Donald McKay
Principal, Design Director
Nagle Hartray Architecture

November 2011

1 Approach to Chapel of the Resurrection at Woodland Cemetery.

"It’s universal—that’s what makes it a great song."

This quote ties up a story line running through the recent season of the HBO television series Treme. It is spoken by an aspiring songwriter in search of what makes a great song as she and her partner marvel at the apparent prescience of Lucinda Williams singing a song about a postKatrina New Orleans that she wrote before the storm. There is an element of truth in the statement, but it is an answer that begs another question—what is the universal quality that is referred to?

Our culture often confuses ‘universal’ with ‘popular’, perhaps in no form more so than in music. Our popular music quickly saturates other cultures and then morphs into localized versions because its style and content are easily mimicked. There can be no doubt about pop music’s universality, but rarely is it of the quality that Treme’s writers seem interested in.

The choice of Lucinda Williams to illustrate great songwriting is obvious and inspired—obvious because many have accorded her such acclaim, and inspired because it reveals more about the nature of a great song than the uncomplicated assessment by Treme’s characters. The ineffable quality that makes a song great is essential in nature, which is what makes it universal. It is rare and in music and rarer in architecture.

When I told a Finnish architect of my plans to visit Woodland Cemetery outside Stockholm, he told me to visit the Chapel of the Resurrection by Swedish architect Sigurd Lewerentz—that it had made him cry. It remains the most persuasive recommendation I have heard for a work of architecture.

The path leading to The Chapel of the Resurrection is long and straight, hemmed in on both sides by tall forests that outline a complementary slit of sky overhead. The approach engages all the senses—the texture of stones and pine needles underfoot, the clean forest scent, the brightness and warmth from an occasional streak of


sunlight that filters through the trees.

The tall and narrow proportions of the Chapel’s interiors recall the forest path.  There is a silence to the space that is at once familiar and otherworldly. Its familiarity is rooted in the classical orders that define its walls, its otherworldliness in Lewerentz’s unorthodox use of this universal language of architecture.

The orders are super-positioned and proportioned according to classical doctrine, but their arrangement is without precedent. Columnar pilasters are nearly flush with adjacent wall surfaces, which exaggerates column bases and capitals that retain the dimensionality that has been stripped from the shafts. A contemporary architect wrote, “The walls form what can best be described as thin or weightless, immaterial planes forming the antithesis of enclosedness…The insubstantial surfaces of the coming decades are anticipated.”

Irrationality pervades the interior architecture. Some pilasters are paired and others singular, a pair is centered over the window. The pilasters do not form corners in a consistent manner, nor do they align across the Chapel’s narrow width. Neither the serpentine mosaic tile floor nor the coffered ceiling have a logical relationship to the orders that define the walls.

Paradoxical scales reinforce a dreamlike state. The baldachino and altar appear about three-quarter scale compared to the pilasters. Their placement at the end of the long interior space exaggerates their diminutive size. The scrolls that support the simple window frame appear grossly oversized by comparison.

The entire experience unfolds slowly. As the discordance of the design accumulates in one’s awareness, a tension builds that is finally relieved by a small bit of perfection—sunlight from the lone, south-facing window illuminates the catafalque upon which the coffin is placed. Beams of natural light seem to connect this world to another. It is a transcendent culmination.


Architects have always championed universal forms. Classical architecture is the most enduring example. Orthodox modernism was fundamentally a search for a new universal form more representative of the “spirit of the age.” LeCorbusier’s writings articulated the modernist challenge and his early work together with the work of Mies van der Rohe codified a universal doctrine in architectural form. Mies’ designs were so successfully mimicked that the term coined to describe the resulting work, International Style, attested to its universality.

Commonly recognized forms of universal architecture like classicism and orthodox modernism have distinct characteristics. One is an association, imagined or real, with dominant contemporary social, cultural and technological concerns. Another is typological—it depends on mimesis to become universal. The age of information has increased both the subtlety of universal forms of architecture and the rapidity with which they appear and recede.

“Starchitecture” is a recent example. Like modernism, it borrows from a dominant concern of contemporary culture—in this case, the idea of the marketplace. Starchitecture is measured in no small part by metrics like revenue, tourism, and the indirect economic and political benefits that accrue from its construction. Successful architects become transcendent brands and branding became a buzzword across all types of architectural firms. Non-starchitects copied the approach if not the success.

There is an inherent conceit in these forms of the universal. Parametricism represents a current example. Its stated aspiration is to become a universal form of architecture to rival that defined by LeCorbusier in Towards an Architecture. Parametricism depends on computer generation, so it lends itself to mimicry. It may represent the ultimate conceit because if successful in scripting techniques to create architecture, architects will become unnecessary


2-7  S. Lewerentz, elevations, interiors and plan for
Chapel of the Resurrection, 1925.




Universal forms of architecture are collective by nature, so it is not surprising that interests of power assimilate successful forms. Classical architecture was often chosen by new or young governments seeking credibility they had yet to earn, the most infamous example being the Third Reich’s adoption of classicism for its official architecture. Despite a noble social agenda, orthodox modernism was co-opted as a symbol of corporate power. A similar authority quickly accrued to starchitecture in the global marketplace, an authority that the Chinese leveraged in an obvious way for the 2008 Summer Olympics. A measure of whether parametricism achieves its goals will be whether interests of power assimilate it.

There is another form of the universal that resists imitation, is born of humility, and does not lend itself to interests of power and authority. It operates in the shadows of more dominant forms of the universal like those described above. Its nature is essential, which renders it universal. It is what Treme’s writers had in mind when they scripted, “It’s universal—that’s what makes it a great song.” It defies explanation, but is manifested in the work of architects like Sigurd Lewerentz and artists like Lucinda Williams.

Lewerentz and Williams mine the depths of personal existence to reveal something of the ultimate nature of our common humanity. Because personal, it does not lend itself to mimicry. Because intimate, it is not useful to collective interests. The approach is risky and fellow artists admire it for the courage and skill it requires. Williams expressed concerns about the potential for unwanted sentimentality when she said she did not want the title song from her most recent album, Blessed, to sound “pollyana-ish”. Swedish architect Sven Markelius understood what was at stake when he noted the “seriousness and solemnity” of the Chapel of the Resurrection:

 “However, the sense of melancholy never becomes oppressive and the expressiveness never sentimental. The form speaks a clear language, where clarity is never lost to an inarticulate murmur of mystical atmospherics.”

We are attracted to the life-affirming qualities of works like these—they are fragile without weakness, courageous without conceit, humble without sentimentality. I found the Chapel of the Resurrection a constant mental distraction after I visited it, so I returned to it in the hope of exorcising it from my mind. It remains a haunting memory. Williams’ song Blessed can bring me to tears, so I listen to it often. Similarly engaging architecture is rare because there are so many factors that make it difficult to realize. But it is worth the effort, not as a response to some unknown force—history, zeitgeist, technology or cultural trends—but because it helps us to understand ourselves, our world and each other.

1. Photograph of path leading to Chapel of the Resurrection by the author.
2. Drawings and interior photograph of Chapel of the Resurrection from J. Ahlin, Sigurd Lewerentz, Architect (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1987).

200 OK


The server encountered an internal error or misconfiguration and was unable to complete your request.

Please contact the server administrator, [no address given] and inform them of the time the error occurred, and anything you might have done that may have caused the error.

More information about this error may be available in the server error log.