A guide to Scandinavian architecture: Why we’re in love with Scandinavian design
When people talk about Scandinavia, they often talk about the architecture. But what makes Scandinavian architecture so special?
Of all the things that Scandinavia is known for throughout the world, the most distinct might be the rich influence that Scandinavian architects and designers have had on global taste, especially when it comes to modern architecture.
Sleek, oddly-shaped skyscrapers featuring environmentally-smart and human-friendly design that incorporate copious and innovative use of natural light — edifices fitting this description may define Scandinavian architecture, but they can be found all over the world.
These are some of the hallmarks of a style that has become so fully subsumed into the architecture of the world that most people hardly think about it anymore.
But while this state of affairs for many of us may seem to simply be a part of the cultural ether—in other words it may seem as though Scandinavian architecture has always been a thing—the truth is it wasn’t always so.
In fact, the distinctive, unique and innovative style of architecture that we call specifically Scandinavian architecture is only a very recent development, just emerging around 100 years ago.
We’ll take a look at some of the most iconic examples taken from the history of Scandinavian architecture, designed by people from the trio of countries that make up the textbook definition of the region of Scandinavia.
And we’ll also grab a couple of examples from what are strictly speaking examples of Nordic architecture from Finland and Iceland, two countries that aren’t technically Scandinavian by some definitions, but which share a great deal in terms of culture and style with Scandinavia proper.
A brief history of Scandinavian architecture
As any guide to Scandinavian architecture worth its salt will tell you, the recorded history of this unique part of the world extends all the way back to early settlements during the Iron Age.
Not so many centuries after that, King Harald Bluetooth, who carved his name in the shape of a rune that you see on your phone every day, ruled over Denmark, parts of Sweden, and for a time, even Norway.
Harald built fortresses, churches, and settlements that became cities.
He is responsible for starting what became the modern Danish cities Copenhagen and Aarhus, along with Trelleborg in Sweden — and he did all that 500 years before Columbus ever sailed the ocean blue.
So there have been people designing and creating buildings in one form or another in this part of the world for over a millennia.
But even with such a long and storied history, up to the brink of the 20th century there really wasn’t such a thing as “Scandinavian architecture,” at least not in the way that we use the term today.
Of course there are still surviving examples of amazing churches and cathedrals that draw thousands of visitors every year to Denmark, Sweden and Norway, along with plenty of fortresses, castles and other buildings that were designed and built in that era.
But the truth is that throughout the Medieval period, Scandinavian architecture, such as it was, was more or less imported from the rest of Europe.
Nonetheless, even in the earliest surviving buildings in Scandinavia we can see the seeds of what would later become what we recognize as Scandinavian architecture today.
That’s because a number of tenets of Scandinavian architecture emerged from function and necessity.
Aesthetics, style, and taste would emerge later.
Adapting Scandinavian architecture to the demands of the North
In fact, there were a number of important innovations that early Danish, Swedish and Norwegian building designers began to incorporate into their creations that would later turn up in modern Scandinavian architecture proper.
For instance, the use of design to maximize natural light was vital.
When you’re talking about buildings being constructed so far north that winter’s gloom can mean less than 3 hours of tepid, watery sunlight a day. Or, even total darkness as you get closer to the Arctic Circle.
It’s little wonder that the clever and generous use of natural light is still a feature widely celebrated by today’s most revered Scandinavian architects.
Another development early in the history of Scandinavian architecture and design has to do with adapting to another reality of life in the harsh northern lands: nature’s rule here is absolute.
If you want to survive in the forbidding climate of Scandinavia, you’d better learn to adapt to what Mother Nature throws at you. If you try to turn the tables and impose your will on her, you’re going to have a bad time.
Thus, even from their earliest days, the architecture of Scandinavia that building designers created has always been constructed with a keen awareness of the need to adapt in a respectful way to natural surroundings.
That’s a tradition that is very much still on display to this day in Scandinavian architecture.
Starting in the early 20th century, Scandinavian designers began to look beyond the traditional, historical design imported from Europe that they had so long been constrained by, and sought to put a unique Scandinavian stamp on their structure design.
The principles of Scandinavian architecture:
We’ve already touched on how the very nature of life in the far northern climes of Scandinavia forced even early builders to make a conscious effort to incorporate natural light into their building design.
In modern Scandinavian architecture, designers use natural light to squeeze out every last bit of illumination from the ambient light outdoors, using plenty of glassed roofs and massive translucent walls, as well as generous windows and skylights.
Today’s Scandinavian architects and designers know even better than their forebears that a lack of natural light in the dark winter months can not only cause a Vitamin D deficiency, it can also lead to depression and seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a serious concern when you’re living so far north.
Another hallmark of Scandinavian architecture related to the use of light is that you’ll often find designers favoring lighter-colored materials for buildings and for interiors. Brighter hues tend to reflect and capture whatever light is available, and helps to naturally illuminate the space.
Another fact of life in the north that has carried over throughout the history of ancient Scandinavian architecture building design is that during the cold winter months, even the hardy people of Scandinavia wind up spending a great deal of time indoors.
So creating a sense of comfort—that cozy feeling of hyggewe hear so much about—is really important too. You’ll find homes and other buildings designed with lots of natural textures, soft lighting solutions, and plenty of cozy corners that naturally hold the warmth.
The best examples of modern Scandinavian architecture interiors feature delightfully surprising nooks and crannies where you can curl up with a book and a cup of strong coffee and watch in comfort while the cold winds blow and the snow falls outside.
Another set of innovations we attribute to Scandinavian architects and their design is a focus on and hyper-consciousness of energy efficiency.
This is only logical, as those early Scandinavian architects building homes and other structures in the harsh and foreboding environs of the far north certainly understood the importance of thrift when it comes to heating their homes.
When you live someplace where people can die if you run out of fuel, you learn to be frugal with your energy usage.
We see this tradition carried on in the ways that Scandinavian architects of today maximize energy efficiency in their design.
They design and build everything from vacation cabins on up to skyscrapers with a central focus on favoring passive solutions whenever possible and reducing the building’s carbon footprint.
This drive has led to Scandinavian architecture becoming a world leader in green, environmentally-friendly design.
One common thread that runs throughout most Scandinavian architecture is the use of sleek, clean lines in building design.
While the creative minds behind some of the most famous examples of Scandinavian architecture might incorporate elements that play off of messy, organic shapes like waves, mountains, trees, and even the human body, they do so by translating nature’s disorder into simple, clean lines.
You’ll find no Gaudí among Scandinavian architects, as they favor telling their story without a lot of ornamentation.
That’s not to say that Scandinavian architecture favors only function over beauty, or that there is no room for playfulness in Scandinavian building design.
It’s just that Scandinavian architecture tends to bend more towards cleaner, simpler designs that are nonetheless still arresting and interesting to the viewer.
Breaking down Scandinavian architecture country by country:
Architecture in Sweden
The early part of the 20th century saw Swedish architecture emerge as an early leader among Scandinavian nations.
The architecture of Sweden was the first to break out and draw international attention, as designers there developed a style dubbed Swedish Grace, blending Neoclassicism with older, traditional Scandinavian design elements.
One of the first buildings created in the modern era of Swedish architecture to much international acclaim was 1923’s Stockholm City Hall, designed by Ragnar Östberg.
Still one of Stockholm’s biggest tourist attractions, the austere, rectangular brick edifice sits at the edge of the shore, marked by a massive tower topped with The Three Crowns, the old national symbol of Sweden.
Additionally, the Stockholm Public Library with its iconic circular reading room was created in 1928 by Gunnar Asplund and is another great example of early modern Swedish architecture.
A Functionalist trend took over much of Swedish architecture’s focus in the decades following the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930, and Asplund along with Sigurd Lewerentz embraced it wholeheartedly, creating the entirety of Woodland Cemetery or Skogskyrkogården in 1940.
The cemetery, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a striking creation encompassing buildings, lawns, crosses and other memorials, gardens and more.
Asplund and Lewerentz took charge of every detail of the grounds, and the end result demonstrates Swedish architecture really leaning into not only the minimalist aesthetic, but also presenting a decidedly humanistic connection at the same time.
In 1956 Lewerentz also designed the visually arresting St. Mark’s Church in Björkhagen in Stockholm.
Pushing forward into the 21st century, Swedish architecture has continued to move boundaries and open minds while still adhering to the traditions of cleanness of line, simplicity, and a humanistic feel.
A great example worth checking out is Strömkajen Ferry Terminal in Stockholm.
These are fully contemporary buildings lined with a copper-zinc alloy that are visually intriguing on their own, but also manage to defer to the historic neighborhood’s dominant monuments like the Royal Palace, the Grand Hotel and The National Art Gallery.
Moving on to Sweden’s third-largest city Malmö, one of Swedish architecture’s best known claims to fame and favorite tourist hot spot is the Turning Torso, a visually mind-boggling feat of architecture designed by Santiago Calatrava.
The austere, simple lines of this, the tallest building in Scandinavia nonetheless exude a humanistic and organic feel, likely because Calatrava based his design on a sculpture meant to depict a human figure turning to look behind them.
Finally, while this list of important works of the architecture of Sweden is by no means complete, nonetheless one more addition is needed: the Mirrorcube.
This 4 x 4 x 4 meter cube hides in the trees of the far north of Sweden by way of mirroring its surroundings, and is part of a project dubbed Treehotel, which features designs from four of Sweden’s most renowned architecture firms.
It’s worth a visit simply for the breathtaking contribution it makes to Swedish architecture, not to mention seeing the pristine surrounding countryside and forest, if you have a chance to get up to the Harads region in the north of Sweden.
Modern Danish architecture
One of the most famous and widely visited of Danish architecture landmarks is of course Copenhagen City Hall, built in 1905 by Martin Nyrup. But among true Scandinavian architecture buffs, the architecture of Denmark didn’t really come into its own until years later.
Danish architect Arne Jacobsen drew international fame beginning in the 1930s with his Functionalist creations along the beachfront in Copenhagen, including the Bellevue Theater, the Bellavista Apartments, and several innovative and sleek lifeguard stands along the waterfront.
Jacobsen was kind of a one-man wrecking crew in terms of Danish architecture, as he is also the genius behind 1960’s SAS Royal Hotel, another important architectural anchor for Copenhagen.
The SAS House, as it is known, was touted as the world’s first designer hotel, because Jacobsen not only designed the building, he also created the furniture, the fittings, and even the ashtrays sold in the hotel souvenir stand.
Jacobsen also spawned two mainstays of Danish furniture design, the Egg chair and the Swan chair, both of which were global bestsellers.
You can also find iconic works of Danish architecture in far-flung places around the world.
The most famous and widely recognized of these is of course the Sydney Opera House, designed in 1973 by Danish architect Jorn Utzon.
The structure’s instantly recognizable homage to the mighty waves of the Australian Pacific coast, yet its simultaneous sense of blending in with the surrounding cityscape and landscape is a testament to the principles of Scandinavian architecture.
And 21st century Danish modern architecture has acquitted itself admirably as well, with internationally renowned firm Bjarke Ingels Group leading the charge.
The firm’s 8 House located in the Copenhagen suburb of Orestad, is nothing less than a comprehensive vision of a better future for humankind. The mixed-use building covers some 61,000 square meters hosting three different types of residences, as well as 10,000 square meters of retail space and offices.
This magnificent example of Danish architecture and design is meant to emulate a traditional urban neighborhood by compressing it into layers, including a cycle track and a promenade, as well as two generous courtyards organically incorporated into the building’s bow-tie shape.
In Norway, a country that only reached full independence from Sweden in 1905, a drive to establish its own national spirit and distinguish itself from its Scandinavian neighbors informed early forays into design.
Norwegian architecture developed its own unique take on the broader palette of Scandinavian architecture through the use of domestically grown wood that can’t be found elsewhere, for one thing. Norwegian wood—perhaps you’ve heard it name-checked by a certain British band—turned out to be just what the doctor ordered in terms of allowing Norwegian modern architecture to join the wave of Scandinavian architecture that was taking the world by storm, by incorporating its natural beauty into great, modern works.
Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulsson were among the first to distinguish themselves in the arena of Norwegian architecture, designing the famed Oslo City Hall in 1930, with its Functionalist motifs graced by notes of Norwegian-themed applied art as well.
Other notable early 20th century Norwegian architecture includes 1939’s Villa Sternsen, which was later used as the Norwegian prime minister’s residence and was designed by Arnes Korsmo, who made generous use of glass and concrete in the style of modern Scandinavian architecture.
Moving into the modern Norwegian architecture era, 1997’s Glacier Museum created by Sverre Fehn is a great entry point into the world of both Norwegian modern architecture as well as Scandinavian architecture in general.
The museum’s mission is to disseminate information about glaciers and climate, and it is a stunning example of incorporating the natural surroundings as well as the actual message of the building itself into the design.
The museum sits planted between the end of a fjord and the entrance to a national park, angling upward from the water in the shadow of a huge hill.
The building emulates the surrounding countryside as well as the angles and slopes of a glacier sinking into the sea, while at the same time seeming to be part and parcel of the surrounding vistas.
But probably the most iconic of Norwegian architecture’s contributions to the oeuvre of Scandinavian architecture as a whole is Oslo’s Opera House, designed by firm Snøhetta. This magnificent edifice draws millions of tourists every year just to take in the outside of the building and the lobby, let alone to see the ballets, operas and concerts that are held there.
One glance will tell you why, with its broad ramp walkways sloping upward from the Oslofjord waterfront to the roof, and with the broad glass walls fronting the wood-lined, curving interior walls of the lobby.
The humanistic touches exemplifying Norwegian modern architectural design don’t end there either, as the design includes glass fronting for the various workshops and rehearsal rooms needed to put on the opera house’s shows.
These are rooms that are normally dank, closed-off closets in the bowels of a typical theater building where behind-the-scenes laborers toil for long hours in service of the arts.
You can also take in dance rehearsals through the glass, getting a glimpse of how a ballet is built from the ground up, and how what you see on the stage is just a tiny slice of all the work it took to get there.
Modern Finland Architecture
Moving outward from the typical definition of Scandinavian countries, Finland is well worth a stop on the tour of the larger world of Nordic architecture achievements.
Finnish independence was an important theme running through the early architecture of Finland, as the nation had been a part of the Russian Empire until the 1917 revolution.
Also, due to centuries of colonization and on-again, off-again conquest, the official language of Finnish business, academics, and government was Swedish, so a sense of Finnish nationalism was coiled like a spring ready to explode.
So when Eliel Saarinen and Alvar Aalto, a pair of 20-something wunderkind architectural designers burst onto the scene in the first decades of the 20th century, they found the soil of nationalism ripe for their energies.
Saarinen melded traditional Finnish architecture forms with Nouveau, creating a style of his own that fits well with the overall trend of Scandinavian architecture and Nordic architecture of the time.
His tour de force is the Helsinki Central Railway Station, which was completed in 1919, just two years after Finland became independent.
Saarinen left Finland for the U.S. in 1923 but Aalto quickly filled the void in Finland architecture, and some say even surpassed Saarinen with creations like Paimio Sanatorium of 1933.
That building was praised for incorporating as much light as possible as well as being open and naturally ventilated, to allow tuberculosis patients the most comfort while maximizing their chances at recovery.
Aalto also created his bentwood Paimio chair at the same time, another example of how Nordic architecture and broader Scandinavian design work hand in glove.
Over 40 years later, following an active and prolific career, Aalto capped off his lifetime of achievements by creating 1975’s Finlandia Hall, an iconic concert and conference center in Helsinki.
The architecture of Iceland, another Nordic entrant not strictly part of the Scandinavian architecture movement but which features many of the same principles, is renowned for taking the Scandinavian architecture precept of celebrating the natural landscape and forms and turning it up to 11.
Iceland didn’t gain full independence from Denmark until 1944, and as a result didn’t even have any native-born, trained architects of its own until the 20th century. But they quickly make up for lost time.
The first of Iceland’s architecture giants was Guðjón Samúelsson. His design of the National Theater, completed in 1950, as well as Hallgrímskirkja, the country’s largest church, were created in concrete, but of a kind that mimics the island nation’s treasured basalt lava rock cliff formations.
Two other, more contemporary buildings of note include the Reykjavik City Hall of 1992 and the Supreme Court, built in 1996. Both are the creations of married architectural team Margrét Harðardóttir and Steve Christer of Studio Granda.
But perhaps the example of Iceland modern architecture that is also most emblematic of the synergy created among the artists, architects, and designers from all over the Nordic world would be 2011’s Harpa concert and conference hall.
The structure’s exterior is framed by metal and colored glass, which is informed by the crystalline sheen of the basalt lava formations, making great use of Iceland’s natural beauty to inspire the country’s architecture.
What’s most striking is the true cross-border nature of the project: the team that created Harpa is a collaboration between Henning Larsen Architects of Copenhagen and Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson, demonstrating that the cross-pollination of the cultures and peoples of the Nordic and Scandinavian countries can create results that are larger than the sum of its parts.
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