This post is the first of three on the subject of the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930.
Modernism came to Stockholm in May 1930, in the form of this ambitious exhibition, built on one of the islands in the city’s harbor. Contemporary photos and informal architectural renderings from the chief architect’s office show a modernist playground with crowds gathered in a green summertime setting, parading happily along enormous waterside promenades and congregating in huge plaza-like spaces. In the captivating images, flags, balloons, lively graphics and flowerbeds animate the temporary and pseudo-urban spaces. Sailboats and other small craft on the water create a sense of leisurely pleasure. In these romanticized images, the snap of the rows of Swedish flags and the exhibition pennants is almost audible.
Perspective of north end of exhibition site, Arkitektur-och designcentrum,
ARKM.1988-104-0449 GA architect; rendering by Max Söderholm
Photos of the exhibition site capture both its vastness and the stage-set quality of its public architecture: lightweight steel framed structures carrying long runs of colorful awnings. In Germany, which provided a model of modernist architecture, the requisite architectural color was a hygienic white. Not so for the Swedish public, long accustomed to colorful architecture. Even the press box, carried on the central tall radio mast, was a startling spring green with a yellow awning.
And the radio mast, which supports the curved press box, as well as an oversize clock and a graphic arrangement of advertising, looks like a Russian Constructivist stage set– enhanced of course, by its archipelago setting. One contemporary photograph, even shows a Zepplin overhead, floating apparently near the radio mast: an metaphoric image of modern transport coupled with modern communications.
The object of the exhibition was to promote colorfully and attractively, a modernist view of Swedish domestic life, as conceived by a group of young Swedish designers. The designers and proponents of this Swedish modernism were mostly architects, although Elsa Gullberg, who had her own textile firm, discussed in the last post, and who had worked so closely with Gregor Paulsson on the 1917 Home Exhibition was —at least originally— one of the “commissioners” of the fair.
During the 1920s, many of Gullberg’s male contemporaries in the design world had come believe in the ideals of well-designed but industrially made goods, and mass-produced architecture stripped of historical references and offering rational and economical floor plans. A number of them came together to organize the Stockholm 1930 Exhibition, in order to put these ideas before the Swedish public. Gregor Paulsson, secretary of the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, and author of Better Things for Everyday Life, was chief organizer and proponent; Gunnar Asplund, whose Stockholm Public Library was built from 1920-26, was the chief architect for the fair and designed its public exhibition buildings; Wolter Gahn, critic, editor of Byggmästaren, the major Swedish architectural publication, and architect of Stockholm’s first functionalist office building, was the main consultant to exhibitors; Erik Sundahl, principal architect of Sweden’s biggest housing cooperative, who had designed well-regarded workers housing and industrial buildings, chaired the working committee on architecture to be built at the fair; Sven Markelius, who would design the Swedish pavilion for the New York World’s Fair of 1939, and later the UN economic council chamber, designed two model houses for the fair; Uno Åhren, an architect and later editor of Byggmästaren, and heavily involved in urban planning, worked on the housing section of the fair and also designed two of the model houses.
It was this group, Sweden’s architectural avant-garde, who put their vision and version of modern architecture before the public at the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition. They also followed that exhibition with a book entitled Acceptera (“To Accept”—presumably the present social challenges) which summarized their collective vision in manifesto form. At the fair itself, their vision took the form of buildings and material promoting a comprehensively rethought “lifestyle” including better nutrition, recreation and housing, and new thinking about the organization of society.
Contemporary architecture, interior design and and product design were all showcased at the fair, part of an effort to persuade the public that the industrial production of both “everyday goods” and architectural standardization could offer a better lifestyle for a greater number of people. At the fair, there were not only buildings with an educational or informational purpose, but much designed for the public’s pleasure: many restaurants including one called “The Paradise,” an aquarium, a planetarium, daytime boating possibilities, and evening band concerts.The setting, educational opportunities and entertainments provided by the exhibition, were certainly a pleasurable means of framing the polemical argument.
At the south end of the fair site were model villas, furnished single homes and row houses, and other apartments. Most of these drew on the German Bauhaus models with white exterior walls and horizontal strip windows, though some had sloping roofs, and nearly all had gardens. They were designed to let the fair’s visitors see how the new kitchen designs, large new windows, family living rooms designed to be actively used (as opposed to old-fashioned parlors), outdoor spaces like balconies or terraces, and new and simplified furnishings for interiors could provide their families with a more contemporary kind of daily life.
Many visitors found this vision compelling. The Danish architect, Jorn Utzon felt the effects of this exhibition as a child, and it set the course of his life. He wrote,
“…my parents went to visit the grand exhibition in Stockholm in 1930. Here the Scandinavian functionalism had its breakthrough in a society of exceedingly ornate style.
Here [in Stockholm] they were exposed to a new and simple, white architecture that drew in light and air, one that let in the sunshine and paid homage to the practicality, the uncovered—you might call it the functionalistic. This was evident in Gunnar Asplund’s exhibition buildings that were made with light constructions and emanating something completely new in Scandinavia.
My parents returned home, filled with enthusiasm and the new ideas and thoughts, and our entire home was redecorated. Everything was light and friendly, the heavy, impractical pieces of furniture were discarded, and simplicity was introduced. We took up a new diet and were to eat vegetables and other healthy low-fat food; and we were to exercise a lot and have plenty of fresh air—emphasize the light and the direct, so-called natural behaviour. We had to sit in a proper position and have healthy quality furniture. The children were given access to swimming pools where they could go and use their bodies like fish in the water. We got bicycles in order to experience the open landscape and watch what happened. We learned to hold the workman in great esteem. The properly performed work was accentuated. Conventionalism was disregarded—humans were constantly put to the fore, not regulations and mannerism. I insist on stating that we learned to SEE, and that made a very special impact, of course. The void, lifeless museum-like atmosphere disappeared—architecture became a living reality.
I repeat: So much are architects capable of. And it influenced the entire society.”
In conclusion, yes, this Stockholm Exhibition was polemical. Yes, as with all fairs, much of its architecture was a kind of massive stage set. Yes, its ideals were not altogether realized nor realistic. But it is clear from this quotation by Utzon, that the Stockholm Exhibition pf 1930 did make the public aware of modernism, allowing many visitors to think about the possibilities of a new kind of contemporary living in a vital and exciting way. And it certainly brought the ideas of 20th-century European social, architectural and design thinking home to Sweden.
Creagh, Lucy, Helena Kåberg, and Barbara Miller Lane. Modern Swedish Design -Three Founding Texts, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008. In her introduction to the Acceptera manifesto, Lucy Creagh identifies the roles of the fair’s organizers. I have drawn heavily on her work here.
Dahlbäck Lutteman, Helena and Elisabet Stavenow-Hidemark, Arthur Hald, Barbro Hovstadius and Eva Hallström-Goliger, Elsa Gullberg, Textil pionjär, Stockholm: Nationalmusei katalog nr 523, 1989.
Digitalt museum; featured image is cropped version of ARKM.1987-119-1, Gunnar Asplund, architect; Gustaf W. Cronquist, photographer. All other images used here, and in the next two posts, are from a large collection of images from the Exhibition.
Ostergard, Derek E. and Nina Stritzler-Levine, eds., The Brilliance of Swedish Glass, 1918-1939, An Alliance of Art and Industry. Yale University Press for The Bard Graduate Center, New York, 1996.
Quote from Jorn Utzon from website utzonphotos.com compiled by Flemming Bo Andersen: