A New Public


25 October 2017

“Every walk through the collections is a check list of things to do,” says Kieran Long as he takes me through the temporary exhibition space at ArkDes, Sweden’s national centre for architecture and design. Long is on day five of his new job as director of the centre, a position he has taken up after two years as keeper of the department of design, architecture and digital – a department he also founded in 2015 – at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A).

We’re walking through the capacious exhibition halls of Spanish architect Rafael Moneo’s 1990s museum complex on the Skeppsholmen island in Stockholm. The compound comprises ArkDes and Moderna Museet, Sweden’s museum of modern art – a formidable neighbour that occupies the larger share of Moneo’s buildings. ArkDes’s institutional status has been unclear for some time. Originally conceived as Arkitekturmuseet by the National Association of Swedish Architects in 1962 and then nationalised in 1978, the museum was given the state-appointed remit of also representing design in 2013. A turbulent period followed, in which there was talk of a merger with Moderna Museet – an idea that was dropped – and in which ArkDes was without a director for the best part of a year.

Long’s is a much-anticipated appointment, then. While this is his first job as director of a museum, his record at the V&A demonstrates an ability to drive an ambitious curatorial agenda through the complicated institutional machinery that is a 950 person-strong museum. Rapid Response Collecting was one such project – a strand of the V&A acquisitions policy that seeks to respond directly to current affairs by collecting objects and products connected to global events. Objects acquired under the banner of Rapid Response include a pair of Primark jeans likely produced in the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza factory before its collapse in 2013, the world’s first 3D-printed gun, and, most recently, a Pussyhat worn at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on 21 January 2017.

Long says it is his goal to bring the many complex points of contact between design, architecture and public life to the fore at ArkDes – a theme consistent with the contemporary focus of Rapid Response Collecting policy and with his earlier role as architecture critic at London’s daily Evening Standard. It is not a theme that will necessarily sideline ArkDes’s existing collections, however.

As we head towards Long’s new office, he stops at an architectural model of an unrealised project by the late Polish-born Swedish architect Léonie Geisendorf. The concept is fantastical – a 1971 proposal for a colossal governmental building perched on Helgeandsholmen, an island in central Stockholm. “Geisendorf is perhaps the most significant woman architect of the 20th century,” says Long, and proceeds to tell me that her archives have recently been donated to ArkDes and are in the process of being logged. Collections-based exhibitions on architects from ArkDes’s extensive archives are forthcoming, he says – and Geisendorf seems to be one of the figures on Long’s mental check list.

What is ArkDes, for those who are not familiar with the institution?
ArkDes is Sweden’s national centre of architecture and design. It grew out of Arkitekturmuseet, and so its collection is the national collection of architecture and has around four million objects by 500 architects in it. We also have a state-appointed mission to be a meeting place and platform for discussing the future of Swedish cities, which is separate to our museum mission. We act as a think-tank that can benefit Swedish policy around architecture and design. Also, when a famous [Swedish] architect dies, the collection is usually offered to us, such as in the case of Léonie Geisendorf, whose archives were being delivered when I visited a few weeks ago. We’re not obliged to take everything that’s given to us, but with an architect of Geisendorf’s standing, we take the majority. There are other cases when you might look at an architect and ask if the entire body of work is essential or if can we take highlights. There’s a selective curation of Swedish architectural history that goes on here.

What are some of the guiding principles of that curation?
The collection is overwhelmingly orientated towards the 20th century, although we have some things that predate that. For me, coming from the V&A to a place which is orientated towards the modern is really exciting and there are some unbelievable gems in our collection. There’s a 50-year anniversary book about Arkitekturmuseet that has the history and the posters of all of the exhibitions going way back. And what you notice is that some of the most significant collections we have here – Gunnar Asplund, Sigurd Lewerentz, Sven Markelius, and so on – haven’t been the subjects of monographic exhibitions for 20 years or more. It makes me hungry to take on some of those Swedish architects for collections exhibitions that could tour. The names I mentioned are some of the most important figures in architecture today – the interest in Lewerentz worldwide is astonishing, for instance. So a show we do here has to tour and it has
to be world-class. I don’t know why they haven’t been doing collections shows here – there’s been a focus on more contemporary topics. But that’s going to change.

So that’s the Ark in ArkDes. What about Des?
We have a collection of architectural drawings and models, but we don’t systematically collect furniture. In 2013, however, our remit was changed to embrace a broader definition of architecture and design, and my approach to things at the V&A fits well with that extended remit, in that I was developing a discourse around design and public life. That’s what Rapid Response Collecting was about – asking when design and architecture come into focus for the public. So when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013 and questions of global supply chains were in the news, that’s when we needed to display a pair of jeans from Primark. It’s definitely true, however, that architecture has the most mature and sophisticated discourse around public life. No matter how much I love many of the discourses around design, architecture just has a longer history for thinking about what the city means. So in a way I find architecture as a discipline the perfect foundation for a much broader conversation about design and public life.

ArkDes' permanent display on the history of Swedish architecture is due for an update. IMAGE Simon Skuteli.

Recently, Gothenburg’s design and crafts collection Röhsska and Sweden’s Nationalmuseum put a proposal to the Swedish government that they should collaborate on a national mission in representing design. ArkDes already has this mission. What space do you imagine they want to fill?
You’d have to ask them. I suspect, though, that there will be no conflict, because of the nature of Röhsska and Nationalmuseum’s collections and their collecting policies. They were founded, really, to think about excellence in Swedish – and to some extent international – design. Their collections are already orientated towards the highest achievements of designers and makers. We don’t have that mission, that collection or that history. What I want to focus on is design from the public’s point of view. I don’t feel territorial about design at all. I think ArkDes has the opportunity to be a European hub for thinking about architecture and design research. When we start to tour exhibitions to places such as London and other cities, I know that we will also be valued more in Sweden. We need to raise our standards to the level of a Europe-wide conversation. The smallness of the Swedish conversation will become apparent in that international context – and we’ll all relax about it.

Only three years ago, ArkDes’s future looked uncertain. There was a proposed merger with Moderna Museet next door.
It was a quite serious moment of crisis both in terms of ArkDes’s identity and whether it should continue at all as an independent institution. Rafael Moneo, the architect of the spaces we share with Moderna Museet, always intended a kind of complex with two museums in it. I can understand why they looked at integrating the two museums, not only because they share a building, but because Moderna Museet is a world-class institution and ArkDes, I’m afraid, wasn’t perceived that way. There are all sorts of reasons for that, which predate me, but last year’s figures alone showed we had the highest-climbing visitor numbers of any museum in Sweden. The big housing exhibition last year, Housing. Now. Then: Housing Problems and Answers over 99 Years, was a massive hit – not just in terms of visitors but in terms of the public conversation about architecture.

How will you negotiate the relationship with Moderna Museet going forward?
Moderna Museet sets the standard of Swedish museum practice and I hope to learn a lot from its co-directors Daniel Birnbaum and Ann-Sofi Noring as it’s my first job as a museum director. I want us to have standards so ambitious and so high that Moderna Museet will have to work with us. But it’s a good thing we’re not entirely integrated. The history of architecture and design museums being part of modern museums has not always been good for architecture and design. MoMA, for instance, clearly is a fine-art institution first. I know colleagues there who find it hard to get stuff on the programme and to get enough gallery space. I also think – and this is not the case with Moderna Museet – that fine-art institutions sometimes have a tendency to see the world through the eyes of the practitioner. But design and architecture are more complicated than that. Today especially, design is as much generated by the public as it is by professional designers. Like fan culture or Kickstarter – all the ways that people have of being creative are massively orientated towards design and not towards art. So we have a different responsibility and a different way of seeing the world to a fine-art institution.

Can you talk a little bit about how your move from the V&A to ArkDes came about?
ArkDes always seemed to me like a sleeping giant of the European scene – I’d kept my eye on it in a sort of careerist way. Then last year, the Swedish culture minister Alice Bah Kuhnke came to London and asked a few people to contribute to a discussion about the future of museums for a bill she was working on with her staff. So myself, the director of the Museum of London and a couple of other people were invited to give presentations in a closed meeting at the Museum of London. That’s when I first met Alice and some of the senior civil servants in the Swedish culture ministry. They’d just decided that ArkDes wouldn’t be integrated into Moderna Museet and that it would be an independent authority – a big political decision. I spoke about my work at the V&A and Rapid Response Collecting, and I also spoke about the work I’d been doing on a brief for the V&A’s new building in the Olympic Park. I suppose I was in the frame of mind of having a vision for a new museum. So I gave that presentation in spring 2016, and a few months later they advertised the job. It was a big decision to apply for all sorts of personal reasons – my wife and I were adopting our son, and I’d only been at the V&A for three and a half years at that point. I ended up leaving after four and a half years, which is not really long enough at a place like that. It sort of takes six years at the V&A for your ideas to come through the machine.

ArkDes is part of a museum complex designed by Rafael Moneo in the early 1990s which also incorporates Moderna Museet. IMAGE Simon Skuteli.

The V&A’s former director, Martin Roth, who recruited you, was explicit in framing his departure as one to do with the political climate following the Brexit vote in June 2016. Did that also inform your decision?
If anything, I feel a little like a cop-out leaving a civic institution just at the moment when civic institutions really need to play an active role in society. The 2015 show All of This Belongs to You tried to ask: what is this ground we’re standing on? What are our duties in the context of a declining public realm and austerity politics in Britain? The idea that you could say that the museum is both a public toilet and a very elevated place of extraordinary communion with the civic infrastructure of a country seemed to cut through to people. Asking what kinds of civic roles the museum should take on felt urgent at a moment when, in England at least, the civic realm was at stake and declining. I don’t doubt the V&A will continue to play its part, but I think London is a less interesting place now than it was 20 years ago or so. In some ways it’s a more successful city: it has loads more money, loads more people and it’s probably a bit more international today. But it’s just all surface. I think London is a hard place to be a designer. London designers are addicted to PR to a problematic extent. It’s not really their fault. It’s because you can’t make anything in London because there’s no manufacturing. All you can do is get loads and loads of PR. You can build a whole career on PR projects.

What about more recent developments?
I think that, politically, the big debates that Sweden faces right now are common to most western European countries: large-scale immigration, the rise of the populist right and housing crises. The political challenges ahead and the debates we must participate in are Europe-wide. The thing we must do here is make a European network of institutions of our scale to tackle them. The MAK [in Vienna], the Deutsches Architektur Zentrum, MAXXI – we can be a peer to those organisations. We are already participating in a Nordic or Scandinavian network of peer institutions – The Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki, the DogA in Oslo and the Danish Architecture Centre.

Any apprehensions about heading up a national Swedish authority as a foreign national?
I think the choice to have a foreigner as director of ArkDes is a big decision for Sweden. There haven’t been that many non-Swedish museum directors here and I don’t think ArkDes has ever had a non-Swedish director. There are certain rules – in some authorities in Sweden, you have to be Swedish, but ArkDes is not one of them. I do have to conduct my business in Swedish and my Swedish is not yet brilliant. There’s also the question of whether I have a deep enough knowledge of the specific histories of Swedish design and architecture. But I think Alice and her colleagues saw the need for the breadth of experience that I’ve had in the past 20 years of editing magazines, doing the Venice Architecture Biennale, doing TV, doing national newspapers, then world-class museum practice. London’s like an addiction, and to feel like you’re stepping away from the centre of the world [to] come to a place that is – you’d have to say – slightly marginal in the European context is a big decision to make. Stockholm is not one of the top centres of culture in Europe, but it’s definitely cultured. It feels like a place where you can get good work done. You can come here, focus and concentrate. And the freedom I have here as a museum director – my budget is confirmed by the government for the next three years. I don’t have to raise any money. I mean, I will have to raise some, but there is no requirement – we could fund a pretty good programme with the money we get from the government. So the scariest thing about my job is that when you have time and freedom, a bullet-proof contract, the money to do things, great spaces, and when you can do anything you like – that’s the real test of whether you’re good or not.

Perhaps you’d like to take this opportunity to present your vision for ArkDes and some of the plans that are already in place?
We need to get the collection on display. We need to do very serious touring exhibitions of world-class standing about the best parts of our collection. I have a feeling that there’s a sort of reticence about making some of the biggest claims for Swedish architecture here. I don’t necessarily mean at ArkDes, I mean culturally. So when you look at Léonie Geisendorf’s archive and I put the question to my colleagues: is this person the most important woman architect in 20th-century architecture? There’s a sort of whoah, hold on, that’s a big thing to say! But I believe – and perhaps it’s the journalistic part of me – we should be making the biggest possible claims, testing those claims seriously with proper academic inquiry and proper research.* Another thing we will do is approach the practitioners who are most involved in creatively thinking about architecture and design in the public realm. An interesting thing about architecture in Sweden is that there’s almost no unemployment. Almost every Swedish architect has a job. What that means is they don’t have time to do much else – they’re not sitting around making art projects or starting the Situationist International. They’re working in offices and delivering massive housing projects. So ArkDes needs to be an alternative space where critical discourse is valued, and where the best practitioners can come and show work. We also need to give a platform to radical new fields of design that probably no other museum of our scale in Sweden would give a platform to. I would like to see ArkDes pick radically new fields of design and look at them very seriously. It’s obvious in the context of the public‑life theme, because people’s experience of the city now is radically changed by the devices we carry and the networks that define everything from transport systems to services and utilities. We need to bring all the futures we know we’re on the brink of into dialogue with more traditional fields of design.

ArkDes houses extensive archives pertaining to some of Sweden's foremost 20th-century architects. IMAGE Simon Skuteli.

In terms of acquisitions, will you have the opportunity to collect some of those objects and technologies too?
There are no state-defined limits on what we can and cannot collect, but we have no ambitions to start a design collection. We are thinking about making changes to our acquisitions policy to make it less responsive and more proactive, however. For instance, we supposedly have the whole history of Swedish architecture, but we have hardly anything about the Million Program [Miljonprogrammet, an ambitious public housing programme implemented in Sweden in 1965-74 by the social-democratic government]. Part of the reason is that this massive, defining project was delivered in a completely different way – it was not architect-led. So architects tended to be a bit ashamed of some of the results and not have those things in their corporate archives. The archives are now divided between some city archives and private collections, so we just don’t have them. You would say now, in retrospect, that’s a massive gap that we need to address. But it wasn’t really seen as a gap at the time. There’s a parallel there with, say, the way that digital businesses are now defining the futures of cities in Sweden and internationally, but no architecture museum is yet collecting Oracle or Cisco Systems documentation. In 50 years that might be seen as a massive gap.

There’s been a debate about the role of public museums in Sweden over the past year, with some of Alice Bah Kuhnke’s policies coming under fire for a supposedly heavy-handed politicisation of certain state collections. This is to the detriment of academic research into the collections themselves, it’s been said.
I don’t know if there’s a museum in the world that doesn’t get criticised by some academic somewhere for not being academic enough. The week I left the V&A, there was a massive tirade from a previous V&A director and now editor of The Art Newspaper about how the V&A is abandoning its commitment to research. I found those criticisms ludicrous – really offensive misunderstandings of what museums are for today. Museums with the breadth of the V&A simply cannot have experts in every part of their collections. That article picked out a particular period of ceramics and, of course, ceramics are an important part of the V&A’s collections – but so too will be video games and all sorts of new fields of design around which we have hardly any expertise yet. We need to develop expertise in those things and sometimes that will mean stopping doing other things. You just can’t do everything.

What about editorialisation? By curating contemporary culture you will inevitably mount some sort of argument about it.
We had some of that criticism for Rapid Response. The 3D-printed gun, for example, flushed out some seriously weird and old-fashioned opinions in design when we acquired it. Suddenly people were like: but it’s evil! You can’t collect evil things! But no-one worries about the V&A’s collection of swords, halberds and pikes. Now, however, other museums can’t stop talking about the gun. MoMA can’t give a presentation about design without talking about the gun! But there are lots of ways to answer your political question. Some people have asked me if ArkDes is not just the tool of the state. Well, what do you think museums were in the past? What do you think the V&A was? When [Karl Friedrich] Schinkel was building the Altes Museum [in Berlin], what do you think he was doing? He was articulating the state’s mission for the public’s benefit. I don’t see a problem with that. We shouldn’t be kicked around like a political football and we’ll resist that, but we should be a place where people can discuss the real future, the real thing.