Nordic light

Brick warehouse in Copenhagen in the early evening

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.

Storgaten in Røros with the low grey light of snow clouds painted in 1903 by the Norwegian artist Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) and a night scene by the same artist. (Images from Wikipedia)

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. 

Forest in Finland in the crisp sharp light of winter

The frozen harbour in Stockholm with the apartment buildings of Östermalm on a clear sharp day

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.

White and light. A gallery above the south aisle of Vor Fruhe church in Copenhagen demonstrating the effect of low sunlight shining through tall windows. The church was designed by the architect Christian Hansen (1756-1845) and built between 1811 and 1829. The church has been the Cathedral since 1924.

The cloister is on the south side of the church of Sankt Petri in Copenhagen.

Top light. There is so much light under the dome in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen that exotic plants thrive. The museum was designed by the architect Vilhelm Dahlerup (1826-1907) and was under construction from 1892 to 1906, 

Additions by Henning Larsen (1925-2013), completed in 1997, are also top lit and give unusual views of the exterior of the dome from an upper landing.

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. 

An interior with tall windows painted in 1913 by the Copenhagen artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1814-1916). The painting is now in the Ordrupgaard Museum north of Copenhagen.

An interior in evening light with a woman knitting was painted by Peter Ilsted (1861-1933). He was Hammershøi's brother-in-law. (Images from Wikipedia)

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.

Using light. The staircase at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, added by Henning Larsen in the 1990s, relies on top lighting as it was constructed within an internal service yard. This provides more than simple illumination as raking light gives drama to the most minimal form of the arches and light acts as an effective road sign pulling people to move forward and climb up.

The view from an upper level of the National Library in Copenhagen shows the importance of large areas of glazing to throw light deep into the building. This allows views of the harbour from inside the library, exploits light reflected up from the water and creates amazing shadows and silhouettes as figures and architectural features are seen against the bright light. Generally, in the past, archives have been inward looking and enclosed, visually and physically protecting the treasures inside but making them exclusive and excluding. Here people walking by see inside and can be drawn in and people inside look out over the harbour putting the contents of the archive clearly in context.

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.