Katrineholm as Utopia

Gertrud Sandqvist

Katrineholm is a small town in a small country in the North, which for several decades in the 20th century wanted to realize a utopia. But utopias, too, become history.

In 1918, Sweden came very close to revolution. The Social Democrat's pragmatism transmuted this into '70s. reforms. The first step was the repeal of the muti-tier voting system, which meant that wealthy landowners, capitalists and others lost the upper hand in the Riksdag, the national parliament. Then, in the 1930s, came the famous accord on industrial peace between trade unions, industrialists' associations and government, in a series of reforms of working life in the Saltsjobaden Agreement. After the Second World War, in an uninterrupted period in government up until 1976, the Social Democrats continued to carry through a comprehensive welfare program that they called the Folkhemmet (the people's home - the Welfare State). A series of fundamental security systems was built up. Schools and health care became State-owned and free, and that included higher education. Pension systems and social assistance were expanded, as were day-care centers in the 1960s and Extensive building programs were started up all over Sweden. The public library and Folkets Hus (the People's Palace), along with schools, took over the roll of the Church as bearers of culture. The principle of public access to official records was introduced, even if it became increasingly difficult over the years for social democracy to avoid identifying itself with the State.

Throughout this period, there was a mutual understanding between big capital and the social democrats. The common formula was social responsibility, which meant that industry went along with pay rises and labor legislation in return for the State refraining from nationalizations and excessive payroll taxes.

These social democrats were driven by a passion, having more often than not grown up in harsh circumstances and having received a poor education. The Sweden of poverty was to be done away with. Never again would people have to starve to death or be subjected to arbitrariness. Never again would gifted young people be unable to afford an education. Never again would bad teeth or the wrong pronunciation be a mark of poverty. Never again would people die before their time because of poor housing and inadequate health care. Never again would charity and alms take the place of decent remuneration. Not gold watches - but a solid pension! Never again would servants or agricultural laborers paid in kind on large estates be sold with the estate. And never again would soldiers open fire on workers, as happened at Adalen in 1931.

Social democracy's period in power coincided with industrialization. Neither social democrats nor capitalists had any great understanding of people's sense of belonging to a place (or of environmental issues). The ideal for both was a pragmatic urbanism. Both relied on good organization. In a very short time, the poor agricultural economy of Sweden was transformed to make it one of the world's leading industrial nations, with tolerably evenly distributed welfare.

I myself grew up in the Labor Movement, although not in Katrineholm, but in another small town of the same size. My own paternal grandmother died of pneumonia in a damp crofter's cottage at the age of 32, partly due to undernourishment. My paternal grandfather died five years later of tuberculosis. My father's education consisted of six years in alternate-day school, and later folk high-school. The inequities were experienced physically in the body, in every family. When my father became a Member of Parliament, he was in direct contact with every voter who wanted something from him, and tried to help. He studied Svea Rikes Lag (the Swedish statute book) on his own, but never learned English properly. When, late in life, he was to lecture at Harvard, he learned the lecture by heart, word for word. He and all his generation had a pride that nothing could shake - they had put their utopia into practice. But throughout his life, he retained his childhood fear of farmers, who set dogs on little boys.

I remember that pride from all those countless meetings and May Day speeches around the country, where the family accompanied him. It was there in how loudly the International was sung as the final fanfare. It was there in the tour of the new library, or the swimming baths, or the school, or the housing estate, or the industrial area.

Just look at a small town in Sweden! Was there ever anywhere where you could see such fantastically dreary postcards? They show the railway station, the park, the church, but equally often a newly built school, or a Folkets Hus, or library, or a housing estate, or even the new oil storage tanks! Unless we understand that we are seeing a realized utopia, this is incomprehensible.

The Social Democrats were modernists. The architecture pamphlet from 1930,acceptera (accept), was written by five young radicals (or functionalists, as modernism was referred to in Sweden), who very soon got jobs at the Kooperativa Forbundet's (KF, Cooperative Wholesale Society) architects' bureau and were given the task of designing functional houses for workers all over Sweden. The key words were transparency, sunlight, health and equality. Older buildings that were seen as a danger to health were demolished on a scale that is almost incomprehensible today. If we look only at the housing stock we might believe that Sweden had been subjected to unusually severe bombing during the Second World War, when in fact the country managed to keep out of it. The unembellished 'slab-blocks' of flats in with their mortar or brick exteriors were absolutely everywhere, like triumphal monuments to the victorious utopia, modernism and social democracy. They are ideology as much as function. They, together with the allotments and terraced houses, exemplify the good society for the good worker family. Never again would a person's home indicate their status. Never again would the town be an emblem for a hierarchy, or schools and hospitals cry out class affiliations in their very architecture. There were serious proposals from Le Corbusier that the whole of Södermalm in Stockholm should be demolished, including its buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, and replaced with eight skyscrapers. The old Klara quarter of central Stockholm, also from the 18th century, was leveled to the ground in the 1960s and replaced with late-modernism by Peter Celsing: the Kulturhus (cultural center), Riksbank (Bank of Sweden), Riksdag (Parliament building), various ministries and the labor movement's evening paper Aftonbladet.

All this is also there in Katrineholm, a municipality that has had a stable Social-Democrat majority for decades, and for which Sweden's social democrat Prime Minister was previously municipal commissioner.

Is Katrineholm dull? That is possible. It could have been a model municipality (indeed - they did exist and were designated "municipality of the year"). Above all, the town is a result of the social-democratic mania for security. It is situated in Sörmland, and like all other small towns does its best to attract industry and thereby job opportunities. All the basic amenities are here: surroundings of great natural beauty, good communications, hospitals, schools, libraries and shops including a systembolag (state company selling wines and spirits), a suitable number of churches and Free Churches, a Co-op and private shops, a good network of streets and roads, a town park. A few old buildings are still left, the worst of the concrete suburbs were not built here. No slums, no extreme poverty, no extravagant wealth - and not really any middle class, either.

Was it a town like this that Sormland's agricultural laborers dreamed of? If so, it was a totally reasonable dream, a dream of human dignity.

These quiet streets with their green areas around the houses are a utopia, lived and experienced in consensus. The climate makes it impossible to have an over-lively street life. Consensus thinking prevents individuality from being manifested outside the home. Discretion can be mistaken for coldness, but it is more a question of shyness. The culture is amazingly homogeneous, which has put relations with immigrants severely to the test during the 1990s.

It is true that we do not see much spontaneity and imagination, that utopia can be suffocatingly intractable and intolerant. Artists have had difficulties coping here, as in other small towns the world over. But this utopia of agricultural laborers, crofters and industrial workers, in its matter-of-fact commonplaceness, is still startlingly easy to live in. Now, most people have forgotten the circumstances that nourished it.

Katrineholm is a tribute to passionate ordinariness.

Gertrud Sandqvist


Gertrud Sandqvist, b.1955, is an art critic. Since 1995 she is the Director of the Malmo Art Academy . Previously she was the editor of Siksi, the Nordic art magazine (1986-90). Among shows she has curated are Abject,1990, Private,1993 ,and a Mary Kelly retrospective, 1994.

(translation by Mike Garner)