooking the islands and waterways of Stockholm. Photo by Bertil Norberg, early 1940s.
Looking at all this plenty, one might think that roof gardens are a new idea, something that our climate-change challenged generation thought out in quest to fight against the ever surging density and temperatures of the highest populated areas of the planet. But this is just an illusion: in fact, roof gardens were popular already in ancient Mesopotamia, Rome and India, where roof gardens were created for both private and public enjoyment and recreation. And in the modern world, when industrialization made land both scarcer and more valuable, gardens sometimes moved to roofs to satisfy the hunger for nature and beauty; not the earliest but one of the most well-known examples is Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye (1928-1929) with its streamlined, carefully orchestrated roof gardens. It was first in the 1960s that the trend of building roof gardens came into a halt, like so many other areas of gardening. Many existing roof gardens fell into disrepair and were abandoned because of financial reasons, and thus the idea of building gardens on the roofs was neglected (but not completely forgotten) for some decades.
**Framed views from the KF roof, similar to the ones Le Corbusier used in Villa Savoye - and the Chinese and Japanese framed views that probably influenced both... Photo by Bertil Norberg.
In mid-19th century Stockholm, a couple of glorious roof gardens were built to improve the environment of office workers. The most well-known of them was the roof garden of "The Swedish Co-operative Union" (Kooperativa Förbundet, KF). It was designed and built in the early 1940s, when the rest of the world was busy fighting the WWII; during the same period, the lucky Swedes were instead building out the welfare state, deeply concerned about the health and happiness of its inhabitants. Dwellings were designed to light and hygienic, and a healthy, sporty lifestyle was touted out as a remedy against most (if not all) evils of life. Kooperativa Förbundet with its member-owned grocery stores and educational efforts was an eager harbinger of a better life for the working classes of Sweden.
In the early 1940s, KF decided to renovate the roofs of its huge office buildings overlooking the skyline of Stockholm city centre with its islands and waterways. A new roof garden providing areas for both gymnastics and sun-bathing was to be included in the designs, which were provided by Ulla Bodorff, a young landscape architect with an exam from England who had travelled widely in many inspirational gardens of Europe. The gardens proved a huge success; groups of early risers exercised briskly at the dedicated area and then freshened themselves up in the showers provided, and office girls eagerly changed into their bathers for a fast lunchtime sunbath. The gardens included areas for walking and relaxation and even a small area called the "wilderness" with small trees and shrubs sprouting up from a carpet of grass.
View from the "wilderness" part of the KF roof gardens. Photo by Bertil Norberg.
Despite their popularity, the KF gardens also fell into disrepair and were dismantled by the 1970s because of economical reasons; their history followed that of so many other glorious roof gardens from the early and mid-19th century. The space is still there, but now without any plants or greenery, and the KF buildings are rented out to several smaller companies. But given the current huge popularity or all things related to gardens, especially on roofs, I think it would be a great idea to re-build the KF gardens. I'm sure they would prove to be as popular as ever in their earlier days of glory, providing at the same time a great platform for viewing the beauty of Stockholm, and a wonderful example of 19th century garden history, with or without the sunbathing office girls.
All photos from Trädgårdskonst. Den moderna trädgårdens och parkens form. Published by Natur och Kultur, Stockholm, 1948.


Ruben said...

Vad intressant!! Hade ingen aning om detta! Verkar väldigt fint designat! Nu för tiden ges väl personal gym-kort, så jag tror nog inte att takträdgårdar kommer tillbaks. Sedumtak verkar dock vara på modet. De gör sig åtminstone bra i reklambroschyrer för nya bostadsområden.
Ha det gott!

Sophia Callmer said...

Väldigt spännande, synd att en så väl genomtänkt idé har gått om intet, hoppas man tar tag i detta. Gröna miljöer är ju viktiga i städer!

Sophia Callmer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lavender and Vanilla Friends of the Gardens said...

Interesting to see the roof gardens and a good substitute. It is odd, but cities per example Zuerich has more beehives than in the country site.

madya.panfilio said...

Another geat Garden & Tool Museum is in Cornwall UK....