Britain and Sweden: A Mid-Century Architectural Love Affair
British and Swedish architecture and town planning were unusually influential
upon each other from the 1930s to the early 1950s. This linkage influenced some of the most important building projects of post war Britain and Sweden, including Harlow New Town and the Alton East Estate at Roehampton in Britain and the new Stockholm suburb of Vällingby in Sweden. This dissertation examines that period and traces the dialogue through British and Swedish architectural journals and other publications. The mutual interest came to an abrupt end in the 1950s when British architects increasingly rejected the ‘soft modernism’ that the Swedes had pioneered to move towards a tougher, more Corbusian aesthetic. At the same time, the Swedes adopted a more industrialised and less artistic form of building and, as a result, the search for lessons from the British, particularly about landscaping and picturesque design, was put aside in the rush to build the enormous and now much criticised ‘million program’ housing project. The link between British and Swedish architecture and town planning was broken, and, subsequently, became all
The beginnings of British interest in Swedish modernism can be traced to the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, after which many British architects travelled to Sweden, and the Architectural Review and other publications provided significant coverage of new building there. As an example, Lionel Esher observed of British architects in the 1930s that: ‘As was customary, one took a trip to the Continent, and first to Stockholm.’
After the Second World War Sweden, which had been neutral, provided one of the few places to look for innovative modernist architecture. The architect Peter Smithson provides the reason: ‘Between 1939 and 1949 there was no new architecture in Europe; building ceased because of the war. To see a new building that had been built in those ten years, you had to go to Scandinavia or South America.’
Just as importantly, Sweden was promoted as a model of a new social-democratic and egalitarian society, providing an additional allure for architects in other
European countries like Britain. In 1936 Marquis Childs, a socially concerned American newspaper reporter, wrote Sweden: The Middle Way, a short book which described both the co-operative movement and the reform policies of the Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, and which became a surprise best-seller. As the political scientist David Arter observes: ‘Following Childs’ analysis, Sweden became not just another state but a model for other states, its solidary “people’s home” respected as a shining example of consensus politics and the product of an historic compromise between capital and labour.’ In Britain, the New Fabian Research Bureau published an influential study, Democratic Sweden, in 1938. The authors were clearly impressed by what they found, declaring ‘there has been in this country a growing interest - by no means confined to the Labour Party - in a people who appeared unostentatiously to have rid themselves of many of the evils which have racked their more powerful neighbours.’
Equally, after the war the Swedes paid more attention to Britain, and in particular British town planning. Ebeneezer Howard (1850-1928), Raymond Unwin (1863- 1940), Patrick Abercrombie (1879-1957) as well as the pro-British Garden City theorist Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) were names well known to Swedish architects and town planners. Swedes were prominent in their visits to Harlow New Town, begun in 1947, which received extensive coverage in Byggmästaren, the leading Swedish architectural journal. Sven Markelius (1889-1972), a founding member
of CIAM and one of the architects of the Stockholm Exhibition, in one of his first actions as town planner of Stockholm, commissioned a report titled ‘Nutida Engelsk Samhällsplanering’ (‘Contemporary English Town Planning’), which particularly reflected John Henry Forshaw and Patrick Abercrombie’s ‘Greater London Plan’
of 1944. In short, the leading Swedish architect of the period felt the need to look to Britain for models of town planning, and especially the harmonious placing of buildings with landscape that British picturesque design had provided to the world. The footprint of this can be found in the new suburb of Vällingby, completed in 1954 and one of the key projects that Markelius delivered as Stockholm town-planner.
In Britain, perhaps the clearest post-war symbol of Swedish influence was the Alton East Estate at Roehampton, constructed by the London County Council between 1952-5. The estate reflected a mix of tower blocks (‘point-blocks’) and maisonettes (‘slab-blocks’) which were both surprisingly modern but also reflected elements of the English vernacular - brick facades and pitched roofs meld together in some of the earliest tower blocks in Britain (the first was at Harlow New Town in 1951).
The rupture with Scandinavian ‘soft modernism’ is aptly illustrated by Alton West, built shortly after Alton East in a more formal, Corbusian style. A new generation of architects had rejected the Swedish influence. As Nick Bullock observes, ‘The editors of Architectural Design, by 1955 the journal of the new avant-garde, were attacking the previous generation’, due to the latter’s ‘lack of rigour and clear thinking, the romantic pasticheries of the Festival of Britain and its off-spring, the free empirical manner derived from Sweden.’
Ultimately Swedish architecture and planning separated from Britain just as much as British architecture and planning did from Sweden. The reasons were different, although the hardening of modernism was a common theme. It is, perhaps,
fanciful to imagine there might have been a different ending. But what is clear is that in both Britain and Sweden the residents of the housing that was constructed in the second half of the twentieth century preferred the softer modernism that Swedish functionalism, or ‘New Empiricism’ as The Architectural Review termed it, represented. While the profession clearly moved in one direction in both countries, in neither did they bring the population along with them.
 Lionel Esher, A Broken Wave: The Rebuilding of England (1940-1980) (London: Allen Lane, 1981), 21.
 Peter Smithson, Peter Smithson: Conversations with Students: A space for Our Generation (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), 16.
 Marquis Childs, Sweden: The Middle Way (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1936).
 David Arter, Scandinavian Politics Today (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 45.
 Margaret Cole and Charles Smith, Democratic Sweden: A Volume of Studies Prepared by Members of the New Fabian Research Bureau (London: Routledge, 1938).
 Cole and Smith, Democratic Sweden, ix.
 Nicholas Bullock, Building the Post-War World: Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Britain (London: Routledge, 2002), 96.