A sketch of the new Nobel Center in Stockholm, featuring beautiful, modern architecture which doesn't fit in among the older buildings around it

An artist’s impression of the new Nobel Center in Stockholm.

Handout/Reuters/Newscom

Controversy over eye-catching new Nobel Center roils Stockholm

STOCKHOLM—Supporters says it'll be an eye-catching landmark and a powerful symbol of this city's ties to the most prestigious awards in the world. The proposed new Nobel Center, to be built in central Stockholm, would draw 600,000 visitors a year, provide a splendid new venue for Nobel award ceremonies, and become a hub for science, education, and literature.

But opponents say the bronze, steel, and glass box is too big, ugly, and in the wrong place—and they're determined to stop it. They say the center would forever mar Stockholm's historic skyline.

Construction of the eight-story, $140 million building is set to begin in the small peninsula of Blasieholmen in 2017 and finish 2 years later. But the debate about it is far from over. The City Council approved a detailed construction plan last April, but a group called Bevara Blasieholmen - Flytta Nobelbygget (Preserve Blasieholmen - Move the Nobel Center) is appealing the decision in court, together with owners of buildings adjoining the site. (The group is also planning to hold a rally—one of many—in Blasieholmen tomorrow.)

Currently, the Nobel Foundation has an office in Ostermalm, a prosperous, mostly residential area. The annual Nobel award ceremonies are held in the Stockholm Concert Hall and followed by a dinner at City Hall, and there's a Nobel Museum in Gamla stan, the oldest and most central part of the city. The new center, designed by David Chipperfield Architects’ Berlin office, would bring everything under one roof, while also offering new space for exhibitions, lectures, educational programs, and a restaurant. "It will be a tourist attraction as well as an intellectual living room for Stockholm residents,” says Lars Heikensten, executive director of the Nobel Foundation here.

But a classic 1876 customs house will be razed to make room, as will several of the city's last remaining wooden harbor warehouses. In addition, the new center would block part of the classic skyline from the harbor. "This building is too big and ugly, and it will sit in one of the most precious corners of Stockholm," says Björn Tarras-Wahlberg, one of the leaders of Bevara Blasieholmen here. “A gigantic building in such a limited space will also cause huge traffic congestion problems.” The group says there are better locations, such as Hagastaden, an area under development to the north of here that's also envisaged as a new hub for the life sciences.

Discussions about the location have gone on for 20 years, Heikensten says. “Many different places have been screened," he says, but central Stockholm is the only place where the center would have its desired impact. To mollify critics, the Nobel Foundation last year presented a revised design that is somewhat smaller. Further revisions are possible, Heikensten says. ”We are open to discussion and perhaps compromise on the exact size and appearance of the building itself," he says. "However, should the location be withdrawn, there is not likely to be a new Nobel Center.”

The city backs the plans. "I'm very confident that the building as designed is in the right spot in Stockholm, and that it will serve as an excellent flag of the Nobel’s brand in the world," says Roger Mogert, a member of the Stockholm City Council and a strong supporter of the proposal.

The Nobel Foundation has enlisted a bevy of past laureates and other luminaries to express their support in videos—including biophysicist Michael Levitt of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llossa, and pop legend Björn Ulvaeus, who quips that the Nobel Prizes are "of far greater significance to Sweden and Stockholm" than ABBA, the globally known band he co-founded in the 1970s.

But Bevara Blasieholmen has plenty of prominent supporters as well, including Erling Norrby, who was involved in the selection of many Nobel laureates—first as a professor at the Karolinska Institute here, which selects winners of the physiology or medicine Nobel, and later as the permanent secretary at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which chooses the winners for physics and chemistry. In a Youtube video, Norrby warns against moving the award ceremonies: "You can never have the same air of festivity as in Tengbom's Concert Hall, with its magnificent ambience that is both classic and contemporary," he said.

Even Swedish King Carl XVI Gustav, who rarely, if ever, wades into political debates, has voiced doubts. “There is no need for a gigantic building," he said in an interview with the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. "It is also possible to move it.”

Some $94 million in financing for the project—roughly two-thirds of the total—comes from the Erling-Persson Family Foundation and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, both of which fund scientific research. Another $36 million has been pledged by other donors and partners. The legal procedures will almost certainly delay construction, Heikensten concedes. "But we are ready and are still optimistic that the Nobel Center could be ready by 2020,” he says.

Marta Paterlini is a senior scientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and a freelance journalist.