Flat design from the 1950s: Sweden

Posted on 13 November 2011 0 comments

1950s point block in Vällingby
1950s point block in Vällingby. Image from ERA Sweden

This is the third part of a series of posts about flat design from the 1950s. Part one looked at examples from England. Part two looked at examples from Belgium, Denmark, Holland, and Switzerland.

This post looks at examples from Sweden.

The design of Swedish housing drew strong admiration and a growing interest from British Architects from the 1940s onwards. Sweden was seen as a model of what a welfare state could achieve.

In September 1943, the Architectural Review published a special issue titled ‘Swedish peace in war’. The editorial introduction stated:

“Swedish housing is the most progressive in Europe in its social organisation. The Co-operatives build better than anywhere else, and building societies don’t lag behind. Prefabrication is used more widely and sensibly than anywhere else…Detail is as generally sensitive as any of the eighteenth century. And even when, as sometimes occurs even in Sweden, the design of buildings is not particularly distinguished, the way they are placed on the site and set off with rocks and conifers or silver birch – the way in fact they are landscaped – provides an object lesson for the English town-planner and architect.”

Another publication, Architectural Design and Construction, printed their first article on Swedish flats in May 1944. It contained the Swedish answer to the question:

“Should blocks of flats be narrow or wide, or high and low?”

According to the Swedes, wide blocks were cheaper but narrow blocks offered greater design possibilities in planning and layout. They therefore provided better, more practical living quarters. An additional recommendation was that narrow blocks should be at least 6 storeys high with 4 flats per floor in order to provide adequate communal facilities (such as laundries or crèches).

Of course, viewing the housing of another country through the filtered lens of the best examples is unlikely to be an accurate representation of the state of housing as a whole within that country. These series of posts about 1950s flat design are not meant to be wide-ranging surveys of housing within that period. They are meant to provide examples of the wide variation possible in flat design; the type of variation that feels almost completely absent from flat design in Britain today.

All the examples in this series have been taken from a 1958 book called Modern Flats by the English architects F.R.S. Yorke (1906-1962) and Frederick Gibberd (1908-1984).

Below, I’ve repeated the introduction I wrote in part two of this series to re-iterate the scope and intention of these posts. If you’ve already read part one or part two of this set of posts, feel free to jump ahead.

The purpose of posting these floor plans is as an aid to the study of flat layout and configuration. What ideas and inspiration can we take from these 1950s designs for housing today?

In this series of posts, I make no evaluation of the success (or otherwise) of the example housing blocks. The focus is on the flat layouts and configuration; we can still learn something from their design irrespective of the fate of the actual housing developments. It’s possible to separate the flat layouts from their original setting and design something of completely different scale and appearance.

Vällingby, 1951-3

1950s point blocks by the Swedish architect Hjalmar Klemming
1950s point blocks by the Swedish architect Hjalmar Klemming. Image from Google street view.

Vällingby is a suburban area of Stockholm that was planned as a new town from the early 1950s onwards. These cruciform point blocks (built with state subsidy) were designed by the Swedish architect Hjalmar Klemming.

When completed, the blocks contained a total of 52 dwellings:

  • 1 studio
  • 20 bed-sitting rooms
  • 29 one bedroom flats
  • 2 three bedroom maisonettes

There is one lift and one staircase in the block.

Floor plan for 1950s block by Hjalmar Klemming
Floor plan for 1950s block by Hjalmar Klemming. Click for larger image.

This seems like a compactly planned block with relatively small apartments. The cruciform shape however allows for a variety of different layouts including duplex flats. The single room flat without a bath would obviously not be considered acceptable today.

Interestingly, these blocks contained double-glazed windows when they were built in the early 1950s, which seems quite remarkable by British standards where it would take a few more decades for double-glazed windows to gain widespread adoption. (Sweden does have colder winters than the UK.)

You can take a look at the blocks on Google Street View.

Vällingby, 1953-4

1950s point blocks by Jarl Bjurström
1950s point blocks by Jarl Bjurström. Image from Google Street View.

These point blocks were designed by the Swedish architect Jarl Bjurström and built in 1953-4. Four of these blocks sit on the north side of Vällingby town centre. (The towers by Hjalmar Klemming described above sit on the opposite side of the town centre.)

When the blocks were built they contained a total of 36 dwellings:

  • 9 bed-sitting rooms (studios)
  • 8 one-bedroom flats
  • 18 two-bedroom flats
  • 1 four-bedroom flat
Typical floor plan for a 1950s block designed by Jarl Bjurström
Typical floor plan for a 1950s block designed by Jarl Bjurström. Click for larger view.

Furnished apartment interior in VällingbyThe shape of the building allows for a variety of interesting layouts. On the right are some interior shots of a two-bedroom apartment for sale (the images are from ERA Sweden). Click the image for a larger view.

No-one designs floor plans like this in Britain today, not even architects. And yet this 1950s two-bed layout is so much more appealing than the unthinking, unimaginative design of open-plan flats today.

Take a look at the blocks on Google Street View.

Sorgenfri, Malmö, 1954

apartment blocks in Sorgenfri, Malmö
The sloping flank walls are a distinctive feature of these apartment blocks. Image from Google street view.

These low-rise housing blocks were built with government subsidy in 1954. They were designed by the German-Swedish architect Fritz Jaenecke (1903-1978) and Swedish architect Sten Samuelson (1926-2002).

The blocks contain one-bedroom flats. The most common arrangement is one communal staircase serving three flats; this allows two flats to be dual-aspect and one flat to be single aspect.

the arrangement of flats in a block in Sorgenfri, Malmö

floor plan for an apartment in Sorgenfri, Malmö
Floor plan. Click for larger view.

You can view these housing blocks on Google Street View.

In the next concluding post in this series, I’ll write some final thoughts on 1950s flat design and flat design in Britain today.

Additional references for this post

Some of the information in this post is taken from a book called Housing the Twentieth Century Nation (Journal 9) published in 2008 by the Twentieth Century Society. It features a chapter titled Sense, sensibility and tower-blocks: the Swedish influence on post-war housing in Britain.

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