The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption and the Welfare State

Helena Mattsson and Sven-Olov Wallenstein, eds (Black Dog Publishing, £24.95)

Reviewed by Willem de Bruijn

Whether we consider its social, political or aesthetic manifestations, the so-called ‘Swedish model’ has exerted a special attraction beyond the Nordic borders, not least here in Britain. When it comes to architecture, it has often been pointed out that the design of the modern Swedish home has had a lasting influence on post-war housing in this country, while the legendary Stockholm Exhibition of 1930 found a not-so-distant echo in the 1951 Festival of Britain. In recent years, however, and particularly since the waning of the Social Democratic hegemony in the 1990s, it has also become clear that the appeal of the Swedish model has been a construction: to be understood, perhaps, more as a myth than a model. Swedish Modernism forms a welcome and important addition to the growing literature on the subject. It analyses and re-evaluates the multi-faceted discourse of politicians, architects, designers and writers in response to some of the problems faced by Swedish society after its belated industrialisation. It will appeal to readers across the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, cultural theory, architecture and design, offering them a critical reassessment of the social and aesthetic phenomenon that Swedish Modernism was, and to some extent, still is. The varied accounts of the origins and development of modernist architecture in Sweden will be of particular interest to historians, theorists and critics of twentieth century architecture.

The book is divided into three parts, with a total of twelve well-informed essays. Part one concerns the construction of the Swedish welfare state and provides many fascinating insights into the social and cultural changes that took place during the 1930s and after, and specifically the role of women and children in the reconfiguration of Swedish society. In this context, the critical analysis of Astrid Lindgren’s famous character Pippi Longstocking provides a particularly insightful and delightful read. Part two examines how a recognisably ‘modern’ subjectivity was constructed around notions of consumption and display to develop what Mattsson calls a ‘reasonable consumer’. The analysis of exhibition spaces such as the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition and the pioneering Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm will be of special interest to those interested in architectures and landscapes of display. The final part is an attempt to construct a ‘genealogy’ of Modern architecture with reference to the Swedish, German and American contexts.

The editors’ introduction offers an excellent account of the theoretical problems associated with reassessments of the Swedish model, Swedish modernism and the relationship between these two terms. Manfredo Tafuri’s powerful critique of European modernism is neatly integrated into the discussion and, interestingly, finds a kind of counter-argument in the Swedish context. The overall theoretical framework of the book relies heavily on the work of Michel Foucault, whose concepts of the ‘administering of life’, ‘governmentality’ and ‘biopolitics’ form important tools in the unravelling of the Swedish model as an example (not) to follow. A critical note here, however, as the metaphor of ‘genealogy’ implies unbroken continuity, and discontinuity is perhaps the defining characteristic of an architectural tradition based on industrialised craftsmanship: one that (as shown by the eclectic oeuvre of Gunnar Asplund) has always integrated manual and mechanised forms of production.

Published May 2012