When Embark was started a little less than a year ago, our founders set out to find a place for us to grow the studio. And the very first location they visited was a bit of an oddity.
A large and old palace-like house in Stockholm’s Old Town, overlooking the Järntorget square on one side and the innermost part of the Baltic Sea on the other.
Södra Bankohuset, as the house is called, was built in the 17th century for the Swedish central bank, the world’s first independent state-owned bank. The bank stayed in the building until 1905. A number of state agencies have occupied it since.
We understood that an antique house like this wouldn’t necessarily be the most practical place to run a games studio in. But it was love at first sight, and we consider ourselves very lucky to be able to call this house our home today.
I head up communications at Embark, so I receive a lot of questions about the work we do and the studio we’re building, all of which are exciting topics to talk about. And I also get a fair share of questions about this unusual house of ours.
So to find out a bit more, I sat down for a cup of coffee and a chat with Marianne Bork Aaro, an architect and teacher at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Marianne was part of a big project to document a number of significant houses in Stockholm’s Old Town. In the process, she grew particularly fond of our house.
Why do you think this house is so special?
If you walk around in modern-day Stockholm, you notice that it’s dominated by houses with abstract stucco facades in yellow, pink, beige and orange. That style stems from the trend set by Södra Bankohuset house almost 400 years ago.
Stockholm used to be a medieval, Germanic-looking town. Most of its buildings had bright-red brick facades and sod roofs. But looking at paintings of 17th century Stockholm, two yellow Italian Renaissance-style buildings stand out from the crowd. One is the Royal Palace and the other, slightly older building, is Södra Bankohuset.
So from my viewpoint, as someone interested in our architectural history, it’s the most important building we have. More than any other building in Stockholm, it came to influence the way this city looks and feels to this day.
Are there any particular things about the house that you like to highlight?
There are so many things that are fascinating about the house itself. Like the fact that it’s constructed in several stages over the course of more than 50 years, and that it still manages to appear as if it’s was built as a single unit. And that it sits on top of the old weighing house with some walls in the basement still stemming from the 15th century.
I’m also really fond of how the building is sequenced, and how the rooms all tie together. Especially the way the Italian-inspired vestibule forms a transition between outside and inside and leads you into a corridor to the stairwell and the first courtyard. The vestibule is one of the most beautiful rooms in all of Stockholm.
As far as I’m concerned, this entire house is an example of real architecture that takes people on a journey between rooms.
Why did it take so long to complete?
Part of it was a lack of resources. The house was built at a time when Sweden expanded its reach to create a Nordic and Baltic empire of sorts. The country was busy waging wars and was constantly cash-strapped.
But more importantly, I don’t think people during this age thought of time as an issue, as we do today. Building projects were these big processes that people did together, and it was fine for stuff to take time. You had people spending their entire lives working on single buildings, dying before they were completed and letting others carry on.
The construction of Södra Bankohuset, for instance, was first led by Nicodemus Tessin, one of Sweden’s most notable architects. After his death, the project was overtaken by his son who also built the Royale Palace. When the younger Tessin passed away, the project was completed by Carl Hårleman, another famous architect. So three people spent their lives leading this project.
At first, you weren’t keen about a game studio becoming its new tenant. Why is that?
Honestly, I was terrified. Some game developer was going to move into Södra Bankohuset? I feared you’d be a tenant with little appreciation for the historical value of the building, that you would throw bean bags around the house and paint stuff green.
But after meeting with you all, I’ve come around.
You’re clearly proud of your house, you seem to understand the importance of it and embrace it as part of your identity. Also, I realize that Embark brings life to the house. You make interesting things, you have visitors from all around the world who get to see and experience the building as a living place.
Part of me also finds it fitting. It used to be that societies expressed culture through architecture. Nowadays, that has been largely lost and we no longer construct these lasting architectural monuments. Instead, we express our culture in different ways, like computer games.