Søllerød Town Hall

In 1939 Arne Jacobsen and Flemming Lassen won an open competition to design a new town hall, a new library and a theatre in Søllerød.

Work on the town hall started almost immediately but, with the onset of war, plans for the theatre and the library were first postponed and then abandoned. 

Completed in 1942, the town hall is stunning but it is a building of curious contradictions …. it is constructed in concrete with concrete and clinker internal walls - making use of new materials and engineering of the most up-to-date buildings of the period - but it is faced with pale, buff-coloured and finely-veined marble from Porsgrunn in Norway so an expensive building material and one more often associated with tradition and status and, certainly, with the implication of a sense of permanence even now not associated with the use of concrete. At the very least, the use of marble for the exterior appears to be a statement that here there had been an investment in a high-quality building that was expected to be in use for many years. 

Although, in many ways, this must have appeared at the time to be an uncompromisingly modern building, the elegant, carefully-proportioned and finely-detailed elevations that Jacobsen designed, owe much to both Functionalism but also to the earlier, well-established Danish architectural style that is generally known as New Classicism in Denmark from twenty or thirty years earlier. 

A new town hall seems to represent stability and optimism for the future, as the old city expanded rapidly out into new suburbs, but it was started in the year that the Spanish Civil War came to an end and just as Europe moved towards an all-encompassing war. 

Above all, although this is the town hall for a new and expanding suburb, the building is not in the densely built-up urban setting of a traditional townscape but has a distinctly rural setting, standing back from the road, beyond a wide area of grass, not in a civic square, but set on a sloping site against the green of the well-established trees of an ancient royal forest.

For a relatively young architect this was an important commission but, by this point in his career, Jacobsen had considerable self confidence and he was, presumably, hoping to not only consolidate his reputation but also establish a distinct and recognisable style of architecture that was his own.

 

the site

Søllerød is on the east shore of Furesø - one of several large lakes in this part of Zealand - and is about 16 kilometres north of Copenhagen and half way along Kongevejen - the historic King’s Road from Copenhagen to the royal castle at Frederiksborg - the long straight road runs across the west side of the town hall and forms the west boundary of the site.

The old settlement of Søllerød is on higher ground, to the east of the town hall, on the north edge of the forest that forms the backdrop to the town hall on its east and south sides. 

West of the main road - about 400 metres from the town hall - is the railway station of Holte on the Nordbanen - a suburban line from Copenhagen to Hillerød - and the north boundary of the site is Øverødvej - the road that runs from the railway station to the old settlement of Holte, to the east, and then from there on to the coast. 

Areas of modern housing along Øverødvej and around the lake and to the north, in the development of new Holte, are served by the railway. Both a regular suburban train service and new housing were part of the rapid growth of Greater Copenhagen through the 1930s. 

In 1947, after the war, a plan to control this growth was formalised in the so called Finger Plan - an urban and regional development plan where there were to be five ‘fingers’ of suburban development spreading out from Copenhagen - the city being the palm of the hand - with each line of development to be along a suburban train line with areas of countryside and greenery between each finger to prevent the more typical unbroken and unrelenting development found around so many large, historic cities. This long-term policy for development - a framework for the ongoing expansion of Copenhagen - was politically and socially driven and an important part of the plan was to encourage high-quality design for new housing and for new schools and municipal buildings in the post-war period.

 

evolution of the town hall scheme

A drawing now in the archive collection of Danmarks Kunstbibliotek in Copenhagen (Inv. nr. 1445 19-201445 20) shows an early proposal for the municipal buildings in Søllerod with the town hall in a single, long range, set back further east from the main road than the line of the present building.

The new library is shown as a large, self-contained building, south and west of the town hall - so closer to the main road - and in part it would have obscured the main west front of the office range of the town hall, but with a large open courtyard area between the two buildings and with the whole area paved. 

On that drawing, there is a ‘movie theatre’ in a separate building to the east of the town hall that was to be set at a slight angle behind the main council chamber, facing north, with a second large courtyard between the two buildings that was open to Øverødvej. Drawings show a high and fan-shaped block for the theatre that is reminiscent of the theatre at Klampenborg - completed by Jacobsen a few years earlier - and there was to have been a pergola or verandah across the entrance front of the theatre and down the west side reminiscent again of the Klampenborg theatre with a long terrace to the south of its entrance.

If the town hall, library and theatre at Søllerod had been completed as proposed, it would have created a major group of municipal buildings in an extensive and unified civic townscape with two large open courtyards with planting and paving schemes all designed by the architect. However, this initial scheme appears, if anything, to be over complicated, so somehow less monumental, and, certainly, the less-well resolved silhouette of the proposed library and the bulk of the theatre immediately behind the Council Chamber would, surely, have distracted from the pure and very elegant simplicity of the town hall itself as built. 

In the final designs, as built, the council chamber and council committee rooms were constructed in a three-storey block at the north end of the building - closest to the road junction - with a three-storey range of administrative offices to its south, set back further to the east, so further from the roads than the council chamber, but overlapping the council chamber block, with the entrance and main staircase in that area where the two blocks meet.

 

the plan

Within a compact and straightforward plan, Søllerød town hall is sophisticated and the plan highly organised with the arrangement of spaces carefully controlled and determined by the separation of different functions in the different parts of the building.

There is a primary division between the north part with the main council chamber and meeting rooms - the formal public areas - and the offices of the administrative staff in the south range. An exception in this division is the Wedding Room - a public and ceremonial space that is in the office range on an upper level but it is placed immediately off the main staircase so, with easy access, and, presumably, the public had some access to the offices for meetings, for instance, with town architects and planners.

Without seeing more initial sketches or preparatory drawings, it’s not easy to reconstruct the sequence of ideas that were explored in the first stages of the design or to track how ideas for the building evolved but it must have been at an early point that the arrangement with two overlapping blocks was established instead of the simpler first proposal for a building in a single long range. 

Having made that decision, it was rational for the main staircase to be at the junction of the two blocks to serve both the more public areas - the council chamber, committee rooms on one side of the entrance and the offices for administrative staff on the other - and then, obviously, the simple and rational position for the main staircase was as part of the entrance hall. So far so logical. 

Having determined that basic division - between the council chamber and the administrative offices - the site itself determined the orientation of the building and its overall size. And presumably there was an early decision to place the council chamber and the entrance close to the road, close to the junction, in part to emphasise the open and democratic and public aspect of council meetings - an arrangement repeated in a later design by Jacobsen for the town hall for Rødovre. 

Setting back the range of offices meant also that it was slightly further back from the noise from traffic on the road although, of course, it is possible that the position of the office range might simply have been a consequence of leaving space at the south corner of the plot for the library that was not built. 

The town hall pre-dates the period for open-plan offices so the efficient and logical arrangement of a large number of small separate rooms is to place them on either side of a spine corridor with windows looking outwards on both sides and to stack up the offices in a number of floors. The number of separate offices required and the relationships of rooms with different functions that had to be close to each other must have been set out by the council officers so then there was a simple choice … the longer the block the less floors or the shorter the block the more additional stories would be needed. In the final design, offices are arranged over four floors.

One gain that came from breaking the main blocks of the building - to set half of it back - was that it allowed for a straightforward solution for lighting the spine corridor, between the lines of offices, so there are large full-height and full-width windows at both ends of the corridor at every level … an arrangement that was not possible, for instance, in the single long block of Rødovre Town hall where there were also blind gable ends to the long range which meant that the only natural light in the long internal corridors in that building is from borrowed light from the offices through glazing along the upper part of the walls of the corridor.

At Søllerød: the council chamber is on the first floor - in Rødovre the Council Chamber is at ground-floor level - so the main staircase at Søllerød town hall gains in significance because the councillors and the public have to climb up to the council chamber. 

Jacobsen plays with and makes use of these changes of level. The entrance on the ground floor and the Council Chamber on the first floor are in a block that is built over a basement but the offices are over a half basement … so the lowest level is half below ground and half above ground with the rooms on the west side lit by windows with sills at pavement level. Floors in the office range are therefore half a level up or half a level down from the floor levels in the council chamber block. And that makes the staircase at the junction much more interesting because it had to reconcile different levels and different circulation patterns as people move through the building and move between levels using either the staircase or a lift in the central well of the staircase.

The lower level in the office range also takes into account the natural slope of the site where, on the east side away from the road, the ground is at a lower level. 

Because the main staircase here is such an important feature of the building, it illustrates well a more general point that, when trying to understand the arrangement of a complicated building, it is sometimes helpful to think about what was not done and why in order to disentangle the design process and understand why certain decisions were made by the architects.

  • In trying to analyse the design of the staircase at the town hall, the starting point has to be that it fits within a grid or bay system for the whole building … the primary dimension for a bay is the width of a window and, of course, half the pier on each side and all the rooms in the office range are a multiple of that unit. Toilets are one window wide, smaller offices are two windows wide, larger offices three windows wide and so on. The stair hall is three bays wide … each flight being the same width as a window bay and the stair well is also a bay wide.
  • There is a flight of steps up from the entrance hall on the north side of the stair well that rises up to a half landing at the main level of the office range - half a floor level above - and a second flight on the south wall of the stair well from that landing rises to the level of the Council Chamber.
  • That first landing is in front of the corridor of the office range, with doors between the landing and the corridor, which means that people using the staircase do not intrude into the office area when going up and down the staircase.
  • However, the upper landing is in line with and is a continuation of the lobby to the Council Chamber but it also forms a gallery that looks down onto the entrance with the area immediately inside the doors open through two floors.
  • So the main staircase rises up clockwise … placing the foot of the staircase on the north side at the entrance level which also moves the visitor to the left towards the information area and the public area below the chamber and this movement to the left is reinforced by the floor where rectangles of stone are laid with the long side across the axis of entry … if they had been set the other way then it would have drawn visitor towards the staircase. This may seem to be oddly subtle but actually using architecture like this is an important way to control how people move through a space without using signs or barriers.
  • Climbing up the staircase clock-wise also makes a better approach to the Council Chamber … if the first flight up had been on the south side of the stair well and it had risen anti-clockwise around the lift then, at the first-floor of the staircase, there would have been an awkward sharp turn to the right to enter the lobby of the Council Chamber.
  • The three openings of the entrance line through with the three parts of the staircase … the north and the south flights of steps and the lift in the centre.
  • Extending the entrance hall out with a fourth window opening to the front not only gives the entrance hall more generous space but also balances the four windows of the Council Chamber at the north end of the facade.
  • Three large windows on the south side of the entrance hall, matching in form and width those to the front, not only brings more light into the space but gives the entrance a stronger three-dimensional form as it appears to wrap around the corner of the block and it also makes the space appear to be much more generous by providing visitors with an area to wait just off to one side of the route where people are coming and going.
  • Perhaps the only disadvantage from moving the south wall of the entrance hall outwards is that this overlaps and blocks what would be the northernmost window at each floor on the west front of the office range.

But, because the design of the entrance hall and staircase at the town hall appears to be simple and rational there is a danger that the complexity and the skill of the design are not appreciated. The more you look at the design of the town hall, the more the plans and elevations seem to be so refined - refined in the sense of boiled down or reduced and concentrated - that they suggest that for Jacobsen this was a clever and satisfying intellectual exercise - almost a game - and one he was good at playing. 

This is where architecture begins to resemble perhaps not jazz but at least musical composition by taking themes and variations to make new combinations but themes that together to make a complete and unified work. When you look at architecture in terms of logic and balance, and because you can use a similar vocabulary, including descriptions about harmony or dissonance, then that comparison - comparing architectural design with musical composition - can work well as an appropriate simile.

 

the exterior

On the exterior, Søllerød is so restrained that it comes close to being austere - even a little remote - in the sense that it is slightly aloof and not just because the building is isolated and set slightly apart from other buildings in the town.

In essence, this is New Classical or neo-classical architecture and Greek rather than Roman - elegant and controlled rather than dramatic and theatrical - and austere because plinths, pilasters and entablatures or string courses have been omitted or cut back smooth and flush. 

So the entrance to the town hall is a portico but one that has been distilled down, stripped and reduced to an almost abstract expression: the four tall windows of the entrance have such thin frames and so few subdivisions of the glass that they read as openings in a colonnade.

This building is one of Jacobsen’s most solid and sculptural works with the Porsgrunn marble used to form robust and simple but monumental volumes with no decoration. He used the same marble for the National Bank in Copenhagen some 30 years later to form a block-like and monumental base to the building that is also devoid of architectural features. 

At Søllerød the character of the building has been altered with some later changes so substantial bevels or slopes back at the top of each block were originally faced in marble, so that they read as an extension of the facade, and created a stronger sense of volume but these slopes are now covered with copper so they read as a part of the roof construction.

The fenestration of the building could hardly be more simple. Windows have steel frames that are painted white and on the majority of windows there are no subdivisions of the glass - so no casements and no upper parts of the window to open as vents - in a design that is almost as bold or as stark as the fenestration of the upper floors of Jacobsen’s Stelling Building in Copenhagen.

The arrangement of windows across the facade is also simple and sober … repetitive or even slightly mechanical … with only the windows of the council chamber, the entrance hall and the windows at the end of the corridors taking a different form. 

On the tall windows of the Council Chamber there are narrow transoms but as part of the frame, rather than being wider and in marble, and there in part to respect and reinforce the horizontal line of the tops of the line of windows along the rest of the front. Not only are the facades designed over an almost unrelenting and regular grid of repeated parts with equal bay widths but the effect of the design actually depends on that precise repetition of these parts.

On the office range, and on the lower or secondary rooms of the council-chamber block, the windows are not quite square … just slightly wider than high and the metal frames are thin and set right on the front face of the facade to cut out any shadow and that makes the elevations flat and dependent on line rather than having any sense of depth … making it as elegant as a fine line drawing.

That is not to imply that the facades are flat and lifeless because the marble has a distinct pattern of veining and modulation of colour and tone that with the reflective qualities of the stone gives the facade life … you can appreciate how important this is if you just imagine exactly the same elevations in concrete.

What is also curious here is the idea of residual architectural features. Normally, facades, particularly in stone and particularly in grander or larger buildings, used projecting horizontal and vertical features, such as plinths, window sills, strings, cornices and pilasters or quoins at the corners to reinforce the appearance of strength in the structure and create shadow and give the building a sense of a formal and very solid volume. Then, much of that effect depends upon projection and cast shadow. What is fascinating about the setting out of the exterior marble at Søllerød is that some of those features are there in the courses of the blocks of marble but are left flush with the surface creating an overall impression that the marble is a smooth skin stretched over the simple volumes of the blocks that make up the building … just two main blocks and the suggestion of a third in the impression that the entrance hall is a cube that is sliding out diagonally from the corner of the council chamber block.

Vertical joins are carefully placed at regular and very precise positions and the effect depends on very sharp and accurate cutting of the marble and minimal but precise joints between the blocks. 

There is also an obvious and rational arrangement of the blocks although the courses are of different sizes.

So, at the outer corners there are narrow and wide blocks that alternate down the corner as if the building was constructed in ashlar but as these are not expressed as quoins - blocks of stone that project from the corners - the effect is perhaps slightly weak.

There is a thin and continuous course of marble immediately above the windows, like a vestigial lintel or string course, and a narrow course below the windows - the shadow of a continous window sill - with a course of very large square panel of marble between.

Comparing the marble facing at Søllerød with contemporary designs by Jacobsen shows how his approach to these facades differ. 

The town hall at Århus is closely related to the design for Søllerød, with the same not-quite-square windows with minimal frames and without secondary subdivisions, but at Århus the windows are more widely spaced and there are sunk panels below each window. The depth of these panels is hardly enough to create a shadow but never-the-less it gives the main facades a horizontal and vertical grid, even if that is subtle, and gives at least some expression of floor levels and cross walls in the building behind. At Søllerød, from the outside, it is impossible to get any sense of the arrangement of internal spaces or to determine the position of internal divisions or floor levels. 

At the Stelling Building in Copenhagen Jacobsen again has large almost-square windows but the cladding is consistent, unremittingly regular, like bathroom tiles, even on the curved corner of the building, and although this reflects a remarkable precision at the design stage, making every space and change of level inside exactly regular and a precise multiple of the external tile, the result is, to say the least, stark … perhaps the ultimate design grid … creating a bold and challenging design at the time but perhaps then, and even now, more admired by architects than more widely liked. 

This is not to imply any sort of failure or weakness in the underlying design for the facades at Søllerød but it places the building as an intermediate form between the design of the Århus facades, with horizontal and vertical elements, and the pared down minimalism of the Stelling building and it does illustrate the inevitable compromises that have to be made through the design process in any complex project with a trade off between what might be ideal and what was practical at the end of the day. So the town hall illustrates one distinct problem when trying to design a ‘monumental’ civic building that has or is meant to have an impact that expresses status, as well as some formality and some sense of civic pride and dignity: a carefully and perfectly resolved elevation might well have meant an arrangement of interior spaces that could not function efficiently in terms of space or height or natural light and equally a building where the design starts from the inside and where the exterior is merely a tidying up of the envelope is rarely an attractive building even if it is practical and functions well.

 

 

the interior of the town hall

Jacobsen designed furniture and fittings for the town hall including light fittings and a clock in the entrance hall; a leather-covered bench seat on one side of the entrance; chairs and tables for the Council Chamber; a sofa for the mayor’s room and chairs for the Wedding Room.

Those chairs for the Wedding Room are interesting and not typical of Jacobsen’s later and better-known furniture designs. They have paired cross rails between the lower stretchers, with a slight downward curve, and paired stretchers immediately below the seat on each side and in the shallow hoop of the back frame. The seats are leather, embossed with a diamond pattern that wraps around the seat frame but is cut back to expose the top of the front legs - rather like the chairs at the Town Hall in Århus.

The council chamber on the first floor has a restrained grandeur. The main space rises through two storeys, with a shallow barrel shape to the ceiling and the room is lit by full-height windows with four tightly spaced on each side. The chamber is entered under a gallery for the public that has three rows of upholstered benches, the front row breaking forward and there were narrow aisles just inset from each side of the gallery so very like a theatre. Access to this gallery is from an upper level of the main staircase. 

Access to a small external balcony on the entrance front is from the council chamber immediately to the south of the main windows and just below the front edge of the public gallery. In England balconies like this in town halls, and sometimes in a main coaching inn on a market square, if the inn had an assembly room, were used for announcing election results or for presenting a new mayor or a new member of parliament to the citizens so presumably this was the function of the small balcony on the front here in the town hall in Søllerød.

Generally the character of the council chamber is formal with a heavier colour tone than normally associated with interiors by Jacobsen - here setting Cuban mahogany in panels on the walls.

There is a large painting on the north end wall, behind the committee tables, of woodland and the deer park around Søllerød by the Jutland painter Knud Agger who then had his studio in Helsingør not far from Søllerød. The colours and tones used by the artist, with pale cedar greens and mid-tone and slightly greenish blue, is a palette used often by Jacobsen himself in his interiors.

Elsewhere in the building other exotic or at least darker timbers are used with maple for the doors and the handrails of the staircase although paler wood, perhaps more typical of Jacobsen’s work, is used in the corridors with floors in oak and the walls covered with birch veneer.

In style, the furniture and fittings of the interior are interesting because they date from an important point of change: the general simplicity means that they appear to be modern but many of the details - the use of stretchers in the table of the council chamber; the high shaped backs to armed chairs; the use of buttoning in the upholstery - are closer in style to furniture from the first half of the 20th century - that Danish style of the Kaare Klint period. And, of course, this furniture is very much a part of a strong Danish tradition for producing specific new pieces of furniture for major new buildings including unique furniture designs for new churches, new museums and new town halls. This is is not a criticism - far from it - but just putting the designs for furniture for Søllerød into context and perhaps giving the furniture for the town hall greater prominence in the development sequence of modern design in that interesting and complex period of transition through the 1930s and 1940s.

 

 

notes:

Arne Jacobsen and Fleming Lassen were the same age and had been at school together along with Morgens Lassen, Flemming’s older brother, who was also to become an architect. Morgens and Flemming Lassen were leading figures in the Functionalisme or Funkis movement - a group of architects who were prominent through the inter-war years.

Following a reorganisation of local government in 2007, Søllerød was merged with the municipality of Birkerød to form a new municipality of Rudersdal and the building is now known officially as the Rudersdal Town hall.

For published plans of the building see Jacobsen, by Carsten Thau & Kjeld Vindum, page 287

There is a good photograph of the Council Chamber and its furniture in the collection of Danmarks Kunstbibliotek in Copenhagen [Inv. nr. 1445 19-20 144520] and it is published on their web site.

There are photographs of the pendant lamp designed by Jacobsen for the town hall on the web site of Dansk Møbel Kunst and a photograph of a chair for the Wedding Room on the web site of artnet.

The sofa in the mayor’s room is now produced by the Danish design studio &Tradition.

An extension to the town hall was completed in 1969 with a new square block to the east that is linked to the original building by glass corridors at each level.