In my father’s bookcase I found a commemorative book about the activities of the HSB cooperative building society, covering the years from 1924 to 1954. It starts with a few modest lines by the executive director of the national HSB association, Sven Wallander:

The first reflection provoked by this book, which aims at presenting a survey of the results from HSB’s work during 30 years, will perhaps be that what has been achieved is not so remarkable when seen against the backdrop of our times. Enormous events have dyed the historical horizon against which our activities shall be seen, and therefore our peaceful role of building slowly and methodically must appear less interesting and less dramatic to the reader. But perhaps a summary in words and pictures concerning our work will still be motivated, as we can now look back at thirty years of activity – this, at least, is what we hope, we who have been in charge of HSB’s fate during these years.

In an accompanying letter, still lying inside the lavish and beautifully made book, the board of trustees writes:

A production of 100,000 flats in 30 years, that is the result of HSB’s work that we wanted to remind you of in this book, which we hereby present to you.

100,000 flats – this would be enough to build a whole new city, the size of, say, Gothenburg. Le Corbusier’s and Pierre Jeanneret’s new state capital for the Punjab, Chandigarh, which was planned and built in the 1950s and 1960s, was originally not bigger. Chandigarh was commissioned by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whose social outlook coincided with those of the Swedish Social Democrats and of the architects who built Modernist Sweden for HSB, Riksbyggen (a state building society) or the Cooperative Movement. At first Nehru also wanted Indian architects to build modern India. That Le Corbusier got the possibility to build a city in India and not in Sweden was, according to architectural historian Vikram Prakash, pure coincidence. Sweden, in the end, never got an entirely new city with all its possibilities for grandiose planning, and admittedly also for errors, but instead new residential areas in practically every town or larger settlement throughout the country. Modernism came even to the smallest out-of-the-way places. What was the reason for this?

A diagram in the commemorative book displays the HSB organization. It is a cooperative movement governed by its members through associations, a congress and a board of trustees. Its executive director, in turn, controls a number of departments, among them a bureau with 97 employed architects and several building companies, all under the heading ‘The Industrial Department’. The book lists each of these factories: Junohus Ltd. at Uddevalla and Bengtsfors, the HSB carpentry factory at Nässjö and the one at Sparreholm, the marble quarries in the Kolmården forest etc. Even more interestingly, every employee at these factories is named, all in all more than 1,500 people in long columns of Johansson, Johnsson, Josefsson, Karlsson. Also, all the HSB associations’ boards are published by name. In 1954 there were 160 of them, from Alingsås to Östersund. Each of these associations built houses. A generous selection of the most successful housing projects is shown in the book.

The elegant paraphrases of international Modernism during the Functionalist years, naturally with Le Corbusier as a guiding light, are a surprisingly small part, concentrated to Stockholm and to some extent Gothenburg. The big breakthrough for Modernism actually came right after the Second World War. This was when building was to eliminate the housing shortage, a shortage that forced almost 70% of the population in the larger towns to live in crowded one-room flats. We can sense how cramped the conditions actually were if we bear in mind that the housing exhibitions of the 1950s presented two-room flats with a very small kitchen as ideal accommodation for a family of two adults and three or four children.

And then came the explosion. In eight years, between 1946 and 1953, HSB built more than 50,000 flats all over Sweden. In colour illustration after colour illustration, with city maps and plans of the flats next to the photographs, the high-rises and three-storey houses are shown among budding birches and leafy oaks. At Årsta the same kind of houses, or almost the same, were built as at Gubbängen, another Stockholm suburb, or at Majorna in Gothenburg or Mellanheden in Malmö. The same houses as in Uppsala, Nynäshamn, Södertälje, Norrköping, Mjölby, Jönköping, Nässjö. Eksjö, Karlskrona, Helsingborg, Karlstad, Ludvika, Falun, Sandviken, Östersund, Skellefteå, Boden, Luleå. The same flats, the same planning with garbage wells in the staircases and communal heating units. The same footpaths and the same playgrounds. The same buildings in pastel-coloured plaster, red or yellow brick.

The book finishes with a hopeful chapter on the importance of ‘cleansing’ the inner cities, with pictures of successful examples. Cleansing means demolition. What the young Swedish architects had not managed to achieve with their competition entries during the 1930s (such as demolishing Stockholm’s Old Town or Södermalm boroughs, according to Le Corbusier’s suggestion, or all the 19th century wooden buildings in Jönköping, as suggested by Sven Markelius), this could be done by the HSB cooperatives in the 50s, and above all in the 60s. The HSB book proudly presents examples of successful ‘cleansings’ of the city centres in Torshälla, Landskrona, Trollhättan, Örnsköldsvik or Luleå. And these are the same houses all over again! Regardless of whether the neon signs illuminate old wooden houses on the opposite side of the street in Skellefteå, or whether they constitute a ‘natural’ complement to the townhouses of Uppsala, these are almost indistinguishable three-storey houses in a moderately Modernist style, with balconies and sometimes triangular bay windows, with window-sills of Kolmården marble and under them sheet metal radiators for the central heating.

Le Corbusier’s vision of the city, his (and many other Modernists’) ideas about the International Style as an expression of the special dynamics of the Western World, these were modified during the 50s in Sweden and turned into houses that were built, in Sven Wallander’s words, ‘slowly and methodically’ as expressions of a popular movement. Since this was about providing housing for the majority of a population under a Social Democratic regime, the elitist aspects of Modernism were whittled down. The HSB architects did not put in extra rooms for the servants, as they did everywhere in Europe, and as Markelius, for instance, did in his model house for the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930. The houses were fitted into the Swedish landscape with its little hillocks and woods. Modernism became cosy. But with its remarkably methodical consequence it changed Swedish urban reality during these years – everywhere, in the smallest village, in a way that Le Corbusier and Nehru could not even dream about – even in its smallest details, in bathrooms and bedrooms and living rooms, even in the choice of furniture and textiles, in instructions for how to bring up the children.

Modernism was transformed into a popular movement! In 30 years the face of Sweden changed. In 30 years Sweden was changed from a developing nation in the outskirts of Europe into one of the richest countries in the world, partly because an overwhelming majority of the population preferred collective solutions for the problem of how to divide money and power. HSB’s commemorative book from 1954 shows one aspect of how this happened in practice. Not a vision like Chandigarh – beautiful, eerie and alien, fantastic even as it decays.

We have almost no such environments in Sweden. Instead we have practical, methodical, solid housing projects built with a certain feeling for nature – perhaps – which above all express such a strong aversion to the earlier conditions of poverty that the real ambition must have been to demolish every single house that brought the injustices back to memory. A kind of calm rage. Nehru dreamt of this for India too. There things did not turn out that way.

Only a few years later, through the ‘one million dwellings programme’ in the 70s, Sweden built new spaces for poverty and social inequality. But that is another story.