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Beyond blonde

The Scandinavian architectural tradition has long had tell-tale traits without ever being obvious. Jonathan Bell explains how they still inform the most progressive work of the region’s architects today - and how they go well beyond the blonde-wood and white-wall stereotype

For most design-conscious people, Scandinavian architecture is something they can identify without being able to precisely define - modern but not austere, sustainable but not hair-shirted, innovative without the avant-garde. In fact, a great deal of what passes for "modern" architecture in modern Britain is actually Scandi-lite, the watereddown version of the wooden façades, white walls and blonde wood detailing that was imported so successfully by lifestyle magazines and design TV shows at the turn of the 21st century.

One of the strengths of Scandinavian design philosophy is its inclusiveness, the way that a building’s aesthetics and function honours both its users and its environment, be it city or countryside, and this regardless of style - contrary to wide misconception, its leading exponents have actually worked in a disparate range of styles, from neo-classicism to avant-garde iconism. And long before environmental considerations came to the fore, this sensitivity for place, climate and scale defined Scandinavian design as the human face of modernism - not ostentatious or showy but also rich with experience and respect, wherein machine age perfection and clinical rigour was melded with craft and vernacular tradition.

Elsewhere, modern architecture ultimately evolved into the high-tech school of steel and glass business palaces. Throw in strong welfare states, with a rich tradition of social housing, public spending and civic pride, and you have a recipe for intelligent, progressive architecture.

Don’t forget that one of the most ‘iconic’ modern buildings, the Sydney Opera House, was designed by a Dane

Today, there’s no shortage of the calm, rational domestic design that continues to find favour in lifestyle reporting. However, that original modesty has been thoroughly overhauled and a new generation of Scandinavian architects is going far beyond the clichéd image of wood and white walled façades. On the international stage Scandinavian firms have become the acceptable face of elaborate, large scale iconic design - don’t forget that one of the most ‘iconic’ modern buildings of all time, the Sydney Opera House, was designed by a Dane, Jørn Utzon.

Norway’s Snøhetta, Henning Larsen Architects, Schmidt Hammer Lassen, BIG and 3XN in Denmark, and White Arkitekter in Sweden, amongst others, are all major players in modern architecture. Bjarke Ingels of BIG inherited a love of the grand gesture and clever, pop-culture-saturated presentation from his time at Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, describing his work as being "pragmatic utopian architecture", splicing the avant-garde with the prosaic. Danish firm 3XN see themselves firmly at the heart of the Scandinavian tradition, even though buildings like the new Bella Sky hotel in Copenhagen, with its skewed, tilted and sheared twin towers, are a world apart from the humble wooden cabin. What unites them, according to founding partner Kim Nielsen, is an approach that, he says, “puts the user at the centre of any objective. Daylighting, form, function and behaviour are all related to a Danish design tradition.”

There are broader cultural shifts at play here. Sweden has some 700,000 holiday homes scattered about its countryside, and vacation culture focuses on these small, modest retreats - perhaps half the population has access to one. In Norway, too, second home culture is pervasive, leading to an emphasis on small scale, affordable, low-maintenance contemporary design. These houses combine an emphasis on traditional craft processes with technological innovation like pre-fabrication. The vagaries of a frequently harsh climate, low population density, the scarcity of daylight and the need to conserve energy all focus the architectural mind.

Whereas Britain limps towards sustainability thanks to the increasing application of carrots and sticks, authentic Scandinavian design has a far greater claim to eco-friendliness. Paula Femenías, assistant professor at Chalmers University’s Department of Architecture and a sustainability expert, suggests that rather than wait for legislation to drive energy efficiency, the market is doing it as a matter of course. “In the west of Sweden as much as 25 per cent of all new multi-residential housing uses 25 per cent less energy than what is dictated by regulation,” she says.

Small wonder perhaps that many Scandinavian architects have made significant inroads into British design culture, from Arne Jacobsen’s work at Cambridge University to Ralph Erskine’s memorable Ark in Hammersmith, west London, Byker Wall in Newcastle and Millennium Village. Erskine is a key link between the two cultures. British-born, he worked in Sweden for much of his life, infusing his projects - especially housing - with his humanist beliefs and respect for landscape. Stratford’s Olympic Village is a modest attempt at translating this hilosophy into a sizeable new chunk of London - 10,000 homes.

Will it work? Contemporary Scandinavian design is best described as a sensibility, not an aesthetic, one that comes from deep within the cultures. While the region continues to export innovative architecture, we should beware of inferior imitations that serve up sub-standard fare with no philosophical foundations. As the issues that underpin Scandinavian design become ever more global, the massively complex web of conditions that make a building, street or city a more environmentally- and socially-friendly place to be go far beyond the simple application of aesthetics.

STATEMENT BUILDINGS

Todd Saunders - Solberg Tower, Sarpsborg, Norway

Todd Saunders, a Canadian architect based in Bergen, Norway, has designed numerous houses and cultural projects for the broad sweeps of Norwegian wilderness. The Solberg Tower is the centrepiece of this roadside rest area on the border with Sweden. At nine-storeys tall it offers a commanding view of the surrounding region, using steel, gravel and slate to form an abstract composition in the landscape.

Claesson Koivisto Rune - Orsta Gallery, Sweden

Swedish studio Claesson Koivisto Rune are purveyors of calm, classic modernism, embracing everything from furniture to set design (for Kylie Minogue, no less). Their houses and small structures make frequent use of pre-fabrication, with angular geometry and stripped back interiors. This new gallery in Kumla, Sweden, follows this refined approach, exploiting the optical illusion created by a slight curve to make a memorably bold object, its white façades illuminated by the addition of thousands of tiny glass beads.

BIG - 8House, Ørestad, Copenhagen, Denmark

Few countries are building residential structures with such a broad scope. The 8House - named for its figure-ofeight interlocking plan - harks back to the big, bold estates of the high modernist era. A vast self-contained community, the block contains ground floor businesses and nearly 500 apartments for a wide mix of social types - “a three-dimensional neighborhood”, according to the architects.

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