PhD dissertation viva voce: Light and Architecture in the Nordic countries

Research and Innovation

What characterises the special Nordic light? And how do Nordic architects make use of this? A PhD dissertation from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture examines the phenomenon.

Since the age of Romanticism, Nordic light has been portrayed and perceived as something special to the Nordic region. But is there really something special about this light, or is this merely a vague notion or a romantic myth?

In her PhD thesis, Nordic Light and its Relation to Daylight Apertures in Nordic Architecture for the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, architect Nanet Mathiasen examines what it is that characterises Nordic light. She expands on this by looking at how Nordic architects have exploited and diversified this light.

Nanet Mathiasen characterises this light using both a scientific approach (a meteorological approach) and a humanistic approach based on how we experience this light. By comparing these two ways of characterising the light, her objective is to create a deeper understanding of Nordic light and its architectural potential.

The meteorological studies document Nordic light by means of studies that focus on the light intensity and cloud-cover characteristics of the sun and the sky. In her study of how we experience light, Nanet Mathiasen applied the method of phenomenology. She describes how light apertures and spatial construction work together to form the experience of light within a room.

Her analyses revealed that the element that makes Nordic light special is the ambient light from the sky – the sky’s light. As well as being the most consistent source of light, it is also a very efficient source of light. This nature of the sky’s light is characterised by its large illuminating surface, stretching from the horizon to the zenith. Consequently, Nordic light is unlike the light found further south. This southern light tends to be characterised by the intense, point-source light of the sun.

What remains less clear is how Nordic light can be modelled in architecture. Light apertures as part of architectural expression are a well-known concept within architecture, but it is less documented how such light apertures are used as light sources in a room. Nanet Mathiasen describes three buildings that are exemplary in their optimal utilisation of light: Alvar Aalto’s Villa Aalto from 1936, Sverre Fehn’s Aukrustsenteret from 1996, and Utzon’s Bagsværd Church from 1976.

In Bagsværd Church, there are several different ways of manipulating the light architecturally. The main church hall is a particularly interesting example. Here, high-placed sidelights bounce light off the curved and vaulted ceiling, the design of which takes its inspiration from clouds. The light is further reflected from the large vaulted ceiling into the rest of the nave, producing variations of light, which would be unattainable from a flat surface. In this way, the architectural form itself has been turned into a source of light.

The case studies used show the desire among architects to manipulate light. They also show how the dominant, large, diffuse light from the sky has been modelled optimally and utilised to its fullest potential. Architects utilise Nordic light to its full effect, enabling the light to support the function of the room, whilst simultaneously creating an evocative and intimate atmosphere.