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Simplicity and Perfection of Contemporary Scandinavian Architecture

August 6, 2016
Runs, does yoga.

If you’re not originally from the Nordic countries, but you do listen to Bjork, then you must have heard how Scandinavians like to “organize freedom”. Scandinavian architecture might just be the perfect example for this unlikely balance, and although Bjork’s lyrics may have originally been self-critical, “organized freedom” seems to work just perfectly in architecture. Still, before we start explaining the analogy, we ought to take a quick look at the history of Scandinavian architecture and urban design, and by the end of this article we’ll learn about the recent tendencies in their contemporary architecture, as well as how they relate to the past and the current global trends.

scandinavian architecture architects use ideas for home interior and see the light of white Denmark as inspiration
Oresund Bridge that turns into a tunnel – between Copenhagen and Malmo

Nordic Tradition

For those of us who get easily confused by geopolitical terms – Scandinavia usually refers to three countries only, and these include Denmark, Sweden and Norway. However, both in this article and quite often in everyday life, the word Scandinavian applies to Finland and Iceland as well, all of which belong to the northern part of Europe. People from the north have always had a special bond with nature, one that cannot be fully understood by those who live in other parts of the world, which is one of the reasons for the relatively late advent of industrial revolution in these countries. The cruelty of nature that inhabits regions close to the Arctic Circle is the one that made people appreciate it better, which is why Scandinavians have intrinsically known the basics of functionalism even before it was officially established as a movement. A little goes a long way – for Nordic people, this means that a limited choice of materials was just what they needed to develop strong craftsmanship and a mindset that was based on the form-follows-function principle, regardless of the one formulated by Louis Sullivan. Ever since the medieval times, Nordic people have had examples of cleverly designed homes and objects. For example, the Icelanders were known for turf houses, one of the earliest examples of “green roofs”, which not only looked lovely but was an excellent way of insulating the house.

scandinavian architecture there is not much white light in homes interiors in Island
Glaumbaer, Iceland (truf house), via Wikipedia

From Nordic Classicism to Functionalism

Just like some other European nations, Scandinavians had their own variation of Art Nouveau in the 19th century, called National Romantic style, and even a nationally-based version of Neo-Classicism, called Nordic Classicism. The latter was historically considered a mere transition between styles, but it has recently been reassessed and interpreted as an important, albeit brief period in Scandinavian architecture which did fall under direct influence of European Neo-Classicism (a style rather infamous among academic circles today), but it also represented an interesting “preface” to Modernism. Since Germany is geographically close to Denmark, the Danes started picking up the novelties and becoming interested in the “new architecture” that ruled Europe in the late 1920’s. The collaboration with the Germans and the vast influence of Bauhaus are frequently commended as key precursors of Modernism in Denmark, which soon inspired other Scandinavian countries as well. Finally, the 1930 exhibition in Stockholm is described as a defining moment of Modern Scandinavian architecture, and the one in which Nordic Classicism slipped into Functionalism once the two leading architects Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz displayed new architectural designs and said their final goodbyes to classical architecture.

scandinavian architecture in Sweden architects create functional but simple interiors
Gunnar Asplund – Stockholm Public Library

Accessible and Beautiful (Just Like Ikea)

As mentioned above, industrialization was not embraced in Scandinavia right away, partly due to the tradition of craftsmanship and the proficient skills of their craftsmen; but then on the other hand, the functionalist logic was just waiting to be discovered under new conditions brought by industrial revolution. In some sense, this explains why Scandinavians managed to find a perfect equilibrium between two worlds – keeping a mindful relationship with nature, and taking advantage of the improvements brought by the industry. This is one of the most important facets of Scandinavian architecture, a leitmotif that remains present throughout history, regardless of period or style. A well-designed Scandinavian house is always corresponding with its natural environment, so that both the nature around the house and the architecture itself get the best out of the process. The other reason why industrialization found its home in Scandinavia after all is due to the democratic environment, which was characteristic for this region in the early 20th century. Architecture was no longer a matter of prestige, it was produced for everyone and made accessible to all, designed with the idea that beautiful, healthy environment should make everyone’s life better. These bases precondition their approach to design as we know it today – you only need to consider Ikea and their ideology in order to easily understand the Scandinavian way of living.

scandinavian architecture simple homes and ideas are result of work by interior home designers who use wood
Typical housing in Copenhagen

Relationship With Natural Light

One of the first things you’ll notice in most of Scandinavian buildings, from the Modern period until today, is their openness, both to the inside and the outside. Full-length windows are used very frequently, in order to let the maximal amount of sunshine into the interior. In fact, natural light plays a key role in architectural design, since it is regarded as one of the most valuable aspects, and thus it dictates the entire design process. As a consequence, lots of Scandinavian buildings that are located in urban areas are strangely open to the public, which tends to confuse tourists and people who have had no experience with a chronic lack of daylight. If you decide to take a walk through one of Copenhagen’s streets, especially if you take just a few steps away from the historical center, you’ll be able to see hundreds of full-length windows with no curtains, since Nordic people apparently have no issues with privacy and do not really care if anyone peeks through their windows (and tourists often do).

scandinavian architecture architects from finland use white to light the interior
Alvar Aalto – Finnish Pavilion, New York 1939

Three Big Names of Scandinavian Architecture in the 20th Century

Finally, the best way to contemplate on Scandinavian architecture is to take a look at the examples. Gunnar Asplund, the influential Swedish architect who quickly transitioned from Neoclassicism to Functionalism, is often dubbed the father of Modernism in Scandinavia. Although he was one of the most notable proponents of International Style, his architecture is often described as poetic and innately humane – ever since his Paradise Restaurant was introduced at the Stockholm exhibition, his architecture has been known for these features. However, the lyrical Nordic style would have never been entirely acknowledged by the rest of the world if there wasn’t for Alvar Aalto, the renowned Finnish architect whose work reached far distances and implanted a little bit of Finland in many other parts of the world. Aalto was known for his “lyrical functionalism”, typical both for Asplund and him, but he was also a prominent furniture designer and even a painter. However, no other Scandinavian architect was as good at furniture design as Arne Jacobsen, known for his brilliant chair designs that, once again, expose the human dimension of modernism.

scandinavian architecture in Sweden private interiors have less light than interiors of public structures
Gunnar Asplund – Cementerio Skogskyrkogarden

Contemporary Scandinavian Architecture – Organized Freedom

One of the most famous Scandinavian architects today is Bjarke Ingels, the founder of BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group. Although the Danish architect is sometimes accused of abandoning Scandinavian Modernism and some of its principles that are based on a harmonic relationship with nature, Bjarke’s architectural style might be better described as a a contemporary upgrade of the national “international” style. You will find some of the traditional elements of Scandinavian design in his buildings, including the turf roofs, generously large windows and spaces designed with regard to climatic conditions. However, aesthetically, the notion of beauty, which traditionally meant harmony and simplicity, seems to take on different shapes in BIG’s work. New age brings new materials, and Nordic countries are no longer restricted by their geographic isolation. Still, the idea to reconcile aspects of freedom and aspects of organization is reflected in Bjarke’s work as much as it is present in the work of his predecessors – a sort of democratic view on architecture puts emphasis on accessibility and openness, but it is always overlapped with a grid of order and regulations. To put it in Ingels’ words: “Architecture seems to be entrenched in two equally unfertile fronts: either naively utopian or petrifyingly pragmatic. We believe that there is a third way. A pragmatic utopian architecture”. Ultimately, it seems that the word simplicity is gradually being complemented by excitement when it comes to contemporary architecture in Nordic countries. Although Bjarke Ingels was used just as a single (and very famous) example, lots of other architectural teams continue the story of Scandinavian design with respect to nature, but also with a brilliant sense of using technology the right way. 

scandinavian architecture designers built wood for open living built
Big and JDS – VM Houses in Orestadt, Copenhagen, 2005

Featured images: Jorgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert – Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark – one of the icons of Scandinavian architectural design; Snohetta – Reindeer Pavilion – an example of new tendencies in contemporary Nordic architecture. All images used for illustrative purposes only.