Collective thinking and action

Since 2017, ArkDes has developed a rich and dynamic research environment, which shows the possibilities for museums as places of collective thinking and action. In this article, our director Kieran Long brings together our research initiatives in a narrative that can describe what our ambitious programme of research has led to in the recent five years.

Most museums do collections research in some form, and those with large collections focus most of it on generating object-based knowledge. In 2017 there wasn’t any systematic research happening in the ArkDes collections at all. Even the research that was happening about contemporary design practice had very little with a direct connection to the policy framework that stands in ArkDes’ instruction from government, and the research contributed little to the museum’s public programming. Research was generated by applications for funding from researchers outside the museum, who would then use the museum as a partner in the funding application and a venue for that work to be carried out. There is nothing wrong with that, and we still accommodate projects like this, acting as an enabler for other people’s funding applications in our field.

“ArkDes occupies a unique position in Sweden’s research and innovation infrastructure.”

Dan Hill, former director of innovation at Vinnova and now director of Melbourne School of Design

Now we have a transformed environment for research at ArkDes, with clear structures for delivering and supporting research in two main areas. The first is that we have created a culture of collections research (by our own curators, together with outside experts and guest researchers) that will be a bedrock of the museum’s work for years to come. This is leading us towards to a new collections-based exhibition that will open in 2024 and make the hidden cultural treasure of ArkDes collection available to a broad audience for the first time.

Sigurd Lewerentz, Architect of Death and Life, a comprehensive account of the great Swedish architect, researched over four years from the original archival material.

“The Lewerentz project is a spectacular achievement and the book is exquisite”

Barry Bergdoll, former head of architecture and design at MOMA, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia University, New York

The second aspect of research at ArkDes today is a series of programmes and projects that have established the museum as a centre for practice-based, missions-oriented design research. The purpose of these projects is to create opportunities for practitioners to make visible the extraordinary amount of work that happens in the design professions, but that is rarely considered as academic research. This second category is most likely to be carried out by practitioners of design in various fields, and created in the context of Sweden’s national policy for architecture and design Politiken för Gestaltad Livsmiljö.

It seems to me unique to a museum environment like ours that we can carry our both these kinds of work. They also feed one another in terms of content, and even propose ways in which museums can access new sources of funding. As innovation and missions-based working become more common, museums could become dynamic public laboratories where design research can help tackle complex problems in cities.

Collections research

The ArkDes collection comprises somewhere around 4 million objects, a unique record of the building of modern Sweden. It is one of the largest collections of architectural drawings in the world and an intimidatingly large amount of material for a small museum to handle. Under past directors, the collection was considered as something primarily of interest to experts and rarely, if ever, exhibited or researched by the institution itself. There was also a long-term lack of the infrastructure necessary to undertake collections research at this scale.

Perspective of Ralph Erskine’s Arctic City speculative project, from ArkDes collections

Our approach to this has many aspects. Perhaps the most important was a culture change internally, encouraging our curatorial team to work actively on the collection. The starting shot of that change was our decision in 2017 to undertake the museum’s largest ever collections-based exhibition, Sigurd Lewerentz: Architect of Death and Life (opened in September 2021). The collections research for this was led by our curator Johan Örn, assisted by Mikael Andersson, and their work produced the landmark book, that has already long ago sold out its first edition. The work on the Lewerentz archive took four years and would have been impossible without a long-term commitment to collections research that was not a part of ArkDes’ DNA before. The book and exhibition have of course been praised and recognised around the world as a leading example of work of its type.

In parallel with this exhibitions-related research, the rest of our curatorial team, led by chief curator Carlos Minguez Carrasco, together with our curator Frida Melin (and now many others, including Max Ahrent, who was assistant curator on the Lewerentz project; Frida Rosenberg, our new curator of collections; and Daniel Golling, our curator for contemporary collections), were working on the whole breadth of the material in our collection, opening boxes and folders of drawings that had never been opened before, let alone catalogued or digitised. We built practical and intellectual infrastructure around this work, including an advisory board consisting of Helena Mattsson (Professor in History and Theory at KTH School of Architecture), Sara Kristofferson (Professor of design history at Konstfack school of art) and Maria Lind (curator and kulturråd in Moscow). We have commissioned a range of historians to dig into specific themes in the collection, for example Erik Sigge, historian and researcher at Lund University, who worked on transnational architecture in the collection; Frida Nerdal, architect and writer, who worked on women, trans and non- binary people in the collections; and Marie-Louise Richards, architect and researcher, who is currently working on the displays of race biology that are a forgotten part of the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition. To provide a spine to these specialised research interests, we have held seminars with the distinguished Swedish historian Martin Rörby that have helped ground our collections research in the overall timeline of Swedish architecture and design in the modern period. Since 2018 we have held an annual research conference in December every year, inviting researchers in Sweden and abroad to share their work on Swedish architectural history.^

For an institution of our size, the ambition with collections research is as high as it can be, and will lead forward to a new permanent exhibition

Digital collections and publications

Our research on collections is not confined to our home on Skeppsholmen, and we have invested heavily in new expertise in digital collections management to make sure that the collections knowledge we generate is available to the whole country and beyond. We have some of the best talent in Swedish museums on this topic, including our deputy director Karin Nilsson, who is a leading voice in Sweden on digital collections. Our deputy chief curator Karin Glasemann, formerly of Nationalmuseum, and digital curator Aron Ambrosiani, formerly of Nordiska Museet, are working on major digital collections prototypes on both the Lewerentz material and on 29,000 photographs from the Sune Sundahl archive.

Image of Egon Møller-Nielsen’s Tufsen, 1949, photograph by Sune Sundahl from the ArkDes collection.

We have also taken forward a strategy for future publications, together with the renowned Dutch architectural historians Crimson, which will ensure the dissemination of Swedish architecture in book form. This builds on the huge success of our book about Sigurd Lewerentz, but will take the form of shorter, faster books making the riches of the collection available to wider audiences.

The monumental task of working with the ArkDes collection will never be finished, but the research environment we have built is leading us forward to a new collections-based ‘permanent’ exhibition, based on research at many levels of the institutions. It will open in 2024 and will be a constantly developing story of Swedish architecture and design between 1850 and the present day. The ideas behind that exhibition are a story for another day.

Collections will always be a bedrock of our work, because we believe design and architecture must always be based in a deep understanding of history and the creative practices of the past. Sweden has a uniquely strong artistic history in modern architecture and design, and we are proud to be working with such an important piece of cultural heritage

Practice-based, mission-oriented research

The other leg of research at ArkDes is new for the institution since 2017 and is based on our goal to give Swedish architecture and design talent the chance to affect the national debate about the future of Swedish cities. The context for this work is Sweden’s national policy for architecture and design, Politiken för Gestaltad Livsmiljö. In 2019, ArkDes received five million Swedish crowns in extra annual funding for research as a result of this policy. In fact, the policy is a framework for all our activities. These extra resources have been used to fund our programmes, and to nurture a research environment that successfully attracts further funding from other partners.

Sketch scenario for future streets based around reduced car use, from Street Moves project, led by ArkDes, funded by Vinnova.

There is a national and international trend towards practice-based, mission-oriented research in the fields of city and community planning. This is exemplified by Vinnova’s (Sweden’s national authority for innovation) embrace of ‘mission-oriented innovation’; the New European Bauhaus agenda (funding for which comes from Horizon Europe’s missions programme for innovation); and Sweden’s National Council for Sustainable Cities (Rådet för Hållbara Städer), which is embracing missions-based working as its modus operandi. ArkDes is an active participant in all of this.

In 2018, we created the ArkDes Think Tank as a vehicle for our work in the national policy context, and it is becoming an important force in the field.

ArkDes Open Call

The project that began this development is our biannual Open Call programme, driven by Karin Svensson in our Think Tank team. Since 2019, we have haled an open call for proposals for projects, open to all design professions. Projects receive funding according to their relevance to the national policy for architecture and design, and to a theme or direction that we set for the open call each year. The project has had a tremendous response, with 130 applications in 2021, of which 5 received funding.

Integrated green typologies by Warm in the Winter and Ekologigruppen, a research project funded by ArkDes Think Tank in 2021 investigating green infrastructure in urban areas

These projects are sometimes small, but have impact at the local level, because the practice of many of these architects and designers is embedded in a particular place or debate. We can then use these projects as examples at the national level, in our work with other national agencies and as an important disseminator of ideas about design in Sweden. The Open Call also gives us the opportunity to show how architecture and design is more than a field of consultants, but a source of new ideas that cut across disciplinary boundaries.

Next year’s open call will be held in partnership with the city of Malmö. The Open Call is beginning to scale up in its ambitions and attract important national and local collaborators.

Street Moves

As a result of building our competence in practice-based research, in 2019 we received funding from Vinnova for the project Street Moves, an investment of 11.5 million Swedish crowns over the last three years. Street Moves is perhaps the country’s most important missions-oriented research project, and is carried out in the context of Vinnova’s Streets Mission. The Street Moves project has taken place in 9 cities around Sweden (with 21 more interested or committed to future partnership) and brings together a cross-sectoral conversation about the future of our streets, driven by designers and architects who can build 1:1 prototypes that can invite a wide range of stakeholders, and the public, in to a debate about the future Sweden’s street environments.

Street Moves workshop in Härnosand, 2022

The first phase of the project was driven for ArkDes by Eric de Groat and the designer Daniel Byström, who worked to establish a collaboration with Lundberg Design, the industrial designer who designed the first range of prototypes, deployed in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Helsinborg and Umeå. Since then, the design teams have diversified, including innovative, interdisciplinary design practices like Office of Possibilities (working with Street Moves at Skeppsbron in Härnösand) and teams like the one working in Hultsfred, a collaboration between architect Outer Space, designer Studio Doms and childrens expert and director Suzanne Osten.

“With Street Moves we get expert help from a design team to test and model on site, before we plan large and important investments for the coming 10 years”

Knapp Britta Thyr, director of the community development committee, Härnösand municipality

In summer 2020, the prototypes were exhibited in Stockholm, and since then we have partnered with municipalities around the country to test the conditions for transforming streets, through the Street Moves project. As Bloomberg Cities wrote about the project: “By rethinking patches of pavement as critical connecting spaces for communities, the project seeks to break through assumptions — as prevalent in Sweden as elsewhere — that address streets primarily as places to move and store cars.”

The reactions in each of the municipalities is overwhelmingly positive to eh impact practice-based research processes can have. As Knapp Britta Thyr (MP), director of the community development committee in Härnösand, says: “With Street Moves we get expert help from a design team to test and model on site, before we plan large and important investments for the coming 10 years. In a town you become blind to your own possibilities, but an external perspective has helped us discover new possibilities with Skeppsbron and dare to take brave decisions for the future.”

Visioner i Norr

Perhaps the most significant impact of ArkDes’ research capability has been through the 2022 project Visions in the North. This was a project carried out by the national Council for Sustainable Cities, on which i sit as director of ArkDes. Visions in the North is a collaboration with six northern Swedish towns. We helped create an open call for multidisciplinary teams of architects, artists, designers, engineers, sociologists and more to work with these northern Swedish municipalities who are facing large-scale transformation in the coming years. A huge response to the call resulted in 77 designers, artists and architects in 11 teams being selected to work on an open brief, working on large-scale challenges in partnership with the municipalities.

The extraordinary quality of the teams attracted to the project and the enthusiasm for the process from the municipalities has made the project a huge success, and has built a desire for more projects where research-led multidisciplinary teams of designers work on complex problems in partnership with cities and towns. Gällivare municipality commented on the process: ”The result is an important inspiration for our future planning.”

The results of the project were presented at ArkDes in a live-streamed event in June 2022.

The final presentation at ArkDes of Visions in the North (Swedish language)
Future steps and conclusion

We are now beginning discussions about the continuation of Street Moves and a follow-up to Visioner i Norr through the Council for Sustainable Cities.

The next concrete step in our design research work is a partnership with Malmö Stad in 2023, where our funding for the open call will be matched by the city and used to create a range of projects that will engage design talent in complex challenges around segregation and deprivation. This is all in the context of the World Capital of Architecture festival that will be just across the Öresund in Copenhagen in 2023. Malmö City architect Finn Williams says: “The City of Malmö is working with ArkDes to give our participation in the World Capital of Architecture 2023 national impact and international reach. Our collaboration with ArkDes gives us a sounding board to sharpen our ideas, a forum to share learning across municipalities and sectors, and a platform to take part in a wider public debate.”

ArkDes’ unique position in design and research

ArkDes’ is a crossroads of design talent, contact with the public sector at state level and with the general public through our museum work. That experience means that we are the perfect environment for practice-based research projects that use prototypes to demonstrate the potential for design as a tool to take on complex problems in cities. As Professor Dan Hill, former director of innovation at Vinnova and now director of Melbourne School of Design Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, says: “ArkDes occupies a unique position in Sweden’s research and innovation infrastructure. Embodying design’s particular capabilities for understanding, translation, application, synthesis, engagement and a systems-based approach, ArkDes is the connection between challenges and places, between policy and practice, and between the various well-insulated and separated layers of the Swedish system.”