Ralph Erskine

Architect, England
Although English by birth and training, Ralph Erskine has spent the majority of his
working life in Sweden. Born in North London, Erskine was sent to the coeducational
Friends’ School at Saffron Walden near Cambridge (1925–31), where many of his
political and ethical values were formed. In 1932, he entered the Regent Street
Polytechnic, at first to study surveying, and then architecture. Among his fellow students
was Gordon Cullen, the illustrator, whose townscape drawings were to have an important
influence on the representation of the postwar New Towns in Britain. Following
qualification, Erskine sought work with the new modernist firms in London but ended up
working for planner and architect Louis de Soissons, then active in the design of Welwyn
Garden City, the first of Ebeneezer Howard’s garden cities.
Attracted by the humane modernism of the International Exhibition in Stockholm
(1930) and the work of architects such as Erik Gunnar Asplund, Uno Ahrén, and Sigurd
Lewerentz, Erskine left England for the summer in May 1939. He found work with the
firm of Weijke and Ödéen in Stockholm. With the outbreak of war in September 1939,
Erskine lost his job but, on being turned down for the Quaker Ambulance Corps, decided
to stay in Sweden. In 1944–45, he studied architecture at the Royal Academy of Art in
Stockholm. During the war, he was able to build very little: a house (known as The Box)
for himself and his wife at Lissma near Djupdalen in 1941–42 made with materials
scavenged on site (reconstructed 1989–93), a modernized log cabin country house (s tuga) for
the inventor Baltzar von Platen at Djupdalen, and a rustic ski lodge and summer holiday
center at Lida Friluftsgård. At war’s end, Erskine opened a practice in Drottningholm on
the outskirts of Stockholm.
Much of Erskine’s practice has been in housing, and he has specialized in involving
the community in the process of design. An early housing project at Gyttorp (1945–55),
for example, used bright colors for the concrete houses to provide a lively effect. Housing
at Gästrike-Hammarby (1948) involved extensive community consultation and careful
attention to the formation of public spaces based on principles he had learned while
working with Louis de Soissons. At Landskrona (1968–71), there was a special effort to
adapt the housing design to the local environment, and at Nya Bruket (1973–78) in
Sandviken, where Erskine was responsible for the shopping street and surrounding
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housing, special community centers were included along with satellite parking to ensure a
peaceful residential area.
Architecture for colder climates has also directed Erskine’s practice. At Luleå in
northern Sweden, he built a community center and interior shopping mall (1954–56)
following new American models. In 1959, he presented his ideas on Arctic housing to the
Otterlo meeting of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) and laid out
the town plan for Svappavaara (1963–64) in Lapland. A long, wall-like building was
designed to shield the community from the Arctic winds, leaving the south side open to
the sun. Erskine later also planned the community at Resolute Bay (1973–77) in the
Nunavut Territories, Canada, a difficult undertaking not only because of the extreme
climate (it is close to magnetic north) but also for the complex mixture of Inuit
inhabitants and North American scientists that reside in the community. Neither
Svappavaara nor Resolute Bay was completed to plan.
Erskine returned to England in 1962 to participate in a project for replanning the
center of Cambridge. In 1968–69, he received the commission for a postgraduate
residential hall at Clare College, Cambridge. His aim was to create “an open ended and
attractive environment which was free from memories of medieval and Renaissance
monumentality or opulence, [and] to ally ourselves with new society builders rather than
the establishment.” The effect of the two-story brick apartments and study halls is
modest, with narrow walkways overhung by wooden balconies.
The best known of Erskine’s works is known as Byker Wall (1969–81) at Newcastleupon-
Tyne. The traditional home of Newcastle’s shipyard craft workers, the area was
overcrowded and run down by the mid-1960s, a possible target for demolition and
redevelopment. Instead, the District Council Housing Committee decided to improve the
quality of the existing housing and reinforce the character of the community. A long
perimeter-wall apartment block snaking around the crest of the hill and enclosing lowrise
terraced housing was built, and transportation links to the surrounding communities
to foster economic development were planned. Like Erskine’s social housing in Sweden,
cars were excluded from the residential area. Extensive consultation with the local
community led to the preservation of the density of the old neighborhood, and the striped
brick exterior cliff wall (facing the new roadway) evoked a medieval defensive system,
providing visual identity for the development. On the interior of the wall, wood balconies
faced the landscaped interior, creating a village-like intimacy.
The Byker Development was much praised in Sweden, and thereafter Erskine was
hired to help with planning of the new site for Stockholm University at Frescati in 1971.
The library and student center (Allhuset) recalls Erskine’s links to Team X, although the
overall effect of the central hall today, with its exposed structural members and glass
roof, tends to remind visitors, regrettably, of a shopping mall or an airport.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Erskine’s work has taken on new scale. In 1981, the
Drottningholm office staff was cut drastically to allow him to refocus on design. A new
cooperative office was opened in Stockholm, Arken-Erskinearkitekterna AB, with which
Erskine could collaborate but that he did not run. Products of this new freedom include
two office towers (The Ark, London, and Lilla Bommen, Göteborg), the vast bus center
and office complex (Vasaterminalen) in Stockholm, and the Aula Magna at Stockholm
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Lilla Bommen, headquarters for Skanska, a development and construction firm, is
located at the entry to the Göta Canal, and the building recalls a giant navigational aid
(buoy or lighthouse) with brown, cream, and red stripes and a periscope-like public
atrium-observation tower. Unlike the typical vertical rental tower, the Ark was conceived
of as being funnel shaped, the edges prowlike. The exterior is a reddish-brown copper
color, and the overall effect is nautical. On the inside are a series of interior terraces
suspended over an open atrium. Above is a glass wall that allows the interior to fill with
natural light, and there is a wood ceiling. The interior, with its white walls and blond
wood, provides its Scandinavian character.
The Aula Magna, near the entrance to the Frescati campus, is attached to Erskine’s
earlier Student House (Allhuset). Holding 1200 people in a main auditorium, the central
gathering space is surrounded by smaller classrooms and open communal study facilities.
The site was located on a south-facing incline with a height differential of ten meters, and
the building flows across the slope in a series of terraces and around a group of a
venerable oak trees. The central auditorium has been designed for effective acoustics
both from the stage to the auditorium and for more democratic exchange among members
of audiences, and the circulation spaces, which double as study alcoves and terraces,
provide an appealing topography to what might have been dead space.
It is sometimes difficult to define the qualities of a building by Erskine.
Working process is generally dominant: local materials and community needs take precedence. The forms recall a variety of Scandinavian
and modern northern European architects: Reima Pietilä, Alvar Aalto, and even Hans
Scharoun come to mind. The jutting balconies and unpainted wood surfaces often seem
handmade. The character of his environmental planning reminds one that his Regent
Street Polytechnic classmate was Gordon Cullen: whose drawings often show hot-air
balloons floating above traffic-free urban walkways. There is also, quite frequently, a
high-tech quality to Erskine’s work, sometimes reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller but
also expressed in raw concrete or corrugated sheet steel, exposed structural supports, and
playful adaptations to climatic factors: raised roofs to provide insulation, suspended
balconies for sun without trapping cold air, waterwheels at the ends of gushing
downspouts to provide colorful motion, and sunlight deflectors leading to skylights to
open the dark center of a room to light.

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