5 September 2016


Filmhuset, home of the Swedish Film Institute. Photo: Tove Falk Olsson.

No other city has changed as much as Stockholm. During twenty years, more than seven hundred buildings vanished. My whole childhood town was laid in ruins. It was like walking in a bombed Dresden. And more was meant to be demolished, but eventually there was an end to this political madness. A living city sacrificed, the city of my heart. Instead, we got those ugly 60s bunkers, buildings that are unlikely to go down in architectural history.

– Anders Wahlgren, Staden i mitt hjärta (The City of My Heart) (Sveriges Television, 1992)

The weather was clear, the temperature a few degrees below zero in the evening of February 22, 1944. Stockholm at 8:30 pm was a city of lights. Minutes later a one-hundred-kilo bomb and a few smaller ones fell from the sky. There was a world at war out there but the Swedes were “neutral” (on the whole pro-German), and the Swedish Armed Forces remained idle and inviting when three unknown bombers came in low over the capital, with position lights on, made their mark and returned to the base in Leningrad. That is how Stockholm was scarred in the World War II. A singular blast and the little crater it left behind in an empty park.

It was the morbid social engineering of the Social Democrats and their political narrative of a soulless Eden that maimed the central parts of Stockholm, not the Russians or the Luftwaffe. “Sure enough: the Blitz paved the way for London’s new City, the US Eight Air Force took care of old Berlin. In Stockholm we had Hjalmar Mehr, a man and his vision,” writes journalist and PR man Claes Britton in his essay collection Sekelskifte i Stockholm (Turn of the Century Stockholm). “In this gloomy company, he is known as ‘Demolition Man’ – the man who turned the royal capital’s heart to shit.”

In his book The New Totalitarians: A Terrifying Portrait of an “Ideal” Society That Has Destroyed Democracy from 1971, Roland Huntford perfectly demonstrated how “modern Sweden has fulfilled Huxley’s specifications”: “It requires no special philosophy to recognise that men are affected by their surroundings. But only a confirmed behaviourist would deliberately seek to modulate personality by varying the human habitat. What is perhaps not so obvious is that a country outside the Communist Bloc would pay it so much attention. But the Swedes have pursued broadly the same aims as the Russians, the creation of the new man for the new society, the restraint of individuality, the generation of a collective mentality and the advancement of central direction. What is more, Sweden even seems to have outstripped the Soviet Union. Other considerations aside, this is probably because she has better engineers and administrators, and because Swedish architects have willingly become servants of ideology. When the Swedes change ideas, they do it to the full, leaving no room for criticism or reservation.”

“In their mental world, departure from the accepted norm is a kind of treachery. It is part of conditioning to group thinking, which makes personal divergence a sin, and acceptance of the collective opinion a cardinal virtue. They have an urge to think as everybody else does [however] while the Swede is immersed in the collective, and looks upon community and solidarity as the most desirable of attributes, he is locked up in himself, isolated from other human beings.”

Huntford argued that Swedish architecture and its rabble of advocates only mirrored the servitude of the public mind: “The architect is customarily a man of independence, with certain aesthetic and social ideas which he wishes to embody in a building. This is not so in Sweden. Architecture, with the acquiescence of the architects, has become the servant of the State and the agent of its ideology […] Destruction of the centre of Stockholm has had the effect of cutting off the past. It was done with a callousness and ruthlessness that suggests a fear or hatred of what had gone before.” The Functionalism of the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930 wanted to do away with dirty living conditions; the housing policy in the 1960s and the following decade was about getting rid of “dirty” people.

Swedish Social Democracy and the idea of Folkhemmet – the People’s Home – was a muddle of Eastern Bloc politics, Italian Fascism, noncarbonated American Capitalism, Scandinavian Law of Jante and a monomania on the practice of eugenics. The manual for the Swedish Model of the welfare state was Nobel laureates Alva and Gunnar Myrdal’s book Crisis in the Population Question (1934), the couple’s modest proposal on how to “root out all types of physical and mental inferiority within the population both the mentally retarded and mentally ill, the genetically defective and persons of bad character”. Chapter seven starts off as loud and clear as a BNW nightmare: “The direct task of prophylactic social policies is creating better human material.” 36,000 people (more than in the US) with “undesirable genes” were coerced under the circumstances of the Sterilisation Act between 1934 and 1975, the Folkhemmet era.

“Perhaps I expected too much of Sweden, the celebrated paradise of Social Democracy,” Susan Sontag explained in her comprehensive essay “A Letter from Sweden” in Ramparts magazine (July 1969). “Sweden is the only country I know of where misanthropy is a respectable attitude.” (The Swedish Film Institute invited Sontag to Stockholm to come and work here in the late 1960s.) “The lack of personal sophistication and finesse, the emotional naiveté, the childish self-centeredness, the anti-erotic character of many people here” were some national “deficiencies” that Sontag listed in her text. The charmless attributes of the Swedes became the concrete conclusions of what replaced the seven hundred apartment buildings and centuries-old palaces that the Stockholm bureaucrats destroyed full-throttle in their own municipal World War. The city’s political strongman Hjalmar Mehr urged that, “Politics, when at its best, is great art and should be ranged among the fine arts. Municipal policy is – in its finest moments – applied art.”

The current resurgence of Brutalism is evident in the recent number of books that celebrate the senseless, the horrible and the unavoidable in our built environment. Architectural historian Martin Rörby is unable to explain why the odium now is shifting into feelings of affection for these urban flak towers, but asserts in the book he has done together with photographer Tove Falk Olsson – Sthlm brutal: Innerstadens arkitektur under 60- och 70-tal (Sthlm Brutal: Inner City Architecture During the 60s and 70s) – that “Stockholm city centre broods on an architectural treasure just waiting to be discovered by anyone who is willing to look around without preconceptions.”

Sthlm brutal is like a CCCP cookbook of selling arguments and seducing photographs of the remains of a stern and creepy society hypnotised by its socio-political doctrines on the strength of a grey new world. The sculptural concrete monoliths that characterised British Brutalism did not gain much ground in Stockholm, however, and the book is keen on highlighting buildings where traditional façade materials apply to some truly unusual constellations. It is nonetheless the concrete elephants that are the lesser misfits among the city’s totalitarian structures, for example Radiohuset (home of the national broadcaster), the former Embassy of Czechoslovakia, the previous building for Arkitekturskolan, and of course Filmhuset (home of the SFI) with the perforated façade, the entrance ramp, and the big mysterious eye – like the Eyes of TJ Eckleburg, the billboard doc in The Great Gatsby (1925) – looking down on people’s soullessness.

Much of the heartless heart of Stockholm is obviously avoided in the book. It is impossible though to ignore architect Peter Celsing’s bulky DDR version of Centre Pompidou – Kulturhuset – a zombie birdhouse that forms a massive concrete wall on the back, and the inhuman (“intimate”) alley towards the next monstrosity. What were they thinking? Sthlm brutal will not provide the answers (nor the voices of the time) but Rörby mentions the Battle of the Elms, the altercation between the police and one thousand civilians when many Stockholmers had finally had enough of the destruction of their city and went out to stop the chainsaws in Kungsträdgården, the central garden patch, in May 1971. The fight was over a few trees.

“In the past decade, the centre of Stockholm had suffered violent and radical transformation, whole neighbourhoods were razed and new ones erected. The city’s structure changed, traffic spread out more and more, and the new layout was least of all marked by a desire to create a people-friendly environment,” protested Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in The Abominable Man (1971). “Stockholm residents watched with sorrow and resentment as functional and irreplaceable old apartment buildings were razed to make room for sterile office buildings, powerless they let themselves be deported to distant dormitory towns, while the cosy and vibrant neighbourhoods where they lived and worked were put in ruins. Inner city became an impassable and clamorous construction site from which, slowly but inexorably, the new City stood with wide noisy highways, gleaming façades of glass and light metal, dead surfaces of smooth concrete, coldness and desolation.”

Sjöwall–Wahlöö’s globally appreciated series of ten police novels about the human superintendent Martin Beck – and Swedish life in the 1960s and much of the 1970s – has the collective subtitle The Story of a Crime, which actually applied to the Social Democrats and their ravages of the Scandinavian wonderland.

“In the aftermath of the most destructive warfare in European, if not world history, it seemed clear that architecture should assume a new role in society, a role dissociated from politics as such and focussed on human needs in the simplest sense. It was in response to that perception that the first practitioners of Brutalism chose to employ exposed materials, rough textures, and seemingly awkward compositions, and it was those physical characteristics that came to typify the movement in the general understanding,” writes BM Boyle in Encyclopaedia of 20th-Century Architecture, arguing that Brutalism was only one of several contemporary manifestations of postwar despair and existential rage in art which “displayed a rejection not just of the war and its seemingly pointless waste of lives and resources but also of the seemingly continuation of the attitudes and practices of the past”.

This echoes a key sentiment by the beardy architectural critic Reyner Banham in a text from 1955: “Even if it were true that the Brutalists speak only to one another, the fact that they have stopped speaking to Mansart, to Palladio and to Alberti would make the New Brutalism, even its more private sense, a major contribution to the architecture of today.” In his essay “The New Brutalism” in that year’s December issue of Architectural Review, he explained that he saw the phrase “as something between a slogan and a brickbat flung in the public’s face” (Banham was a devotee of the shockingly new): “The ruthless adherence to one of the basic moral imperatives of the Modern Movement – honesty in structure and material – has precipitated a situation to which only the pen of Ibsen could do justice,” he suggested. “In the last resort what characterises the New Brutalism in architecture as in painting is precisely its brutality, its je-m’en-foutisme [couldn’t-care-less attitude], its bloody-mindedness.”

When Rodney Gordon was interviewed atop of his Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth for the BBC television series Dreamspaces in 2003, he told fellow architect David Adjaye that “Any piece of architecture worth being called architecture is usually both hated and loved.” Adjaye is remembering Gordon as “a sensitive, articulate, incredibly positive man – and it seems incongruous that his buildings might have generated a negative response”. Few things were as hated, and now loved, as Gordon’s elephants in Portsmouth and Gateshead: “Gordon might have worked in concrete but he made it sing. His buildings were articulated rather than monolithic,” as Jonathan Meades declares in Museum Without Walls. “At the Tricorn in Portsmouth and Trinity Square in Gateshead he succeeded on a vast scale, unparalleled in Europe. These buildings were indeed extraordinarily sculptural, their silhouettes were audacious and poetic, jagged and rhetorical.”

You can see Jack Carter with one of his brutally handled sex kittens in a sports vehicle on Trinity Square’s blocky outboard ramps, speeding up to the unfinished top of its seven-storey car park in Get Carter (1971). Owen Luder – who claims to have designed these two concrete structures which were dismantled after only four decades, half a human lifetime – talks about the vexed style in the documentary short Get Luder (2010): “In the 60s my buildings were awarded, in the 70s they were applauded, in the 80s they were questioned, in the 90s they were ridiculed. And when we get through to 2000, the ones I like most are the ones that have been demolished.”

In his new book Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism, Barnabas Calder speaks up for the style with a bit of trumpery: “Brutalism was the high point of architecture in the entire history of humanity. It takes only a fairly basic level of expertise to start to recognise it as one of the greatest ever flowerings of human creativity and ingenuity.” The etymology of Brutalism is the French word for roughcast, unadorned concrete, béton brut. Le Corbusier utilised this compressive as much as tensile building material to rebel against his own finesse after World War II. Raw concrete looked so good in the French sunshine, and nowhere so primitive and accurate and beautiful as with his “radiant city” in Marseille, the Unité d’Habitation where Jonathan Meades lives.

“A main aspiration of architects over the past forty years has been not to give offence. There is a terrible timidity, whereas Brutalism was very aggressive. It was anti focus groups and consensus. The architects were ahead of their time and it has taken half a century for people to see that this stuff was done with spirit and invention,” Meades told The Independent (February 23, 2014). “There was hubris, but there wasn’t a desire to please,” Meades made clear. “There is something about being excited by this stuff which is terrifying and slightly sinister that I find very appealing.” (Brutalism provided the necessary sceneries for Kubrick when he used West London’s Brunel University and the city’s most unsightly spaces for his thug dystopia A Clockwork Orange in 1971.)

Tom Wilkinson argues in Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made that “There is another moral to the story of Brutalism, besides the question of what it does to its inhabitants: its advocates argued that the rough poetry of its concrete structures told the truth.” As Christopher Beanland asserts in Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings: “These buildings, these spaces, these chunks of engineering all look like they do because they were meant to stand up to the city, to answer back to it, to challenge it: not to hammer the human.” He means that although there were artists among the Brutalist architects, “Many more were copycats, functionaries on meat-and-potatoes missions to put up cheap bits of vernacular work which might have been hack jobs but still stand out like gloriously grisly sore thumbs on streets across the globe.”

The political and institutional priorities behind the ethos of egalitarianism were in actual truth about implementing a harsh demand for conformity and to grant a socialist elite society of upstairs-and-downstairs citizens. Alexander Clement writes in his book Brutalism: Postwar British Architecture that “Britain possessed the optimum political and cultural environment” for Brutalism to emerge after the World War II and, as others have marked out as well, that the style was part of a wider cultural movement “driven by a hungry young element of profession, eager to get their hands on whatever opportunities arouse, ready to do battle with the town planners, the architectural establishment and the prevailing reactionary conservatism of the general public”.

A man by the name of Goldfinger was part of the people for two months. Well, almost. When or if ever members of the elite moved into these new and enormous housing blocks, they always occupied the upper floors. The Hungarian-born architect Ernö Goldfinger – Ian Fleming used his name for the Bond villain because he hated what Goldfinger did to London – had a room at the top, on the twenty-fourth floor of his own creation Balfron Tower (erected in 1963). The identical Trellick Tower was completed nine years later. Both were alienating quality buildings, unlike much of the rest of the Brutalist high-rises that were made to crumble. But regardless how they were constructed, the high-rises always came with – and they always provoked – social problems.

“The drive to build tower blocks was inseparable from the emergence of the post-1945 welfare state – alongside a national health-service and education system, good cheap housing was central to Labour’s reformist agenda,” as Andrzej Gasiorek informs in his book on JG Ballard. “The pressure to keep costs low militated against the desire of architects to create decent living conditions for large numbers of people. Add to this dubious quality control, property speculation and shoddy building practices, and the result was the erection of tower blocks that were in some cases so poorly constructed that they started to malfunction as soon as their tenants moved in.”

One of those residential blocks is the main prop in Ballard’s High-Rise (1975), the author’s dystopian novel that retraces the barbarian fall of its tenants: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within his huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

Christopher Beanland suggests that “Brutalism was the visual language of a postwar welfare state on which the sun is setting […] In appearance, Brutalism is about severity, abstraction, ambition; angles that promote nausea, shapes that promote dizziness, spaces that occasionally evoke terror.”

Brutalism was a one-sided factuality cast in concrete. It was the ideal expression of a community lacking traces of genuine life and character. JG Ballard claimed in an interview in 2003 that he saw the Hilton Garden Inn at Heathrow as the place to be.


“Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to.”

The spiral staircase in the belly of Filmhuset. Photo: Tove Falk Olsson.