When Sweden's postal service lost its monopoly in the early 1990s, the future looked bleak for its network of sorting offices and public buildings. What to do with a collection of buildings which, on the face of it, had suddenly become obsolete? It is the same question being faced by many sectors worldwide. Just as libraries are being distilled into depots and service points, so too are banking services now offered through mobile applications. Meanwhile, urban transport networks have done away with ticket cashiers and conductors almost altogether . The reassuring reliability of the pos tal service – and its centrality to city life – no longer requires the spaces it once did..
Nevertheless, the buildings that once housed these services often remain. In the city of Luleå, Sweden, a monument to the postal service of old has recently found a new lease of life. The city’s former central post office, designed by architect Lars-Erik Lallerstedt in the 1950s, has been transformed into the Vetenskapens hus (literally, “the House of Science”), a contemporary meeting place dedicated to the public understanding of science. The interior was designed with the help of Wingårdhs, the practice of Swedish architect Gert Wingårdh, and the project’s success is testament to the quality of the original structure. The Vetenskapens hus showcases a true Swedish modernist at his best.
Lars-Erik Lallerstedt spent the majority of his career as the senior architect of the Swedish Postal Service, for which he designed public buildings. The mid-20th century was a period of intense investment in public projects in Sweden, and between 1942 and 1962 Lallerstedt designed and realised a total of 15 sorting offices across the country. Lallerstedt approached the dominant design language of Nordic Functionalism with a modest confidence, treating the modernist dogma of “form follows function” less doctrinally than many of his contemporaries. The results of this attitude to design are particularly clear in the sub-arctic city of Luleå in Norrbotten, Sweden’s northernmost län.
Throughout the 1950s, Luleå benefited from a booming local steel industry. Off the back of this, the city built the world’s first indoor shopping centre (designed by Ralph Erskine) and an ostentatious set of public baths. The city hall, a building typology often seen as a benchmark of a conurbation’s prosperity, was designed by architect Bo Cederlöf and, in its extravagance, became known locally as The Marble Palace. Amid this intensity of post-war public building, Lallerstedt drew up plans for a post office in the heart of the city. He envisioned a light, bright collection of rooms surrounding a central hall, spanned by a single vaulted ceiling. Within this tall room, which was lit from above, the daily activity of the post office occurred at desks arranged around a central horseshoe-shaped space, providing an inventive means for preventing queues from intersecting during busy periods.
Following the building’s completion in 1953, Erik Swartling, director general of the Swedish Postal Service, declared Luleå’s new post office to be “one of Sweden’s most beautiful”. This was no exaggeration. Although simple, lean and modest, Lallerstedt’s building had warmth. The whitewashed walls were complemented by wood panelling; the rigidity of the plan was offset by its sinuously curved ceiling; and the lace-like staircase and balcony banister suggested ornamental playfulness without compromising overall clarity.
When the post office left Lallerstedt’s building at the turn of the 21st century, the space’s design and central location didn’t go unnoticed. In 2011, Luleå University of Technology, alongside The Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the Kiruna-based mining company LKAB, began searching for a venue that could house its plans for the Vetenskapens hus. The former post office was quickly identified as an ideal space. Soon afterwards, Wingårdhs was commissioned to transform the building’s interior, making it fit for its new purpose.
“The architectural qualities of the existing building were obvious to us, and it was in very good condition,” says project architect Helena Toresson. The architects were clear that “the interior of the main hall would be tampered with as little as possible” and their first move was to study the building’s original material palette in order to tease out an appropriate contemporary response. Aside from bringing more natural light into the central hall, their work centred on non-structural interventions. New elements have been limited to a reduced vocabulary of details and patterns, all inspired by the existing building. It was decided, for instance, that the latticed ironwork on the staircase and balcony would be etched on the mirror wall of the first-floor restaurant and the radiator grates in the dining room.
The central hall’s horseshoe shape – now without its radial enclosure – has been abstracted into a simple circular chandelier that is suspended from the vault. For an installation that appears almost weightless, the chandelier tips the scales at a little over one-and-a-half tonnes. For Toresson, this “halo of light” was an important design move because it allowed for a level of flexibility in the lighting and integrated sound system that caters to the space’s new functional variety – it houses everything from lectures and debates, to intimate musical performances and film screenings. Rather than dotting cables and little plastic boxes around the walls and ceiling, the entire PA system is housed in this single bespoke appliance. “It was an early conceptual idea that embodied our intentions to realise the renovation in a way that was both bold and careful at the same time,” says Toresson.
The floor, often overlooked in projects of this kind, was given equally careful consideration. The horseshoe’s original mosaic floor of Swedish green marble and black terrazzo, flecked with white and arranged in a scale-like pattern of geometrical triangles, was preserved. A solution for the remaining floor area came from Bolon. “In a city such as Luleå, where it snows a great deal, you have to expect considerable wear and tear,” says Toresson. “So we looked to Bolon.” The architects needed a material tough enough to absorb heavy use that, at the same time, complemented the existing marble and its geometric theme. Wingårdhs selected a Bolon triangle tile with a rough grain – the deep-grey colour of which fluctuates dependent on light conditions – to complete the new surface. These triangles, which form a decorative pattern to fill any gaps, gave the architects complete freedom to decide how, and where, it would be laid.
High-quality furnishings form part of the interior’s updated material palette of leather, ash wood, and marble. Seats are stackable and easy to store, while the tables are slightly curved to follow the contour of the floor. Storage cabinets have been integrated into the wall space and the rich, Swedish green marble has been cleverly deployed to create accents of colour on wall surfaces, in the bathrooms, and on furniture.
The architects have engaged in what they describe as a “liberating dialogue” between Lars-Erik Lallerstedt and the demands of a 21st-century university space. The interventions that they have grafted into the existing spaces pay homage to the building’s original playfulness, as well as its purity. Importantly, they have recognised Lallerstedt’s subtle departure from the typical mode of Functionalism, sensitively transforming its use from a place of commerce to a city-central, contemporary meeting space. Above all, Luleå’s new Vetenskapens hus intelligently demonstrates how successful the adaptive reuse of disused spaces can really be. “We recognised that in the case of this building there would be no need for a stylistic restoration,” says Toresson. “The goal was to preserve its heart and soul.”