IV Symposium

Home » Clarence Burton Sheffield, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, USA

Clarence Burton Sheffield, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, USA



“Identity, Difference, and the Porosity of Swedish Architecture:  Some Reflections on a Complex Historiography”

Historians of Swedish architecture face a major challenge in determining their actual scope and content of study. In other words, what constitutes Swedish architectural identity? Can it be distinguished meaningfully from the broader category of the Nordic, and how should one cope with dislocation, the porosity of borders, the fluidity of identity, and instances of the transnational? How should historians deal with the foreign presence in Sweden? Likewise, how should the canon treat works outside of Sweden by Swedish architects? Furthermore, how should the view from abroad by non-Swedish architectural historians be considered?

Citizenship, languages spoken, place of origin, and national borders are deeply problematic, as is the attempt to posit an intrinsic Swedish essence, a homogenous national identity, gestalt, or habitus. Architectural historians have often invoked such conditions, however, with questionable results. Theorist and historian Christian Norberg-Schulz epitomized this approach. He used the term, the “domestication of the foreign,” to explain the tension between national architectural identity and difference, and stylistic translocation.

The English-born architect, Ralph Erskine, provides an interesting example. He emigrated to Sweden in 1939, and has often been described as “more Swedish than the Swedes themselves.” Alvar Aalto, like most Finnish cultural elites, spoke Swedish, and Sweden was crucial to the Norwegian architects Arnstein Arneberg, Magnus Poulsson, Andreas Bjercke and Georg Eliassen who trained there. The Austrian Josef Frank emmigrated to Sweden in 1933 with his Swedish wife Anna, and he began a life-long collaboration with Estrid Ericson at Svenskt Tenn. Frank remains isolated, however, and peripheral to most histories of modern Swedish architecture. Although born in Sweden, Torben Grut’s Danish ancestry occasionally has been invoked to explain his frequent use of brick, and architectural historian Nicholas Adams has noted his “early fascination with all things Danish.” Sven Markelius’s Economic and Social Council Chamber (1950-52) at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City provides an important instance of the transnational. Markelius also demonstrates the fluidity of personal identity, since he was born Jonsson, but decided to change his surname in the 1920s, after his ancestral farm.

A major strength of Swedish architecture is its robust eclecticism, its ability to synthesize and assimilate, to tolerate and accept new, often, foreign impulses. The national has been tempered by the international, the rural by the cosmopolitan, the old balanced by the new, and the center by the periphery to a remarkable degree in Sweden. Swedish architecture has a nuance, variety, complexity and richness that resist a monolithic master narrative or one-dimensional history.

Photo of Clarence Sheffield Clarence Burton Sheffield, Jr. (Ph.D. History of Art, Bryn Mawr College, 1999) holds the Eugene H. Fram Endowed Chair in Applied Critical Thinking at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, USA.  He is also an Associate Professor of Art History in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences.  His scholarship and research focus on Scandinavian Modernism—very broadly construed—with a special emphasis on art, architecture and design.  He has published essays on the Swedish design reformers Ellen Key and Gregor Paulsson, and frequently contributed reviews and essays to Scandinavian Studies, Studies in the Decorative Arts, Journal of Architectural Education, and Canadian-Scandinavian Studies/ Études scandinaves au Canada.

Clarence Burton Sheffield, Jr. Ph.D.

Rochester Institute of Technology

Rochester, NY USA


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: