Look, Ma’am, I said, the architecture of your little house must be a microcosm of the world in which you live, the one that surrounds you, an updated, pasteurized and satellized microcosm, but a product of the land that witnessed you being born, cook, have children, speak to the servants and die. Excuse me. What you desire is Nordic, possibly Norman or Viking and your father is Muchik. You are after all Mediterranean, even though we are in the borders of the Pacific, and between the northern Anglo-Saxon and the southern Afro-Latin there are differences of qualitative aesthetics that express the poetic, profound value of each architecture. - Héctor Velarde, 1964. El arquitecto engagé.
The notion of ‘the modern’ has been, since its inception, deeply intertwined with another one: the ideal of progress. Unlimited, unrestrained improvement of the conditions of living through the development of science, technology and manipulation of the environment, including nature and social organization in benefit of humanity’s needs, have been some of the core features of the modernist narrative. This impetus for perfectionism and optimization emerged in the epicenter of modernity in enlightened Europe around the 16th century and outwardly expanded towards the peripheries of the world-system. This is to say that modernity and ‘progress’ came together with the conquering fleets and armies of colonial powers that started to occupy the world outside of Europe. With colonialism came new forms of government, new ways of organizing economy, society and cosmology. This, inevitably, had the effect of altering without return the understanding of what life ought to be in the provinces of Empire.
Colonial states, and the postcolonial offspring they left after years of struggle in Africa, Southeast Asia, America, the Pacific Islands and others areas of imperial expansion, developed their own versions of modernity, sometimes in close relation to European standards; others developed in blatant opposition to them, and most of the times, in a convoluted dialogue not exempt of struggle and contradiction.
Such alternative experiences of modernity, however, were not unique to those spaces formerly in control of European powers. The idea of Europe was constructed throughout the centuries, incorporating areas and excluding others based on religious affinities, cultural links and of course, economic exchange and political relations. That is the case of the Scandinavian countries. Excluding most of prehistorical times, when the idea of a cultural and political entity called ‘Europe’ wasn’t even part of the wildest imagination, Scandinavia started to appear in the continental project in the early Iron Age, around 1—400 A.D., period from which archaeological research has evidenced the ongoing exchange between the Roman Empire and Scandinavian politics. Indeed, products such as cups, bowls, and spoons, all of which comprise a range of expensive and ostentatious goods, signal to an incorporation of social distinction based on the adoption of Roman manners and patterns of consumption. A similar phenomenon occurs with the use of golden and silver coins and jewelry, which were repurposed by adopting the notion of coinage and redesigning its decorations with regional motifs.
During the heyday of the Roman Empire, however, Scandinavia remained in the margins of civilization, populated by barbaric tribes. It is with the start of the Viking Age, from 800–1050 AD, when it can be said that Scandinavia became incorporated into the European imagination, though as the home place of fearless raiders who went onto pillaging seasons in the coastal regions of the continent. During this period, Vikings reached different regions: from the British Isles, to France, the Mediterranean and as far as Anatolia. Around the same time a group of seafarers known as the Varangians, who came from Scandinavia (Donald 2005) ruled the Kievan Rus’, a Slavic medieval state.
From the year 1000 AD onwards, with the Christianization of Scandinavia, the region became ‘officially’ a part of Europe. The Catholic expansion gave way to the establishing of greater Scandinavian kingdoms that unified under a single crown the vast territories and peoples of the region. The legitimization of kings by submitting to the Roman Pope also meant that Scandinavia became a province of the center of faith, although pagans remained a problem, especially in the northernmost regions (Meriot 1984: 375). By the 16th century, Scandinavia was already fully a member of the European area, measuring powers against the continental empires. In Sweden, Gustav Vasa, head of the Lutheran reformation, was struggling for liberation from Denmark and in the 17th century attempted his own colonial enterprise in American lands with the foundation of Nya Sverige, which was eventually lost to the Netherlands in the First Northern War.
From this short and extremely hasty summary of Scandinavian history we can see the movement of the region, and particularly Sweden, from a peripheral position in the European system to a relatively central one, participating in commercial exchange and warfare with mainstream continental countries. During this span of time we can also deduce other ways of incorporation of Swedish (and Scandinavian) society into that of Europe: marriages between nobility, flows of capital, migration, and art production. This is last element is where I want to put our focus in this article. We shall concentrate on the case of Sweden, for brevity’s sake.
In each one of the different periods of Swedish history we find traces of European influence in local art and Swedish inputs into a general discussion of what art’s purpose is to be and mean. We will have to close the scope of our review to the case of architecture and specifically to that of Swedish functionalism, but always looking at its relations with the Beaux-Arts and social movements of the era.
We can very briefly summarize (yet again) the evolution of Swedish architecture from the Missionary style of stave churches in Romanesque style that developed since the 9th century (Lindgren et al. 1987: 24) with the start of Christianization. The stone cathedrals— with Lunds domkyrka as a prime example (Andersson 1970: 36)—quickly reflected Roman building techniques and decorative styles. However, by the time the first stone of the cathedral was laid down in the 12th century, the Romanesque style had already diversified. According to Lindgren (1987: 29), a German and Lombardic influence can be identified, and the fact that an Italian architect was in charge of the second phase of the construction process, aided by masons coming from Rhineland and Lombardy (Anderson 1970: 37-38) points out to the already international nature of Romanesque architecture, a European-wide style that brought together building traditions from different parts of the continent and established itself as the dominant one. Lunds cathedral decorations include two main styles, as Lindgren (1987: 29) points out, the Lombard and the Archaic, in which one can sense some Byzantine influence as well. A prominent feature, however, is the sculpture known as “Finn the giant and his wife,” integrated with the column and which defies all sorts of classification.
By the 14th century, the Gothic style came into fashion. It was in the time of the late Middle Ages that almost every Swedish town had already built a local church. The relations between the Swedish bourgeoisie and the booming Hanseatic League brought a transformation to pictorial and architectural art, as many sculptures, paintings and buildings started to adopt characteristically continental features. Many scholars, artists and theologians were trained and imported from Italy, France, and Germany. In architecture, the novelties brought by Gothicism were “the more elaborate design of brick building, with abundant recesses on towers and façades and, inside, stellar vaults” (Lindgren et al. 1987: 65), and other features such as stained glass and the inclusion of plentiful light into church design.
So far we have paid attention to monumental architecture, particularly that of ecclesiastic nature. But another strand of architecture has also been important in Swedish building design: that of popular and quotidian architecture. We shall fast forward in history up to the early 20th century. The year is 1930 and the Stockholm Exhibition is taking place in Djurgården, a royal park in the central-eastern part of the city. The exhibition was a showcase for modernity, where industries, artists and craftsmen could publicize their latest works, often of avant-garde nature or involving cutting-edge technology. One of the main attractions of the Stockholm Exhibition was the modernist architecture being shown and the distinctive ‘funkis’ style, short for functionalism and related to the evolving International Style of the post-war period. An interesting aspect about this exhibition, as Arrhenius (2010) points out, is that while being a primary propaganda machine for modernism, the Exhibition relied heavily on the Skansen open-air museum, a 19th century institution that celebrated the past and vernacular forms of rural life. Arrhenius argues that this was not just a coincidence or an obstacle to get over with by the modernizing drive of the times, but central to the project itself.
The Skansen open-air museum was opened in the late nineteenth century as a way to encourage nationalism and a sense of rootedness in the vernacular way of life, the ‘authentic’ Swedish forms that would help the process of nation building. The pieces exhibited were whole buildings moved from their original context and rebuilt in the museum area, bringing together groups of objects with the goal of assembling a coherent system. Furthermore, the idea behind the museum was to recreate a miniature Sweden in which to reenact the vernacular cultural forms, including everyday objects and performers in character or mannequins in costume. The exhibition technique, based on the spatial arrangement of objects (as small as spoons and as big as cottages and churches) served to create a new experience that involved the body in a three-dimensional mass-media system (Arrhenius 2010: 136) that opened up ‘the traditional’ to public scrutiny.
Arrhenius argues that this new experience, although conceived as a conservative initiative—saving the traditions from the waves of modernization that a rapidly industrializing Sweden faced—the restaged history that Skansen displayed aided the production of a “vernacular modern” that threw the realm of the home and the built environment from the private into the public sphere, where it could be regarded as a public object that established the vernacular home as a model for modern life.
In his article about modernist styles in Swedish art, Werner (2002) criticizes standard histories about modern art that highlight the developments inside continental, “classical” Europe, or even the United States, and then goes on to point out the similarities and links that regional artists from Sweden had with the centers of production. The modernist story has been one where the particular selection, emphases and narrative structure (2002: 100) have framed the way Swedish Modernism has been regarded by art historians, artists and the general public: generally, as a provincial footnote of France or Germany’s vanguards. This story is permeated, Werner insists, by a ‘center-periphery’ thinking. To tackle this problem, he proposes concentrating on the very essence of modernism, which is that of contradiction: a “constant process of disintegration and reintegration” (Werner 2002: 101). It is necessary to widen the narrow scope of twentieth-century art history out of its modernist constraints to include different perspectives and break the traditional hierarchies.
For Werner, in the modernist story, some of the most notable Swedish styles have been excluded, such as Expressionism, Naïvism and Intimism (2002: 104). By ruling them out as non-modernist, outsider art, or else, inherently modern experiences such as that of nature or the conflict between man and society (idem), or the passage of time, have been ignored or overseen by the canonical history. These alternative views are what pick our interest, specifically that of nostalgia. Just as Werner points out, nostalgia can be seen as an expression of modernity and not simply a conservative reaction to it.
This is evident in the case of the Skansen open-air museum during the Stockholm Exhibition, where the past was seen not as an impediment to the modernist ideal—the idea of renovation and progress—but as a model to be followed; improved, certainly, but not ignored, looked over with disdain or actively destroyed. The acceptera manifesto—published a year after the Exhibition—called for accepting the industrial, mass-produced objects but is, in this version, not a call for a Futurist malström like that of the Italians of the first decade of the century. Its purpose was not to liberate the nation from the chains of tradition with violent appeals to the speed of technology. The vernacular, in Swedish modernity, became “a radical model to set against the overloaded bourgeois home with its ‘false’ individualism,” where it could be a “timeless and rational solution for individual and collective expression” (Arrhenius 2010: 140) against the serialized production of industrial modernity.
Nevertheless, the development of the functionalist style, according to Lyberg, was mainly based on the ideas of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius and eschewed tradition in favor of “smooth, uncluttered surfaces in distinct geometrical patterns” and avoided any decorations without a specific practical function (Lindgren et al. 1987: 266). Such is the case with the Stockholm City Library by Gunnar Asplund, whose design consisted in the superposition of two basic geometrical forms: a cylinder over a cuboid.
The alternative interpretation of nostalgia in modernist art and architecture presented in this briefcase can serve as an interesting counterpoint to modernist discourse in Peruvian architecture. Vulgar modernism has stressed the need to get rid of traditional styles, backwards and fatally localist in nature. In Peruvian architectural tradition, the seminal book from 1945, Space in Time: Architecture as Cultural Phenomenon by Luis Miró-Quesada Garland attempts to bridge the gap between the Universalist and abstract approach of modernist architecture inaugurated by Le Corbusier and a more local, culturally situated theorization of the discipline. In contrast to Le Corbusier, who proposed an aesthetics based on calculus and engineering that harmonizes with the universal laws, Luis Miró-Quesada maintained culturalist approach that saw in the Academicist following of “styles” an inherent decadence that simply copied the architectural production of past civilizations, dead cultures that no longer produce any vital signs. His battle was against Neo-colonialism in Peruvian architecture, a style that permeated the elite’s preferences in the 1940s (Rodríguez 2014: xxi, xxx-xxxi), as well as other historicisms. Miró-Quesada’s bet for a new architecture was depoliticized in its attempt to develop a defense of art against ideology, which in his assessment devalued the former. His culturalist and spiritualist approach was developed in a context where the discussions about modernity where polarized between the Communist Party and APRA radical politics on one side, economic liberalism and Catholic conservatism, on the other.
Miró-Quesada rejected any need for continuity in Peruvian architecture and bestowed avant-garde arguments about the predominance of time over space. His argument was in favor of architectural practice of building for the present, and rooted in a functionalist framework, contended for the elimination of any historical attributes in modern architecture. Miró-Quesada spearheaded the modernist movement in Peruvian architecture with the publication of the mentioned book and the foundation of the Agrupación Espacio, a group of students and professors from the National School of Engineers that eventually gathered a varied array of artists, emitted a manifesto in 1947 where they pointed out the anachronistic nature of architecture in the country and argued that “instead of responding to present needs for clarity and sense that can be verified in the spatiality of the interior,” the discipline was overly concerned “with exterior appearances and the continuation of traditional academic lines” (Carranza & Lara 2014: 149). The harsh words of the Agrupación Espacio towards the architectural tradition were as follows:
The styles of the 18th and 19th centuries were not but arbitrary combinations and perfectly irresponsible alterations of ancient architectural beliefs. An anti-art, in which the decorative, the accessory, the intrascendent and the superficial were used as vague mystifications. (Agrupación Espacio 1947)
In Peruvian context, nostalgia was not only a traditionalist view that held some past time as an idyllic moment where all things were better. The politics of nostalgia deepened the different historical moments reclaimed by the social classes. A Neo-colonial architecture longed for the times of the Virreinato under the Spanish Crown, where the landed elites could rule over the indigenous and mestizo populations, whereas the Neo-peruvian style attempted to fuse pre-Hispanic motifs with neoclassical architecture. Miró-Quesada, in his struggle against these forms of historicism developed a depoliticized architecture that would attempt to adapt modernity’s universalist claims to local reality, making an effort to bring to life an authentic modernist language that to this day has not been accomplished. While Miró-Quesada battled with historicism in architectural practice, his avant-garde group also held some antipathies towards vernacular expressions in design and construction: “In Peru, we must affirm it, disorientation and apathy take alarming contours. The artists that must be conductors and guides of creation, are still lost in folkloric topics” (Agrupación Espacio 1947).
The opening passage of Héctor Velarde’s story is about a frustrated architect trying to convince an upper class woman to build her house in a local style that could express the reality in which she lives—and not only copy Nordic forms that have nothing to do with the geography in which she insists on placing a functionalist northern chalet. Peruvian architecture has been truncated by the impossibility of a national language to emerge, partly because of stubborn elites obsessed with the prestige of foreign design and an apparently irreconcilable relation with rural and vernacular architectural expressions, located, unlike the Swedish case, in an undesirable past which were to be surmounted by the unquestioned and depoliticized adoption of progress. At the same time, the architectural vanguards dismissed any reference to the traditional as mere academicism and the recuperation of vernacular form as being stuck in the folkloric.
We have so far reviewed some of the attitudes towards national history and the past in relation to architecture in two very different societies which, yet, maintained some similarities in their positioning in history and the world system throughout the centuries. Arguably, though, it was these opposing attitudes that conferred some degree of divergence in their trajectories in architectural history.
1 Such consideration of the private home as a model on which to base social reform is not exclusively a 20th century phenomenon. Michelle Facos has explored the implications of late 19th century artist Carl Larsson’s watercolor illustrations of Lilla Hyttnäs, his countryside house in the Swedish central province of Dalarna. The artist conceived his illustrations as a model for reform of domestic decoration and design to improve the quality of life of modern housing dwellers. As Facos says, Lilla Hyttnäs is interpreted as “a locus of yearning for an idealized, pre-industrial past that provides both a conceptual and material template for attaining the comfort and happiness associated with an imagined earlier time” (1996: 91).
2 Espacio en el tiempo: La arquitectura como fenómeno cultural, by its original Spanish title.
3 Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana, or American Popular Revolutionary Alliance in English.
Agrupación Espacio (1947). Expresión de principios de la Agrupación Espacio. In: El Comercio – May 15, 1947.
Andersson, A. (1970). The Art of Scandinavia. Vol. 2. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group.
Arrhenius, T. (2010). The vernacular on display. Skansen open-air museum in 1930s Stockholm. In: Mattson, H. & Wallenstein, S. (eds.). Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption and the Welfare State. London: Black Dog Publishing.
Carranza, L. & Lara, F. (2014). Modern architecture in Latin America. Art, Technology and Utopia. University of Texas Press.
Donald, F. (2005). The Vikings in History. Routledge Publishing.
Facos, M. (1996). The Ideal Swedish Home: Carl Larsson’s Lilla Hyttnäs. In: Reed, C. (ed.). Not At Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.
Lindgren, M., Lyberg, L., Sandström, B., & Wahlberg, A. (1987). A History of Swedish Art. Bokförlaget Signum.
Meriot, C. (1984). The Saami Peoples from the Time of the Voyage of Ottar to Thomas von Western. ARCTIC, 37(4), 373–384.
Rodríguez, L. (2014). Prólogo. Espacio en el tiempo y la construcción de la vanguardia moderna en el Perú. El discurso de Luis Miró-Quesada. In: Miró-Quesada, L. Espacio en el tiempo: la arquitectura moderna como fenómeno cultural. Lima: FAU-PUCP.
Velarde, H. (1964). El mundo del supermarket. Lima: Populibros peruanos.
Werner, J. (2002). Turnpikes and Blind Alleys: Modernism in the Perspective of the Provinces. In: Widenheim, C. & Rudberg, E. (eds.). Utopia and Reality: Swedish Modernism 1900-1960. Yale University Press.