Architecture and Society: White Arkitekter and Swedish Post-war Architecture


Claes Caldenby


newsletter august 2019
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by Claes Coldenby
Edited by Theodore Prudon and Eduardo Duarte Ruas

During the 1950s the Swedish building industry became unusually large-scale for a small country. Large clients, mainly public agencies, were supplied by large builders, given control of the process, and large architects’ offices, trying to cope with this. This was the context in which the firm White Arkitekter started in 1951. The history of the architecture in Sweden can be traced in the work of the firm in the following decades.

“Before maybe the architect’s relation to his employees was that of the master and the pupils. Now team work is a key concept for modern architecture,” Sidney White claimed in 1953. A large office, a strong belief in evidence-based knowledge and a model of employee ownership was his idea of a modern architecture. The legacy from the founder has been sustainable. Today White Arkitekter is Sweden’s largest office with more than 900 employees.  

From 1951 to the early 1970s, White Arkitekter worked mainly for public clients with housing, schools and health care. Baronbackarna housing in Örebro was to become a classic of the Swedish 1950s “people’s home.” The meandering pattern of the plan had courtyards with playgrounds facing the large interior park, alternating with car parking courtyards towards the ring-road around the area.

Baronbackarna was closely adapted to the site. Already in the late 1950s such sensibility was seen to stand in the way for industrialized building. In Pennygången in Gothenburg dating from 1959 the municipal housing company demanded that all the 760 apartments were similar. In the 1960s “record years” economy was booming, people moved into cities and the public sector was expanding. The so-called Million Program was a state initiative to build one million housing units in ten years, 1965–74. In Eastern Gårdsten a prefab project with 1300 apartments was planned in 1968. Now it was considered necessary to level the site to be economical and efficient. 

Fundamental changes in the international economy made further expansion of the public sector in the Social-Democratic “strong society” difficult to pursue. The oil crisis 1973 made things worse. The Million Program was cut short and White Arkitekter had to lay off half the staff and try to reposition the office.

Offices for private clients were a new market for White Arkitekter. Asken in central Gothenburg from 1986 is a project typical for the late 1980s. An infill project in central Gothenburg was built with the instruction from the client, a finance company, that it was to “last for 200 years.” Quality was high and money was not an issue. Five years later the company went bankrupt.

The 1990s started with another crisis, when the real estate bubble burst. There was a retreat from a social and state-led policy to a more market-oriented one in the wake of the neo-liberal 1980s. Luxurious waterfront projects were an international phenomenon in the 1990s. White Arkitekter designed some projects in this “design segment” of the market.

But the 1990s also saw a growing interest for ecology and sustainability, both as “healthy buildings” and as recycling and resource saving. White’s office in Malmö designed schools which tried natural, non-mechanical ventilation, reduction of waste and chemicals and reuse of components. 

“Naturum”, a program for visitor centre buildings for national parks with facilities to make a nature visit more attractive, became a speciality for White Architects from the late 1980s. The client was the Swedish Environmental Protections Agency. The architecture of these buildings was site specific, mostly in wood.

When larger facilities were needed in Stockholm in the 1990s White Architects decided to be both client and designer of their own office. The Katsan Office Building from 2003 is a rectangular glass-box with a sophisticated climate control system using the nearby canal for cooling. A structuralist design method, emphasizing flexibility and generality, proved its value in thinking sustainability. 

Hurricane Sandy destroyed Rockaway outside New York in 2012. A winning competition entry for its reconstruction in 2013 by White Architects combined ecological and social sustainability. Developers showed no interest in social sustainability and White Architects decided to back out from the prestigious project. 

New Karolinska Hospital (NKS) in Solna just north of Stockholm, finished in 2016–2018, is with its 330000 sqm probably the largest project ever for White Arkitekter. An invited design competition was won in 2006 with an emphasis on structuralist generality and efficient logistics.

In 2018 White Arkitekter has offices abroad in Oslo and London. Complex public buildings like hospitals and schools are tasks where Swedish architects are highly competitive.

With thousands of projects, White Arkitekter have built many post-war projects in Sweden and are responsible for part of the face of the country. Commissions are a reflection of the changes in society. At the same time some core values of the immediate post war era seem to have survived the changes and remain relatively untouched. The large office, able to handle large tasks, the team work between different specialists, the belief in research and new knowledge and the ownership by the architects themselves are characteristics of modernity. (Figure 09)

A longer version of this text can be found in 15th IDC Conference Proceedings. Both are based on a 688 pages book in Swedish on White Arkitekter: Claes Caldenby, Magnus Borglund (eds 2018) Whiteboken 1951–2018.




Bourdieu introduced the concept of fields in the 1970s. For a summary see: Bourdieu, Pierre (1993). "The Field of Cultural Production." Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

For an adaption of Bourdieu’s model to the field of architecture see: Albertsen, Niels "Arkitekturens fält” in Donald Broady (ed. 1998). Kulturens fält. Daidalos, Gothenburg.

All information on White architects comes from this book: Caldenby, Claes, and others (2018) "1951–2018 Whiteboken." Arkitektur Media, Stockholm, 16.

The Swedish economist Åke E. Andersson launched the term “K-samhälle”, with the same meaning, in his 1988 book K-samhällets framtid [The Future of C-society]. Prisma, Stockholm.




Claes Caldenby is an architect and architectural historian. He is professor emeritus in Theory and history of architecture at Chalmers university of technology in Gothenburg. He has also been one of the editors of Arkitektur, the Swedish review of architecture, since 1977. As an architectural historian he has specialized on Swedish post-war architecture. He has edited and contributed to books like Asplund (1985), Sigurd Lewerentz: Two churches (1997), 20th century architecture: Sweden (1998) and several others in Swedish. Altogether he has written some 80 books and 800 articles.