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Concrete jungle: Sweden's suburbs become cool

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They provide homes to one in four of the Swedish population, but the brutalist architecture of Sweden's 'Miljonprogram' suburbs has long had a bad press. Yet now the impossible seems to be happening: the suburbs are becoming cool. Christine Demsteader reports.

A million to one. Those were the odds someone gave me on finding a place to live in Sweden

Days before I'm due to arrive in Stockholm and I'm still theoretically homeless. Miraculously, the mysterious Norse god of housing answers my prayers at the last minute with the offer of a “three-room apartment, 90 square meters, close to the city.”

Had it not been a dodgy second-hand rental, the ad would have most likely read: “Two-bedroom apartment, with fully-fitted kitchen. Large bathroom (heated floor) and extra WC. Plenty of storage space, no carpets in sight and triple glazed. All in all, in pretty good nick.”

I did, however, miss the small print: “70s design and concrete mass come as standard.”

Turns out I was going to reside in one of the areas built as part of Sweden's much-debated Million Homes Programme (Miljonprogrammet). These neighbourhoods, hailed residential heaven when they were built in the seventies, were soon to become viewed as the nation's housing from hell.

And I was living in one of the more respectable places. Reputation precedes the most notorious neighbourhoods: Rinkeby, Tensta and Skärholmen in Stockholm, Hammarkullen, Angered and Bergsjön in Gothenberg and Rosengård in Malmö.

Built for integration

To understand why these suburbs were built, you need to go back to the 1940s, when the country had one of the lowest living standards in Western Europe. The government put their hands in their pockets and pledged that everyone should have the right to good living conditions. Sweden was almost unique in its decision not to make public housing just a low-income affair.

But the country's real building boom began in the 60s. The year was 1964 and a general election was looming. Housing remained a hot topic; the economy was good, people were moving from the countryside to the city and local authorities desperately wanted more homes to attract new industry.

In their manifesto, the Social Democrats vowed to build 100,000 new homes every year for ten years - the foundations for the Million Homes Programme were laid. The people voted and homes were built, but the promise was pure spin says Lisbeth Söderqvist, a Stockholm University researcher and expert on the Million Homes Programme.

“In 1962 and 1963, almost 100,000 apartments were built each year,” she says. “The programme was decided upon way back in 1959 but it was election year and it was a clear message to the Swedish people. There wasn't really a Million Homes Programme, it's just a myth.”

Still, new towns were being manufactured across the country, with concentrations largely in big city outskirts. New, modern living for good democratic citizens was the message. “These homes were built for everyone, not just poor people,” says Söderqvist.

“There were apartments, family dwellings and terraced houses and the idea was to blend different people from different backgrounds. By doing so you would have a society that was stable and a society without conflict.”

Integration was key, and this was to be achieved by including a good range of local services in the planning – transport, schools, nurseries, community centres, libraries and public space.

“People started to move and everyone was happy,” Söderqvist says. “It was an expression of the welfare state that people had a modern functional home, with three rooms and a kitchen."

But the bubble soon burst when academics unexpectedly started to point to the problems they saw. The press and politicians soon jumped on the bandwagon. A big new shopping centre in Skärholmen in 1968 caused unprecedented uprising.

“For the left-wing commentators, this kind of commercialism was a disaster,” Söderqvist says. “It was said there was nothing to do in Skärholmen but shopping.”

The end of the honeymoon

The Skärholmen debate opened the floodgates for further criticism of the Million Homes Programme. In the seventies, liberal thinkers poured their scorn and the right-wing press took up the campaign, portraying the areas with disturbing images of social deprivation. The suburbs' reputations declined as a result and residents started packing their boxes.

But the political and media crusades weren't the only cause of decline, Söderqvist says:

“In the early 70s there was a change in the tax system, making it much cheaper to buy a house.” Private developers were rubbing their hands and the exodus began.

“At the same time there was an influx of immigrants coming here,” Söderqvist adds. “They moved into the newly-emptied apartments and even more Swedes started to move out.”

Nowadays, these places are largely viewed as immigrant ghettos. “What is tragic is they are used as a symbol in the segregation debate in Sweden,” Söderqvist says. Ironically, it seems, the once celebrated housing project, which aimed to integrate the nation, has only served to fuel a divided society.

The extent of the decline in these areas became a political embarrassment during the 90s, with employment rates going down and criminality and drug use on the up. It was time for the Social Democrats to renew their promises.

The answer was to pour more money into areas in bad repair, with the intention of improving not just the physical but also the social fabric of the estates. The two billion kronor Metropolitan Development Initiative (Storstadssatsningen) began in 1998, aiming to improve educational standards and reduce unemployment among immigrants. By doing so, the state believed social segregation could be better fought.

“There was a lot of criticism from the start,” says Professor Sven Hort, who evaluated the project for the Stockholm region. “Many suspected this kind of state involvement was not really serious.”

The project had its successes: the number of teachers in schools was increased, local job training centres were set up and leisure activities were established for young people.

Many of the programme's successes turned out to be double-edged swords: the majority of those who did manage to gain employment moved out, only to be replaced by a new wave of immigrants.

Another of the programme's aims was to make these urban concrete jungles more aesthetically pleasing with a lick of paint, new plants and playgrounds. Planners also made some interesting architectural modifications, says Lisbeth Söderqvist.

“Instead of having a straight path, they made it curvy,” she says. “It looks nice of course but it won't break segregation. No Swedish family will move in just because there's a curvy path.”

Rosengård: Sweden's next tourist destination?

The original architects of these neighbourhoods did not believe they were building grey, depressing housing estates.

As Söderqvist says: “The housing style was a trend at that time. In the original drawings, the sun was always shining and the trees were green. It was fashionable and visionary, even though we have a hard time understanding it today.”

Indeed, even today some commentators proclaim their love for buildings that many see as concrete monstrosities. In an article for Plaza magazine in 2002, architectural writer Mikael Askergren asks: “Why do people have such problems loving the concrete architecture of Sweden's structuralist residential suburbs of the 60s and 70s?”

He advocates a greater appreciation for these inner city creations. “The future of these suburbs is not to be lived in,” he adds. “But - much like the castles, palaces and other monumental artworks of ancient times - to be emptied, restored to their original splendour and become the subject of tourism.”

It might sound far-fetched for Rosengård to become a tourist destination, but Askergren is serious:

“Fifty years ago, architects, planners and politicians would travel half across the globe to study the new suburbs of this Lilliput nation's Lilliput capital,” he says. “Årsta, Vällingby, and Farsta were featured in architectural reviews internationally, and generally considered successful in every respect.”

After decades of debate, fear and loathing, Askergren believes such neighbourhoods are enjoying a stylish revival. “The Million Homes Programme is becoming heritage and memory; the trauma is being forgotten and the planners and architects are being forgiven. The general public is once again embracing the architecture because, when all is said and done, to so many people these buildings are, or once were, home.”

Making the suburbs hip

Popular culture has brought the buzz back to these suburban areas. Askergren points to a 1997 music video directed by Sweden's sought-after director Jonas Åkerlund. The visuals to the James Bond Theme remix by Moby are filmed with the backdrop of Sergels Torg and Hötorget – “Stockholm inner city modernist core.”

“Slowly but surely, architects and art historians are becoming less alone in their interest for the Million Homes Programme,” Askergren adds. “Others are starting to share this interest; in the media, in movies, in fashion photography and also in situ.”

Visit Kämpingebacken 13 in Tensta for a case in point. The Stockholm City Museum took a typical Million Homes Programme apartment and restored it to its original splendour as a living exhibit. Inaugurated in August 2006, it was open for ten days and welcomed 15,000 visitors through its door.

The kitchen, with its green plastic tablecloth and orange-brown patterned curtains is a genuine throwback to the era.

“It was very big and modern for its time” says Piamaria Hallberg, from Stockholm City Museum. Apparently, the freezer compartment in the fridge was a big draw. “And the rent was 660 crowns per month which was reasonable back then,” Hallberg adds.

“The Million Homes era is very important;” says Hallberg. “It changed Stockholm significantly and many people still live in these types of apartments.”

Indeed, it's worth remembering that a quarter of the Swedish population live in a Million Homes Programme apartment or house today. “During the last ten to 15 years we have seen changes in opinion,” says Lisbeth Söderqvist. “If the image of the Million Homes Programme was black before, it's more grey now.”

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