“You offer me some unknown hope with your friendly look, and when I stretch my arms out to you, you stretch out yours.” Narcissus – to himself. Ovid Metamorphoses book III
The possible encounter of the other has always been one of the attractions of the city. It was the multitude that motivated the Situationists to be against the modernist city with its rational scheme and clear divisions between work and dwelling areas, where life was only transported back and forth, not lived, not disturbed, anywhere. Their “Unitary Urbanism” was not a city in a unitary form, but an endless city, a sprawl, where citizens could drift out of reach and control of capitalism and the state apparatus.
This unity could not be further from the ambitions of an eternal, universal form that would shape the modern and democratic man – neo-plasticism as a path to a new environment for the new man.1 In fact, there was nothing stabile about the Situationists’ unitarism at all. As Simon Sadler notes, they “rejected the fixed forms and permanent solutions” of traditional town planning.2
It is easy to see why the Situationists would have disliked the suburbs of Stockholm (or indeed almost any other European town) that were constructed between the early fifties and late seventies. These follow a clear logic and it is obvious that they emanate from the working desk of the architects and city planners, not from the chance and the unpredictable life of the sprawling city and its inhabitants. They do not originate from lived space, but from conceived space – to use the language of Henri Lefebvre.3
We, the authors of this essay, are products of the divided and controlled space the Situationists found despicable and unrevolutionary, growing up as we did in the suburbs of Stockholm and Helsningborg during the late sixties and seventies. There, we were dreaming of the unpredictable life in the city, dreams not unlike those of that French revolutionary group that still sets the agenda for much of the writing on alternative architecture. But what we see today is that the dream of the city has turned into big money, but that the multitude is more a question of imagery where the unlikeliness of a possible encounter with the other is seen as sound and safe. City branding depends on different atmospheres in various areas, but within those areas, unity is more dominating in these new blocks than it ever was in the suburbs.
So we have left the large scale constructions of the suburbs, but the city we got instead does not come through as subversive, rather it is opportunistic. The dream of the city both builds on a phantasy of diversity and builds away any diversity. It is opportunistic subversive at best.
What kind of action could possibly reverse this position? Is the idea of subversive opportunism even possible in the age of the feedback loop, the ultimate self love? Maybe such reversal does not only require us to change the way to look at the city, but also how one must look at the suburbs.
Of conceived and unconceivable spaces
“The places where we live are continuously imposed on us. In reality the space in which we operate can only exist as a mental model that is continuously modified through experience. It is necessary to find the form that is born out of our experience instead of by imposed schemes.” Instructions for the use of the city, Ugo La Pietra, 1978
In the mid sixties the Swedish government decided to launch a project that would do away with the housing shortage and completely modernize the entire housing stock. Later this endeavour became known as the million programme – the construction of one million dwellings in ten years, which meant that roughly one third of the population moved into new homes in what, at the time, was the world’s largest housing project. The Swedish take on housing problems differed from many other Western countries in that it was never about social housing, but about providing affordable homes for all. The programme had its roots in the social movements formed in the first decades of the 20th century and the humanist modernism of the 1940’s and 50’s. In order to keep building costs down and as a result of the architecture ideology at the time, the design process and the building methods relied on linear systems and serial production. Starting with a complete belief in a techno-utopian future, the programme came to an end in a cultural climate that perceived these new environments as an expression of cold hammered state capitalism without regard for human needs. It was condemned as a complete failure and the Swedish architecture establishment entered an era of denial and self-loathing that has continued to the present day. In Swedish architectural history the end of the million programme can be seen as a pivotal point which marks the end of modernism and a starting point for an increasing belief in market economies as the builders of society.
The universal city was based on the needs of its citizens and housing was seen as a fundamental right ‒ a city reorganized in order to minimize the negative impact of the market economy. Politicians and city officials were actively trying to counter economic segregation through rent control and large investments in housing and infrastructure. Today we see strategies for neighbourhoods and whole cities understood and branded as platforms, a cityscape full of human resources and public space designed to maximize commercial opportunities. Everyone constantly on the move, engaged in a floating state of productivity. New workforce constellations always ready to be put into operation. Political diversity is expanding endlessly. Cultural differences are sub-divided into more and more possible identities. An environment constructed in such a way that as many encounters as possible happen at any given moment.
When one looks at what has been built in Sweden during the last twenty or so years, one finds a strong reaction against much of what was at the core of modernism. Denser areas have been built, close to or within the city in areas that have been made available when the old industrial zones became obsolete after the manufacturing industries had been relocated.
It is not only the location and the density that has changed. The new buildings are much more directly presented by and sold through the perspective of the life that is supposed to go on inside the apartments; in the prospects, scenic views have replaced life in the public spaces. In the modernistic suburbs the inhabitant was a tenant, but today private contractors, directed to a market for apartment owners, build the majority of the buildings. And yet these areas have no more in common with the lived space of Unitarian Urbanism of the Situationists than did the modernistic suburbs. But something has changed. If we return to the concepts of Lefebvre, we might describe this change as a shift in focus. The conceived space of the city planner has been replaced by the perceived space of the inhabitants.
Thus, the old industrial areas do indeed mark the shift from the society of discipline to the society of control, described by Gilles Deleuze as being one not of production, but of products. Here “man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.” In a society of discipline, on the contrary, power works on a more abstract level where the effect “is greater than the sum of its component forces."4 Thus, when large scale city planning is created by a political agenda that looks upon the built environment from a helicopter perspective, the current trend of creating small city blocks with a variety of façades and aesthetics draws on the desire of the individual. Power becomes less visible, more disseminated, which to a certain degree means that it depends on the taste and preferences of the individual. But individuality can also be controlled. In fact, it can be a greater source for power than trying to discipline the masses into a mutual behaviour can.
When Gilles Deleuze is pointing this out, he of course builds on thoughts that Michel Foucault began to formulate in his late writings ‒ preliminary in The History of Sexuality part 1, where he introduces the notion of “bio-politics”, which is when “…life enters the realm of mathematical calculations and turns the knowing power to a factor for the transformation of human life”, a pattern Foucault later on exemplifies with the technologies that govern our bodies, our health and our eating habits and dwelling conditions.5 Thus, other abstractions become important. Not the conceived space of the city planners, but abstraction of the many ways society controls how we maintain our health, pay our bills and keep busy. Bio-politics is a way to govern lived space.
Interestingly enough, the large scale of the society of the discipline seems have left much more spaces unaccounted for. Of course, constructing buildings in areas where there previously was nothing but forests and farms did not need to take many considerations into account. And as land was inexpensive there was no financial need for density. The agenda was rather governed by speed: the task was to build fast and effectively to match the growing demand for housing in a way that the areas could fit into a larger system of infrastructure, facilitating living in the suburbs while working in the city. This rapidness also made it impossible to be picky when it came to details. In the new-built areas, on the other hand, every square metre is accounted for and has been given a shape. As a result, these environments show many examples of what the architect Ignasi de Solà-Morales had already in 1995 called “Terrain vague”, places where use, ownership and rules are unclear.
“Architecture and urban design”, writes Solà-Morales, “project their desire onto a vacant space, a terrain vague… changing estrangement into citizenship, and striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated margin of the obsolete into the realism of efficacy.”6 Uncertainty of use constructs an uncertainty of value. Thus, the exteriors of contemporary building blocks are almost as important as the inside. These streets are not made to transport the worker from home to work and back again, they are a part of the inhabitants dwelling quarters, a cityscape they bought into for top dollar. There can be no uncertainties here. Uncertainties are not good for business.
Public private space Västra Kungsholmen
So while the effects in city planning and urban buildings of the society of discipline left areas unaccounted for, the society of control seems to opt for areas that are thoroughly designed and leaves no one in any doubt as to how to behave, what to do and, in the long run, for whom an area is constructed. The streets of new building areas are made for those who live there. And as many examples show, this results in the inhabitants thinking of the public areas as “theirs”. Thus, the control executed on strangers and neighbours alike seem to stem from both the idea that the high price paid makes you obliged to protect your investment, and from the idea that the ‘hood’ is so clearly defined that it turns from being a public space outdoors to becoming an interior more akin to a shopping mall.
In 1967 the General Plan for northern Botkyrka, a municipality just south of the city borders of Stockholm, was adopted. The neighbourhoods of Alby, Fittja, Hallunda and Norsborg are typical examples from the million-programme era. Construction started in the 1970s and in only five years housing for 38,000 residents had been completed. In Fittja the general plan as well as all individual houses were single-handedly designed by the office of Höijer & Ljungqvist and completed in only three years. Walking around Fittja today, you can see that not much has changed since the time of construction. The façade elements with exposed-aggregate concrete in Marble and Älvdalsporfyr still look new, the asphalt footpaths and surfaces between the houses are worn but apart from some minor renovations still the same as when the area was built. The two things that stand out when the area is compared to photos from forty years ago is that there is much more greenery and residents have started to alter entrances and develop their front gardens. In many ways Fittja works as a time machine, a place where a different kind of ideology is clearly readable in the environment. Compared to the current tendencies in architecture and urban design, the experience is almost shocking. The way one material completely unarticulated meets another, the asphalt spilling out onto a grass surface, the lack of definition of use and the unclear borders between a series of gradually different public spaces. Much of this can clearly be traced back to the extremely short building processes and demands for efficiency over informed design decisions.
Aggregated Concrete – Älvedalsporfyr
Nevertheless, there are undeniable qualities that deserve to be considered much more carefully than the mechanical and routine disregard that has coloured the way these spaces are conventionally understood. These urban spaces were constructed at a time when cities were based on the needs of its citizens, when politicians still talked about housing as a fundamental right. A city reorganized in order to minimize the negative impact of the market economy. Politicians and city officials were actively trying to counter economic segregation through rent control and large investments in housing and infrastructure. If the contemporary city more and more can be seen as an integrated extension of an over-arching marketization of society and a shift from politics to economics, then neighbourhoods like Fittja stand as physical reminders of a different society.
The abundance of weakly programmed public spaces that, rather harshly, demand to be activated rather than passively consumed. The borderline crass and straightforward choices of material make visible the inherent violence in all architecture – the transformation from potential to various degrees of repression – in a much more immediate way than the traditional city with its obscuring historic layers. Maybe it is not the spaces from this era that are dysfunctional, but rather the fact that they compel us to become agents for the production of the public and the common, for the sharing of space, for being something else than what we are?
Faux shop window, Västra Kungsholmen
The development of the neighbourhood West Kungsholmen, on a former industrial site just on the borders of the inner city of Stockholm, highlights the stark contrasts between city planning from the sixties and seventies and the urban development of today. The programmatic development plan for West Kungsholmen was adopted by the city council in 2002 and construction started in 2008. The programme involves one of the last major expansions of the inner city. The area is an extension and is linked to the urban fabric of eastern Kungsholmen, a densely populated inner city district with a mix of housing, workplaces, parks and services. It is located at the shore of Lake Mälaren, being immediately adjacent to the stone city. In 2017 the area will have around five thousand apartments for twenty thousand inhabitants and thirty five thousand workplaces – the area is to be fully developed by 2022. The vast majority of the housing is sold as condominiums. The city plan takes on the form of the traditional block city structure of Stockholm but instead of five stories that dominated the period from the 1870s up until the 1930s many of the buildings are 8-9 storeys high, along with some 24-storey tower blocks. The streetscape is modelled after the traditional inner city with pavements, streetlights and some shops, which is due to a limited demand for smaller commercial facilities and in order to more closely resemble a traditional street. Some ground floors are designed as faux shops, a shop window with a total depth of 50cm. The public spaces include a small square without any public functions and the waterfront features the award-winning boardwalk Hornsberg’s strandpark. The apartment blocks are as dense as possible. The relatively high buildings together with small courtyards mean that the modernist idea of apartments with direct sunlight has been abandoned in favour of higher exploitation. All spaces, private, public or semi-public are fully programmed and designed. The entrances of the condominium apartment blocks are clad with expensive materials and oak and marble greet the inhabitants. As you walk up and turn the corner in the minimized staircase, the stairs and walls change to painted concrete. Appearance is everything, but only at first glance – expensive materials are only used when visible. In the apartment only one of the living room walls are reinforced with a plywood board, effectively deciding where the inhabitants can hang their wall-mounted flat screen TV. The feeling left behind from the streets with faux shop fronts, the ultra thin marble cladding and the prefabricated concrete walls with a veneer of fake bricks is that of a large interior.
Construction detail, Västra Kungsholmen
Yet, as costly material and a highly defined design define this “interior” of the exterior, it is still much a question of images. When comparing the building material in the suburb of Fittja with those used in Västermalm, the hitherto most successful area in terms of price, one can see that it is not long-lasting marble and other expensive materials that make the difference. On the contrary, the materials used in Fittja are often more expensive. But on the surface things look the other way around; which points to another side of the society of control. Everything must be changeable, nothing is meant to last – not even the things that look like they are.
Façade, Västra Kungsholmen
Materials in the late modernist city often have an abstract quality as a result of a design and building process that is clearly recognisable. Aggregated concrete elements have a surface of marble, but the marble is crushed and appears from a distance as a fine-grained white surface. In contrast, the natural stone in the contemporary city is used in the form of cladding, giving an impression of being used as a construction material but being in fact thin non-load bearing sheets clipped onto a wall made of concrete and Styrofoam.
Every society, as argued by Lefebvre, produces its own space. This space cannot be reduced to only mere objects and people but also very much depends on spatial practice itself. It is this practice – the overlapping moments of conceived, perceived and lived space – that is key to how a specific society makes space. There is something incredibly elusive in how space is being produced. From a contemporary vantage point we are so embedded in the everyday practice of space that it becomes nearly impossible to tell apart what acts upon what. This is made even more difficult by the fact that urban-planning and architecture often come to us with a delay, meaning that our built environment detonates as a time bomb when ideas conceived in another time, and often context, are made into reality. If we try to understand society through history we tend to focus on what is at hand, what traces, such as artefacts, images and documents, are left behind but the social and spatial practice of any society not our own is at best only partially presented to us. Nevertheless, a reading of material, design methodologies and social practice can reveal aspects of society that otherwise would remain hidden in plain sight.
Construction detail, Västra Kungsholmen
The hastily created public spaces of the conceived spaces in the suburbs left, paradoxically, many areas overseen: ripples in the surface of the society of discipline, leaving possibilities for a subversive opportunism; a vague terrain to be reinterpreted and thus, in the long run, also commercialized.
The society of control leaves no such surfaces untouched. As the living room extends to the exterior streets, the façade becomes as beautiful as the apartments on the inside. Or should one say that the façade moves indoors? No luxury is thicker than the economic surface can account for and here resides perhaps the possibility for subversive opportunism for the coming generation, even in these areas. Just as the overlooked in the society of discipline gives room for heterotopology, the immaculate shiny surface bears the seed for cracking at any time, reminding us of the reflective image of sameness, but this is a reflection of ourselves. The question is how we then react – with hope, despair or an even deeper sleep?
…and his (Narcissus) tears stirred the water, and the image became obscured in the rippling pool. As he saw it vanishing, he cried out ‘Where do you fly to?” Ovid, Metamorphoses book III
This text has been prepared based on research within the project "Space, Power, Ideology" at the Södertörn University, funded by The Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies.
1. Piet Mondrian, Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1937.
2. Simon Sadler, The Situationist City, MIT Press, 1999, p. 120.
3. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Wiley-Blackwell, 1992 (1974).
4. Gilles Deleuze ”Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October, Vol. 59. (Winter, 1992), p. 6.
5. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vintage; Reissue edition, 1990 (1976).
6. Ignasi de Solà-Morales, « Terrain Vague ». Anyplace. Ed. Cynthia C. Davidson. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.