Malmö, a city in southern Sweden, has a new gallery. It's the first regional satellite of the Moderna Museet, the venerable Stockholm institution that is to Sweden what Tate Modern is to the UK. It's not new for national institutions to franchise themselves, but the new Moderna Museet Malmö appears in a context that throws into relief contemporary ideas about the role of cultural architecture in the city. Southern Sweden was home to Sigurd Lewerentz and Klas Anselm, and the legacy of these two great architects infuses the city, haunting the jolly modernism of the new museum. The closer one compares this building with its predecessors, the more Malmö seems to hold the secret of a meaningful civic architecture.
In the past decade Malmö has transformed quickly from working-class dockers' town to compact European city with a good quality of life (in the manner of Metz, Valencia, Porto and so on). Now, the opening of Moderna Museet Malmö is a clear sign that the city's cultural scene is taking on a national and international significance. The Museet's Stockholm base was a nexus of avant-garde art in the 1950s and 60s, and it built an enviable collection and reputation under founding director Pontus Hulten. It has matured now into the most important 20th-century cultural institution in Sweden, residing since 1998 in a bland but pleasant Rafael Moneo-designed building.
Moderna Museet Malmö is its first offshoot – think Tate Liverpool – and will show the collection of Moderna Museet as well as a programme of contemporary art of its own. The gallery is in an old power station (built in 1901 by John Smedberg) that has been converted by young Stockholm practice Tham Videgård Hansson. Between 1988 and 2006, the building was home to Rooseum, a Kunsthalle-style found space gallery based on a private collection. Rooseum was closed due to a lack of funds, but is fondly remembered within the city's vital art scene. The conversion of the Rooseum's old home into the new Moderna Museet is also a shift for that scene from local to national and international and from found space to museum-quality, air-conditioned space with the Moderna Museet's brand on the front door.
Malmö is home to some of the great modern civic architecture in Europe, although it is often so modest that this statement might sound a little overblown. The great Sigurd Lewerentz lived in nearby Lund, and Malmö is the home of his masterpiece and life's work, the Eastern Cemetery, and other buildings. Lewerentz lived the last years of his life (he died in 1975) working in a room built for him by one of his students, Klas Anselm. Anselm's two Konsthall galleries, in Malmö and Lund, are among the best small galleries of the second half of the last century. These buildings speak of the society and culture of their time, as well as developments in European architecture. It is into this context that Moderna Museet Malmö appears. Three generations of 20th-century architecture play out their preoccupations in Malmö and the Scania region with remarkable clarity.
Malmö Opera House exterior
Visiting Lewerentz's Eastern Cemetery is an extraordinary experience. The landscape, composed of geometric burial grounds with chapels and other small buildings scattered around, is oriented around a ridge running through the site. Walking along this ridge you pass most of the main architectural elements: the flower shop, the bell tower, the extraordinary sunken burial chapel and the circular territory of rememberance.
Architecturally, the place is concerned with the rituals of burial, and therefore what is most ancient and eternal about architecture of the north of Europe. The main funerary chapel of St Birgitta's is a mound or tumulus with a simple Doric colonnade providing entrance and orientation. The reciprocity between landscape and building, or nature and culture, culminates in perhaps the most famous image of the cemetery: the flower shop. This, at the cemetery's entrance, was Lewerentz's last work there (completed in 1971), and one of the last of his life. It's a boulder of concrete, formed as simply as possible, with just the marks of the concrete formwork for scale and decoration. But look closer and you see the same concern with human and natural rhythms. The overhanging eave of the pitched roof protect flowers and people from the elements, for instance. The building also deals with representation (in the 1930s Lewerentz ran a company that designed signs and advertisements), with the most famous metal conduits ever designed arranged in the form of a flower on the facade. The building has not been well maintained, but remains a powerful work.
Lewerentz's major civic building in central Malmö is the opera house, undertaken in collaboration with Erik Lallerstedt and David Hellden and completed in 1944. The civic space outside the opera house terminates a street and also, in some sense, provides an end to the city centre and the beginning of a large green space, the Pildammspark. Right across the small green space to the east of the opera house is Anselm's Malmö Konsthall, a modestly brilliant building that Anselm completed in 1975. A single-storey concrete gallery, it has a second generation modernist attitude to removing barriers between inside and outside.
The building was commissioned and built against a background of the Swedish social democratic consensus, and expresses the optimism of that time. There is an interest in a phenomenal primitivity, trying to establish the material grounds for a civic architecture shorn of representation. The rough, striated concrete of the walls, covered by Virginia creepers, still feel resolutely real, unsynthetic and unmediated. I picked up a small book about the gallery during my visit there, and it talks, in very Swedish style, of flexibility and a lack of elitism in the building. But this underestimates it. There is a quality, like Lewerentz's work, of the building looking into the future and imagining itself as a ruin. As an art space, it is exemplary, and loved by the artists who exhibit there (despite the odd leak in the roof). But, the building manages to capture the unhierarchical optimism of the time with sincerity, expressing art's immediate relevance to that world. This is expressed not just visually, but in the abrupt entrance to the building.
Inside Malmö Opera House; the mural is Shakespeare's Plays by Martin Edmond, 1952
Anselm wrote: "I think it is important that you enter straight into an art gallery. As soon as you have come through the doors, you should find yourself right in among the works of art. So there are no barriers." If Lewerentz used architectural elements (colonnades, porticos and overhanging eaves) as filters between buildings and landscape, his student wanted to remove as many as possible.
The legacy of these literate, important buildings and their relationship with the city is intimidating for Moderna Museet Malmö. It is not, clearly, a piece of architecture in the league of these forebears. But despite that, it is possible that the attitude shown by museum director and architect more or less accurately reflect the role of an art institution in society today. So uncritical is the building in relation to the world of branding and tourism that director Magnus Jensner and the architects Bolle Tham and Martin Videgård could well have created something very of its time.
How then does the new front door to Moderna Museet Malmö do its job? Its primary concerns are pragmatic. The new building is a very visible new entrance for the new institution, designed primarily as an attractor. It's clad in rusty orange painted perforated steel (reminiscent of Herzog & de Meuron's Fünf Höfe gallery in Munich) that seems to have a relationship with the brickwork of the original building. Mainly, though, together with the all-orange interior of the reception, this is a building about attracting people, about a memorable image. "The new entrance building, although relatively small, is an exclamation mark, something that signals the arrival of Moderna Museet in Malmö," says Bolle Tham.
Spatially, the building creates an entrance sequence far from the directness of Anselm. You enter through an old gateway, turn right and pass through two doors into a small, low reception area with a cafe on your right. Light is filtered through the perforations in the facade. Then, you pass through double doors and arrive at the bottom of the original staircase of the 1901 building. You have to ascend a few steps and then go through another doorway to enter the large main gallery.
Klas Anselm's 1975 Malmö Konsthall
This occupies the former turbine hall of the power station (the comparison with Tate Modern is not lost on director Magnus Jensner, although the spaces are nothing alike), but nothing is visible of the old building here. At either end are doorways into smaller spaces (an education room and another smaller gallery), where some of the brickwork of the power station is visible, and, in the case of the gallery to the south, the huge crane. The big space is quite unique in its proportions and large enough to take monumental works, although the opening show is oil paintings by Luc Tuymans. Smaller spaces upstairs, accessed by a choice of cleverly configured if unspectacular stairways concealed in the thickness of internal walls, are home to selections from the Moderna Museet's permanent collection. The most intriguing space is the gallery on the first floor, high and square in plan.
As an art space, Moderna Museet Malmö is neither found space nor white cube; it is not inspired by contemporary art practice, and does not espouse anything particular about the architectural identity of the type. It is clear, though, that the building's success will not be measured by these metrics. Both director and architect point, rightly, to the 30,000 people who visited the building in its first two months of opening, outstripping expectations. Bolle Tham says: "It is a signal, not on this block, but in the region, for the city. It's a red dot on the map."
The architects have done a great job with a very modest budget (45 million Swedish kronor or £4m, all in). Per square metre, this is cheap, especially given the amount of air-conditioning kit that had to be installed. The most prominent message of the architecture is in plastering the logo of Moderna Museet across the facade (the handwriting is Robert Rauschenberg's) – this is a project about communication, although quite what it communicates is somewhat obscure.
When you ask others in the Malmö art scene what they think of Moderna Museet's arrival, they are all welcoming. But many have questioned the change of tone between the building's former identity as the Rooseum. That question, and the broader lessons of Lewerentz and Anselm, are not just a story of a gallery in Malmö, but a question of the civic architecture of contemporary Europe. The buildings of Lewerentz and Anselm show us how contemporary buildings can talk of the present and the past, can speak of politics and spirituality, but also be popular and laconic backgrounds to the rituals of life. We have had years now of spectacle in museum buildings, of architecture that aims to communicate with a broad audience. It is now critical that we begin to question what the content of that communication really consists of.
The Moderna Museet Malmö's main gallery occupies the former turbine hall
The cafe at the Moderna Museet Malmö