Elsa Sundling was an architect and pioneer of the twentieth-century modernist movement. She was primarily active in France and she specialised in acoustics, concrete structures and abrasion resistance calculations. She also designed official buildings and was involved in town planning as well as industrial, residential, and school planning.
Elsa Sundling was born in Lindesberg on 21 April 1902. She was the first child born to Edla Gyllander from Örebro and Johan Adolf Sundling, an engineer from Risinge. By 1903 the family was already settled in Borensberg, where Elsa Sundling’s father, employed as managing director of Motala Ströms Kraft AB, oversaw the construction of Borensberg I electric power station, probably the first of its type in Sweden. In 1906 the family moved to Motala where Johan Adolf Sundling’s energy company played a role in the expansion of Mellersta Östergötlands Järnvägar (railroads) through electrification. Elsa Sundling’s father’s business successes meant that she and her two younger brothers, Enar and Hugo, benefited from an unusually privileged background. She was also able to attend school as a young girl and obtain her ‘normal’ school qualifications in 1919.
Elsa Sundling’s artistic interests took her to Stockholm in 1902. There she became part of the first cohort of students to attend Edward Berggren’s and Gottfrid Larsson’s school of painting. She gained her diploma in the spring of 1922. The following autumn she married the artist and school founder Edward Berggren, who was 26 years her senior. They divorced barely a year and a half later.
In 1923 Elsa Sundling was accepted at the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs (ÉnsAD) in Paris, where she studied French decorative arts. She also submitted examples of her work for display at the 1925 Paris World’s Fair. Elsa Sundling was awarded her diploma in 1926 having completed two and a half years of studies. She then took on a series of decorating jobs in Paris, through which she came to know various architects and was exposed to the challenges of architectural design. In 1928 Elsa Sundling began a four-year course at the main school of architecture in Paris, École Spéciale d’Architecture. She was one of only three women to be accepted as a student and up to that point only nine women had attended the school since it opened in 1865.
Elsa Sundling was taught by prominent architects such as Auguste Perret, Pierre Le Bourgeois, and Jean Royer. She also studied town-planning and produced a proposal for a city-plan for Algiers in Algeria. She fully enjoyed student life, filling her extra-curricular time with wild parties and lengthy café-visits in Montparnasse, the heart of Paris’ intellectual and artistic life during the 1920s and 1930s. She lived in a rented room at Port d’Orléans and her landlord was the artist and violinist Maurice Perrot. She met a young medical student named Lucette Maire, who lived on the top floor of her building. The two were inseparable for the ensuing decade, sharing a home, frequenting the artists’ cafés of Le Dôme, La Rotonde, and La Coupole, and travelling throughout the French countryside whilst Elsa Sundling produced a huge number of drawings. In October 1932, when she was 30 years old, Elsa Sundling was awarded a diploma in architecture, with excellent marks. Out of 32 students she was one of the final 15 who qualified.
She took on her first job as an architect in 1932 when she was hired by her former teacher and a pioneer of concrete construction, Auguste Perret. That year she also began to collaborate with Maurice Gridaine, a cinema architect, whose paternal grandfather had designed the world renowned Moulin Rouge. In the ensuing 5 years Elsa Sundling designed at least 17 cinemas across Paris. She specialised in acoustics, abrasion resistance calculations, and concrete structures. She belonged to the new generation of cinema architects who introduced modernist ideas and ideals into the field.
In 1937 Elsa Sundling briefly returned to Sweden to serve as chief architect for the Motala exhibition. By the outbreak of the Second World War she was back in Paris and endured the German occupation of the French capital. She headed northwards to investigate reconstruction opportunities. After the war ended she carried on with this work, now an employee of fellow architect and modernist Marcel Lods. In 1946 she began to work on the reconstruction of the German city of Mainz, again under Marcel Lods’ guidance. She, along with two other architects Adolf Bayer and Gérald Hanning, served as project leaders. Elsa Sundling played an important role in conveying the Swedish art of construction, as evidenced by the trips she and Marcel Lods made to Sweden funded by the French state. She was also the driving force behind the transformation of apartment kitchen designs to better facilitate housework needs. However, the modernist proposal for the reconstruction of Mainz with high-rise buildings situated in green areas met with a critical response: it was considered to be too radical and ultimately the plan was never realised.
In 1949 Elsa Sundling moved to Tangiers in Morocco, to head up Marcel Lods’ office in the town. Her four years in Tangiers were productive: she designed a town-planning proposal, a plan for a newspaper printing-press, another for a gold refinery works, a car showroom, and a plan for a cinema. Her primary occupation was the business she ran with the Swedish engineer Nils Sundell, and through which she designed an apartment building, as well as several luxury homes intended for the town’s wealthy inhabitants.
Following 30 years spent abroad Elsa Sundling returned to Sweden in 1952. Initially she lived in Örebro and Åmål. Adapting to the Swedish climate had a considerable impact on her output which slowed markedly. She then began working with ‘klosterkeramik’ ceramics and a proposal to modernise Varamobaden. In 1955 she moved to Uppsala, where she served as an external expert in the general planning department of the city architectural offices. Along with Sven Jonsson, a city-planning architect, she submitted a traffic and sanitation plan for inner-city Uppsala. The overarching idea was to pedestrianise the inner city, a relatively unusual approach at that time, and to make Uppsala a model city. In 1956 she transferred to the county architectural office where she worked in planning for Uppsala region.
Elsa Sundling was deeply supportive of the women’s and the peace movements. During her time in Uppsala she also became active in the international women’s network, Soroptimisterna. Initially she served as chair of the Uppsala club and then took on the honourable post of president of the entire Swedish Union. During Elsa Sundling’s two-year mandate as president the organisation benefited greatly from her extensive international contact network and from her strong belief in the future. Her successor highlighted, in a speech given in Elsa Sundling’s honour, how her fearless, inspirational, and colourful leadership and her activism had given the Swedish Union members an element of international awareness.
In 1960 Elsa Sundling was awarded the post of deputy city architect in Västerås, second to the architect Per Bohlin. One of their projects was the architectural design of Västerås CHP plant and gasworks. Further, Elsa Sundling, like other city architects, was a member of Arkitektgrupp Kyrkbacken, a non-profit organisation which sought to safeguard the oldest area in Västerås, Kyrkbacken. In 1963 she transferred into the private enterprise sphere, becoming a part owner of Horn & Sundlings arkitektkontor AB in partnership with fellow architect Helmut Horn. They became responsible for the new city quarter named Pettersbergs Centrum. Towards the end of her life Elsa Sundling suffered various health problems but this did not prevent her from dreaming big. At the age of 60 she gained both her driver’s license and pilot’s certificate, intending to return to a country in North Africa where she would provide instruction in city planning. She never realised this dream, however.
Elsa Sundling died after suffering a heart attack in September 1964. She was described in various memorials as an individual of great intellect who espoused high ideals. She was a driven campaigner who never hesitated to sacrifice either her time or her own money in order to complete a task. She had an insatiable thirst for meeting new people and experiencing new places, and she left a lasting impact on her friends through her sense of humour and optimism.