Pomophobia and Feminism: Revisiting the Swedish Postmodern Discourse

Helena Mattsson

This essay is an excerpt of Architecture in Effect vol. 1 edited by Sten Gromark, Jennifer Mack and Roemer van Toorn. Published by Actar Publishers.

In his article “1980–2000: Pomofobi och uppsving,” the architect Thomas Hellquist (2001) argues that an avoidance of postmodernism, what he calls “pomophobia,” ruled the architectural establishment in the early years of the 1980s. This interpretation seems reasonable, as few practitioners would have called themselves postmodernists, but revisiting the period today, can we reframe the postmodern turn in Swedish architecture to broaden the picture? Looking more closely into the international postmodern discourse, another picture develops, one where the Swedish case is not an exception but an important historiographical piece influencing the understanding of the bigger picture. If the concept of “postmodernism” was unclear from the start—as Charles Jencks wrote in 1975, “The only way to kill off the monster is to find a substitute beast to take its place and decidedly ‘Post Modern’ won’t do the job” (Jencks 1975: 3)—revisiting the discussion today is even more confusing. The attempts to define the concept all share a critique of modernism, and they signify that a shift could be formal, social, or political. Otherwise, the lowest common denominator seems to be the contradictions inherent in the discourse. However, postmodernism has left us (as modernism did) with a sedimented idea of a “style” in architecture and certain conceptions of a discursive content.

In the Swedish architectural debate, the concept of postmodernism has been intensively discussed ever since the critic and journalist Eva Eriksson (1976b) introduced Jencks’s (1975) article “The Rise of Postmodern Architecture” to a Swedish audience in 1976. In the debate there was strong resistance toward what was perceived as superficial, often with American connotations, and alternative concepts and readings were introduced. On the other hand, as Claes Caldenby (1984) points out, postmodernism became part of the Swedish discourse much more quickly than in the other Nordic countries. Consequently, the elaboration of postmodernism in Swedish architectural discourse must be considered a crucial debate in the late-twentieth century both in the field of architecture and in a broader cultural context—and it is a debate not yet fully investigated. Revisiting the discussions today also implies a reconsideration of the historiographical self-conception, the notion of a local history and its relations to a broader international stream of ideas. One of the main contributions this article seeks to make is to shift the concept of local history, in this case Swedish history, as an exception excluded from the dominant branch of historical paradigms, and instead stress the particularities of the local expressions and let them influence the understanding of the paradigm at large.

The years around 1980 hosted a dynamic architectural discourse covering ideas that, while contradictory, shared the critique of functionalism. Two trajectories can be distinguished in the discussions on postmodernism, although a great number of themes and ideas overlap. The first stresses formal expressions—such as pastiche, play with historical elements, individualized forms—while the other focuses on social organizations, democratic processes, and labor conditions. However, focusing on these two streams risks repeating the dichotomy between form and content, as well as between aesthetics and politics. I prefer instead to stress how these categories, often seen as typical modernistic divisions, coincide and overlap. This also means searching for the prehistory (Agamben 2009) of these trajectories, retracing them to the point where they are obscure and unthematized, to the “moment of arising” when “postmodernism” came into being. Elaborating on these early discussions may offer perspectives and shed light on expressions still hidden in these turbulent discourses, for example emancipatory voices. In this way the early discussions foreboding postmodernism as a discuorse open for new understandings of a historical paradigm often seen as uniform and determined.

This article has two purposes. The first is to revisit the late 1970s and the early 1980s to outline the early debates on postmodernism. The second is to discuss the feminist movement and its theoretical and practical implications. Through an inquiry into this turning point in Swedish architecture, the article seeks to reframe, or broaden, the postmodern narrative. The discourse of women’s liberation, along with other emancipatory movements, had a major impact on the postmodern movement at large, but, remarkably, this side of postmodernism has not yet been fully formulated in relation to architectural history. In this article the women’s movement in architecture is considered a crucial strand within postmodernism, which consequently influences the historiography of the movement itself.

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[1] Heineman’s March 20 article was followed by contributions from Eva Eriksson (April 3), Thomas Hellquist and Richard Brun (May 5), and Gunnar Sillén (May 7), to whom Heineman responded on April 15 and May 20.

[2] The cultural shift in the late 1970s is something Gunilla Lundahl described in a conversation with the author, October 20, 2014.

[3] Stefan Alenius confirmed this historical narrative in a conversation with the author, October 28, 2014.

[4] For an in depth discussion of the Venoce biennale 1980 see Léa-Catherine Szacka, Exhibiting the Postmodern: The 1980 Venice Biennale (Venezia: Marsilio, 2016).

[5] For example, see the discussion on postmodern architecture that took place in Göteborgsposten in 1983 (Björkman 1983; Caldenby 1983; Hansson 1983).

[6] Gunilla Lundahl described this in a conversation with the author, October 20, 2014.


The Swedish Research Council and a research fellowship at Sigtunastiftelsen supported this research. I especially thank Leif Jonsson and Anna-Karin Sandell at Sigtuna Klipparkiv. An earlier version of this article was published as “Revisiting Swedish Postmodernism: Gendered Architecture and Other Stories,” Journal of Art History 85, no. 1 (2016): 109-25.