Stockholm is built upon islands. Sweden’s capital and most populous urban area is spread out across fourteen islands where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea, and the Stockholm archipelago island chain hugs the eastern coast outside of the city. The islands that together form Stockholm include Beckholmen, Djurgården, Helgeandsholmen, Kastellholmen, Kungsholmen, Lilla Essingen, Långholmen, Reimersholme, Riddarholmen, Skeppsholmen, Stadsholmen, Stora Essingen, Strömsborg, and Södermalm. Stadsholmen, Riddarholmen, and Strömsborg together form Gamla Stan. Stockholm’s islands are connected or disconnected in various ways, to each other as well as to the outskirts of the city, both physically and socially.
Stockholm is also a city that is very segregated. Stockholm’s outer suburbs are lower-income neighborhoods with higher concentrations of immigrants and ethnic minorities. Although the suburbs may not be categorized as islands by geographical standards, they can be understood as ones that become increasingly remote the farther out one moves along a metro line. But the suburbs as islands are perhaps not what should be explored here; perhaps the inner-city of Stockholm and its degree of (in)accessibility is the island that needs to be interrogated. While many articles about segregation focus upon the situation of immigrants and ethnic minorities, there are very limited efforts to problematize and evaluate the role that more privileged populations play, as it is the migration patterns of the most privileged groups that have the most impact on the housing market and demographics in Nordic cities. The island that is Stockholm becomes ever more isolated from the surrounding city as rental apartments continue to decline and public property continues to be sold off.
The island of Skeppsholmen, although centrally located and a short bridge away from the Grand Hotel and Nationalmuseum, seems rather separate from the bustle of the city center. It is accessible by foot from Kungsträdgården, by bus, and by boat from Slussen. Skeppsholmen has largely been left out of the development the rest of the city has undergone, making it feel like a non-place. Traditionally housing several military buildings, today the island is characterized by the presence of several museums including the Museum of Modern Art (Moderna museet), the architectectural museum (ArkDes), and the East Asian Museum (Östasiatiska museet).
The Royal Institute of Art (Kungliga Konsthögskolan), commonly referred to as Mejan, is another major institutional presence on Skeppsholmen. Having moved to the island in the 1950s, it is housed partially by an old military building as well as one that was custom-built for the school. Mejan is the most exclusive of Sweden’s art institutions in its small size and consequently low admission rates, making it an island of prestige in the larger landscape of Swedish higher education. Mejan is also a part of the societal island that is the art world.
The island geography permeates into the interior of the building and is reflected in the culture of the school. Each student is nurtured into becoming an isolated ‘genius’, developing their practice largely from within the confines of their individual studio behind a closed door; each studio an island, situated in proximity to one another to form the archipelago that is Fine Art at Mejan. But proximity does not imply connection; the architecture department, while in the same building, is its own island that is largely separated from the rest of the school. The island architecture of the studios and the school, both physical and cultural, can make it seem as if Mejan is an island that is largely deserted.
Island has always been the point of departure for this year’s Decolonizing Architecture course. The course began on another island, Långholmen, at a hotel that used to be a prison; this is another iteration of island architecture in its arrangement of separate, proximal cells (but one that carries a very different weight). With Skeppsholmen as a point of departure, the site of the island can be explored inwardly at Mejan, and outwards, to the city of Stockholm. How does Stockholm reflect or culturally uphold its island nature and the isolation and separation that such a geography entails? How have islands in Stockholm been created or reinforced under the conditions of a global pandemic? How can we build bridges?