December 30, 2010

Two Rooms & a Kitchen.

Better a humble house than none. A man is a master at home.

A pair of goats and a patched roof are better than begging.

- Hávamál

N 57 45 29 E 12 02 09

Reminders of Göteborg's (Gothenburg's) purpose-built nature appear both throughout the city and over the course of time, throughout the city's history. Once its fortified walls came down, Göteborg grew in a distinctly planned rather than organic fashion. It easily impresses visitors as a city consisting of a number of small towns tenaciously held together, rather than large municipality — the second largest in Sweden, fifth largest in Scandinavia — with a natural centre. The principal reason for this is that the city has had town plans drawn up (despite the challenging geography of a barren, rocky, hilly archipelago, interspersed with wetlands) at practically every point in its history, with every major style that dominated Swedish architecture — Classicism, National Romanticism, Functionalism, Modernism — leaving indelible marks on the cityscape, and very brief periods of unregulated planning and construction.

One of the best examples of the practically self-contained "mini-communities" that make up the city of Göteborg is the primarily residential district of Kortedala. Laid out and mainly constructed between 1952-1957 in what until then was a rural area, Kortedala was the second Satellite Town in Sweden (the first being Vällingby northwest of Stockholm) — a smaller metropolitan area established at some distance from and largely independent of a neighbouring larger metropolitan area (similar to Britain's New Towns). The first such district to be created in the Göteborg area, Kortedala (derived from Korta dalen, the "short valley", as opposed to nearby Djupedalen, the "deep" or "lengthy valley") consisted largely of three to four story low-rise buildings, eight to nine story high-rise buildings, and some 300 single family houses, comprising 8,300 flats in total by the early 1960s. Exceptionally few among these were larger than one bedroom flats.

Kortedala's buildings were constructed in eight neighbourhood units around four local squares (one large and three smaller ones), with a streetcar line (opened in 1957) running through the middle of the district, connecting it with central Göteborg. Most of the district's streets received names relating to horological and calendar events, hence the first families moving to the brand new district in November 1953, found themselves living on Kalendervägen ("Calendar Street") and Månadsgatan ('Month Street"). Planned for 21,000 inhabitants, the district peaked at 28,000 in the mid-1960s, and is currently home to some 15,000 people. Built a decade before Sweden implemented its infamous Million Programme, Kortedala has largely managed to maintain its ambitious character of a welfare state's idealised "good homes", with fully equipped kitchens, bathrooms, and hardwood floors available and affordable to every citizen.

Where international delegations once descended to learn how to construct "good-quality" housing areas from scratch — complete with easy access to education, healthcare, shopping, entertainment, and other essential services — the average visitor can now inspect a two room flat restored to its original, mid-1950s-state at the Kortedala Museum. Housed in a standard 65 m² (≈ 700 Sq Ft) flat, carefully restored with original paints, wallpaper, and period-style furnishings, the museum offers a glimpse of what comfortable, modern living SEK 165/month (roughly C$ 31.85 in 1965, the equivalent of C$ 217 in 2009) could rent in Sweden 55 years ago. It's an opportunity to literally step back half a century to the point in time when the Swedish welfare society — the project which for a brief period provided worldwide renown to this otherwise quite parochial nation on the outskirts of Europe — began taking shape, and the dream of a place of one's own (with indoor plumbing) became a reality for an increasing number of Swedes.

Run by volunteers, who are on hand to share their own memories of growing up and living in the district, the tiny time capsule opens up practically every Sunday of the year to display its exhibits of an optimistic post-war decade, when the future seemed brighter for the typical family of five (two adults and their three children) that would've inhabited a flat such as this one. The majority had moved to Göteborg following the Second World War, primarily seeking employment in industry, and most had been relegated to the city's 30,000 one-room flats (barely 200 of which had indoor plumbing). Yet the Kortedala museum-flat isn't merely an artifact of a time when "common people" began to afford decent housing with essential amenities close by, but also "luxury" goods like record players, televisions, even holidays abroad — evident from some of the kitschy, "exotic" bric-a-brac strewn about the place. It's also a unique testament to a time when Swedish politicians still had the audacity to envision a decent standard of living for all their citizens, to elevate the poorest above the sordid squalor of industrial slums. Kortedala remains a reminder of a time when it still seemed possible to create an ideal society according to a master plan.

(More images of the museum-flat here.)

December 27, 2010

Fortification & alimentation.

When passing a door-post, watch as you walk on, inspect as you enter.

It's uncertain where enemies lurk or crouch in a dark corner.

- Hávamál

N 57 42 25 E 11 58 01

Göteborg (Gothenburg) is a purpose-built city, its current incarnation developed from the Swedish kingdom's fourth and ultimately successful attempt to establish a presence on the North Sea coast. Having clawed possession of the Göta river estuary at Rivö fjord by the middle of the 13th century, the Swedes set about constructing a port to not only make their presence permanent, but also detract trade from the Danish and Norwegian settlements previously dominating the coast. The first Swedish attempts either failed to draw enough visitors, or were so successful the dominant Danes couldn't help but raid and burn them to the ground.

Yet by the time king Gustav II Adolf's Göteborg (as it became known) was completed at the beginning of the 18th century, it was one of the strongest fortified cities in Northern Europe. However, little of its once-impressive fortifications remain, as the winds of war not only shifted away from the city, but also because advances in martial technology and strategy rendered its stationary fortifications obsolete. The majority of the city's defences were torn down at the beginning of the 19th century — leaving only the armoury, Kronhuset (the "Crown's House", one of Göteborg's oldest brick buildings, erected 1643-1655), a single bastion, most of the moat, and two fortified sconces constructed on hills once overlooking the city.

The oldest sconce, Kronan ("the Crown"), erected between 1678 and 1689 on Rysåsen ("Ryd's Hill"), was originally connected to the walled city by a caponier, and has been topped by a gilded copper crown since 1697. Having lost its military importance by the early 19th century, it served first as a prison, later a shelter for the homeless, before being purchased by the city from the state in 1925. For nearly a century, between 1904 and 2004, the sconce housed a military museum (now mothballed) before being turned into a private function hall. As the last Danish attack on Göteborg took place in 1643, before any of the currently remaining defenses were even constructed, neither Kronan or any of the other fortifications were ever tested in battle.

Though the second sconce, Västgöta Lejon (commonly Lejonet, "the Lion"), was begun at the same time as Kronan, it wasn't completed until 1699 — at which point it became apparent that, although built on the strategically important Gullberget ("Gull's Hill"), it could quite easily be bombarded from other nearby hills. Hence, the dud sconce mainly found use as a warehouse for gunpowder made in an adjacent factory. Yet it remained a military installation until 1942, eventually becoming (after restoration work in the early 1970s) the private hall of Götiska Förbundet ("the Geathic Society", a social club of national romantics). The crowned lion brandishing a sword and shield currently crowning the sconce is an 1893 reinterpretation of an earlier original.

The sole remaining bastion, officially named Carolus XI Rex (the Latin rendition of "King Karl XI") but commonly known as Carolus Rex, is the last standing reminder of the city's once imposing fortified wall, which gradually replaced earlier earthen fortifications. One of thirteen such polygonal bulwarks projecting out from the wall, Carolus Rex wasn't completed until 1731 — over a century after the city's official founder, Gustav II Adolf (1594 1632), had (as the story goes) stood on the hill the bastion now occupies, and pointed toward the site where he desired the new city to be constructed.

Though a statue supposedly depicting the event has stood in what once was Stora Torget ("the Great Square", now Gustaf Adolfs Torg, "Gustaf Adolf's Square") since 1854, the rapacious monarch founded no fewer then fifteen cities throughout his realm. Hence any sense of distinctness Gothenburgers may derive from their city's origin should be tempered by the fact that statues of Gustav II Adolf can be found in numerous other places, (clearly) equally proud of such royal distinction. Never mind that Göteborg, despite receiving city privileges from its founder as early as 1621, was largely constructed during the reigns of his successors.

However, Gothenburgers are likely unique in continuing to commemorate Gustav II Adolf's demise by stuffing their faces with pastry each November, on the very day the king was killed in the Thirty Years' War. For a while a battle also raged between the city's most prominent confectionary families, the Arnholts and the Bräutigams, as to whom had first devised the infamous pastry, and initiated the tradition. (Having provided Göteborg's inhabitants with marzipan and pastries since 1870, the current, fifth generation of Bräutigams appear to have won through sheer longevity.)

The late 19th century origin of the tradition is now as shrouded in fog as the king himself was said to have been the day he got shot. Nevertheless, the novelty caught on, and by the early 1950s the "Gustav Adolf Pastry" could be bought in 43 Swedish cities and towns each November 6th, in sixteen different varieties in Göteborg alone. Currently the most common incarnation is a variant of the classic Swedish Princess cake, topped with a relief of the king's head in chocolate. Though vaguely macabre, the notion of Göteborg's pastry chefs striking coin from a king's misfortune is largely consistent with the city's tradition of having been founded for militant trade.

December 19, 2010


50 54 05 N 04 29 04 E

It's easy to get the impression that the German air force is responsible for constructing all of Belgium's national airports. The first, at Haren, was opened following the First World War, on the opposite side of the German-built Zeppelin airfield at Evere — using the same field as the military. The second, current national airport, Brussels Airport at Zaventem, dates back to the Second World War, when — once again — German occupiers constructed an airport at Melsbroek, near the Belgian military backup airfield Steenokkerzeel. (Urban legend has it that the locals directed the Germans to Melsbroek, as it was an area often enveloped in fog.)

By 1948, civilian aviation in Belgium had outgrown Haren aiport, and Melsbroek was designated as the new national airport. However, in 1956 history repeated itself, as the Belgian authorities decided to construct a new airport in preparation for the 1958 World's Fair, utilising the same runways, but with the new terminal buildings located in Zaventem. Unable to shake its martial past, the old civilian airport is now used by the Belgian air force (as Melsbroek Air Base), sharing its runways with the current civilian airport at Zaventem — making this perhaps the only airport in Europe at which one can land and take-off from runways originally constructed by German occupational forces.

59 39 07 N 17 55 07 E

The most common urban myth surrounding Sweden's largest airport, Stockholm-Arlanda, is that its name is pun on the Swedish verb "landa" ("to land"), and that it was chosen by a naming contest held by Sweden's largest weekly magazine. While a contest was in fact held when construction commenced of new airport in the Swedish capital region, capable of handling intercontinental traffic, the contest jury chose to endorse the name originally suggested by the projects toponymist. Derived from Arland, the archaic name of Ärlinghundra hundred where the airport is situated, the new airport's name had an "a" added to be analogous with other Swedish place names ending in "-landa" ("land of"), making Arlanda in fact the "Land of Streams" (with "Ar-" being an ancient Swedish form of "å", the noun for "stream".)

Despite the somewhat droll name, Arlanda merely lands one in one of the dullest airports in Europe, where the myth of the progressive, organised Swedish society is done in by something as rudimentary as lack of clear signage. (Even smaller airports in Sweden mange to make the transition from the international to the domestic terminal smoother.) Hence its main claims to fame remain having once been listed as an emergency landing site for NASA's space shuttle, the Jumbo hostel (a decommissioned Boeing 747-212B converted to a 76 bed hostel), its policy to never close due to snowfall, and that Sweden's first Starbucks franchise opened here last February.

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