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Public Luxury

Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
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Skeppsholmen, Stockholm

Public Luxury: Architecture, Design and the Struggle for the Commons

Experience new and experimental works of design and architecture in public, by many of Sweden’s most prominent architects and designers, in ArkDes’ major exhibition for 2018.

Public Luxury is an exhibition about the conflicts and paradoxes of design in the public realm in Sweden today.

Why are people so passionate about ice cream kiosks and hot dog stands? Can we make better streets out of our paranoia about crime and terrorism? And what happens when the public simply says no to something a designer or artist has worked on for years?

The title sounds like a contradiction, but recognises that everything in the public realm exists for more than merely functional reasons. Every kerbstone, bench, bollard, station sign, public toilet and street is part of the character of a place.

All the works here, many of which were made for this exhibition, share the ambition to tell a story about public life today, and we should listen. Architects and designers may not be able to change society, but nothing reveals how society is changing as clearly as architecture and design.

Participants include Dansbana! (Anna Pang, Anna Fridolin and Teres Selberg), Jonas Dahlberg, Sandi Hilal/DAAR, Johan Celsing, Hilda Hellström, Johannes Norlander, Åsa Jungnelius and Uglycute, among others.

  • Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
  • Photo: Matti Östling. 2018. Dansbana!

Every kerbstone, bench, bollard, station sign, public toilet and street is part of the character and identity of a place.

Photo: Johan Dehlin. 2018. Portal to the exhibition by Åsa Jungelius.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.

What is a public luxury?

A public luxury might sound like a paradox, but such things do exist. Opera houses and state limousines; monuments and botanical gardens; the best silver at the royal palace and the most valuable painting in the National Museum. These luxuries belong to us, but most of us will never use them or take them home. Common to all, but exclusive: this kind of public luxury tends to consist of material things with lots symbolic value and meaning.

Then there are the luxuries that are absolutely (or should be) equal in their distribution: extraordinary treasures we share in common. They tend to be radical ideas that have hardened into laws: parental leave; rent control; nearly free childcare; the rule of law; universal suffrage. They give our lives meaning or enable us to live the way we want to live. But we often no longer see the ethical and organisational imagination that went into their creation: they feel like entitlements.

To many non-Swedes they are, of course, spectacular luxuries. Design and architecture in the public realm exists somewhere between these poles. It is architecture and design’s task to give form to a societal idea (like justice) through the creation of a setting for people to encounter that idea (like a courthouse). We see in our public buildings and spaces (our park benches and metro trains; a hot dog kiosk and a monument to the dead) what we are made of. Design can not avoid this assignment – it either embraces the task, or it unwittingly displays, or even conceals, society’s prejudices and weaknesses.

Public Luxury is an exhibition of 28 projects in Sweden (or in one case in Norway, but by a Swedish artist) that tell a story of how architecture and design articulate our common values and the conflicts in the public realm today. There are architects and designers behind most of the project, but not all. In Public Luxury you see a public realm taking shape that is co-produced: from politician to craftsperson; from citizen campaigner to video game studio historian. The designers in Public Luxury are giving form to the public realm, but they are working sometimes with, sometimes against, the prevailing conditions.

Public Luxury opens just as election campaigning begins in earnest in Sweden. Most politicians have an agenda for public space that involves “improving” it, usually in one particular way. More security and less crime. More children and fewer homeless people. More cyclists, fewer beggars. These are ideological positions masquerading as truths. We must remove the things that trouble us, politicians tell us, and encourage the things that make us comfortable.

But there is a growing realisation in architecture and design (if not in politics), that you can not remove conflict from the public realm, nor should you want to. The contemporary political philosopher Chantal Mouffe poses the question of how we can make public places and institutions where conflict plays out peacefully, where different groups in society can meet, disagree, not kill each other, and live in a spirit of tolerance and grumbling neighbourliness. The most democratic places are those in which, says Mouffe, “the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is legitimate”. Great cities, towns and villages are much more complicated than our polarised political discourse can admit, and that is why we love them.

Public Luxury gathers together designers from across the spectrum of design whose work (mainly) does not exist in the black and white moral universe of the politician. Their practice is mired in the messy, conflictual and ethically grey reality of the contemporary public realm. Each of the works tells us a story about Sweden and shows how a creative act has the agency to bring the debate to a head, to give form to ideas, and, sometimes, give voices to people who do not have them.

Photo: Matti Östling. 2018.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018. Exhibition vernissage, June 2018.
Photo: Matti Östling. 2018. Exhibition vernissage, June 2018.

Head curator: Kieran Long
Co-curator: Daniel Golling
Assistant curator: Marie-Louise Richards
Exhibition producer: Lena Landerberg
Exhibition designer: Nilsson Rahm Arkitekter
Graphic designer: Martin Frostner Studio/Europa