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Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption and the Welfare State

This study of Sweden’s welfare state heyday has the taint of an obituary, as if everyone agrees the era of the welfare state has passed.

This study of Sweden’s welfare state heyday has the taint of an obituary, as if everyone agrees the era of the welfare state has passed. But this does not necessarily mean it has vanished, as the welfare state goes beyond social democracy.

Swedish Modernism consists of 16 essays on topics such as ‘Consumers and Spectacles’ and ‘Towards a Genealogy of Modern Architecture’. The chapter on national heroine Pippi Longstocking, ‘The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State’, is the most thought-provoking. Private individualism, authors Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh argue, has always had a profound influence on Swedish culture and politics, even when disguised as public collectivism. As a result, Sweden turned into one of the least family-oriented and most individualised societies in the world. Which makes Longstocking a typical free woman (or superchild) ‘roaming around in her backyard, exercising her fundamental rights as a citizen’.

This is one way to see it. For historian Yvonne Hirdman, the politics of the 1930s were more complex: as repressive as patronising in their zeal to optimise the population.

The book seeks to encapsulate various analyses of modern Swedish society. But I miss the references to architecture. Where are the buildings? The closest we get is a text by Thordis Arrhenius on the impact of Skansen, an open-air folk museum and thus the first museum of architecture in Sweden. In her investigation of Swedish modernism’s vernacular roots, Arrhenius’s text is one of the most seminal. In others, aims are less clear.

Notions of how the state can raise and educate its people must always be kept in mind, not least when free enterprise crashes and burns. Even if the Swedish model was constructed in the rear-view mirror, does the ideal of public extravagance and private constraint still make sense?

The book is generally favourable to this hypothesis, even if the references to the Swedish context are rather vague in contributions from foreign, mainly American, authors. These deal primarily with their speciality - consumption.

+ Varied analyses of Sweden’s welfare state experience
- Too much on consumption, too little architectural content

Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption and the Welfare State

Edited by Helena Mattsson and Sven-Olov Wallenstein

Publisher: Black Dog, 2010

Price: £24.95

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