Stockholm’s city hall (Stadshuset to locals) looked like a staid brick building as I approached it, walking carefully along the icy sidewalk and hoping for a cafe where I could get second breakfast. (I was in luck there. Thanks, Sweden.) I like seeing millennium-old skeletons and grand history and all of that, but I also have a love of the everyday when I travel.* That includes municipal buildings, so I didn’t need to know about any grandeur in Stadshuset for it to be worth putting on my list for my time in Stockholm.
Walk through an arched doorway, and you find yourself within a wide courtyard. There are cobblestones under that snow. Beyond the arches you see here, there’s a green space (well, white when I was there) that meets the water, allowing you a wide view of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.
The tour (100 SEK, or about $11 at this writing – typical for museums and tours, I found) starts in the Blue Hall, which you may know as the place where the Nobel Prize banquet is held each year. Oh, only that. It’s a wide space, but the tour guide took a little glee in telling us how each guest gets only 50 cm of dining space – except for those being honored and the royal family, who get a palatial 60 cm. It is snuggly for sure.
When we were there, it was just… quiet, that lovely exaggerated hush from people being respectful in a high-ceilinged room. Oh, and why is a clearly brick-walled room called the Blue Hall? The architect’s original idea was the glaze the walls blue, but the brick (deliberately aged to make it seem like a more ancient space than it is) was pretty enough that the glaze idea went, but the name stayed.
The building has a few mid-process switcheroos like that.
This room is meant to evoke an Italian palazzo. I dig it.
From there, we ascended the stairs that Nobel Prize winners descend on the night of their banquet. We paused in the middle of the building’s tower, which is open for more detailed tours in the winter. These are the thousand arches (and, uh, one balloon).
Next was the Rådssalen, where the city council gathers. Just take a second and compare this to the Blue Hall. I feel like the architect went for beauty and variety at the risk of that certain staid awe we like in our public buildings, but managed all of them anyway.
The ceiling was inspired by Viking architecture, and I did very much wish I could lie down and stare up at it, maybe with a fire nearby. I don’t think about nesting much these days, but I did bookmark this in my head for if I ever own my own place and can do what I like with the ceilings and walls.
After that, we walked through the Oval Room, which is closed on Saturdays so Stockholm residents can get married in it. It’s lined in centuries-old Belgian-made tapestries, and it just feels lovely and warm in there. It’s up there, I think, with San Francisco’s City Hall and a pink Elvis-driven Cadillac in Vegas so far as rad places to celebrate your union.
The finale of the tour (and this is saying something for a tour that started with oh just the room where the Nobel bloody Banquet is held) was the Golden Hall, made of millions of tiles and about 10 kg of gold, sandwiched ever so thinly between tiny panes of clear glass. The post-banquet ball is held here, but I feel like even that scintillating company would pale a bit next to the very vivid tales going on in the enclaves and on the walls.
There are the Greek and Roman references that seem to pop up throughout the older Swedish decorative arts. (They’re frequent at the Vasamuseet, for instance.)
Yeah, this is familiar enough. (Excuse the pictures: art made for imposing and impressing doesn’t translate very well from a 5’8″ perspective, but I love these enough that I don’t care. They reminded me wonderfully of the art in Seattle’s Greek Orthodox church – surprisingly human and cartoony, considering the contexts.)
But then it gets into local stories. I wish there was a tour that just told the tales being depicted on the walls. The tour guide gave some pretty great highlights, but then there’s this little scene. I’m not saying I’ve never taken the position of the woman in the back, but never in the presence of some grey-blue demon fellow with a pointed tongue.
Well, not yet.
This one echoed a long illustrated scroll I saw at the Royal Armory. Humans have always loved a good funeral, I suppose.
At the end of the room, the Queen of Lake Mälaren looks benevolently (and, let’s face it, a little dubiously) upon us. She was controversial, apparently – her hair too Medusa-like, her looks insufficiently dishy. I think her expression is perfect – how else should you look if you find yourself the caretaker of a city while holding a scepter and wearing a see-through shirt that turns your boobs blue? “Yeah, well, this is today, isn’t it? Right then. Better get to keeping this city from being smudged off the earth.”
Here’s a little more about some of the symbols and stories going on in this wonderful, wonderful space.
And then it was time to go.
We descended the stairs back into the Blue Hall. I couldn’t quite keep my gaze on the star on the wall, too afraid was I of tumbling down the marble stairs and landing in the pile of performance fabrics that I’ve been since arriving in Stockholm on Saturday. That’s a thing with going from California to Sweden in February: it’s very easy to completely stop trusting your feet, as the ground very much has its own agenda.
I write this on a train to Malmö, where I’ll catch a second train to Copenhagen. I like it here so far. I’m not sure if it’s the secondhand Scandinavian exposure I had in my 11 years in Seattle or residual goodwill from my trip two years ago (!). Those two trips bookended a period of some of the greatest upheaval I’ve experienced in my life so far, so I can’t help but wonder what’s waiting for me when I get back to Oakland next week.
In the meantime: sensible design, a culture of beautiful collaboration, and awe at other people’s mythologies.
*A highlight of yesterday: seeing how cool Stockholm recycling is, with bonus laundry scheduling mechanism. More on that another day.