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Light Matters: Whiteness in Nordic Countries

Dybkær Church, Silkeborg, Denmark. Architecture: Regnbuen Arkitekter. Image © Henry Plummer 2010

The Scandinavian countries have developed great buildings that resonate with both the scarce light in winter and the long summer days. Henry Plummer, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has very carefully studied the various daylight phenomena in the Nordic countries, with extensive photo journeys and brilliant writing that combines an analytical perspective with a poetic touch. His view of daylight looks beyond the practical advantages of using reflective white spaces to facilitate bright rooms; the passionate photographer is much more interested in the light effects that play with the local beauty of nature and touch the human soul.

Read on for more about how Nordic light enters white spaces

Hyvinkää Church, Hyvinkää, Finland. Architecture: Aarno Ruusuvuori. Image © Henry Plummer 2009

The extreme changes in weather and daylight have led to unique light situations in Scandinavia, where architects have played with white surfaces to counterbalance the long and dark winter days. The low position of the sun in northern regions creates long shadows and therefore daylight enters the buildings more from the side than from above. In contrast, summer evenings emanate a diffuse light. In his book “Nordic light: Modern Scandinavian Architecture,” Henry Plummer points out that although Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland are dissimilar in topography and vegetation, they share the same subdued light.

Dybkær Church, Silkeborg, Denmark. Architecture: Regnbuen Arkitekter. Image © Henry Plummer 2010

Whiteness is a central aspect of how Nordic architects responded to their local environment, as Plummer reveals in his studies from the 15th century up to contemporary buildings like Steven Holl‘s Herning Museum of Contemporary Art. Without doubt, white surfaces offer a high reflectance in order to maximize interior brightness for dark winter periods, but for Plummer the affection for whiteness is also linked to the beauty of snow-covered landscape.

Early examples of white architecture could already be found in Denmark´s medieval churches, and this design approach still influences modern sacred buildings like the Dybkær Church by Regnbuen Arkitekter. For example, the sophisticated daylight concept arrives from three directions, as Plummer explains: “Low from the north to emphasize a black steel crucifix; more broadly from the south as a glancing wash; and as a shower directly behind the altar, guided down through a sluice of wall.” Further on, the nave walls are animated by an irregular texture of white brickwork. In a similar way, the Bagsværd Church by Jørn Utzon plays with white, as the architect elucidated to Plummer: “Light is the most important feature of the church. I provided white walls and white ceilings so that daylight, which is limited in Denmark for much of the year, is fully used and produces an intensity of light always greater than that outside.”

Nordyjllands Art Museum, Aalborg, Denmark. Architecture: Alvar Aalto, Jean-Jacques Baruël. Image © Henry Plummer 1995

The concept of white diffusion, using white-painted plaster, white-enamelled steel and white linoleum, was introduced by Alvar Aalto for the Paimio Sanatorium in the 1930s, and achieved a peak at the Nordyjllands Art Museum in 1972, according to Plummer. Shades of white cover the walls, floors and ceilings as well as the expressive daylight scoop. However, the power of pure white volumes is not the only characteristic of the Nordic built environment. The pulse of nature with vibrating patterns of light or the transiency of dramatic light and shadow belong to the distinctive Nordic light approach as well.

Pirkkala Church, Tampere, Finland. Light sequence on altar wall: Early morning, late morning, midday, early afternoon, mid-afternoon, late afternoon. Architecture: By Käpy and Simo Paavilainen. Image © Henry Plummer 2009

Religious buildings especially reveal a wide variety of time-concepts. The concepts range from material textures to specific glass features and built volumes that change the image during the course of the day and season. Some churches call for attention with characteristic light patterns during the whole morning liturgy, some welcome the sunlight at the end of the service at noon whereas others imply only subdued light to enhance contemplation. An outstanding example of a dramatic light and shadow sequence occurs at the Pirkkala Church by Käpy and Simo Paavilainen. The altar appears as a canvas for the richly contrasting sunlight projections, where glass acts as a lens and as mirror.

Other architects, like Aarno Ruusuvuori, avoided the drama of harsh sunlight that distracts from the liturgical service. His interpretation of sunlight comes from a more abstract presence of light, as he states: “Light originates somewhere, but man does not need to know where. Lighting is not an end in itself. But its meaning is to create a feeling of the infiniteness of eternity.”

Book: Henry Plummer: Nordic Light: Modern Scandinavian Architecture. Thames & Hudson, 2012.

Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting, has published numerous articles and co-authored the book “Light Perspectives.” For more information check www.arclighting.de or follow him @arcspaces

Cite: Thomas Schielke. "Light Matters: Whiteness in Nordic Countries" 29 Aug 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 10 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=542503>
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