”Public space is something that has to be created the whole time”
At a time when public space and public ownership have undergone radical changes, SIFAV (Söderorts institut för andra visioner /The South Districts Institute for Other Visions) has shed light on the repercussions urban development has had on Stockholm’s southern suburbs. Maryam Fanni and Elof Hellström, who make up the group together with Klara Meijer, share their view on the collective, the consequences of privatisation and queer public space.
Why is Hagsätra centrum a good place to meet and talk about the exhibition Public Luxury and the questions it addresses?
Maryam Fanni: When we formed SIFAV in 2012 and started to look at what happens when public housing – municipally owned housing – is sold off, some of us lived here. Hagsätra is interesting because extensive privatisation has taken place here and it’s a place that’s been afflicted by renovictions.
Elof Hellström: What makes Hagsätra stand out in relation to many other places is that Ikano Bank, which owns many of the homes, also owns the site of the public square in the town centre.
Why is that?
Elof Hellström: When areas like Hagsätra were first zoned, there was no intention to privatise the squares, it wasn’t even conceivable that such a sell off could ever happen. That’s why public utilities and public squares can be included in a deal when housing properties are today sold.
Maryam Fanni: What’s special about the renoviction process here is that the housing company Ikano Bostad bought municipally owned housing and then renovated it with Ikea’s products, like Ikea kitchens for example, and that makes it easy to see the tax planning involved. The housing company renovates and buys from itself in order to renovate.
Elof Hellström: And borrows from Ikano Bank.
What does that say about our time?
Maryam Fanni: It clearly shows that housing is not a right. I think the image of people being forced to leave their homes goes against the idea we have of society.
The Ikea (which owns Ikano) story is of course that they helped to build folkhemmet, “the people’s home” or Swedish welfare state, but based on what you’re saying now, it sounds more like they’re part of demolishing it.
Maryam Fanni: Exactly. It’s also very complex with all these subsidiaries and sister companies. It’s not easy to get an overview of how finances work in contexts like these. But it may be interesting to look at the local organisation Nätverket Linje 19, which was active here when public housing was sold off. They closely examined how it happened. There was a local radio program about this instance of tax planning in which they explained in a simple and easy-to-understand way just how Ikano Bostad, Ikano Bank and Ikea Kitchen are interconnected and how that affects people’s lives. Here, it led to rent increases of up to 60 per cent.
Elof Hellström: The fact that the land we walk on every day is owned by a private company says something about the commodification of public space, that land and housing have become products instead of a right.
Maryam Fanni: What do you mean by functions?
I made it here without slipping and hurting myself. I move around here, as I would in any other place, and if you hadn’t told me it’s privately owned, I wouldn’t have known it. I wouldn’t have given it a thought. So the question is: what practical significance does it have?
Elof Hellström: It’s highly relevant, and the challenge is to find way to express it and describe the invisible layers that exist in the environment. We’re not saying that the municipally managed town centre is the best of worlds, but that it’s highly relevant who owns it. We can also talk about the effects it has had on housing. If we talk about the actual ground the public square stands on, it became clear when local groups protested against the sell off and were driven out, initially by Ikano’s personnel in an unlawful way. Because there’s no municipally owned housing, there are no public meeting spaces, so people met here at the café, for example. This is a democracy problem. This, together with rent increases of eighty per cent, has had catastrophic consequences. We know that it has gone so far that people have committed suicide because they’ve been forced to move, and others live under very harsh conditions.
Maryam, what is the image of society you think this development conflicts with?
Maryam Fanni: If we stay with Ikea, we can all agree that the company has marketed itself as a symbol for folkhemmet and associated itself with terms like democracy. When we look at renoviction processes and how violent they are, I believe that reality contradicts the notion we have of folkhemmet as a project with municipal agencies that take care of the population in various ways. The discrepancy doesn’t just relate to the housing market. Regarding the visible and invisible, we have a shared idea about what a public square is and how it can be used, and ownership becomes an invisible aspect that can have radical consequences. The function of the public square is turned completely upside down if there’s a guard standing there, scaring away anyone who wants to use it as a democratic meeting place.
Can there be benefits in making ownership structures visible?
Maryam Fanni: It can have an educational value. If it’s visible, we can point to it and say that this is a sign of something that has happened. Otherwise, it’s more difficult to share the same understanding and we must try to visualize something in common.
What is the public for you?
Elof Hellström: The public is a difficult concept. In the book “Publics and Counterpublics,” Michael Warner argues that “publics are queer creatures.” We cannot point to it, we cannot count it and we cannot look it in the eyes, but obviously we cannot avoid it either. It says something about the ambiguity of the word. Maybe it’s better to talk about publics in plural. As we’ve worked with it, public space is something that must always be created.
What do you think of the concept public luxury? What is public luxury for you?
Maryam Fanni: It’s an exciting combination of words. I think there’s a contradiction, an oxymoron, in it. I think of luxury as something that connotes exclusivity. If we’re talking about something that is for everyone, I don’t think it’s meaningful to describe it as luxury.
Elof Hellström: If we use the term luxury to mean something attractive and desirable, then I would rather view public luxury as the ideal concept of the public. There’s something visionary in what has to be created the whole time. I think of public ownership as an idea that may be possible to recreate and that’s another type luxury which can defy the logic of the market.
Maryam Fanni: Public luxury could be understood as a term for something that can be easily taken away from us because it’s seen as unnecessary.
Elof Hellström: In that case, luxury could function as an opportunity to go backwards, not for nostalgic reasons, but to look at parts of a welfare system to see what we must constantly recreate. The school Hagsätraskolan has an auditorium building that has landmark status. It was the last municipally owned building here and it’s been empty for a very long time – and my mind spins when I think of it – but the school can’t afford to pay the rent. So it’s just left empty. But I can see it as a public luxury in the sense that it’s a well-made building that highlights the right of every child and everyone to be in environments that stimulate us to be sensitive, feeling human beings.
Maryam Fanni: It was also occupied at some point.
Elof Hellström: It was a good occupation that gave people a place to gather and talk for two weeks, which was important during the renoviction process, because everything that concerns the so-called private economy is so often filled with shame.
Maryam Fanni: The housing issue is fundamental and also extremely interconnected with the interests of banks and others. If you have a mortgage, it has ramifications in many areas.
Elof Hellström: We create housing, but housing also creates us.
What role can architecture and design play in the process of change? For example, in the gap between the image we have of society and society as it really is?
Elof Hellström: Renoviction processes have made people all over Sweden experts on these issues. Many people have become knowledgeable about this and local groups are being created and organizing themselves. Architects and artists could make a contribution to these with the unique knowledge they have.
Text: Daniel Golling