SEMRÉN + MÅNSSON - How it all began

Published 2019-12-04

It's been 50 years since the Northern bricklayer Per-Rune Semrén founded the architectural firm we call our workplace today. But it is far more than just his sirname that lives on. Per-Rune was a pure rationalist, and with his understanding of the developer's business, he managed to deliver what we today call value-creating architecture. 

Per-Rune Semrén was born in the village of Ruskträsk in 1928 and grew up under modest conditions. At the age of 15, he, luckily for us, decided to "go as far as he could imagine" - which meant 30 kilometres by railcar to the city of Lycksele, where he became a bricklayer. His physical strength quickly made him foreman, but he wanted more. After studying to become an engineer in Stockholm, which in itself was a move up in the world for the orphaned boy from the North, Per-Rune enrolled at Chalmers University of Technology at the age of 30. He was a lot older than most of his peers but had a unique position thanks to his substantial work experience. 

I met Per-Rune for the first time in 1979 for a job interview, ten years after he had started his architectural firm. I remember our meeting well, but especially his hands that after years of bricklaying were so robust that he could not reach inside the coffee bag to get the last coffee out. 

Through work, we became good friends, not because we were particularly similar, but perhaps because of the opposite. He was practical, and I theoretical from an academic upbringing. It was clear to me that I wanted to be an architect when I was nine years old, and my father took me to the construction site of a family friend's new house. I can still visualise the grand concrete construction and how it interacted with nature around in an almost magical way. 

My very first project to see the light of day was a fireplace with surrounding windows in my parents' semi-detached house in Växjö. I was only 13 years old when my father assigned me the task after realising my great interest in architecture, and I immediately went to the public library to study. The building consent was applied for and granted with my sketches done on parchment paper. In the contract with the bricklayer, there was a clause that stated that I would act as his handyman, and I, quite recklessly nearly broke my femoral neck after trying to crack a brick over my left leg. Nevertheless, the fireplace got built, and as far as I could see when the house was up for sale a couple of years ago, it is still standing.  

In April 1979, exactly 40 years ago, I started working at Semrén Architectural office. We were a team of eight architects who through Per-Rune, learned to understand our clients' business. He was of similar age as the generation of building contractors of the 1950s, and many had, just like him, started their professional careers as bricklayers. Having that in common lead to mutual respect, and gave the company insight into the entire construction process. Just over a year after I started working there, the Swedish krona was devalued, and the majority of the workforce were given notice. Luckily, I was one of the four people who were chosen to remain, and it is from Per-Rune, Rolf Lauren, and Per-Olof Werner that I have learned everything I know today. When Per-Rune wanted to take a step back in 1986, it was the three of us who took over. 

Since then, the company has had many different ownership constellations, as a subsidiary of BSK AB in the Procordia group, and later as part of the listed consultant group Arcona, where we gained an understanding of running a large-scale business. These insights have been very meaningful and perhaps, as I come to think of it, made possible the idea of expansion for us in Sweden, Russia, and Poland. 

However, in 1992, during the financial crisis, I was given the opportunity to buy the company myself. On the train to Stockholm for the final negotiations, I opened the morning paper with the infamous headline "Interest rate 500% - the krona floats". Well, what do you do? I considered getting off the train but realised it could hardly get any worse. So, the train arrived in the capital where I got a good deal, signed the contract and went back home to my wife Maria and our daughters in Gothenburg.

So here we are, 50 years since the start, and I often think about Per-Rune. It is thanks to his practical talent, bricklaying knowledge, and business savviness that we today can claim to deliver value-creating architecture.  It is a wonderful gift to leave behind, and I hope to be able to do the same when the time comes.