Urban and Urbanization

Modernism in the present tense: “Dangerous” Scandinavian suburbs and their hereafters

Has modernism evolved from a means to create a utopian future to an architectural discontent co-opted for racist purposes? The planners who built mid-20th century Scandinavian, modernist suburbs conceived of them as places of innovation, possibility, and visionary thinking. By the 1970s, however, this assessment had shifted dramatically: near-monolithic media and popular representations depicted environments of failure, insecurity, and ugly architecture – despite the half-finished states of the projects at the time. As these opinions evolved into “facts,” the areas became linked to ideas of intractably dangerous designs and, later, dangerous people. This set the stage for near-continuous physical and social interventions, beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the present. Today, in Sweden and Denmark, modernist neighborhoods are labeled “problem areas,” “concrete suburbs,” “vulnerable areas,” or even “ghettos,” where residents, often with family histories of migration, live in so-called “parallel societies.” Politicians have persistently positioned them as perilous places that never joined the present. This attitude renders them symbolically malleable sites, paving the way for recent radical densifications, privatizations, and demolitions, whereby the (half-century) histories of these suburbs are typically ignored. This history of the recent past focuses on how the “blame” for the problems of modernist urbanism – especially around perceived dangers – has shifted from buildings to people to a politically convenient combination of the two, or what I label “hereafters.” I contend that discourses of “unfinished” and “dangerous” places with “criminal” residents have made modernist urbanism a perfect target for xenophobic political discourse, where buildings and landscapes have become scapegoats for less socially acceptable feelings and concerns. Yet caricatures of modernist suburbs as “dangerous” obscure the fact that these supposedly failed cities of the future are now, decades later, places with both long histories and abundant everyday life. I therefore call for new “hereafters” for modernist suburbs: narratives that understand them as living neighborhoods in the present tense.

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Volume 41 Issue 4

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