You shall not believe that you are someone.
You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.
You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you’re better than us.
You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
You shall not laugh at us.
You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.
These are, according to the controversial Dano-Norwegian literary figure Aksel Sandemose (1899–1965), 10 commandments by which the ideal Nord should live out a devoted Nordic existence. The Law of Jante, as it is known, provides a checklist for any good, civilized society, and its edicts have—for better or for worse—bled from the pages of fiction and fable into the Nordic subconscious.
Most indications point to the fact that Sandemose was a sorely amoral and entirely contemptible individual. (Based on the imputations of one of his sons, he faced accusations of crimes ranging from murder to incest, pedophilia to bigamy.) His writing was no less contentious: the story of A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (1933), in which he first outlined this code of being, takes place in “Jante” – a sleepy, rather remote fictional Danish village modelled, it is said, on his own place of birth, Nykøbing Mors. Set against the backdrop of a murder and narrated by means of obscure dreamscapes, prejudice and partisanship, bigotry and “radical inclusivity” (though not described as such) reign supreme, stifling society in a stranglehold of self-effacement and tightly-imposed insularity. Like any good narrative tool, the tangible implications of the Law of Jante as an observational critique spread and, over time, became quietly accepted. Since the dawn of the 20th Century, the Nordic region—specifically Norway and Sweden (Denmark is technically part of Scandinavia; Finland is not)—has benefitted, more often than not, from the moral high ground. It has been largely politically left, socially inclusive, and at the technological vanguard, having developed comparatively stable and streamlined economies, industries, and welfare models along the way. The built environment has been integral to their moral ascendency, trying its utmost to incrementally improve the population’s overall standard of living. As a result, Nordic architecture, which has oscillated between the peripheries and the center of international attention over the last century, has itself suffered from rhetorics on repeat.
A region closely associated with some of Modernism’s greatest built accomplishments, it achieved a state of renown from a position of comparative privilege and, importantly, ideological security. In 1971, as the excavators and bulldozers were angling their pincers on maligned public housing project Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Missouri, architect Peter Celsing’s Kulturhuset was still under construction in central Stockholm. This building, commissioned in the mid-60s, stands as among the greatest testaments to post-war Swedish Modernism and, by extension, to the role of art, cinema, and music at the heart of civic life. By 1974, however, (when it eventually opened) the tides of progress had started to shift; Modernist ideals were, on the whole, being dismissed as a rather embarrassing misfire. For some, it had failed entirely.
But did Modernism “fail” in the Nordic countries? Perhaps not, or perhaps only aesthetically so. Perhaps it merely transitioned into the landscape of today: an architecture in which core values, each agreed upon approximately seventy years ago — openness and transparency, a considered relationship to landscape and terrain, aspirations for equality and high standards of living — still, thankfully, hold water. And yet, the sacrifice for stability is continuity – which cannot always be assumed to be constructive. The Law of Jante, today dismissed by most as an anachronism, has in fact been dressed in a new, more precisely obscured and clean-cut outfit. In 2014, the phrase åsiktskorridor (known as meningskorridor in Norwegian, or “opinion corridor”) was formally acknowledged by the Swedish Language Council. It’s used to represent a collection of tried and tested modes of thinking that should be adhered to in polite conversation, politically, and when it comes to the delicate and persistent project of shaping society. To step out from or even walk parallel to the “Opinion Corridor” is tantamount to national insurrection. The Nordic nations’ culture of consensus—the notion that general agreement and deference to the majority is a far better mechanism for progress than promoting individual opinions—has established a complex web of comfort zones that have an institutional tendency to smother the different, the experimental, and the disruptive.
This idea also extends to architectural production in Denmark, Norway and Finland. It’s as if the great the great Nordic architects of the 20th Century—often incorrectly perceived to be a group of isolated geniuses, usually male and almost exclusively white—are shouting from beyond the grave: “You shall not believe that you know more than we do. You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.” For contemporary architects, this poses the ultimate Catch-22. If “radicality” is not possible—as no one wants to pay for it, let alone give it planning permission—then ideas remain paperbound and unresolved. There is a scene of emerging practitioners in the Nordic nations who do not wish to wither by the tropes of yesteryear. There is a legacy to uphold, no doubt, but it must be occupied, and harnessed, and transposed into something that reacts and responds to a society which appears to be tussling with its own contemporary identity. For architects that means that, contrary to the decrees of Jante’s Law, the frontline of this new paradigm is, in fact, within grasp.