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WINNING A BATTLE, LOSING THE WAR
EXHIBITION FOLDER KRISTIANSTADS KONSTHALL 2009

 

Mats Eriksson’s work has for many years been an examination of the modern project as it has been manifested in architecture, public spaces and urban planning. Maby the central aspect of hiis work has focused on modernist architectural projects, on projects where modernist ideals have been influential and on situations where the modern project is evoked despite intentions to the contrary. His documentary photographs are historical records that speak volumes about the play of differences that characterise the reality of the modern project. The implication of Eriksson’s works is that there are many lessons to be learned about ideology and its consequences, both positive and negative.

Eriksson’s photographs of empty public buildings are haunting reminders of the utopianism of the Swedish welfare state. The modern project in Sweden has been meticulously well thought out since its inception. The infrastructure of the state speaks of a well-organised modern nation focused on administrating for and caring for the people. Mats Eriksson’s photographs of closed and abandoned institutional buildings in Sweden are a document of the downsizing of the welfare state, the erosion of the Swedish ‘Folkhem’. There is sense of melancholy, even of nostalgia in these images that is tempered by the often-oppressive atmosphere of the hospital interiors or the state offices. Here we see the inherent conflicts between intention and practical function, idealism and pragmatism. A sense of loss becomes apparent in examining the remnants of a utopian vision, which is offset by the knowledge of the authoritarian excesses that utopian visions can lead to. The ideal of Modernism as a liberating force, a source of order, is at odds with the realities of its misuse within oppressive systems.

Just as Sweden was in the midst of a massive state organised expansion and renewal of public housing and amenities, India was in the process of renewing itself as a nation after centuries of British colonial rule, a process embodied in the construction of the Punjabi regional capital Chandigarh. Much of what was happening politically in India at the time was typified by a searching for appropriate pre-existing systems to adopt and adapt. In terms of economic structure and infrastructure, India was borrowing heavily from strategies from other nations. Chandigarh does however symbolise India’s struggle for a kind of cultural independence, a turning away from the controlling influence of the main powers of the time. Chandigarh is India emerging from colonialism and resolutely refusing to be absorbed by other aggressive world discourses. Le Corbusier’s modernism was in line with India’s emerging strategy of non-alignment. The International Style was a symbol for a freethinking, independent, secular and democratic nation. As India’s only large scale modernist architectural project, it has aged as modernist architecture tends to age in all countries; in some instances with dignity and reverence, and in other instances by being taken for granted and being absorbed by everyday chaotic patterns of behaviour. The architecture in Chandigarh bears the marks of its being used to advantage by the inhabitants. The official buildings remain grandiose and impressive and the housing complexes with shops seem well lived in and appreciated. The clean lines and open spaces of Modernism can sometimes have an overbearing, oppressive effect on people. Eriksson’s images of Chandigarh show us that the Utopian vision does not have to be slavishly adhered to, in order to succeed.

In Eriksson’s series of photographs entitled Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt he researched the work of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who in the post-war decades designed model cities in sun-dried adobe brick to solve housing problems for the country’s poor and traditionally nomadic population.

At all costs, I have always wanted to avoid the attitude too often adopted by professional architects and planners:… that all problems can be solved by the importation of the sophisticated urban approach to building… Unhappily, the modern architect of the Third world ... accepts every facility offered to him by modern technology, with no thought of its effect on the complex web of his culture. Unaware that civilization is measured by what one contributes to culture, not by what one takes from others, he continues to draw upon the works of Western architects in Europe and North America, without assessing the value of his own heritage.
- Hassan Fathy

Fathy wanted the residents to have a say in the creation of their town, and to have a role in the building process through the use of traditional crafts and building skills. The intentions for the housing projects failed because of local mistrust and lack of governmental support. They remain as crumbling but still inhabited remnants, the remains of a potential alternative to the adoption of western modernism. Eriksson’s photographs capture the intense colours and contrasts of thedesert settlements and the sense of tranquillity mixed with melancholy that seems to reign. The composition of Eriksson’s images makes us aware of and enhances the dynamic lines and forms of Fathy’s designs. The photographs are documents of an architectural vision centred not on an inflexible all-consuming globalism but on the dynamic possibilities of the local and the place-specific.

In the series Architecture as Provocation Eriksson depicts the ongoing construction of a town in southern Sweden that breaks entirely from the dominant modernist tradition in Swedish architecture and town planning. Rejecting any notion of the contemporary, the entire town is a simulacrum, a series of finely sculpted and functioning facades that remind one more of the house fronts in theme parks that depict “old Europe” than any other existing or precedent architecture. Jakriborg offers an affordable, accessible, democratic and comfortable standard of living, at the same time as it rejects the traditions that have shaped Swedish towns during the last one hundred years. The notion of creating a simulacrum of a fortified mediaeval town is simply staggering in a contemporary Scandinavian context.

Jakriborg is an anomaly in Sweden and its realisation was possible because no national or local authority was involved in its design or construction, the initiative and vision coming from two building entrepreneurs. Jakriborg offers housing that “the people want”, in a homely semi-artificial idyll far from the concrete brutalism of new town planning and well outside the pale of architectural consensus. The departure from the modernist template brings with it the absence of an absolute plan or lay out for the town. This has led to the appearance of non-spaces; patches of ground, elevated concrete platforms and strange corners that have no defined purpose, no pragmatically arrived at utilisation, and show no signs of having been disguised or hidden.

Such spaces are seldom seen in the well-planned modernist architecture and town planning of other urban developments. The discovery or “establishment” of such non-spaces generally only occurs by means of radical or atypical action by individuals or groups “reclaiming” spaces that have some kind of neglected pre-existing function; for example skateboarders or other groups of young people repeatedly gathering in secluded public parks or shopping centres. That Jakriborg contains areas that could be established as heterotopic space, is evidence of the town’s flaws but arguably also of it’s immediate potential as a flexible social surface. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the current residents are at present something of a cross section of both sub-cultural and mainstream Swedish society. Jakriborg may not look like anything like the housing developments inspired by the work of Le Corbusier and the spirit of the welfare state, but the town may come close to achieving the same goals. Jakriborg is a somewhat unintentional successor to the Swedish dream of the “folkhem”.

In 1516 Thomas More wrote the novel, Utopia, wherein a traveller, Raphael Hythloday describes the political system of the fictional island country of Utopia. Utopia contrasts the dubious social life of European states with the perfect, orderly, social arrangements of Utopia. The novel's principal message is the social need for order and discipline, rather than liberty. More’s Utopia has been succeeded both in reality and in fiction by the less than idealised notion of the dystopia. George Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, the science fiction writing of Philip K. Dick amongst others have all warned against and prophesised the possibility of totalitarian terror rising from the most peaceful idealism. In contemporary Western Europe, we live with the vestiges of the various tragedies of the twentieth century and yet despite reminders of such oppression and inequality,we have a strangely detached and unquestioning attitude to history and to the events that have formed contemporary society. Our lives are steered according to a vague principle of forward thinking, towards a beacon of an abstract “future”. Utopian thinking can be invaluable. Without it, no risks are taken. However without flexibility and without a genuinely progressive outlook, utopian thinking can be as much of a scourge as the systems it aspires to escape or alter. Above all, an awareness of the nuances of history is essential.

Architecture is the most immediately visual reminder of our political histories and Mats Eriksson’s photographs are reminders of what we have created in the modern era, what mistakes have been made and what successes might be claimed. In his images we can see the human traces left on the concrete surfaces, what needs and requirements people have had of them, and we can see how effectively these structures have served their occupants or how dissatisfied the occupants have been with the buildings’ shortcomings. Mats Eriksson’s photographs show us the human reality behind idealistic visions, functioning as a kind of historical summation of the various paths of modernity and modernism, but just as importantly representing the lives and actions of people who lived with and reacted to their environments. The photographs show us how people react to systems that were designed to contain them according to given rules. With patience, we can see what lessons there are to be learned, both from the architectural and political visionaries and from the people who lived with their visions. We might see what specks of gold there are to be found, what palaces are buried beneath the desert.

FINBAR KROOK ROSATO