When the world thinks of Scandinavian design, most think of sleek chairs, cool color palettes and pendant lamps – Subtle elegance on the small scale. Skyscrapers, it would appear, are not one of the region’s exports.
There are currently only 19 buildings taller than 100 meters throughout Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and of which four are medieval churches. As waves of supertalls sprout across the globe, the modest skylines of Scandinavia stand in contrast to the gleaming verticality of major cities throughout the rest of the world. The absence of skyscrapers in Scandinavia isn’t incidental, but the cause of this occurrence is multifaceted.
One key factor is economics. Skyscrapers often tend to grow where land values are highest – in Manhattan, for example, limited and expensive land forces developers to build as high as possible to maximize returns on their investments. In Scandinavia, especially Denmark, land value is relatively lower, making building tall a less necessary expense. Most tall buildings in Denmark are residential, which is also a result of economic factors. The demand for living space in central, attractive locations, along with an unwillingness to demolish the historic buildings in city centers, incentivizes taller, higher-capacity residential buildings. The elevated views from these buildings are also a marketable factor to residents, while offices tend to remain low, building lower and wider on cheaper land.
Julian Chen, Head of Tall Buildings at Henning Larsen, says that another contributing factor is Scandinavian social attitudes – Perhaps rooted in the Scandinavian tendency toward understatement over grand gestures.
“There’s a relatively conservative culture here, in that regard. In Copenhagen, whenever you try to build tall, there will be a group saying they don’t want to deal with the building’s shadow, or they think it’s an eyesore, and so on. But that’s actually changed over the past ten years,” Chen says.
“The more you talk about it, the more tolerant people get. Ten years ago, you could never talk about a 300-meter building. If you even talked about a 100-meter building, people would go crazy. Now, 100-meter buildings don’t seem as drastic, as we see more developments and new proposals for tall buildings.”
Many of Scandinavia’s planned tall buildings lie well outside the capital cities – The 245-meter Karlatornet in Göteborg, the 142-meter Lighthouse in Aarhus, or the 320-meter Bestseller Tower in Brande, the Danish town of 7,000. This trend may be associated with the image of the tower as a destination – An icon to establish the surroundings as metropolitan, to put the city on a global scale. But Chen notes that tall buildings on this scale can be larger investments than what they seem.
“There are a lot of costs associated with tall buildings that aren’t visible on the surface,” Chen says.
“In Dubai, for example, they put an equal amount of money, if not more, into infrastructure that supports tall buildings’ density and activity – Highways, metro stops, transit hubs, and parking facilities, for example. There’s more to creating a landmark than the building itself.”
One emerging typology is the “slender” or "skinny" tower; with a minimum base to height ratio of 1:10, these towers offer developers even more value for money than traditional skyscrapers and have been praised by many for being comparatively petite. But skinny shouldn’t be confused with small. These towers still cast long shadows on their surroundings, both literal and metaphorical.
Chen suggests that the future of towers in Scandinavia might lie in appreciating the virtue of the true small scale.
“Good tall buildings don’t have to be tall. You could say that in Scandinavia, our approach to innovative tall buildings isn’t all about height. We could do tall buildings that are 80 meters tall, and spend more resources on the parts you can see, in the public realm: Designing comfortable, open lobbies, emphasizing high-quality materials, and including more amenities. Just build as tall as suits the organic need, and look for innovations within that space.”