-Most links in this post link to websites in Swedish-
In recent years, almost every medium- to large-scale urban project in Stockholm has been subject to such massive public and professional resistance that in the end, the projects have been abandoned. Naturally, this situation is not unique to Sweden or Stockholm, but it has reached a paralyzing level, veritably hindering the city from development. Projects become bats in the upcoming elections. Most recently, the shadow government promised a more popularized version of the most prominent project at the moment, Slussen – the Lock – which connects the Gamla Stan and Södermalm.
The project’s background is basically this: Gamla Stan, located on a central island in Stockholm, is the oldest remaining part of medieval Stockholm. In the 1930’s, the old lock connecting Gamla Stan and Södermalm was replaced by a traffic solution primarily designed for cars. In many ways it was an ingenious solution, integrating underground, pedestrian, automobiles and buses in a complex shamrock-shaped traffic system designed by Tage William-Olsson.
Today, the traffic node of Slussen is in a state of disrepair. The concrete is deteriorating and for the last two decades, a solution has been sought to replace the existing design. The existing structure is generally deemed unsafe and beyond repair, and decreasing levels of traffic make the original design ineffective.
Design competitions were held, and when the dust cleared in 2004, Swedish architects Nyréns came out with the winning proposal. However, this was not without controversy, and in 2008, the urban planning department informed the architects that their vision was too boring, and the very next day they invited some of the world’s more famous architects – including Jean Nouvel, Sir Norman Foster and Bjarke Ingels – to come up with inspired designs for replacing the traffic node, using Nyrén’s traffic planning.
The city chose Foster and Partners’ proposal. However, the proposal was not very developed, and in subsequent design stages most of the more spectacular features, such as the meandering pedestrian bridges, were erased one by one until finally, the city ended up with a design that was pretty low-key and streamlined, but which included a large amount of commercial space meant to finance part of the development.
At this point, the chaos erupted. Suddenly, alternative solutions were being presented left and right. One such solution, independently presented by a number of architects, vows to make the traffic apparatus more or less invisible and buries the underground line. Invisible solutions are always a hit with the public, so the solution got a lot of media attention for a while. Yet another privately presented solution was entailed the conversion of the bridge to a kind of Ponte Vecchio, complete with replicas of traditional Stockholm buildings. Then Bengt Lindroos, one of the last grand old Swedish Modernist masters, surprised the city with his version – a less commercial development with more public spaces; perhaps the only professional alternative proposal I have seen so far.
Then the public demonstrations, petitions and marches started. Last week the shadow cabinet presented their version in an attempt to gain a few votes it being election year, after all. It was a slimmed down populist version with a very odd pyramid as the centerpiece. Now, yet another group demands that the possibility of constructing a replica of the original 1930’s design be investigated, or repairs to the original structure if possible. The debate rages on, and we will see what the results are when the smoke clears.
It is a large-scale public project, and as such, public debate is essential, but this has turned into a farce. Politicians have turned the project into a battlefield for the upcoming election, which, however irresponsible, is an effective way of winning votes. Some unfortunate developments in central Stockholm in the 1960’s still haunt every project proposed in the city’s central areas, and politicians have been extremely wary of public opinion ever since. This creates populism and compromises that are sometimes good and prudent in retrospect, and sometimes very unfortunate. As a result, the city has become extremely polarized socially – poor satellite suburbs surround a rich and exclusive urban center, fostering segregation of which Stockholm has only seen the beginning, one that will most likely haunt the city for many decades to come.
This is not the first time a project has been deadlocked by tumultuous dispute. A couple of years ago the city held an architectural competition for an addition to the Public Library, one of Sweden’s more famous buildings. A winner was chosen from the around 1200 proposals the city received from across the world, and then the public bashing started. The Swedish public seems to view architects as malefactors out to destroy the city that the inhabitants love and cherish. Here, as in the case of Slussen, individual architects emerged promoting their own designs, determined to sway public opinion, and thereby force the publicly sensitive politicians to consider their project. A number of cheap appeals to public opinion were launched.
Again, demonstrations, marches, petitions appeared overnight, all focusing on Heike Hanada, the German architect who had done nothing more than submit a proposal for a competition. She was ridiculed by the media, the architectural press, and a number of self-righteous and self-proclaimed experts screaming bloody murder. In the end, the politicians caved in to public opinion and scrapped the project on the pretext that it would have been more expensive than first estimated. The politicians neglected to notify Heike Hanada directly. It was an inappropriate project, but the fault was not Hanada’s but the organizers of the competition.
This current situation is unsustainable. The combination of opportunist politicians, opportunist architects, lobby groups and an intoxicated public resistance to any change whatsoever has resulted in a polarized debate where projects are slowly killed step by step and development becomes next to impossible. The question is what can be done about it.
Sweden lacks an independent advisory board of architects, a common institution in most European countries. The UK has two separate independent advisory boards: English Heritage and CABE. English Heritage is mostly concerned with preserving the cultural heritage, while CABE focuses on quality in design. Both are more or less funded by the Department of Culture. These two bodies often disagree, but the main objective is always to find a solution that will make everybody as happy as possible, both now and in the future. The key is that these advisory boards are independent. Although they have a certain political agenda, they are not affiliated with any particular party and thus can make professional opinions based on their (sometimes) objective analysis. This system is not perfect, but it involves two independent professional bodies, which is as close as you come to an expert opinion.
Stockholm has a “Beauty Council” which is the local version of CABE. This is however financed by the council, and twelve of its thirteen members are appointed by the City Council, although only four are directly politically appointed. The members are artists, politicians and a mere two architects, which strikes me as odd, but probably resonates the Swedish lack of confidence in architects. Riksantikvarieämbetet (RAA) is the corresponding Swedish version of EH, but most of the practical responsibility rests on the (politically appointed) County Council.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with democracy and transparency in architecture. However, when every instance intended to provide professional and objective advice is politically appointed, we end up with the subjective and opportunist advice to subjective and opportunist politicians – an undesirable situation. The time perspective of politics is very different from the time perspective of architecture and urban design. Politics usually focus on shorter terms while architecture and urban design has to work for decades or centuries – and for that reason, an independent architectural and urban advisory board would be a good idea in Sweden. The nearest equivalent to this is the Swedish Architects’ Association. But they can hardly be said to be objective as they are the architects’ union, like the ARB in the UK.
The Swedish Architects’ Association did however recently bring forth a political program, proposing a coordinated architectural political policy. This is in many ways a great idea. An architectural policy has been accepted in many cities – Copenhagen is a nearby example. Copenhagen city council recently published “Arkitekturby København”, which is a set of architectural strategies and priorities explaining how the council wants Copenhagen to grow. One of the essential points of this document was that the council adopted it unanimously. This means that the document can lay out long-term architectural strategies that last longer than one four-year-term, and this is essential. Denmark also has the DAC, the Danish Architecture Centre, an organization funded primarily by the Ministry of Culture, which serves as a presumably objective body of professionals who comment on developments and inform the public through Copenhagen X, a public information project aimed at informing the public about new architecture.
In Sweden, the parties bicker and argue using architecture as bats; this is not very encouraging for developers who feel that the future of their project is insecure and dependent on the outcome of the next election. A unanimously adopted program however will provide the longevity that is needed for all parties, architects, developers, council and inhabitants. An political strategy for architecture which takes a long-term perspective and adopted independently of party lines would create a much more stable platform for the discussion of architecture, for architects, for politicians and for everybody else.
Neither the British nor the Danish systems is perfect, but at least there are organizations and strategies to deal with these situations, whereas Sweden is dominated by anarchy and rampant opportunism. One way or another: to get out of the current conundrum, Stockholm needs to develop a long-term architectural perspective.
This can be achieved by implementing a political strategy for architecture, which needs to be adopted by a broad majority in City Hall so that it remains valid after the next election. In addition to this, I think it would be an excellent idea to create a politically independent body of professionals that can review or comment on projects from a reasonably objective perspective with a long-term focus. In the proud Swedish traditions of self-proclaimed self-righteous know-it-alls, I guess I will just have to go ahead and form it myself.