Reflection on Why Nordic Modernism Is More Than an Aesthetic Movement

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Nordic modernism came to light in response to previous architectural styles and social changes in the late 19th and 20th century, essentially seen to be a reaction to realism. Aesthetics often dominate architecture; however, the aesthetic side of Nordic modernism is not all that lead the movement. “Nordic design attempts to achieve a balance between form, function, color, texture, durability and cost” (‘New Scandinavian Design’, Anja Llorella Oriol, 2005). Architects such as Alvar Aalto and Sveere Fehn focussed on these elements alongside a close connection to nature and rich light play. It is clear Finnish architect Alvar Aalto also reacted to Le Corbusier’s work on Cubism in the 1920’s. Aalto’s work can be seen as a rebellion to following classic architectural rules, this being pronounced in the Muuratsalo Experimental House (1952).

This essay seeks to explore the numerous characteristics that built Nordic Modernism and argue why aesthetics has never been the only driving force. “This new aesthetic prioritized affordable and accessible furnishings, clean lines, and natural materials. Scandinavian worked with pale color palettes and leggy furnishings that kept light bouncing around interiors in a region known for its short days and long winters” (‘Scandinavian Modernism is Beautiful, Elegant, and Everywhere - Is That a Good Thing?’, ADPRO July 10th, 2018).

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Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto was seen to be one of the most influential figures in Nordic modernism due to his approach to architecture. Aalto’s career spanned from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, during this time Aalto worked alongside his wife Elissa Aalto on the creation of a summer house named ‘Muuratsalo Experimental House’ (1952). The house was designed in an architectural experiment that explored the use of materials, in particular, the layering of bricks and tiles. Aalto states that “We must combine serious laboratory work with the mentality of play, or vice-versa”, - Alvar Aalto through the eyes of Shigeru Ban (2007). This attitude effectively announces how his work did not obsess over pure aesthetics yet does combine both maturity and play to effectively create an innovative house that adopts an oddly satisfying aesthetic. The experimental house has a unique courtyard that is subtle piece of artwork, the risk to combine a variety of materials in one space speaks for itself in terms of how Aalto felt about realism. This project is a breakout of traditional form and an architectural announcement about Nordic modernism. “The various walls of the courtyard are an evocative and faintly nostalgic architectural collage of numerous types of bricks and glazed titles” (Shigeru, 2007).

In 1927 Aalto designed the Viipuri Library, a building that successfully created a milestone in the Nordic modernistic movement. The design targets geometric perfection by ensuring every element of the library has a proportional relationship. “The administrative desk—the programmatic heart of the building—is also its geometric center, generating a radial pulse that aligns bookshelves and stairwells with a single point” (Ad Classics: Viipuri Library/ Alvar Aalto, 2015). The library can be referred to as a hallmark when defining what Nordic modernism really is. The design is not just aesthetics, yet the techniques Aalto focusses on is logical design, experimental form, justified natural daylighting. Aalto also goes onto employ a close connection to the building’s surroundings by using a pale color palette, white concrete and wood.

Sveere Fehn

When it comes to post world war architecture Sveere Fehn is seen as tremendously important in the continuance of Nordic modernism. In comparison to Aalto, Fehn is as an architect who clearly aimed to intertwine built environment into his architecture. The Nordic Pavilion built in 1959 is a design that aimed to do just this through the use of three vertical trees in a horizontal concrete room emphasizing the feeling of being both inside and outside. Fehn repeats this technique twice in the pavilion, on the second occasion he uses a singular tree to penetrate an overhanging concrete roof. It is evident that Fehn wanted to break from realism and push the modernist movement, however it is also evident that his intention with the modernist movement was not just an aesthetic one. Both Fehn and Aalto are similar in their intelligent manipulation of light. Much like the Viipuri Library, Fehn investigated designing a roof that would act as light ducts that would both protect the gallery from direct sunlight and create a natural and pure atmosphere. Fehn succeeded with innovative light manipulation due to the combination of using specific materials and designing the roof the way it has been. “Fehn employed both original materials and those specific to the site—a concrete combination of white cement, white sand, and crushed white Italian marble—to sculpt a quality of light of incredible intensity, tranquillity and, most importantly, steady homogeneity” (Ad Classics: Nordic Pavilion in Venice/Sverre Fehn, 2018).

Fehn intelligently works with the concept of ensuring the historical context of the site is protected during his work on the Archbishopric Museum of Hamar 1967-79. The design itself does not instantly scream Nordic modernism however the ideologies behind the concept could almost be used to define specific characteristics of Nordic modernism. For example, the museum is built on a medieval fortress that was destroyed during the sixteenth century; Fehn does not ignore this and decided to work with the ruins. The openings in the ruins have been covered with unframed glass which contradicts stereotypical aesthetics and creates a refreshing finish to the museum. However, whilst Fehn is constantly aware that aesthetics is important he does not ignore the modernist movement, instead he pushes the movement through experimenting with new architectural techniques. “The displays unfold like a story; they are organized like voyages to instances and situations at different points in history. They are linked by a long path across ramps and terraces, through resting areas and exhibition, between the visible and evoked memories of local history” (‘Sveere Fehn: Works, Projects, Writings, 1949- 1996’. Christian Norberg-Schulz and Gennaro Postiglione 1997).

Nordic modernism as a movement pioneered abstract and conventional light play, therefore when looking at modern architecture it is fair to say many architects drew influence from the movement. The Hospital Chapel in Denmark built in 2000 by Fris and Molke references Nordic Modernism through its plain color palette, use of nature and calculated lighting. A composition of nested walls, built out of white concrete, allows the sky to paint neighboring zones with contrasting moods. This therefore means the movement that Alvar Aalto and Sveere Fehn ever so heavily pushed has evidently influenced modern architecture in a positive and educational manner.


Where aesthetics is important in architecture, Nordic modernism recognizes that aesthetics is built from architectural intelligence, to a point where the movement has been seen to push back aesthetics and focus on other elements in a way that fruitfully paints a new style of architecture. Throughout this essay I have explained how the movement aimed to break away from realism and traditional form, the examples I have spoken illustrate how within each design the architects have made this a focal point. I touched upon how Aalto likes to be playful with his architecture, the movement enjoys experimentation and Aalto’s push towards playfulness has been adopted by many architects within the movement, showing how aesthetics is not all an architect has to enjoy. Through writing this essay I have concluded that being playful is the pinpoint element behind Nordic Modernism. This is evident through animated lighting and refreshing architecture. Each architect uses the site to sculpt the form through nature and the environment resulting in an overall exploratory movement.

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Reflection on Why Nordic Modernism Is More Than an Aesthetic Movement. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from
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