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Thoroughly Modern Stockholm

The perfect curve of a chair or the exact proportions of the façade of a building can be deeply pleasing. But without a Lorenzo de' Medici or a Donald Trump mixing it up with some extravagant monument to his own ego, restraint and purity can feel a bit Calvinist. It's the curse of the moderns and a gaping flaw in social democracies, often criticized for (and guilty of) a low fun quotient. After a week in Stockholm, I began to long for some loopiness. I finally found it in the city hall, a building that resembles a cross between a Florentine bell tower and a factory in Leeds.

The architect, Ragnar Östberg, flouted all Swedish conventions in his masterpiece. He spent 12 years and three times his budget revising the building every time a new inspiration struck. Newspaper columnists labeled him a spendthrift and repeatedly called for his head. Eventually the city cut off funds, forcing him to raise private capital to finish the bell tower. His building, completed in 1923, was worth the wait.

The famous Blue Hall, for example, where the Nobel Prize dinners are held, is red. (Östberg so liked the wall of exposed brick, he abandoned plans to paint it the azure color he'd hoped would reflect Lake Mälaren.) The sweeping staircase is equipped with special short steps for a woman in formal attire. To perfect the measurements, he forced his wife to put on a gown and repeatedly ascend and descend. While the stairs succeeded, the marriage failed. The Golden Room has a massive mural made of 19 million gold-leaf fragments, at the center of which is the queen of Mälaren, guardian of Stockholm's famous lake. When the mosaic was unveiled the nation was apoplectic. With eyes like bulging golf balls, and coif styled by Medusa's hairdresser, she was considered a blight; outraged citizens lobbied to have it removed. But time has served it well. Today Östberg's rendering is cherished as one of the town's few examples of good bad taste.

If the heritage of Jantelagen is "like a heavy weight we drag around after us," as the concierge at the Grand Hôtel described it to me, there are signs that the burden is starting to lighten. The government has dismantled some of its social welfare programs, which have liberated (or forced, depending on your perspective) sectors of the population to be more entrepreneurial and wily. Four out of five Swedes own cell phones. Cafés, especially on the island of Södermalm—like the East Village, only cleaner and without a whiff of danger—are jammed with tattooed locals drinking beer with one hand, text messaging with the other. Even the cuisine, which is generally stodgy and traditional, moves toward thrilling when enhanced by Asian and Mediterranean fusion. The best example is Pontus in the Green House, where I had a memorable six-course tasting menu that included sushi and hot smoked salmon.

To accommodate the rash of business travelers, several hotels have been grafted onto plain, old buildings in the grayer parts of town. The Nordic Light hotel occupies a former office block near the Central Station. Its white, hard-edged lobby has holograms and "audio architecture" (a.k.a. sound effects) and feels more like a museum than a place to stay. Likewise, the Birger Jarl advertises a top floor of suites that have each been decorated by a trendy Swedish designer. Both hotels are flogging design as a marketing strategy.

For every building that gets it wrong in Stockholm, there's another that nails it. One of the most popular places is the restaurant and salon in the Berns Hotel. Inadvertently repeating history, the owners imported Sir Terence Conran to turn their 1863 salon into an inviting place, free of irony and cynicism. Beneath the carved ceilings and massive chandeliers, Sir Terence has installed slick seating, leather banquettes, and low tables. The environment is totally modern, yet resonates permanence and grandeur without being posh or stuffy. Like Stockholm itself, it may portend the future without obliterating the past.

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