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_People + Place : Architecture as a means to regional identity THE NORDIC EXAMPLE The phenomenology of genius loci working with the socio-political-cultural manifestation, or a contradiction in terms? (With particular reference to the notion of genius loci, Christian Norberg-Schulz)

Catriona Macdonald




The Nordic region (comprising five countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland; and three autonomous regions: Greenland, Faroe Islands and Åland) harbours special relationships: shared history; political values; and economic and social models. These North(ern) lands of midnight sun and Aurora Borealis; of dense forest and rolling plane; lakes and fjords, provide a stunningly diverse physical context for architectural identity. Equally, its history: egalitarianism; democracy; popularity of the social-welfare state; and a successful co-operative movement, provides a strong social context for ʻNordic identityʼ, that is, if one does indeed exist. “...the Nordic countries are seen as a cultural unity. The distance and overview must just be there.” (Lund: 2008)


“Northern forms of expression are not locally explicable but must instead be understood as the result of the encounter of the domestic and the imported.” (Norberg-Schulz: 1996) Architecture in the Nordic region illustrates a mix of the vernacular and the foreign, with the International movement of the early 20th century heavily influencing the native nordic designers. Styles such as National Romanticism, NeoClassicism, and Modernism/Functionalism have left their mark across the area, with regional differentiation in expression.

Furthermore, there is a crucial difference between vernacular tectonic expression and international aesthetic impulse, as illustrated in the traditional construction techniques of the ʻNordicʼ countries. For example, Norway, Sweden and Finland display timber construction vernacular; whereas Denmark is one of masonry brick. Aesthetically, the regions also illustrate nuances, “Scandinavian Functionalism became light and sophisticated, whereas the German variety was heavy and sober.” (Lund: 2008)


Identity may be described in terms of social science: “a personʼs conception and expression of their individuality or group affiliations (such as national identity and cultural identity)”. However, it is, possibly, much more than this: Perhaps it is often an emotive notion; one filled with pride, nostalgia and a familiar sense of belonging.

Genius loci or ʻspirit of placeʼ within architecture, a concept derived from Roman times, is further developed by Norwegian architect and philosopher, Christian Norberg-Schulz. In, Nightlands: Nordic Building, NorbergSchulz claims that to be rooted existentially, humans must increase their awareness of their vernacular and

natural environment. He implores the importance of the ʻNordicʼ environment visualised in ʻNordic ʻarchitecture: Or, the aestheticisation of the natural environment.“...if we negate place, at the same time we negate architecture.” (Lund: 2008) He extolls the significance of visual order and meaning in form, explaining that these must be measures for “good” architecture. (Lund: 2008) Social significance is downplayed, despite the authorʼs earlier support of the Functionalist movement, (a movement that warmed pure utilitarianism with a touch of humanity, popular in the thirties, in the socially democratic Nordic countries). Possibly, Norberg-Schulz suggests that ʻNordic Architectureʼ seeks to justify itself through poetic reference to place, rather than tackle often less easily identifiable social meaning. “Culture is our flexible community and, as such, it is immaterial and in constant evolution.” (Hatrup: Andersen/Shelde: 2012)

In contradiction, Nils-Ole Lundʼs text, Nordic Architecture, illustrates a socio-political-cultural interpretation of ʻNordicʼ, proposing a more anthropocentric ethos to ʻNordic architectureʼ. Lund criticises Norberg-Schulzʼ highly empirical method of analysing architecture, highlighting the omission of Functionalismʼs, “ message or its attempt at cultural emancipation.” (Lund: 2008) He finds Norberg-Schulzʼ hyper-rational strategy narrow and restrictive, and feels his methodology contradicts itself in many areas.


Perhaps, therefore, creation of identity is not something that can be manufactured, but is borne out of local place and circumstance. Through a quintessentially pragmatic ʻNordicʼ approach, could architecture be the stage for both physical and cultural identity? It is irrefutable that vernacular architecture has developed in the Nordic region as a result of a combination of local customs, culture, traditions and the physical environment. Landscape, climate, cultural and social factors all influence what, when, where and why buildings are constructed. As Sverre Fehn proposed, “...building is a brutal confrontation of culture on nature, and in that confrontation you can find balance and beauty,” (Hvattum: 2012)

It is conceivable that neither genius loci nor a socially oriented built-manifestation are, in themselves, exclusively tools to create identity and ʻmeaningfulʼ architecture. Both must be optimised and handled expertly, optimally and appropriately to produce and achieve places and spaces that are sensitive to both the natural environment and human requirement, as evidenced at norwegian practice JVAʼs Svalbard Science Museum. Norberg-Schulz has often been criticised for his promotion of genius loci theory: For trying to quantify and define architecture, something that is sometimes measurable, yet oftentimes has unbounded, immeasurable qualities. Mari Hvattum warns of the implications of misinterpreting this theory, ʻtyranny of placeʼ, (Hvattum:2012), where buildings become pastiches and weak metaphors for their landscapes without any deeper rationale, or, indeed, why ʻplaceʼ must be referenced at all if it is not worthy of precedence. “...historical and regional motifs usually fail because of the one-dimensionally literal use of reference and a

manipulation of motifs on the suface level.”(Pallasmaa: 1988) Neither does Norberg-Schulz take into account that there are some places that must be redefined, places that require transformation.

The term ʻNordic architectureʼ, ambiguous as it may be, encompasses these elements. The Nordic region harbours both unique environments (such as the fjords), and cultural movements (for example, the welfare state) and the

history of Nordic Peoples is one of experiencing nature, ʻfrom the forest to the homeʼ.

(Caldenby: 2012) Genius loci lends itself to the physically experiential and existentialist aspects of identity: that of texture, form and physical context; the intense feelings and emotions that take hold in changes of light or atmosphere. But, ”...much of this fundamental Nordic Architectural DNA remains intact- both the strands responsive to the geographical peculiarities of the Nordic latitudes and those responsive to the society in which the architecture is situated.” (McKeith: 2012) The perception of any art form is very much subjective. Perceived ʻNordic-nessʼ may be from a subconscious, intuitive interpretation and association, with characteristics unique to the region divulging its roots. True ʻNordic-nessʼ is, perhaps, something deeper than symbolism and motif. Could the landscape be a source of aesthetic inspiration and physical setting: while the sociopolitical climate a source of belonging?

An analogy of this may be seen in the traditional vernacular of the Scottish Highlands and islands. Scotland and the Nordic region have shared a long and fraught connection. Surprisingly, the history of perceived ʻHighland and Islandʼ rural architecture, often lies in Norse roots; with techniques and idiosyncrasies immigrating with the Vikings in the ninth century. Shieling culture, inherent in the history of the Highlands and Islands, remained common practice until the last century. Landnám (from an Old Norse word roughly translated as “land take”), refers to the Viking style of land management practices. (http:// Here, and in the Nordic region, ʻliteral Functionalismʼ was a way of life, with harsh climatic conditions making way for no frills living (Macdonald: 2012,) illustrated in the black-houses of typical of Hebridean Scotland and the equivalent Nordic longhouses. Conversely, religion, the driving force behind Hebridean culture, is not such a strong factor in the more secular Nordic area. Here, staunch Calvinist views have seeped into design mentality, “The idea of delighting the eye is an offence against modesty.” (Meades: 2009) This is in contrast to Aaltoʼs more anthropocentric approach, “...vernacular motifs give his buildings a relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere.” (Pallasmaa: 2012) In this instance, do the parallels with the ʻNordic aestheticʼ make the architecture any less Scottish? Undeniably, it is confusing. But from similar landscapes and history, different social and political structures have evolved, creating a completely contrasting sentiment behind building.


Identity is important, it is a natural constituent of the human psyche to yearn to be part of something. Identity makes us feel safe; identity is an attachment. But, as Mari Hvattum alluded to in her lecture on contemporary Norwegian architecture, there must be more than mere imitation, it may be a process of re-inventing, re-

imagining or re-defining a place in addition to paying homage to its physical or historical roots. “Architecture is as much about ethics as aesthetics.” (Lund: 2008) Just as Nordic countries have struggled with their architectural identity, so too have they, beneath the surface, with their socio-political identities. Issues of social and racial segregation and inequality following decades of immigration have created much tension.

There is a special relationship in the way people view the Nordic countries and, indeed, how Nordic people view themselves, as illustrated in the Jante Law, “You are not to think youʼre anything special.” This Nordic ideology was interestingly portrayed in the Wall Street Journal article, ʻModern Norsemenʼ, in discussion with contemporary Swedish designer Thomas Sandell,

“Mr. Sandell says the emphasis on the collective has created a fear of the luxurious, in fashion as well as design. "You can spend a lot of money to look poor,ʼ he says of high-end, ready-to-wear Scandinavian fashion labels. ʻIn our tradition,ʼ he says. ʻYou should never show off.ʼ

During a recent conversation at his Stockholm studio, Mr. Sandell offered up a custom-made solution to the problem—his Rolex watch, from which he had carefully removed the bling-laden bracelet, replacing it with a humble leather band. ʻI'm not trying to be Nordic,ʼ he says. But admits, ʻI know I am." (Marcus: 2012) To conclude, physical context and culture are intrinsically and, oftentimes, inexplicably linked. It is evident that one must reinforce the other in the creation of architecture and the making of place. This can also be said for Nordic identity... “...The distance and overview must just be there.” (Lund: 2008)

IMAGES 1. Knut Knutsen: Own summer house, Portør, 1949 # 2. JVA Arkitektur: Svalbard Science Museum, Svalbard, 2005 3. Traditional, vernacular dwelling, Eiriksstadir, Iceland 4. Airigh- Cuidhshiadar (Shieling- Cuidhshiadar, Scotland), Commun Eachdraidh Nis

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Eriksson, Eva; International Impulses and National Tradition 1900-1915; 20th Century Architecture Sweden; 1998 Eriksson, Eva: Rationalism and Classicism 1915-1930; 20th Century Architecture Sweden; 1998 Faber, Tobias; A Time of Transition; 250 Years of Danish Architecture Forster, Kurt W.; The Light goes on in the Nightlands;;New Nordic; 2012 Harlang, Christoffer; Modernism始s Breakthrough; 250 Years of Danish Architecture Hvattum, Mari; Making Place; New Nordic: Architecture and Identity; 2012 Kjeldsen, Kjeld, et al., eds.; New Nordic, Architecture and Identity; 2012 Lund, Nils-Ole; The Architectural Theories of the Period; Nordic Architecture; 2008 Lund, Nils-Ole; The Mutable and the Eternal; Nordic Architecture; 2008 Macdonald, Catriona; Aig an Airigh/People + Place; 2011 Nikalu, Riitta; The twentieth century; Architecture and Landscape: The building of Finland Norberg-Schulz, C.; The Nordic; Nightlands: Nordic Building; 1996 Norberg-Schulz, C.; The Post-war Years; Modern Nordwegian Architecture; 1986 Norberg-Schulz, C.; Optimism and Belief in Progress; Modern Norwegian Architecture; 1986 Pallasmaa, Juhani; Tradition and Modernity: The Feasibility of Regional Architecture in Post-Modern Society; 1988 Sandemose, Aksel; A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks; 1936 Zettersten, Gerd Bloxham; Is there a Nordic Janus-face?; Utzon Symposium Proceedings; 2003

LECTURES: Norwegian Architecture, Mari Hvattum, 3 October 2012 Is there a Nordic Architecture? Claes Caldenby, 4 October 2012 Nordic Architectural Theory, Michael Asgaard ___ 18 October 2012

WEBLINKS Marcus, J.S.; Modern Norsemen; The Wall Street Journal; 2012 Knut Knutsen: Own summer house, Port酶r, 1949 Archdaily- Svalbard Science Centre Architonic 5100611 Hurstwic, A Viking Age Living Historical Society

DOCUMENTARY Off-Kilter: Isle of Rust, Jonathon Meades, BBC FOUR (2009)

Nordic Architecture: People and Place  

People + Place : Architecture as a means to regional identity THE NORDIC EXAMPLE The phenomenology of genius loci working with the socio-p...

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