Historical cities Historynaut guides

Swedish modernity in Stockholm

Uggla finalThe interesting thing about Sweden is that it stands out globally when it comes to progressive values. This has an historical background and Stockholm is the place to explore it.

20th century modernity is history now and well worth exploring for the historical traveller. While Stockholm is rich in museums and old historical sites, Sweden is even more famous for its modern, Nordic model welfare society and for gender equality. Historical sites in my home town Stockholm related to Swedish modernity are interesting and below are my personal favourites.

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Progressive values
Looking at the famous map of the world values survey, Sweden is found by itself in the far upper right corner. This means it embraces secular-rational values while placing less weight on religion, traditional family values and authority and with low levels of national pride and nationalism. It also means that self-expression values are important, giving priority to environmental protection, being positive to foreigners, to sexual freedom and gender equality as well as to participation in political life.

These values are consequences of 20th century political, social and cultural modernity. Sweden, since the 1930s, has enjoyed its own version of the Nordic model, combining free-market capitalism with an extensive welfare state delivering social security, public healthcare, public education and, as a result, leaving much room for the personal and social development of its citizens.

Visiting Stocholm, you will encounter plenty of dads (and moms) on paid parental leave pushing prams. You will notice that this is one of the best LGBT cities in the world. You will use unisex public toilets and you will see that Sweden is a happy place, ranking in top 10 in the world happiness report. Look here for more country facts.

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Sergels torg and Kulturhuset
The epicentre of modern Stockholm is a public square of 1967, Sergels torg, with iconic black and white triangular paving being a symbol of the city. Kulturhuset (The house of culture, 1974) along its southern side is one of Northern Europe’s largest cultural institutions and inspired Centre Pompidou in Paris. Kulturhuset has several libraries and vast spaces for theatre, art exhibitions, dance, film and music.

Sergels torg originated in a major redevelopment of central Stockholm decided in 1945 and realized during the following decades. Large parts of the old and worn down city centre was demolished to make place for new, modern architecture and to facilitate the Stockholm subway. This was all part of the modern dream of building a better future. The Kulturhuset architect Peter Celsing said he was building “for a new human being that has to come”. The house is like a showcase with its magnificent glass facade, promoting light and openness.

Sergels torg is where Swedes go for political demonstrations and for celebrating national sports victories (when not visiting Kulturhuset). There is an excellent café on the lower level where you can have strong Swedish coffee and observe the Swedes.

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The Living History Forum
Stroll south from Sergels torg and get to The Living History Forum (Forum för levande historia) in Gamla stan. Public Swedish cultural institutions are for the most part committed to working progressively with social and cultural diversity, human rights and against discrimination and The Living History Forum especially so.

It is a Swedish public authority commissioned to work for everyone’s equal value with issues related to tolerance, democracy and human rights, using the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity as starting point. Working in cooperation with scholars, with people involved in education, with NGOs and other stakeholders, it develops methods and tools for reaching its key target group: young people.

The Living History Forum has been working with national projects on the Holocaust, on racism and intolerance, on norms in general and the heteronorm in particular, and several more. In their Stockholm venues are exhibitions introducing current projects.

Stockholm Public city library
The famous Public city library (1928) is an architectural jewel and my personal favourite spot in the city. Pop in for another coffee and a look at the great book rotunda. Public libraries in the modern sense are generally a late 19th century/early 20th century phenomena and related to the very modern idea of equal opportunities for all to educate themselves.

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Årsta community centre
Årsta, about two km south of Stockholm city centre, was the first large-scale modern suburban district in Stockholm planned as a whole in response to pressing housing needs. The idea was to build a new and entirely modern city district and it was a public initiative. Built in 1942–1951 Årsta also got the first community centre (1953) developed outside central Stockholm.

Årsta centrum included a public library, a theatre, a “people’s house”, a café, numerous small shops, a postal office and several healthcare facilities. You can have good coffee in the beautiful theatre/library-building, overlooking the central square. If you want to see the community centre idea fully developed you should also have a look at the even more famous Vällingby centrum (1954) as well, once a world-known model for a satellite city.

Skogskyrkogården
Skogskyrkogården (Woodland cemetery, 1940) by architects Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz is a beautiful place for reflection and the second 20th century site in the world to become a UNESCO World Heritage site (1994). The motivation was that it was created as a new form of cemetery, which fundamentally influenced the design of burial sites around the world.

Skogskyrkogården is a big woodland park and the general idea was to achieve an area in which nature and architecture was to form a harmonic whole, making the woods itself the main focus of attention. It was created as a distinctly modern response to the lack of cemeteries in the city.

Skogskyrkogården is for all – the largest part is protestant Christian, but there are two Moslem parts, two Orthodox Christian parts, a large part owned by the Jewish community in Stockholm and smaller parts for Catholics, Baha’i, and Mandaeans.

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