Ida Sandström - November 2022
Welcome to Urban Arena Interviews, a series in which we will get to know different members of the Urban Arena on a more personal level. What their interests are, how their research is going and what their visions for the future are.
This time we are getting to know Ida Sandström, member of the Urban Arena steering group and one of the heads of the Urban Space, Design and Built Environment unit.
To begin with it would be nice to know where you are from and what your path has been to get to where you are now?
So let us start from the beginning. I grew up in Gothenburg on the Swedish west coast. After finishing school, I wished to see a bit more of the world. I spent a year in England and another year in France. When I returned to Sweden I moved to Lund and started to study History of Ideas, a subject close to philosophy. During this time, I got interested in architecture and its connection to society and the ways in which we live. So, I started to train to become an architect. Already from the beginning with the intention of working on the urban scale. The interest in planning really took off during an exchange semester at the School of Architecture in Oslo. I owe a lot to their department of urbanism. It was decisive for my future track, especially to see how theory was connected to the design studio. From Oslo I moved to Berlin to work with the architecture collective Raumlabor. For me it was a year of new perspectives. The office was engaged in large-scale projects at that time, mainly in eastern Germany, but operating through artistic or small-scale interventions. This way of thinking has stayed with me since that time.
When returning to Sweden tried some different roles an architect could have. I did an internship at one of the major consultancy firms, White Architects, and spent a year with the City of Malmö, working on the brownfield project, Norra Sorgenfri. I liked working for the public sector and after my diploma work, I did four years at the department for strategic planning in Helsingborg. During these years I mainly worked with the harbour redevelopment project called H+. This is the project that is now known as H22. It was extremely interesting, but also challenging. A lot of critical questions were issued through that project, sometimes for the first time in the city.
While I was working in Helsingborg, the Swedish government dedicated more resources to architectural research. In 2012 the Swedish Research School in Architecture was launched, and PhD students were employed at all four schools of architecture. This was great in terms of research community and I was fortunate to be part of it. I started my doctoral studies, and in 2019 I defended my thesis with the title Towards a Minor Urbanism – Thinking Community without Unity in Recent Makings of Public Space. Having young children, I decided to stay in Lund, but tried to expand my research. Since then, I have worked a lot in research projects that are practice oriented and transdisciplinary. Since last year I have been employed as an associate senior lecturer at the Department of Architecture and Built Environment.
You work a lot with the urban space and integration in the urban space, what are some research projects that you are working on right now?
I am currently part of two Vinnova projects. The Syntax of Equality, A Tool for Expressing and Implementing Equality and Inclusion. It is a project that combines architectural-, design- and linguistic research to investigate equality in the built environment. The intention is to expand the notion of Universal Design and include more aspects of equality. We work with three municipalities: Östersund, Kalmar and Gothenburg. We develop the project together with the cities. The other project has the long title Housing for more people in the existing housing stock in Uppsala - Testbed for sharing and reduced loneliness. It has also been developed in close connection to planning practice, in this case Uppsala municipality. The project addresses on the one hand the housing crisis and on the other hand issues related to public health and loneliness. In response to both these challenges we investigate new typologies for shared housing. As the title indicates we are particularly interested in the existing housing stock and its capacities. There is a tendency to only focus on the construction of new buildings, but this project started with a different question. What if we could create more homes without constructing new buildings? It also taps on a larger discourse on sustainability and the use of resources.
You are working on solving current problems but are there also future challenges that you are interested in, or would like to discover further?
I have been thinking of the need to address the more fundamental questions of human life. Questions such as “what is a good life?” have been almost privatized, and everyone is left to search for themselves. As I see it, research has the possibility to set up for those conversations to happen. It is an ambitious project, but I see a growing number of researchers starting to be interested in the notion of existential sustainability. It is a term which tries to connect the different aspects of sustainability. For me this is always connected to what we build and plan for, the materialisation of a “good life”.
I would also like to work more with the question of time and sustainability. How to keep the long-term perspective in everything we do and build. This split between different timescales could be seen in the last Swedish election. When some spoke about future generations, others were much more preoccupied with everyday struggles. Both conversations are legitimate, but they shouldn’t be so separated. Planning has always been struggling with this, with its duty to speak of the long-term perspective when people want to see results here and now. And architecture is catching up, now starting to work more with prototypes and speculative design. I mean, architects are trained to show and envision what is not there yet, and to make that feel real and tangible. To close the gap of different timescales, it would make sense to better integrate and make use of such design skills in planning practices. I am hoping to do a research application on that sometime.
How come the urban or the city is so interesting to you? Why has there always been this fascination to go into the bigger scale?
Critical questions will often surface in the city. It is where different ideas and interests are often confronted. This makes it an interesting arena to work in. Having said that, I am also interested in other, more rural settings. Sometimes the city is a good starting point and sometimes we need to look elsewhere.
Your department is Architecture and Built Environment. How is it connected to the Urban Arena?
The connection has grown strong in the last few years. There is a lot of emphasis on the built environment just now, also in political conversations on how to construct society. I am thinking of the Policy for Design Living Environment and the New European Bauhaus. When the New European Bauhaus reintroduces a notion, such as beauty, it is a call for architects to contribute.
You are part of the Urban Arena and the steering group for many years, do you have wishes for how the Urban Arena could develop into the future?
I am thinking of the research walks that we did some years ago. To me that was one of the most valuable things we did so far in Urban Arena. I am especially thinking of the walk we did in Höganäs, where we connected researchers and civil servants, but also politicians. These kinds of cross-cutting conversations are quite rare, and I would love Urban Arena to enable more of them.
Do you have a favourite city?
I am learning from many cities, but I think the cities that I love the most are the ones where I invested something. Berlin of course, but also Lund where I walk my kids to school in the mornings. And Pristina! I was part of a design completion there and visited several times during a couple of years around the independence of Kosova. Pristina had its problems, no doubt, but with time I grew very fond of the city.
This would be the end of our short interview, but do you have any final thoughts?
It is a particular time to be a researcher. So much needs to be done in the coming years and it is sometimes overwhelming. But it is also helpful to be part of a large university. Urban Arena makes me catch sight of that side of things, how we are all searching for ways forward, in our different ways.