City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The owner. ‘Utomhusverket 2021’ installation, by Studio Ossidiana for ArkDes

Utomhusverket 2021 by Studio Ossidiana for ArkDes; a conference centre for the birds, ‘al masha’, and the beauty, dignity and utility of shared things in everyday life

ArkDes are quietly building one of the Sweden’s more interesting spaces out of one of Sweden’s least interesting spaces

Sitting outside one of Stockholm’s primary cultural complexes, the space known as Exercisplan has previous lives that would have been defined by display, ritual and ceremony. It was once a parade ground, when the island of Skeppsholmen was largely allocated to military use. But now it is an entirely blank space, an unlovely, unloved square of asphalt, essentially as if car park, yet awkwardly acting as the entrance to the Swedish National Centre for Architecture and Design (ArkDes) and one of the country’s preeminent galleries (Moderna Museet).

The vagaries of public administration mean that, as far as anyone can tell, it is destined to be left empty, presumably waiting for the fire engines that will hopefully never come, vacant just in case, deliberately under-using what is otherwise a prime morsel of public space in a jewel of an island in the centre of Stockholm, a few steps from the archipelago’s rich and complex terrain.

I wouldn’t want to overplay it. It’s no more than a small urban space—but we know the importance of the social life of small urban spaces.

It’s a small urban space — yet fronted by at least two major cultural institutions, and surrounded by trees and gardens, sitting on a jewel of an island in the middle of the Swedish capital

Yet here nature and culture is reduced to a void, a slab of nothing, a blasted concrete heath and a biodiversity desert, its hardscape terrain currently amplifying the Swedish summer’s increasingly fierce sun.

Such is the way that public spaces are (mis)managed in the early 21st century, and not just in Sweden. In that context, where natural life and cultural life is seen as a cost, a maintenance headache, a safety and security liability, it is preferable to leave it as asphalt. This is a system working as precisely as it is intended to, because “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.

Yet happily, for the last few years ArkDes have been quietly and artfully subverting this intent, filling this small space with questions in the form of commissioned installations over the summer months. Public Luxury (2018) placed Dansbana! here, a lovely reworking of the open stages for dancing that traditionally peppered most Swedish towns and villages. And last year, the Melbourne-based artist Linda Tegg created a modular meadow environment, Infield, of which more later.

And this year, Studio Ossidiana—an Italian, though Rotterdam-based, architecture, design and research practice led by Alessandra Covini and Giovanni Bellotti —have produced a beautiful installation, Utomhusverket 2021, which pushes even further into this questioning of public space and how it might be articulated, of “platforms for outdoor gathering”, of convivial urban spaces, including conviviality between and within nature. (And also, quite simply, the numerous variations of transition ‘from car park to park’ that many of us are engaged in.)

‘Utomhusverket 2021’ installation, by Studio Ossidiana for ArkDes

I visited on a very sunny Sunday June 6th, perhaps a few days after it opened. I got there early in the morning, around 7am. I’m aware of the irony in writing an article about people and public space, based on visiting the place without people. If you do want to see people occupy the space—and you should—then watch this excellent explanatory film by Performing Pictures, featuring Studio Ossidiana (see more at the ArkDes site):

Living. Stills from Performing Pictures film about Utomhusverket 2021

But I specifically wanted to see the space before people arrived. Aware that this space is usually bereft of people anyway, I wanted to see the structures that had been added, and to dwell in the space with other, non-human forms of nature inhabiting it, for reasons I’ll outline later. The urban sociology researcher in me—Reader, I was one, once—usually wants to explore people, their relationships and networks, places and histories, patterns of living, ownership and organising structures. The designer that I then became wants to understand that too, but also the creation and maintenance of affordances, hooks, invitations, atmospheres, codes, materials, physical and digital structures, the built and natural environment (or livsmiljö, as we say in Swedish, a hybrid of both, translating handily as ‘living environment’). All these aspects and more are relevant, ultimately, and I’ll return to see how they’ve entwined over time.

Entities like ArkDes, and their many equivalents and variations, know how to both curate and commission those affordances, and prime the space with cultural activity, through ongoing engagement. This is why such social infrastructureslibraries and laundrettes, plazas and playgrounds, pools and pavements, parks and pubs, schools and streets, museums and markets, cafes and churches etc—are so important, as I unpack in this piece. The ability for ArkDes—or equivalent—to generate life, and living environments, is not in question here. Rather, the issue is the invisible cultures of decision making that actually prevent such living environments happening in places such as these. And then, to zoom in to the design of affordances that can suggest and stimulate living environments once they are unlocked. That’s what this piece is about.

There are many small gems in that documentary film, circling not only around the duo’s interest in public spaces, but in making, materials, minerals and ground—and, as Studio Ossidiana say, luring people over into small moments and patterns, which reveal that “not all ground is the same”. It also reveals, in loving detail, the processes of making behind all these elements, a precious celebration of craft, necessary in such a public luxury.

Making. Stills from Performing Pictures film about Utomhusverket 2021

Here’s the project description:

Conceived as an “archipelago” of activities and encounters between people, plants, birds, and minerals, Utomhusverket 2021 celebrates the potential of public space. A planted pond offers relief from the summer heat for both birds and people. Tall perches, designed for migratory birds, cast shadows across a ground of shells, loam, and gravels. The ground elements combine to create new soils that can be shaped by digging, walking, lying, playing, and more. A sundial marks the passing of time, while radiating the captured heat of the sun. An enclosed garden offers shade, shelter, and berries to birdlife. Handcrafted terrazzo ‘rocks’ afford opportunities for play, display, and gathering.—ArkDes

The description of “an archipelago of activities and encounters” captures the installation perfectly (and perhaps knowingly, as this island connects city to archipelago.)

It’s a playful space, for us and the birds, as well as a reflective space. And therefore, in this context, it is also profoundly transformational.

“From play and meditation to open-air community meetings and demonstrations, (Studio Ossidiana’s) design sets a stage for new ways of being together. It highlights the symbolic action of shared experiences — with others, with nature, and with our surroundings.”—ArkDes

The installation shifts the space, moving from the mode of a car park that doesn’t even have parking in it to a genuinely inviting public space, programmed to draw you in and gently subvert ideas of what public space is, never mind question why the space exists as an empty car park.

There are several moments worth dwelling on, little patterns of activity. In the film, Ossidiana describe these moments as “embassies”, and it’s easy to imagine how, in plan, it might appear like a layout for a diplomatic quarter, simple geometries of circle, square and triangle to house a few opposing nation states. Yet as they also point out, they are interested in playing this urban scale off against a “sentimental scale”, a scale which suggests and rewards interaction.

At the centre, a pool creates a cooling space—a giant bird bath—and a beautiful reflective space, bouncing the light from building, sky and trees. Perhaps the greenery will tumble over the edge by the end of summer.

Some of the stones are beautifully polished terrazzo and concrete—again, watch the film, just shy of 15 minutes in—whilst others feel rougher, telling an oblique story of the formwork, and hands, that produced it. The colours feel Italian—well, at least one reading of northern Italian municipal hues—but also nod to the pastels that cloak 20th century Stockholm buildings: soft greens and pinks, set against the yellow ArkDes building behind, counterpointed by the gleaming white stones.

The setting for the pool and the stones is a crunchy gravel, carefully formed into loose sections, with a definition that initially reminds me of formal Italian or French gardens. Yet look closer and we see seashells in the mix, and the intense, sunglasses-inducing white light white heat bouncing back not only suggests the reflective roofs and other urban surfaces we may need to counter climate change — at least those roofs that aren’t green — but the vast stretches of white sand along the beaches of the Mediterranean and southern oceans.

Over one edge, a square of pink block—which feels like sandstone, but is presumably a soft concrete—is ornamented with geometric patterns, and decidely non-geometric spindly flowers.

These almost-dried stems are carefully arranged into the base, as though they are stuck in those foam blocks you find in florists. A checkerboard-like pattern suggests social games. Yet those pools to capture rain water, and present scoops of sunflower seeds, indicate this is a small block loosely allocated for other wildlife, of the non-chess-playing variety, and sure enough, after a family of ducks parades past, a lone mallard circles back to hang out for a bit, endlessly chuntering on at me, as males do, ducksplaining away.

In the video below we see the duck exploring the terrain, easing from an impressive neck-stretch into a quick high jump, no doubt drawn to those small pools of sunflower seeds. The duck and I had reached an understanding by this point, in which he was entirely not bothered by my presence, and was happy to broadcast this fact to me.

There are poles for birds to perch on spaced across the gravel, describing a curved chord drawn across the circle. Some of the poles have a dish on top, filled with bird seed. They are standing in for trees here, clearly, and might we imagine these dotted across city streets and parks, perhaps alongside traffic lights or signs where trees cannot grow. Along with bees for streets, what can we do—alongside planting many more trees—to encourage bird life in streets, given the numerous benefits of birdsong in an urban environment?

This gull prefers the certainty of the street light to the new poles behind. Can they sense it’s a pop-up, and so it may pop-down at any moment?

Nearby, the green perforated metal cylinder on another point of the circumference is crowned by a ring of mock ornamental gables. But the interior is where the interest lies, with a series of artfully-placed viewing portholes revealing a terrarium-like miniature ecosystem open to the sky, a replica of a beautiful mossy Swedish forest floor. Sunlight dapples in through the grid of holes, and through the tree. It’s a little jewel-box.

As Ossidiana says, this is somehow both “constructed and manicured” and the wildest of the “embassies” they’re making here. It has “something of the forest”, and speaks of a certain form of preservation of nature, where we are not allowed in. This is opposed to other spaces, which you are very much invited to occupy. The neo-conservationist debates are being subtly played out here.

I’m particularly interested to see how this part has grown, and I’ll revisit before the exhibit closes in October. The ivy was already working its way out through the openings after only a few days, as it tends to. Again, it’s easy to imagine small structures like these on street corners, soaking up rain and the curiosity of passers-by, small outcrops of forest-like terrain snuck into hardscape, not just Tiny Forests, but micro-forests.

They’re not really forest-like, of course, any more than the tip of an iceberg is the whole iceberg. I read Suzanne Simard’s extraordinary Finding the Mother Tree a few weeks after visiting Utomhusverket. As Simard says in this great interview, her work “turned upside down our understanding of forests from just a collection of individuals competing with each other to this entwined, interactive suite of species that actually collaborated and competed”. It’s clear that these confected ecosystems are missing entire substrates; that they are artificial facsimiles of a forest; again, no more than a living diorama. Of course, there is still more life in this circular wedge of surface terrain than in the rest of Exercisplan put together, perhaps excepting the pool. And Studio Ossidiana are clear about the intent here—as explained in the film, it is a deliberately contained confection of nature, both the wildest and most constructed ‘embassy’ in the neighbourhood.

But it does make you wonder what the next step is, where we might puncture through the concrete of Exercisplan into a subterranean social life of small urban spaces, where the socialising is largely done by mycorrhizal fungi, root networks and bugs. That is precisely the kind of engaging design research that current planning strictures for this space prohibit, however.

The perceptible action in this video of the interior is largely in the soundtrack, from creatures off-camera outside of the tiny world in front of me, the persistently beautiful blackbird not deterred by the bullying gulls circling around.

On a quiet Sunday morning, birds do actually own the place. ArkDes is on an island, Skeppsholmen (which translates to ‘The islet of ships’, perhaps), a small mound cast off from the city centre, a formerly military gateway into the archipelago and out of the city, the island’s old naval buildings now occupied by cultural institutions. But during early summer, it’s clear that birds will eternally see it as giant nest.

In fact, at moments, with the birds clearly emboldened as they realised they heavily outnumbered me, the general vibe got a little too Tippi Hedren to be comfortable. But I was visiting during the prime nesting and nurturing weeks, after all. It’s their space rather than mine, their infants learning how to waddle across the tarmac, not mine. I can’t sketch out the routes, but I’m suddenly very aware that this island’s position must sit within broader patterns of habitation. For the Canada Geese, it’s a port in journeys I can barely imagine. For the gulls, it’s no doubt some kind of urban supermarket, as well as a pop-up nursery. For the ducks, it’s their neighbourhood, their kindergarten. Having lived in Australia, where bird-swooping can be seriously confronting, I’m still a little unnerved by the low-altitude passes taking place overhead whenever I inadvertently move towards a nest.


I respectfully kept my distance, whilst remaining a character on the stage, sharing the drama with the ducks and the gulls. In the more refined questions of shared space now being explored in projects such as these, alongside other forms of research and discourse, these entirely mundane encounters are also little dances of emerging ritual.

Towards the opening time for the museums, staff members begin to show up, parking bikes nearby, glancing across at the reflecting pool as they wander towards the buildings. I stick around a bit, but decide to leave the place to them and their imminent visitors.

I loved the quiet early Sunday morning I spent alone with the birds at Utomhusverket. Many thanks to Studio Ossidiana, ArkDes and collaborators, for their thoughtful, careful and generous craft.

Truly public spaces

Utomhusverket 2021 was commissioned and curated by James Taylor-Foster and the great team at ArkDes. I work with ArkDes on our Street Moves/One-Minute City projects (updates here), and we can now see a clear set of projects emerging from the museum over the last few years, under Kieran Long’s direction: from Public Luxury to Infield to Street Moves to Utomhusverket, amongst others.

From Public Luxury: Dansbana on Exercisplan (2018–19) and Infartshinder by Hilda Hellström on Drottningatan (2020); Infield by Linda Tegg (2020)

These projects all prompt questions of public space and politics, of shared nature and human nature, of shared identity and diverse cultures, and of culture both as the patterns of everyday life and as art — and from a practice point-of-view, how architecture, art and design can produce tangible prototypes from complex questions, such that we can explore them in public, together.

Linda Tegg’s 2020 installation for ArkDes, Infield, was a similar ‘gathering’, but perhaps more of grasses, flowers, birds, insects. People were there too, despite the early days of Covid-19 limiting numbers, and small pockets of space were cut out of the meadow’s modular terrain to afford seating, and a general hanging around in the natural landscape. But bees seemed as relevant as human beings, if not more so, which implicitly asks highly pertinent questions about species and spaces, and relative priorities. These are places for informal social gatherings—but not only for people.

‘Infield’, by Linda Tegg, at ArkDes, during a visit in a very warm July 2020

Tegg’s Infield, with its modular plugs of meadow, suggests the possibility of the installation spreading across the island and beyond, as a system that could replicate itself across the city. I wrote about it in the Slowdown Papers precisely for this reason: Infield perhaps poses a clearer question about living with nature in urban environments, and “making space for non-human species and sharing the city with them”, as ArkDes director Kieran Long put it at the time.

It suggested forms of living systems and cultures (also infrastructures) that could be everywhere, almost, and hugely influenced my thinking about our street retrofit projects too; effectively, if implicitly, it asks why don’t all our streets and squares have swathes of biodiverse and active urban meadow on them?

View at

In this question, both Infield and Utomhusverket 2021 allows us to practice and perform convivial ways of living as part of nature, rather than against it. Whether this might involve uncovering old practices or inventing new ones is neither here nor there. It’s the practicing that counts.

Usually, when we talk about such work—‘re-wilding’ or otherwise—the nature present in such places, and conversations, is oriented around flora, and bees, birds and insects. Maybe bunnies. But intriguingly, elsewhere in the Nordics, some are beginning to discuss living alongside bears and wolves again. There are increases in wolves across Scandinaviasome appearing in Helsinki suburbs from time to time, as the population in Finland grows, albeit from a low base—and in Sweden, the bear population is growing, too.

Wolf, Helsinki/Espoo suburbs, Ilta-Sanomat

These are happy facts with our deeper challenges in mind, but there is no doubt that it is a little confronting to imagine living alongside wolves in the suburbs of Helsinki. That is a new level of convivial conservation. As I said in my speech in Nordic Bauhaus event this year, quoting Timothy Morton, “We don’t have the words for what this feels like yet—and that’s good.”

The diverse threads that comprise our design disciplines, especially when collided with others, are pretty good at finding or inventing the words, the images, the ideas, the prototypes.

“It’s not easy to find all the right words for this yet. That’s a good thing. The ones that are ready to hand are part of the problem. It’s also part of creativity, which will be central to future ecological-economic projects. A future-oriented world, based not on automating and locking down the past but on opening up to new relationships, is going to feel uncertain and strange. I repeat — we don’t quite have words, and that’s good. Trust your feelings, Luke.”
 — Timothy Morton, The Journal of Architecture, Volume 26, 2021, Issue 1

Formally, Utomhusverket is not as loosely organic as Infield. Its formal composition requires more imagination to see it moving across the city, variations on the themes popping up in courtyards, street corners and squares. Or perhaps we just don’t have the words for it yet. The very thing that makes it delightful—the exuberance of colour and ornamentation with which it pops against the grey tarmac—is the opposite of the transport planner aesthetic that typically pervades and controls these spaces.

And this is why Utomhusverket is essential, just as Infield was. It is entirely possible to infer the idea of an adaptable, malleable kit-of-parts from Ossidiana’s work, something that could fit into those spaces and others—just as the range of beautiful works in Ossidiana’s portfolio suggest, such as Three Floating Rooms at Kunstpaviljoen Flevoland or their extraordinary floating gardens of Büyükada Songlines. All part of a family, each distinct and located.

That a city like Stockholm apparently prefers its street furniture to be artless concrete bollards over this brightness, boldness and verve is hugely problematic, for it describes how the city’s bar is set to ‘risk aversion’ rather than ‘culture, conviviality and community’. Whereas concrete bollards are designed to be avoided, and easy to maintain as a result, Utomhusverket is clearly designed to be used, occupied, inhabited.

I would argue that this intent, articulated in its realisation at Exercisplan, makes Utomhusverket a truly public space—rather than something which is merely technically public space.

Al masha

The architecture collective DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Research), led by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, describe a much richer variation on the idea, based around the active production of public space, in their book Permanent Temporariness (PDF here)—that of al masha (or elsewhere Mashaa’ or al-mashaa)

“The Arabic term al masha refers to communal land equally distributed among farmers. Masha could only exist if people decided to cultivate the land together. The moment they stop cultivating it, they lose its possession … in order for this category to exist, it must be activated by common uses .. Al masha is different from “the public.” The state apparatus mediates the existence of the public, whereas al masha exists beyond state institutions. The public is a space that is given to people by structures of power, whereas al masha is a space created by the interaction of people. Public space can exist without people. Al masha only exists if people are constantly producing it.”
DAAR (Sandi Hilal & Alessandro Petti), Permanent Temporariness (2019) (Emphasis added)

Hilal is a frequent ArkDes collaborator too, including the living room project for Public Luxury, which also explored these questions of informal and formal, edges and boundaries, identity and ‘integration’, private and public.

Exercisplan, the vacant car park outside ArkDes, is indeed formally public space. It will slot neatly into the ledgers of the “state apparatus”, categorised as public space legally, adding fifty square metres to Stockholm’s vast pool of public assets. And yet as DAAR’s provocation makes clear, this is also absurd, perhaps even an example of what Lund University’s Mats Alvesson calls “functional stupidity”—technically correct, yet ultimately stupid.

“Public space can exist without people. Al masha only exists if people are constantly producing it.”—DAAR

Aside: Still quaking from the attacks by those Stuka-like seagulls, a further Arabic reference springs to mind: the rather more harmonious Conference of the Birds, a 12th century Persian poem by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, describing how Sulayman and Dāwūd could teach the language of the birds (manṭiq al-ṭayr). Perhaps this is an unlikely precursor to our current discussions over more-than-human-centred design, and convivial conservation. And so, perhaps Utomhusverket 2021 is 'a conference centre for the birds'. Have welost our ability to listen in?

Exercisplan, by default, is without people, without activity. It requires no people to produce it, and the web of governance that overlays Exercisplan acts as if it prefers it that way. It is far from al masha, in this sense, and asks how we can truly define public space if there are no people producing it? Can we really have public space without the public?

Can we really have a city without this meaningful co-production and shared ownership? As Jane Jacobs wrote, a city is not just a big village, or just an assemblage of structures that are simply closer together than elsewhere. The public, civic, social, cultural and political life (the equivalent of civitas) is the point of cities, rather than the built fabric (the physical city of urbs), even if there is a symbiotic productive relationship between the two. And it is in this social and cultural layer that we reveal the ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ conjuring act of cities. Jacobs wrote that without the “fires of use and vitality” cities don’t really exist; it is not possible to sustain “city form or structure” without those fires. No urbs without fire. No city without use and vitality.

The built fabric is fundamentally important to enabling this co-production—hence me poring over its details with my camera lens—but it is not the point in itself: the co-production is, the public life is the point. Yet are our priorities aligned around this? In the Nordic countries, that asks a question particularly of our institutions, given their importance in public life: about their remit, capabilities, capacity, positioning. Elsewhere, that same co-production emerges from a more complex interplay again.

There is a loose relation here to one reading of a Japanese sensibility for shared space, which I describe in these articles on House NA and Moriyama House. At least in Tokyo, a lot of private space in the street—most of the space, one way or another—is made public, civic, or at least shared, through the subtleties of shared culture. The Japanese neighbourhood, and particularly its streets, is often a highly communal production, but in a very particular mode. When it works, it is not produced by technical document, planning overlay, or formal legal definition—but by shared cultural sensibility, social codes, shared responsibility and communality. As Koh Kitayama puts it, the city is the “quiet accumulation of urban elements rooted in daily life”, which is clearly suggests an act, a process, rather than static lines on a plan.

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Again, through complex cultural codes and histories, the lack of individualism in the culture — about things like this, at least — builds a shared sensibility which is articulated in the street, and in turn articulates the street. Yet, as Nishizawa points out in this lovely film by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, this still allows the the city to grow and diversify (as if a jungle, Nishizawa says, perhaps inadvertently alluding to a slower, regenerative organic growth model). This is despite—or perhaps because ofthe slowdown conditions that see cities like Tokyo as continually refining itself without actually expanding.

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Clearly the balance of communal versus individual can swing too far, in either direction, but in a Tokyo neighbourhood street, it often seems to co-exist happily, creating shared spaces that are not ‘governed’ but co-produced.

Tokyo backstreets (2019). Not formally public space, probably. But definitely shared space in public.

Following al masha and this, It’s interesting to consider that public space, long understood to be a powerful, celebrated, and even privileged defining condition of the European city, may have more subtle, complex, and active realisation in Middle- and Far-Eastern cultures, in which public space has to be produced rather than simply legally certified.

This is not to downplay the many successes of European public space—informal and co-produced, and otherwise—nor, conversely, the many problematic approaches to space, governance and cultures of everyday life in Middle and far-Eastern contexts. There are certainly public spaces in European cities like Berlin, or often in southern European cities, that tend to be more actively produced than regulated (as discussed).

Co-produced public space, featuring some form of communal farming, too, almost as if ‘al masha’ — but in the middle of Schöneberg, Berlin

But it does pose an interesting question for Sweden, a country that outsiders have generally positioned as an almost impossibly, overwhelmingly communal place. It can be that, at times. Yet it’s actually the highly individualistic aspects of Swedish culture that create a tension at either end of that simplified spectrum between private and public, between individual and state. That tension, in a culture also relatively uncomfortable with confrontation, often leaves these complex and hybrid middle grounds— like genuine public space—articulated without complexity, and rather crudely (with some honorable exceptions, it must be said.)

These grey areas of governance all too easily deliver grey chunks of city. The tendency for spaces like Exercisplan is to tend towards empty car park rather than thriving park. It is still public space, legally, but surely of questionable value without life.

Aside: This is precisely my interest in one-minute city ideas I've been pursuing, with Vinnova, where I work, and ArkDes, and numerous other partners. All our activities there are beginning to explore these interplays between shared space and shared identity, cultural diversity, nature and human nature, technology and social infrastructures, place and space, new forms of governance that address more-than-human systems and dynamics, and richer forms of value.

The everyday and the mundane

There’s a section in the excellent new-ish collection Black Landscapes Matter, by Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada. Entitled “The Everyday and the Mundane”, the section leads with a positioning of what they describe as the undervalued everyday “sculptures” that surround and support us.

“The environment hosts dormant sculptures, bound to their context by clear, definable functions. We experience these sculptures every day in our mundane acts of life. These “sculptures”, or “things” are objects omnipresent in the built environment. They are often ignored, but, in most cases, they are all we have: power boxes, light posts, stop signs, curbs, gutters, and street signs. At the larger scale, the freeway or overpass are axiomatic structures. To see them clearly and become conscious of their material possibility, their normative functions must be disregarded. Attention to the everyday and mundane recognizes what already exists around us, and activates the space between its “things” and its people. Activating the mundane is an opportunity to see and experience the beauty and utility of the things in our life.”
—Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, Black Landscapes Matter (2021)

Utomhusverket is clearly far from mundane. It is expressive, ornamental, an elevated condition, a deliberately aesthetic experience, a particular mode. Despite its scale, it is closer to the cathedral than the curb, formally and functionally. But I’ve written many times of my interest in “infrastructures of everyday dignity”, adopting Gautam Bahn’s beautiful phrase, or the infrastructure of everyday life”, which unlocks the value in also seeing ‘forks’ of Utomhusverket as street corner, playground, neighbourhood market … as core social infrastructure.

This collides art and infrastructure, recognising that they can be the same thing. Joan Didion once wrote that the freeway system is “the only secular communion Los Angeles has”, perhaps recognising that such infrastructures have other meanings beyond simple mobility corridors (just as with the street missions we’re running). Flipping this around, the possibilities in the Los Angeles River will not be unlocked if only tackled as infrastructure in the reductive functionally-oriented sense of the word, not recognising its powerful presence in the cultural imagination of the soft city. Cities are stories rather than simply knots of plumbing.

We arguably need to see these projects as cultural first, infrastructural second—or at least fundamentally integrated, addressing both holistically—to foreground the meaning implicit within them, and thus build their broader potential. I wrote more about that here. Equally, as utility infrastructures become social they become cultural. Energy, water, waste, mobility, housing, communications: all these things are imbued with social characteristics, cultural identity, political and economic values.

And so in this sense, they are not at all “dormant”, as Hood and Tada well know. They are imbued with cultural meaning. (Maybe there are clues in our relationships with tsukumogami or yōkai in some Japanese mythologies, or in the numerous examples of objects and places possessing richer, deeper meanings and identities within First Nations cultures, what Tyson Yunkaporta describes as “living matter”. As usual, we have not only been slow to the party, here, but drunk and destructive when we did turn up.)

As Hood and Tada say, “Activating the mundane is an opportunity to see and experience the beauty and utility of the things in our life.”

There is a mundane aspect to Utomhusverket, Infield, and the rest. They are urban design elements, not symphonies. Yet in “activating” them as aesthetic projects as well as urban design, they are something else: the beauty, dignity and utility of shared things in everyday life.

This question of Swedish public space not simply a question of density, as even the denser parts of Swedish cities, including the newer developments, can end up with similarly grey public realm (literally or metaphorically): public space without the public—or even the nature, more broadly. Rather, it’s a question of how we overcome a tendency towards interiority, individualism, flatness, homogeneity—perhaps even a lack of interest in confrontation, in diversity.

This is not unique to Sweden. As I wrote about a decade ago, variations on these sensibilities may even have helped produce some of the positive aspects of the Nordic Model in the past, very generally speaking. At least, the ability to produce common, shared values and everyday infrastructures of reasonable quality is another side of the coin of homogeneity. But it cannot continue to do so in a more diverse future, nor should it.

Similarly, the industry of urban development and municipal governance generally is also guilty of creating disjuncts between the planning of spaces and the activity in places. The way we tend to handle design and development betrays a lack of interest in stimulating actual activity, genuine life.

Grey planning produces grey places. Design for living environments produces living environments.

Given this broader context, we increasingly need vehicles through which we can explore multiple forms of “platforms for outdoor gathering”, for diverse forms of social, cultural, economic and environmental exchange. This, again, is the value of Utomhusverket—a small project which is nonetheless a prototype for big ideas, as the questions it poses can conjure other ways of thinking and acting.

To do this work as a state agency, given the remit of our national policy for a designed living environment, provides insights as to possible futures of institutions and practices, as well as spaces and places. This moves it beyond the shortcomings of pop-ups and sketches. It is the value of prototyping—to test unformed ideas through formed experiences—but within a systemic context. It allows us to develop urbanism fast and slow.

In conversation with the Melbourne-based urban designer Andy Fergus this morning, we noted that certain places (Melbourne, in our conversation) were cities of prototypes but not systems, whereas Sweden is a country of systems but not prototypes. We need an exchange between these two poles; an ability to create prototypes which weave together into systems.

It does not seem to hard, once we have voiced the challenge. And there are numerous examples to draw from, as noted. Yet Japanese culture remains highly specific, even to those particular Tokyo backstreets having different social codes in equivalent neighbourhoods in Osaka, say, and these cultures are also hybridising. And, in practice, al masha may have long since disappeared under colonisation and resource extraction, amidst a thousand other mortal cuts.

Perhaps the key is to voice the questions, and make those questions tangible.

That is the value of Utomhusverket at ArkDes, and the particular kind of architecture and design it stands for: a form of research in public, finding problems rather than solving problems; expressing the ‘architecture of the problem’ in, well, architecture; forming questions into tangible provocations. As James Taylor-Foster says, in his reflection at the end of the documentary above:

“Studio Ossidiana have built a 1:1 prototype, a 1:1 functional world that really shows the value of public space, but also reveals its latent potential.”

Such works allow us to experience possible futures without necessarily committing to them, as a kind of ‘simulator’ of an alternative public space—in this case, somewhere between a modular beach and a conference of birds, in the middle of a city. It is not necessarily a real urban design proposition, but it’s close enough to make us wonder why it isn’t.

And so to plant the seed: What could it be?

Stimulating the cultural imagination by simulating possible futures in this way is a truly valuable act. In his 2015 BBC John Peel lecture, Brian Eno outlines this idea of ‘the simulator’ as one of his many good answers to the unspoken question of ‘What did art ever do for us?’:

“When you go into a gallery, you might see a most shocking picture. But actually you can leave the gallery. When you listen to a terrifying radio play you can switch the radio off. So one of the things about art is it offers a safe place for you to have quite extreme and rather dangerous feelings. And the reason you can do that is because you know you can switch it off. So art has a kind of role there as a simulator. It offers you these simulated worlds — a little bit like a plane simulator. You know, the reason you have simulators for learning to fly a 747 is so that you don’t crash too many 747s. You can have a crash and get out and laugh. Well it’s true of art as well …None of us are at all expert on everything that’s happening. So we need ways of keeping in synch, of remaining coherent. And I think that this is what culture is doing for us.”
—Brian Eno, BBC John Peel lecture 2015 (showpage, or PDF transcript)

And I think that this is what Utomhusverket is doing for us.


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