Michael Diamant: We have changed the Scandinavian discourse on architecture

Michael Diamant

Michael Diamant studied society planning at Stockholm University and has a great interest in architecture, city planning, urban sociology, demography, history, and social anthropology. In 2013, he started a Facebook group promoting new traditional architecture, which has since grown to over 25 000 members. One year later, a member of this group started a group Arkitekturupporet (Architectural Uprising) that has grown to over 50 000 members, transformed the debate about architecture in Sweden, and spawned multiple local groups in Norway, Finland, Denmark, and other countries. Portuguese translation of the article can be found here.

Natalia Olszewska: Welcome, Michael! Could you tell our readers about what you are interested in and how this interest started?

Michael Diamant: I studied society planning and urban sociology at Stockholm University. I’ve always been interested in architecture and city planning, specifically classical city planning. I am very interested in urban sociology, demography, history, culture, and social anthropology. I am also interested in architecture but I don’t have deep architectural knowledge other than that I know the different styles and the key to a good facade.

A long time ago, I noticed that old buildings usually seemed very beautiful to me, and the new ones didn’t. What I also noticed is that the majority of people see it the same way, and they vote with their feet. Maybe people don’t always dare to say that they find most modernist buildings ugly, but where people spend vacations, where people want to hang out, tells you a lot. 

I live in Stockholm in Sweden and we have many examples of horrible developments built in the 1960s and onwards. Recently, our tourist board has made incredible efforts to cut out all the modernist buildings from their promotional materials of Stockholm. So they also seem to understand what people usually like.

In 2017, Yale university completed two new residential colleges to its campus, the Pauli Murray College and the Benjamin Franklin College. Image: Robert A.M. Stern Architects LLP

I realized this, but like most people, I didn’t know what to do about it. And then, with the arrival of social media and Facebook, I started a group in Swedish. Swedes have very good technical confidence, but they have no cultural confidence. They don’t dare to do anything on their own, but if others do it in Berlin or New York, then Swedes will do it too. So the approach was very simple – to show new traditional architecture, built mostly in these specific places.

The Architectural Uprising

We have later created the “Swedish Architectural Uprising”, which is now Sweden’s largest architectural group on Facebook. We have assisted similar groups to form in Norway, Finland, Denmark, and even Croatia. So far, it has had a huge success in public debate in both Sweden and recently Norway.

What we have accomplished is more or less changing the whole public discourse. People now ask: “Why are we only allowed to build in a modernist way today?” Once we started to discuss this and did more research, we came to certain conclusions. It has nothing to do with costs, and nothing to do with “evil corporations”. It has everything to do with modernist ideology at our architecture schools.

At architecture schools, you get a self-selection of people that like modernism, and as a result, year after year, like-minded people are admitted to these schools. And people who like to draw classical architecture or have a talent for drawing tasks in general, will not apply for architecture schools anymore.

Residence on Pokrovsky Boulevard, Moscow, completed in 2019. Image: Mezonprojekt

So it’s like an identity project for academics in architecture, this tiny minority takes pride in liking what other people find unpleasant. But it seems the buildings they design are unpleasant even for them. There was very interesting research published in the Swedish architecture magazine recently. It concluded that a majority of architects here live in buildings built before 1930. It’s as if modernism is something you do to other people. Architects set for themselves a goal to live in traditional neighborhoods with traditional architecture, and they build modernist and disharmonic ones for the public.

The contemporary approach is also fixated on the “new” design-wise, in regards to every single building. “New” in design is the most important attribute of a building, more important than that the building is good. And can you create a building that looks “new” design-wise with so few options that modernist architects have? They are not allowed to use any kind of historic reference and certainly not ornament or other cultural expressions.

Residential building on 28 avenue de Paris, completed in 2012. Image: Bridot Partenaires Architectes, Michael Diamant

So the only way to create a new project, is to use computer software, compose the craziest shape possible, and label it as ‘new’. You don’t have to care so much if it’s good because it’s ‘new’. You get approval from your other colleagues and what the public thinks doesn’t matter much, as they are often seen as uneducated to appreciate the “new” design.

So what do I want to achieve with my Facebook group? The group that I’ve started and those that I have helped to start show that new traditional architecture is built today and that that is a good thing. It’s built in different countries, it’s built in neighboring countries to your country. This is how the whole discussion starts, this is how you let the genie out of the bottle. 

Then the discussion explodes because more and more people realize all this ugliness is 100% about modernist ideology and nothing else, not building costs, not materials, not “greedy developers” or anything like that. And if we can change away from this ideology, then we can have a more beautiful world. For me, it is as simple as that.

Shifting the Public Debate

Michal: Thank you very much for explaining this. How have you noticed that the public discourse is shifting this way in Sweden? 

Michael D.: People are now allowed to express themselves. There’s been criticism of modernism from the sixties onwards but it has always been suppressed. There was no social media or anything like that. There were newspapers and some architectural professional newspapers. So usually, no criticism was allowed. 

But then Arkitekturupproret came and exploded in popularity due to people’s discontent. In Sweden, it has more than 50,000 members and many of the group’s views have been expressed in newspapers in the last five years; article after article, interview, after interview.

And what are the results? Architecture still hasn’t changed that much, even though the public debate has. But many politicians have now understood that ‘this is where the wind is blowing’ and they have started to advocate for classical architecture. As a result, we have new projects approved in Stockholm and Gothenburg, and some smaller cities. 

But there is a problem. We lack educated classical architects, so this limits the creativity and quality of the projects. We may have four or five properly classically trained architects in the whole country. 

Palais Holler in Berlin has replaced a post-war development in 2017. Image: Nöfer Ar­chi­tek­ten

The end goal of all this is not to have an eternal 19th century. The goal is just to follow the same architectural philosophy and understanding of how you create a building that suits the human mind. Based on this understanding, one can create an unlimited amount of styles, similar in the basic understanding on how to create a facade but different in detail. 

Renaissance is not the same style as Rococo, and Rococo is not the same style as Art Deco, they’re all different, but they share the same philosophy or understanding of how you create a facade. You know, you have the proportions, the symmetries, the basic facade division and you understand that some forms are easier for the mind to be interpreted, to be understood. 

Based on that understanding you can create new styles for our time. You can be inspired by old cultural expressions, like our Greek or Roman heritage, but you can also create new ornamental expressions. We can incorporate our zeitgeist and its expression into our buildings. That is not a problem. But you need to create these expressions of our time, with an understanding of how you create a building that is appealing for the mind.

The Great Discontent

Walker Hotel Greenwich Village in New York, US, completed in 2013. Image: Atelier & Co.

Natalia: Would you say, based on your experience of building bridges with communities all over the world, that this discontent with contemporary architecture is universal?

Michael D.:  It’s universal. Russia, Serbia, Greece, Brazil, Peru, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines. It’s the same everywhere. We all belong to the same human species. Across all the populations, you’ll probably find similar patterns of how people see their environment and what they prefer. 

If I can make a qualified guess, I would say that we have reminiscences of a ‘stone-age brain’, and that means that we want the safety and readability of our environment. We need a readable environment, but at the same time, not a monotonous environment, because otherwise, our brain gets bored.

Natalia: And based on your knowledge of social anthropology, what can you say about the social impact of contemporary architecture or modernist architecture on people? 

Michael D.: I think it has a lot to do with our sense of identity. We construct our identity around our environment, people identify with beautiful places and they don’t want to identify with ugly places. People that live in beautiful, lovable places have a strong local identity. If you are proud of your neighborhood, of course, you will take better care of it if. As a result, you will feel better as a human.

There are these new city areas which are all glass and steel, and many people move into them because it’s a part of their identity project, as they want to feel modern and progressive. The problem is these modern areas age terribly. So 20 years later, people realize: “God, this is ugly”, and then they move on if they can.

This is exactly what happened here in the sixties when people first moved into modern concrete high rise areas where they had water and electricity. They felt they were modern people. And then some years later, people that could moved out since these new areas lacked the charm and beauty of the classical city districts.

Natalia: When you were saying that people who live in beautiful areas feel pride, well, maybe they feel also more confident. It almost sounds like these people have more opportunities for self-actualization because of the surroundings around them. 

In 2019, a building with a facade from original 1920s plans replaced a modernist building in Budapest Kossuth Lajos Square. Image: Michael Diamant

Michael D.: Yes, it is an aspect of self-actualization. In the sixties, we just wanted to solve the housing shortage. People needed running water and electricity, but as soon as they got that, they started to be driven by new ideas and projects: ‘I want a new villa’ or ‘I want to live in a beautiful area with a local bakery, and self-actualize as an urban bohemian. It is a very middle-class dream.

In Sweden there are very few classical architecture neighborhoods, they are the oldest, small downtown areas. And they are all occupied now by the upper-middle class. If you go to downtown Stockholm, there are no poor people there. There are no middle-class people. Everyone is upper middle class and works in the banking sector, or as an art director. Everyone else has been priced out.

We have statistics for that in Sweden. A building built at the turn of the 19th century is worth twice as much in almost the same location as a building built in the 1960s. And this has nothing to do with the square meters.

Sustainably Traditional

Natalia: Do you think we can be optimistic about the future of our cities? 

Michael D.: It depends on how much spare time I have! (laugh) 

The situation in architecture at the moment is really bad, but it’s changing because there are students all over the world who are interested in classical architecture. For example, I have connected with a lot of young Polish classicists. There is a discussion currently at one of the Central European universities – they are considering launching a faculty of classical architecture, and this is happening all over Europe. It is only the beginning, it will take decades before these young people start having power, but things are changing.

Traditional architecture and urbanism are also a matter of sustainability. Urbanists are often influenced by modernist thinking and many new buzzwords, such as “tactical urbanism”, or “15 minute city”. But in its essence, it’s called traditional urbanism. We don’t need to invent all these new fancy terms. The whole profession seems to be stuck in the thinking that you cannot learn anything from the past and everything must be new, new, new.

But if you care about climate change, if you care about social housing, then you should create good classical urbanism. That’s a compact city. When you reduce the need for transport and logistics – that’s climate-friendly. 

If you create something very beautiful, it can stand for thousands of years because every generation will see the value of it and will preserve it.

This way, you also create architecture that people want to keep. The biggest impact a building has on the climate is when it is built. If you create beautiful buildings, people will keep them. What makes a building stand over a hundred years is not materials but a value beyond its function which is usually beauty combined with cultural expressions. 

If you create something very beautiful, it can stand for thousands of years because every generation will see the value of it and will preserve it. If you build an ugly building, even from ecological materials, it will be torn down sooner or later when it’s not useful anymore. 

Just look at how early industrial buildings are remade to lofts for the upper-middle class. How many modern factory buildings will be remade to upper-middle-class apartments? It won’t happen. You see, these old factory buildings are so beautiful that we reuse them. That’s green architecture – one that has value beyond its immediate function. 

Apartment house in Tallinn, Estonia, completed in 2012. Image: Arhitektibüroo Allan Strus

In continental Europe, it’s usual for older city buildings to have courtyards. Traditionally, you used to wash clothes in the courtyard. Today you get a large space that you can transform into a private green space. And then you build balconies so they face the courtyard. You get a pleasant, silent, private place where you can read your morning newspaper. Outside, you have a busy city. This concept is so excellent. 

Michal: Maybe you have heard of Jan Gehl, his research and ideas. There is this whole urbanist movement that he created by observing how people behave in a city. One of his concepts is called “soft city”, and it describes exactly what you described right now. 

For our final question, can you share with us any buildings or neighborhoods that exemplify what we have spoken about?

Michael D.: I often share examples of newly developed traditional architecture in my group New Traditional Architecture, which is open to everyone. Picking a single one is not easy, because usually, no one is doing everything right. If you look for good classical architecture, I would say you should look at German developments. If you want relatively good new traditional urbanism, then you look at France. If you want creative classical architecture that is unfortunately often oversized in dimensions, then you go to Russia. If you want fantastic new classical buildings in lousy urban contexts, then you go to the US.

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