It could be a ballsy belief in human capital. It certainly involves an impressive investment in research and development. It doesn't hurt that it embraces richly financed educational and health-care systems. The Scandinavian brand – approximating an ideal incarnation of design and wellness – has been finessed for decades, and marketed to other countries, including Canada, with confidence and clarity.
Though their economies were seriously ground down by the global market collapse, Scandinavians refuse to cede their change-making influence to North Americans. Norwegian architects are the lead designers of a potentially incandescent centre for Toronto's new class of urban student. A Danish design visionary is getting a chance to bring some life to the excessively polite skyline of Vancouver. And an exhibition on Swedish innovation is showcasing that country's coolest young companies. They are three compelling examples of how Scandinavians are touching down in Canada and around the world.
>> Snohetta, the Norwegian powerhouse behind the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion at New York's Ground Zero, has designed the Ryerson University Student Learning Centre to be a translucent lantern that lifts its corner entrance on a dowdy stretch of Toronto's Yonge Street as if yanking up a shimmering, blue-lined skirt.
Set to break ground in a few weeks, the asymmetrical, glassy volume – a joint partnership between Oslo-based Snohetta and Toronto's Zeidler Partnership Architects – is a radical departure from a dreary march of low-slung brick storefronts housing tawdry souvenir shops and tawdrier strip joints. The glittering, jittering billboards located directly south of Ryerson at Dundas Square fail to disguise the darkly grey architectural banality of an oppressive retail-multiplex centre: Long-delayed in construction, and opened a few years back, it ultimately produced a massive architectural anticlimax.
In contrast, the new student centre, to be constructed for $63-million, will offer lots of retail in a lower concourse, and fully accessible student lounges, classrooms and meeting rooms in the upper levels. Each floor dramatically differs in character. One evokes a beach; another, dominated by the colour green, is designed to reference a garden. Carefully crafted with fritted glass, the structure could be the archangel of architecture for which Yonge Street has been waiting, it seems, an eternity.
>> When it comes to flaunting their gutsy design, the Danes are global warriors. Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is a brainy, zany design powerhouse, fuelled by nearly 100 architects in Copenhagen and another 30 based in New York. Its leader, Bjarke Ingels – who delivered one of his energizing public lectures in Toronto this week, and is scheduled to speak at Vancouver's Chan Centre on April 12 – is designing a condo tower in Vancouver's downtown, and another in Toronto with Toronto's Hariri Pontarini Architects, to be developed by Westbank and Cadillac Fairview.
"I've always had this one talent – I was always very good at drawing," Ingels, 37, told me from his New York office. "In daycare, I'd be sitting there and drawing whatever people wanted." To help his global pitch, he's created a comic book, Yes is More, in which he zooms around as an architectural superhero.
During a Danish-embassy-sponsored tour of Copenhagen in 2009, I visited Mountain Dwellings, a BIG-designed 80-unit housing complex in Orestad on the outskirts of the city. In this mostly flat country, what draws you first to the building is a massive, milky-white image of Mount Everest. Produced through a series of tiny perforations in the aluminum cladding, it disguises a massive parking garage. The entire complex is sloped like a small mountain, with a diagonal elevator rising up through the vibrantly coloured garage. Each of the housing units – which sit atop the garage – connects to a private garden terrace, framed in wood, with irrigation systems that drain into a collective holding tank.
BIG resists making buildings that look like buildings. The mountainscape motif returns often, most recently for a commission to design a 600-unit apartment at 57th Street on Manhattan's West Side. Rather than give in to the typical slab tower, BIG has carved a large courtyard into a steeply sloped volume, offering some interior solace from the roaring noise of traffic from the West Side Highway.
>> Stieg Larsson presents a seriously messed-up society in the Millennium Trilogy, but that's hardly the takeaway of Innovative Sweden, a touring exhibition, which includes a series of keynotes and discussions, running until Feb. 10 at the MaRS Centre in downtown Toronto.
Medical and educational inventions from 20 young startup companies are featured, including molecular diagnostic tools to help analyze the pathological events leading to Alzheimer's disease. A company called jDome, meanwhile, allows gamers to step into a bubble and experience a mini version of the Omnimax theatre (which was, it has to be said, a Canadian invention). JDome also lets you jump on a bike and pedal your way through a 3-D virtual version of your hometown.
Other Swedish companies have created computers that allow you to type with your eyes, and solar-generated water-cleaning systems. And here's something we all need in our homes: a power-aware cord that lights up, reminding you that electricity is being used – and abused – by appliances even when they're shut off.
A video at the MaRS exhibition shows clips of the Swedish public, every one of them unafraid to declare with clarity and compelling examples the reasons they think Sweden is highly innovative. Would Canadians be as well briefed? I'd like to think so, though I fear we're so modest that we'd have trouble articulating our success stories. And that's not a good thing: When it comes to spilling the goods on your nation's brainy innovations, a little bravura doesn't hurt.
Editor's note: The print version of this article and an earlier online version contained inaccurate information. This is the corrected version.
For more on Lisa Rochon's take on Scandinavian design and architecture, and her insights about design from around the world, visit her blog, chasinghome.org.