Nordic light has fascinated artists, writers and travellers from the early 19th century and influenced architecture and the design of furnishings and interiors through the whole of the 20th century.
To describe Nordic light as unique sounds like hyperbole - hasn’t the light of Venice or the South of France or the Atlantic coast attracted artists for centuries? - but what is unique to this region is that the influence of the currents and wind patterns of the North Atlantic modifies and warms the climate so that the villages, towns and cities of the Nordic countries are further from the equator than most other settlements in the World. Tromsø 69 degrees north of the equator is over 300 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle whereas Vancouver at 49 degrees north, Seattle at 47 degrees and Montreal at 45 degrees are all much further south than Copenhagen at a latitude of 55 degrees north.
Even in Japan, sometimes cited as the country most like Scandinavia with its architecture heavily influenced by nature and light and a wide and varied use of timber for architecture and furniture, Wakkanai, one of the most northerly settlements, is at 45 degrees north - the level of latitude of Venice - the width of mainland Europe south of Scandinavia.
In the southern hemisphere, with less land mass, there are fewer settlements but Cape Town, at the southern tip of Africa, at just under 34 degrees south is as far south of the equator as Beirut is north and even Ushuaia, at the very south tip of Argentina is only as far south of the equator as the German Danish border is north.
As school geography teaches us, the latitude of the Nordic settlements means short days with little or no sunlight in the winter and long long days in the summer. In Tromsø because the city is shaded by mountains to the south, the sun does not rise high enough in the sky to actually be visible between the 21st of November and the 21st of January each year and even a city as far south as Helsinki enjoys long long evenings of light in the summer with just a few hours of gloom rather than real pitch-black dark before the sun rises again.
In terms of architecture this means that natural light, even in the summer, hits buildings at a low angle. This can make even shallow relief or texture a dramatic element of a facade and, in terms of the interior, large areas of glazing facing in the right direction can be crucial.
But even in winter natural light varies enormously from soft grey, when snow is falling, to almost Mediteranean sharp brightness if the skies are clear and blue.
The long winter evenings means there is every incentive to design good and stylish electric lighting and to use candles with their softer warmer light to relieve the gloom.
In the Nordic countries reflected light is crucial … the low angle of the sun for much of the year means that light can be reflected up off snow and ice or reflected up off water. Finland and Sweden not only have extensive shorelines but are lands of lakes that reflect and enhance natural light; most settlements in Norway are within a short distance of the sea and Denmark is almost surrounded by sea … Denmark has a short land border with Germany of just 68 kilometres but a tidal shoreline of 7314 kilometres: for a building by water, often the light that is reflected up off the water and then cast down into the room by the ceiling is as important as the light that comes more directly through the window.
For obvious reasons, modern Nordic architecture frequently uses top lighting or borrowed lighting to throw light down into internal spaces and white walls or pale timber is used to reflect what natural light there is.
When discussing the importance of natural light, it is also relevant to consider the economic history of these Nordic countries: there was relatively little major industrial development until the middle of the 20th century. There is some air pollution but generally it has not been as pervasive a problem as it has been elsewhere in Europe or North America so light tends to be crisper and sharper.
In addition, because conurbations are relatively compact people, even in larger cities like Copenhagen or Stockholm, appear to be closer to and appreciate more the natural world. Many Swedes and Danes have Summer homes and that may, In part, explain a general preference for natural materials such as wood for building and for furniture and a general appreciation of nature and of light and water even in urban architecture.