Interview / Lifestyle

“Not Another Trip to the Suburbs!”: Mark Isitt in Conversation

MARK ISITT is Sweden’s Kevin McCloud. Last year, he adapted Channel 4’s Grand Designs to Sweden’s TV4. It was received by millions of viewers, and he tells us about Swedish architecture and the hits it took…

Mark, it’s so cool to be speaking to a Swedish Kevin McCloud!

A bleak version! Yes, I think it’s been going for nineteen seasons in the UK… I doubt I’ll manage that long! You know, I had no relationship with Grand Designs before I was asked to do this show. I’d seen an episode or two, but I wasn’t a fan. I started watching it when I got the job. He’s incredibly good at what he does… too good! In Sweden, we’ve had one series so far, with about a million viewers. For a population of ten million, TV4 regard that as pretty good, and have commissioned three more series. Of course, that’s the difference between our version and the UK’s: you have more to choose from. But we’re very good when it comes to villas. We’re not so good when it comes to public architecture, but we’re very good when it comes to private architecture. I think because we spend so much time at home.

Sweden is known for its interior design and flat pack furniture. I was intrigued to hear about IKEA’s plan to create flat pack exterior design.

Flat pack architecture is an old idea. It has been around for a hundred years… or even more actually. That was the way the army used to build villages, as early as the eighteenth century in Sweden, and maybe even earlier in Britain. The BoKluk project hasn’t been an enormous hit though. They’re built out of wood, which aren’t entirely easy to fit into a city centre.

In the 1960s, Sweden set out – and succeeded – to build a million homes in ten years. What impact did that have on the nation’s architecture?

A tremendously negative impact. It’s just so typically Swedish to come up with the idea. I live in Denmark, and the Danes would never have managed it. But in Sweden, there was no argument. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon and “here we go!”. The architects were in great standing up until then… afterwards architecture was suddenly grey, concrete, kilometre-long blocks. People are willing to work with architects again now, but it has been a long run.

Sweden is a cold country, and its architecture needs to be functionalist. That’s why the million homes project was initiated. But,  compared to similar projects in, say, Scotland, Sweden managed to make the buildings rather beautiful…

I wouldn’t say they’re particularly beautiful…

You haven’t been to Scotland!

And you haven’t been to the million homes areas! I think they’re pretty awful actually. Everywhere I go, I want to see the equivalent of the million homes projects. It drives my wife mad… “not another trip to the suburbs!”

You said you live in Copenhagen now, married to a Dane. But you’re constantly crossing back to Sweden…

I’ve got three legs. I write for the large daily on the west coast. I do a radio show for Sveriges Radio. Then I have television: Grand Designs for TV4 and a show for SVT.

Mark, finally, if you could pick your favourite build from series one, which would you pick?

Oh, difficult to pick a favourite. I think from an international point of view, I’d choose the one we featured in Åre, northern Sweden. It combined the historical and the modern, which is when Swedish architecture and society is at its strongest.

MARK ISITT is a Swedish journalist and presenter.

This article has also been published in Nordic Style Magazine.

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