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Owen Hatherley's Eurovisionaries: Stockholm

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The Swedish capital is a heady architectural experience, but what was perhaps the fairest society ever established is now being frittered away by greed and speculation

 

Stockholm is ‘different’. I first found this out in 2003 when I visited a friend in Björkhagen, a suburb resembling an exceptionally well-maintained post-war council estate lived in by only affluent people. A short walk from everyone’s front door was a real forest, although we were 15 minutes on the metro from the centre of a city of 1.5 million people. Jagged crags shot out of the pavements, as if in the aftermath of an earthquake. A bare brick church, a towering hostel, a supermarket and a state-owned shop that sold only alcohol were the other amenities. In the centre, we visited Gunnar Asplund’s City Library, where a black frieze decorated with figures from Homer led up to a rotunda stacked floor-to-ceiling with books. In the evening, we went to a nightclub called Debaser, on an island under a tangle of concrete expressways. Here you could see bands and DJs as up-to-the-minute as any in London or Berlin, except playing to an audience that were, at worst, very slightly tipsy.

 

I’ve been back several times since, and that image of a functioning social democratic city set in a wild yet controlled natural environment has never quite dissipated. But make no mistake, Swedish social democracy is declining, with the fastest growing inequality in Europe; at current rates, it will be as unequal as the USA by 2050. Stockholm is also one of the most racially segregated cities in Europe, a Paris-on-the-Baltic that exploded into suburban riots in 2013. Not unrelatedly, the Swedish capital has been ‘enjoying’ a real estate boom. Rather than indict Stockholm, though, I want to praise it. Even aside from its social achievements, it’s a heady topographical and architectural experience, which Swedish architecture’s reputation for prettiness and ‘Empiricism’ belies. Stockholm is essentially an archipelago of housing estates strung out across islands and crags. High, thin concrete viaducts carrying cars and metro trains soar across lakes and seas, and crash in and out of valleys planted with maisonettes and peaks crowned with towers. Weaved into every estate is a fragment of forest. Sometimes it’s almost vertiginous, but you know you’re never going to fall off the edge. That combined feeling of security and awe is rare and special.

 

Gamla stan

Gamla stan

Source: Owen Hatherley

Gamla Stan, Stockholm

A perambulation of Stockholm ought to start with the rather too preserved Old Town, Gamla Stan – narrow streets and 17th-century spires, with Baroque details on the ground floors. The street plan is medieval, and the palaces are Neoclassical. The very few tourists that make it to this absurdly expensive city are concentrated here. It is better from a distance, where it forms part of a carefully tended skyline along with Stockholm City Hall, where Ragnar Ö stberg pioneered the standard type of the early 20th-century municipal palace, particularly in the many reproductions of its stark, copper-crowned tower. Designed in an invented ‘traditional’ Swedish Gothic full of Tolkien mannerisms, it opens itself out to the water with a colonnade, an embankment and a secluded garden.

Deeper into Norrmalm, the commercial centre, there are two other punctuation points on the skyline. One of them is Kungstornen, twin masonry-clad skyscrapers of 1925, with Louis Sullivan-like tripartite designs, connected by a bridge, integrated as part of the design, with a street flowing below. The other landmark on a skyline otherwise still dominated by Gamla Stan and City Hall is Hötorgscity. Built in the early 50s, this is harder stuff, five glass towers in enfilade, a miniature Fifth Avenue.

 

Trade unions and co-operatives still build a sizeable amount of Sweden’s new housing

The streets around here are the centre of Modernist Stockholm. There’s Backstrom and Reinus’s Ahlens department store, an object lesson in how to design a long windowless box with wit and charm, but more importantly, there’s the large complex by Peter Celsing that includes the rugged, classicised Bank of Sweden and the fabulous Kulturhuset. Placed somewhere spatially, typologically and temporally between the Royal Festival Hall and the Pompidou Centre, this long, simple yet labyrinthine glass volume briefly housed the Swedish Parliament, when the Riksdag was being renovated. Imagine the Palace of Westminster relocated to a building one part Queen Elizabeth Hall and one part Elephant and Castle shopping centre, and you’ll get some sense of just how radical the Swedish mainstream had become in the 1970s. In front is a large square and the meeting point of the city’s metro lines, and you notice something: Gamla Stan and Norrmalm are overwhelmingly white, and yet this square is comparatively mixed. Take the metro out from here and the contrast is greater still.

 

From the 40s onwards, the state – municipally and nationally – bought up land on a large scale outside Stockholm to expand the city, in conjunction with the building societies and housing companies run by the trade unions and co-operatives, who still build a sizeable amount of Sweden’s new housing. The HSB (Tenants’ Savings Bank and Building Society) or SKB (Swedish Co-Operative Housing Society) insignia can be found on Sitte-esque pre-war tenements and new, shiny Neomodernist blocks; the KF Co-Operative’s Constructivist headquarters, with its ribbon windows and cantilevered crane, still stands opposite Gamla Stan. Housing therefore had a lot of state subsidy, and is largely rented, on a waiting-list system, but the universal welfare state here didn’t, and doesn’t, have ‘social housing’ as such, let out according to a means test. These suburbs were meant to be for everyone. They aren’t, especially since housing subsidies were drastically reduced in the 1990s, accelerating with the introduction of the ‘right to buy’ in 2007.

 

Aspudden 3

Aspudden 3

Source: Owen Hatherley

Aspudden

These suburbs have pre-war precursors: Aspudden, for instance, a company suburb built for Ericsson workers, intensely gentrified since the 1990s. It shifts from mildly Art Nouveau tenements to low-rise functionalist blocks, and leads to a high-rise encampment at Liljeholmen, with those fingers of forest leafing in between. The factory itself, at Telefonplan, is now an art school, and is surrounded with good, unfussy new housing. Typically, Aspudden is centred around a church, the tiny Uppenbarelsekyrkan, placed on top of one of those volcanic outcrops. These churches are treated as much like community centres and concert halls as they are places of worship; certainly I’ve never visited a church less intimidating, although its central space, irradiated by polychromatic, abstract glass, is powerful.

 

Stockholm’s suburbs were discovered by British architects in the 40s. One early cause celebre was Grondal, commenced in 1944, where former hardline functionalists Backströ m and Reinus softened their right angles and white walls towards pitched roofs, complex, cosy arrangements of blocks, bright colours and individualistic stylistic touches. It’s lovely, and much less staid than its British imitations might have you assume.

 

Grondal 3

Grondal 3

Source: Owen Hatherley

Grondal

Larger and more impressive is Vällingby, almost a new town, the first phase of which was finished in 1953. The casual scorn that the New Brutalists had for ‘the Swedish retreat from modern architecture’ is hard to sustain here. There’s such a lightness and warmth of touch, in Backströ m and Reinus’s lamps, the paving of the central precincts, and the careful planting of the towers and maisonettes around, that it would be silly to object to the lack of rigour. Parts of it have been glazed over in a renovation by the prolific White Arkitekter, whose somewhat blank mild functionalism is a good indicator of where mainstream Swedish architecture is at today (eg its comically polite stab at the Bilbao effect: the Stockholm Waterfront conference hall). A new glass roof surmounts an H&M, featuring the famously zaftig Swedish mannequins.

 

In the 1960s, Sweden aimed to solve any remaining housing problems at a stroke via the Million Programme. In Stockholm, this would ensure that every single inhabitant of the city would have their own spacious, sanitary space, in a block of flats with a community centre, a forest, a church and a metro station. This was achieved, largely via massive use of system-building, and has been heavily criticised for creating inhumane and monolithic environments. The first I visited was Flemingsberg – coincidentally, soon after the 2013 riots. Home also to Södertörn University and the Huddinge Hospital, it occupies a clifftop site above a motorway, and did ‘kick off’ that year. White Arkitekter’s university buildings are decent contemporary Modernism, with that familiar mastery of landscaping, while the earlier hospital is thick, tubular Brutalism strung along concrete walkways. Yet, expecting some sort of Castle Vale or Aylesbury Estate, I was bowled over by the brightness and optimism of Flemingsberg’s housing, not to mention its level of maintenance and the continued use of forested spaces always just around the corner. Aside from the undoubtedly larger scale of the housing – mostly in long slab blocks – this was obviously from the same school as Björkhagen, Vallingby or Grondal. I also couldn’t help but notice that Flemingsberg was as black and Asian as Norrmalm or Sodermalm were monolithically Aryan.

 

Stockholm is the most segregated capital city in Europe, and its slums are better maintained than Hampstead

That’s even more the case in Husby, the suburb where the 2013 riots started, and raged longest. While Flemingsberg is on the suburban rail, Husby is on the tube. Stockholm metro is pretty special; stations from the 70s embarked on a similar dialogue with the rocky landscape to the housing estates, only flipped, so that each station is like a cave, the tunnels rudely blasted through then painted and decorated with surrealist artworks. Around Husby station is a grim precinct, like Vällingby stripped of imagination and richness. Follow the very attractive little arched bridges over the roads that serve it, and you can see how the Million Programme blocks were made – large, corrugated panels, here stained into the same blush of red and yellow you find in the City Library. Just as in Aspudden, there are tables, chairs and benches between the blocks, and the maintenance – both by residents, on their balconies, and by the housing associations, on the squares – is impeccable. Explore, and you’ll find a swimming pool, community centre, lots of sports facilities, and then, again over the bridges, a change in typology, into brick-clad tenements and wooden terraced houses; intimate and elegant.

 

Husby benches

Husby benches

Source: Owen Hatherley

Husby

This is nobody’s idea of a ghetto; the next stop on the metro is the ‘Swedish Silicon Valley’ of Kista. But segregated it certainly is. Husby is the poorest part of Stockholm, with high rates of unemployment and overwhelmingly non-white. The effect is bizarre. As one former resident of nearby Rinkeby told me: ‘Stockholm is the most segregated capital city in Europe, and its slums are better maintained than Hampstead.’ In a sense it is a victim of the Million Programme’s success. Sweden has long had an enlightened asylum and immigration policy, and had plenty of decent housing for people to move to – with the cheapest and most abundant (and the easiest on the waiting list) in the Million Programme estates. The problem is not how people found themselves in Husby or Flemingsberg, but that they aren’t being housed in the new estates in the city centre.

 

Stockholm, like so many European cities, shifted towards post-industrial, inner-city redevelopment in the 1980s and 1990s. You can see this at its best and worst in the Södra S tationsområdet in Sö dermalm, where smart public spaces and parks surround a motley collection of blocks, from the Neo-functionalist Konsum building to Ricardo Bofill’s neo-fascist circus, with its concrete Doric colonnades, decorated to the doorways by that familiar HSB logo; a reminder that this comes from the same people that made Vallingby and Husby. More recent and far better is the rightly celebrated Hammarby Sjö stad, on an ex-industrial site, completed in 2012. It’s memorable not so much for its passable Neo-Modernist architecture and its choice of a 19th-century block structure over the spacious layouts of the suburbs, but for its use of the water and its wild embankments, which have taken on the role of the forests in earlier estates – the result of a strictly binding masterplan. In terms of creating beautiful, subtle, Modernist environments, well above anything Britain, France, even Germany can conceive, Sweden really can still do it. But these buildings are expensive, way beyond the wallets of Husby residents. The housing associations have to recoup the costs of their investment, and to provide deliberately cheap flats for ‘social’ tenants would violate the rules of the system. Yet these are already being violated, by the selling off of city centre flats on the open market for massive sums. In the process, perhaps the fairest society ever established is being frittered away by greed and speculation. Much of the point of Sweden’s welfare state was that it was universal, used by the middle class and workers alike, but what Stockholm might need now is some affirmative action.

 

Sweden

Flag of sweden

Flag of sweden

 

  • Date entered EU 1995
  • Currency Swedish krona
  • Population 9.9 million
  • GDP $467 billion
  • National debt (percentage of GDP) 40.6%
  • Unemployment rate 7.8%
  • Life expectancy 81.7 years
  • Political leader prime minister Stefan Löfven (Social Democrats)

Stockholm

  • Population 925,000 (city), 2.1 million (metro)
  • Area 188m² (city), 6,519m² (metro)
  • Mayor Karin Wanngård (Social Democrats)

Data source: Wikipedia

 


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