The Work of Bernt Nyberg 1927 - 1978
Skissernas Museum / Museum of Sketches
On my own journey I have experienced few works that embody lasting sensual, intellectual and pragmatic pleasure to which I enjoy revisiting. Bernt Nyberg's expressive exercises in architectural austerity are among those unknown that hold their place, revealing a true mastery of context, concept and construct. Irritant in a good way, no virtuous whim soon turns boring, no jagged juxtaposition spoils their deep impression. A blurred New Brutalist category label does not do justice explaining such rocks in the mainstream. It is too generic a term to capture or describe its fascinating ambivalence. Like any drawer being too small, any ism is simply too ideological. Brutalism, often confused with being derived from brutal, rather stems from the French matiere brute. Since Bernt Nyberg's work is raw, he was said to be affectionate with the works of Le Corbusier, who supposedly started this right after the war. Deeply impressed with Tennessee's dams, he went to materialize the first machine to live in. There must be more than brutalism in Bernt Nyberg's sincere and emancipate expressionist works.
Work on raw ruins, mega machines, and succinct sculptures resulted in masterpieces, which after more than a generation’s time still indicate that a refrained recognition or publication seems to disregard Nyberg's bold works. If he had lived to unfold more substantially such early and mature mastery at an advanced age he would have his deserving place amongst Swedish masters. He passed at an age at which Kahn was about to set out to work backwards towards the timeless origins of the elementary he became renowned for, creating work that has stood the test of times. Nyberg however seems to have always been an original and free spirit.
To me his work first and only appeared as an incidental glimpse, while I studied at London's AA, twenty-five years prior to my voyage to the real deal. A single slide spoke to me in a way I could not forget. I saw the section drawing of the Höör chapel. Its simple grace had gravity. Seeing it was a mere coincidence, at a time when the vain intellectual sphere of the school was wrestling to position itself between picturesque postmodernism and whimsical modernism. The postmodern phase made our craft rediscover that there is no future without a past, causing to also reconsider the likewise overlooked timeless ambivalence in the works of Lewerentz. Ten years after his death, he became a rediscovered note in an AA lecture series, and relating it to Nyberg. It took a quarter century for Matt Hall and I to see it with students in 2010. Only imprints of bygone importance line such grand tours, proving they truly stood the test of timelessness.
Nyberg's schemes of ruins and machines are at times intricately intertwined resulting in bold but genuinely ambivalent works. It made me wonder about time, origins and precedents. Regardless of place, space, scheme and scale, what is so retrospectively striking may become tangible when contextualized in its time, which Nyberg’ work boldly sets itself apart from. Even for those operating silently off the beaten track, there is always a reflection of societal zeitgeist and individual character. Nothing just falls from heaven. No materialized spirit ever is without both intertwined. Nyberg's set out to study architecture soon after the war's ashes. When entering his most productive years, space age was in full swing. In a quest of finding his own way, a brief early phase of modernist elegance was soon replaced by raw ruins, and then paralleled by metabolist structures. So who inspired whom when working with Lewerentz on St Peter to make it an elementary ruin suitable for evoking an archaic, early Christian experience? Who did, when exploring structural sincerity on Malmö's County Administration Building, parallel to Malmö's flower kiosk? It should stand as an unmistakable indicator that an elder laconic curmudgeon like Lewerentz apparently accepted, respected, and even enjoyed the dialog with the four decade younger Nyberg.
Driven by his own spirit, a most compelling acknowledgment of Nyberg's stark aspirations is to see him reach well beyond inspirations from Lewerentz' complications. At Höör he creates a dramatic datum between enveloping walls and a poignantly contradictory roof. It turns it into a modern temple in an archaic ruin. A deeply impressive gap around the chapel's periphery restricts the powerful dichotomy to brief touches between bare bones and massive walls. A coffered concrete ceiling on rusted steel stilts is totally detached and inscribed in a rough ring of brick boundary enclosure. Its palpable poetry gets emphasized in mystic pale blue edges, reflecting hypaethral light, glazed against the elements yet remaining unrevealed. The mundane materialization in raw bricks is a conventional construction method and a cultural commonplace in Scandinavia, England, the Netherlands, and in my origins in Northern Germany. Here Nyberg’s turns it into an aggregate rather than stacking. Is it still brickwork with mortar, or rather concrete? Even beyond Lewerentz, Nyberg seems to prove my theory that Romans did not work bricks with thick mortar, but were rather casting concrete with thin strips of bricks, reinforcing and molding. To his will and skill it turns textile, into clothlike woven poetry, with random acoustic slots added subtly, emphasizing and diluting its heavy mass. So do the latches, fastening and complementing the glass to these hefty walls as vertical planes that the incomplete mass unfolds into, extending and anchoring it at the place that it makes.
Nyberg's ruins still echo humble materializations of a then common existential spirituality for post war religious tasks. Beyond Scandinavian masters like Lewerentz and contemporary Peter Celsing, also Dutch Dom Hans van der Laan, German missionary minimalist Emil Steffann, and later his follower, the silent Heinz Bienefeld, indicate a much broader contemporary cultural context. However this austerity soon morphed into celebratory fragmentation with overly elaborate sophistication. Contemporaries like Carlo Scarpa at Castelvecchio, Sverre Fehn’s roofing, glazing and inhabiting Storhamar barn ruins appeared as such declinations of fragmentation, juxtaposing any and all parts to celebrate the breach. Bernt Nyberg is more into meticulous, pure geometry, balancing and complementing his sculpted volumes with orchards, solitary trees and vines, which add heroic and cryptic connotations, as if borrowed from epic Mediterranean excavations.
His notions of the machine seem to denote a new affinity to a late sixties' zeitgeist. Similar to contemporary Gerry Anderson's space age futurism, or the architecture trained fashion designer Paco Rabanne who fetishes the metal dress, Nyberg cannot help but celebrate his time with exaggeration. Just as Mies worships the grand temple with a steel structure for the National Gallery Berlin, Höör's cruciform steel stilts, the Lund Regional Archive’s rusted vents, corner slots, steel insertions, and the exhibition of structure and systems of Malmö’s Regional Administration reveal such celebrated joy with object-making.
After the experience of Nyberg’s built work, the discovery of his archived materials in Stockholm's Architecture Museum resulted in a compelling conclusion. Crisp and cool conceptual parti, based upon precise geometry, bloodlessly inked, and distilled of any shade or vegetation, appear as austere annotations for an envisioned experience in essence. All seems to distinct the rational concept from its sensual making. Finally there is his portrait. An extreme close-up: trimmed beard as if a modern monk, captivated by his desk rather than connecting with the world, it seems to denote Bernt Nyberg as an architects' architect with an absolute architects' architecture that lasts.