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Constructed Space as a Manifestation of Ideas

Rafael Otto reviews Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption, and the Welfare State, edited by Helena Mattsson & Sven-Olov Wallenstein

Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption, and the Welfare State, edited by Helena Mattsson & Sven-Olov WallensteinOrganized as a series of 12 essays featuring the work of 14 writers, Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption, and the Welfare State is densely packed with wide-ranging theory and cultural observation examining the socio-political environment in Sweden from the 1930s onward. The book is compelling in its perception of architecture as a “way to organize consumption and production,” and it establishes the idea that architectural form is a result of cultural conditions and social thinking.

The introduction calls to mind the work of a host of social philosophers—Kant, Weber, Marx, Foucault, Durkheim—and while most of these writers don’t make an appearance in the book, there’s a link to the concerns of these thinkers, to the study of social systems. By looking closely at Swedish society in the 20th century, the essays in Swedish Modernism demonstrate the way economic conditions and social debate fueled changes in consumption, politics, and government policy.

The series of essays originated from a study sponsored by the Swedish Research Council, and the work as a whole sets out to dissect the modernization of Sweden, examining social developments within a historical framework. The book is organized into three sections: Constructing the Welfare State, Consumers and Spectacles, and Towards a Genealogy of Modern Architecture, and the writing is intellectual and academic, at times a strenuous read, and the pages (two text columns each) are filled with a plethora of references.

Often, the authors turn to the work of Michel Foucault and Manfredo Tafuri, providing ample analysis of their philosophical work to support the reader. At first, when considering texts like Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, one asks: What’s the relationship between penal systems and Swedish architecture? We come to understand that the construction of physical space—a prison or residential home—is a direct manifestation of philosophical thinking, of language, and ultimately, human relationships. Foucault’s work proves useful.

Swedish Modernism, while primarily rooted in the social developments of a single country, takes the reader on a journey of place that reaches Europe and the United States, provides thorough cultural analysis, and offers an opportunity to reflect on the role of individuals inside larger social systems.

The Manifesto

Social debates in the early 20th century lead to a manifesto—called acceptera (accept)—concerning the modernization of Sweden. The document attempted to define a philosophy that sought to “embrace a rational, social and technological approach towards architectural construction and urban planning” and create a national way forward that would result in the transformation of Swedish culture. Rooted in functionalism, acceptera sought to “re-connect traditional values to the contemporary development,” and analysis of acceptera lies at the heart of Swedish Modernism.

During the 1930s, the rise of American capitalism stimulated debate about the role of the consumer, social philosophers, and designers. From the introduction: “Architecture found itself suspended between two positions: on the one hand, it affirmed the plan as a way to organize the whole of production and consumption; on the other hand, it wanted to retain its autonomy as architecture, i.e., as a unique purveyor of aesthetic form.”

Entrance Hall, Without Borders Exhibition, 1957.
Entrance Hall, Without Borders Exhibition,
Mosebacke, Stockholm, 1957.

Photo by Sune Sundahl, courtesy Collection of
Arkitekturmuseet, Stockholm.

Mattsson, an editor for the collection, co-author of the introduction, and author of the essay titled “Designing the Reasonable Consumer,” examines how these debates laid the groundwork for “market differentiation” that required new forms of market research and “consumer production.” She explores “how the commodity, as an intersection of personal desires and the system of production, appears as a mediator between individual and society…” And she does so convincingly, taking the reader from the Stockholm Exhibition (1930), which represented a step toward modernism while embracing new concepts in design, through the Without Borders exhibition (1957), which sought to transform the home and the daily life of Swedish citizens.

In 1931, a team of architects from the Stockholm Exhibition, including its director Gregor Paulsson, wrote and published acceptera. As a philosophical framework, it helped guide societal change on an expansive scale, and it did so by examining the everyday routines of families and individuals, including things like the role of women in the workforce, time spent preparing food, and the critical task of caring for children. Ultimately, acceptera casts the family and the home as the hub of consumption, a “destruction plant” for commodities, and the central focus of economic transformation.

What is striking about acceptera is its top-down formulation, a kind of framework often associated with communism and socialism. There are links here between the state dependency inherent in Swedish social democracy and the corporate dependency inherent in American capitalism, making the book a historically relevant case study of Swedish society that could serve as a model for examining a wider range of cultural systems.

The Child-State Relationship and Concepts of Freedom

It’s useful to understand the driving concepts behind a manifesto such as acceptera, but it’s also useful to understand the cultural framework that produced other kinds of writing. The second essay in the book is titled “Pippi Longstocking: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Welfare State.” Indeed, we are talking about the children’s stories written by Astrid Lindgren in 1944. Henrik Berggren and Lars Trädgård examine the “cultural and moral logic” that helped produce the story, simultaneously using it as a tool clarify the role of the child in Swedish society.

Children’s books, literature, the arts as a whole: these are important elements of culture that can shed light on social conditions and development. And through Pippi, the authors demonstrate the way the story, for post-World War II Europe, represents a kind of hope for the next generation, one that “would be strong, independent, and compassionate enough not to fall prey to strong leaders, group think and frenzied nationalism.” Pippi personifies this wish. She is a young girl who lives alone, survives in a broken house with a secret stash of gold coins, possesses superhuman powers, and defies authority. Her community accepts her autonomous ways, further epitomizing two social extremes, “on the one hand, total individual sovereignty, on the other the absolute necessity of a stable social order.” Pippi is the “sovereign child,” and the authors point out that “the idea that children are individuals in themselves and not just the property of their parents has also informed the Swedish welfare state to a great degree.”

This idea relates to another important question: What’s the link between the development of a welfare state and individual freedom? In the essay, “In Search of the Swedish Model,” Swedish concerns about the individual and the state are described as follows: “Swedes . . . entertain a historically rooted longing for independence from all potentially repressive contexts: the market, the church, the family and other local communities. Unlike for example the American, the Swede has not struggled for freedom from the state, but rather freedom through the state.”

From an American point of view, this may sound outrageous. Yet the writers in Swedish Modernism present ample research and argument to support the claim that the social democratic reforms in the middle of the 20th century created “the least family-oriented and most individualized societies on the face of the earth.” (This refers to Sweden and Scandinavia as a whole.) While Americans are known to embrace freedom, the American concept of freedom for individuals seems more limited in scope compared to the Swedish.

The Swedish model worked to “liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency.” This included liberating “the poor from charity, workers from their employers, wives from their husbands, children from parents,” and creating institutionalized systems of support that embraced individual autonomy. The Swedish welfare state sought to break down the very things that define so many Americans to this day: the binding relationships between the individual and family, employer, and church. And while American capitalism worked to establish “free” market economies throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the result is that those efforts created a debilitating dependence on consumerism and material goods.

The irony is that there is convergence between capitalism and social democracy, between free markets and welfare states: both seek to bind the individual to systems of consumption, whether they be sponsored by the state or produced by the private sector. And as Berggren and Trädgård write in the “Pippi Longstocking” essay, “In a world of commodification, children are the ultimate consumer good.”

A night view of the globe in the Without Borders Exhibition, Mosebacke, Stockholm, 1957.
A night view of the globe in the Without
Borders Exhibition, 1957.

Photo by Sune Sundahl, courtesy Collection of
Arkitekturmuseet, Stockholm.

Into the 21st Century

Reinhold Martin’s compelling essay titled “Mass Customization” builds on the concept that “material structures are always infused with relations of power.” The piece presents a case study of two Union Carbide office buildings: one completed in 1960 on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan; and the other that replaced it in 1982 in the wooded outskirts of Danbury, Connecticut. The Manhattan building represented “the apotheosis of massification” with a 53-story, inflexible, and inhuman structure built in the very heart of multinational America. The construction of the Danbury complex, however, was a highly customized affair that involved detailed employee input, intricate customization of individual office space, and a design that resulted in a “skyscraper turned inside-out,” complete with parking for every employee adjacent to their office.

The story underscores the concept that architecture is a cultural expression based on the needs, desires, and choices of people and communities, and it also begins to move the focus of the book away from 20th century modernization into the 21st century, into a world structured by global integration and internationalized culture.

Just two years after the completion of the new Danbury headquarters, a chemical leak occurred in Bhopal, India at a Union Carbide manufacturing facility. The leak killed roughly the same number of workers that were housed in the Danbury office complex—about 3,800 people—with unofficial estimates reaching 20,000 and an additional 500,000 severe and permanent injuries. What is fascinating here is the correlation between the 1982 building design and the actions of the company. Their transition from 1960 to 1982 “reflected a complex tendency toward invisibility that accompanied global growth.” Their public image was subverted, and their reaction to the Bhopal disaster benefited from this position—no Union Carbide employees ever stood trial in India, and as late as 2006, compensation had been paid to a mere 600 families at an average rate of $500.

Union Carbide survived virtually unscathed, dissolving only when Dow Chemical purchased it in 1999. A sleight of hands, perhaps, but this sequence of events underscores the way in which architecture and systems of production are manifestations of philosophical thought. They can help us clarify the relationship between people and place, and the attitudes and biases that frame them. We can use the historical framework presented in this book to better understand the 21st century trend toward fractured nationalism, a trend represented by corporations like Dow Chemical that operate in 168 countries with tens of thousands of employees. This multinational framework influences our contemporary definition of “local” and “other” as well as the role of perspective in defining community, place, and people. But we can’t look too far ahead without staying informed by stories and lessons of the past, without understanding the role of ideas and actions that shape our physical, constructed world.

Swedish Modernism is a comprehensive study capable of creating debate, discussion, and social analysis. My criticisms include the lack of an index, something that proved frustrating on more than one occasion given the depth of the material and research presented. Additionally, the academic language will likely restrict readership. A more substantial criticism concerns the trend of comparing Sweden and the United States directly. The vast differences in population (current U.S. population 308 million, Sweden nine million) and geography are largely ignored, and the American aesthetic is described primarily in corporate terms—and multinational ones at that—without much attention to “local knowledge.”

Nevertheless, the book is relevant to those interested in the application and evolution of social philosophies and in the cultural dynamics that shape our social systems, individual personas, and general sense of belonging. What emerges is the importance of language as a tool for constructing our individual and social world. For this reason the authors continually return to acceptera as powerful tool in the development of the modern Swedish state. It’s a manifesto of ideas built by shared language that established an environment for structuring physical space, family environments, and economic change. If we can understand the role of language in this context—indeed, our innate impulse to create—then Swedish Modernism truly offers a model for examining the development of place and society, for dissecting the veil of culture that shapes our ideas, and for gaining a better understanding of who we are as individuals and how we operate within our assigned social constructs.


Rafael Otto is a writer, poet, and musician. He explores artistic voices and the creative process through in-depth interviews with an emphasis on perspective, place, identity, and intercultural communication. Rafael is an editor at Terrain.org, writes the blog at infiniteculture.wordpress.com, and is producing a theatrical and musical performance with the Portland Chamber Orchestra called "The Story of Rhythm" featuring a series of his original poetry. His nonfiction and creative work have appeared or are forthcoming in The Writer's Chronicle, Terrain.org, The Country Blues, Not Enough Night, The New Purlieu Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his family.
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Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption, and the Welfare State

Edited by Helena Mattsson and Sven-Olov Wallenstein

   Black Dog Publishing
   192 pages
   ISBN 978-1906155988


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