A City Captures the Sun

By Anne Tate

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Observations on Urban Form: A Series on Architecture, Planning, and Urban Design

It’s a gray day in Stockholm, allowing time to reflect on the power of the sun on the city. In this October season of transition, the city understands well how to make the most of the light before the long dark days set in. The architecture accepts, magnifies, and celebrates the light in these waning moments.

Stockholm tower
A building adjacent to a park in Stockholm captures the autumn light.
Photo by Anne Tate.

In much of Stockholm, the building facades uniformly line the streets, their height capped at 1.2x the width of the street by codes implemented at end of the 19th century, when tuberculosis was a factor of urban life. That early commitment to provide enough light and air gives a distinctive proportion to the city, where large and small streets maintain a similar quality of space. The late afternoon sun rakes across these facades and highlights every detail. Deep shadows alternate with sharp edges of light. The ochre, gold, and terracotta colors of the stucco facades emanate warmth as if to ward off the coming winter.

Stockholm buildings
Vibrant facades capture and hold the warm light in Stockholm.
Photo by Anne Tate.

In the parks, the trees celebrate the season in a blaze of red, orange, and yellow just before they surrender their leaves and transform into brown and grey skeletons. Their leaves scatter thousands of shards of sunlight. Even the leftover greens glow almost golden in the late light. And everywhere the buildings’ ochre and rust tones echo the autumn glory.

Stockholm skyline and autumn trees
The Stockholm skyline viewed through the turning leaves of autumn.
Photo by Anne Tate.

At the end of the day, the light stretches down the long, straight avenues, pulling the warmth miles into the city. The grids of the city and how the streets capture the light help orient a visitor.

Stockholm street
The view, the light, and the bustle down a Stockholm street.
Photo by Anne Tate.

Like most streets, this avenue is lined with outdoor seating where people gather after work into October, braving the autumn chill, wrapped in the colorful blankets supplied by each café, insisting on relishing every last warmth of the season.

Streetside cafe in Stockholm
Many Stockholm streets are lined with tables and chairs.
Photo by Anne Tate.

Lamps are used to express welcome, frequently placed in the windows of homes to dispel interior gloom and throw a glow into the street. Candles are used liberally indoors and out to create enticing gathering places. Autumn announces the diminishing daylight, rapidly decreasing from October’s ten hours to midwinter’s meager six hours of light a day.

Windows with lamps
Lamps throw a glow onto the adjacent street.
Photo by Anne Tate.

Walking through a cemetery at the end of the day, I noticed the use of gold illuminating the carved letters on the tombstones, catching and reflecting what light could be gathered from the setting sun and the candles placed where we might put flowers. Even in death, the Swedes want to capture, hold, and appreciate the warmth of the sun, to push back against the dying of the light.

Cemetery in Stockholm
The light of a cemetery in Stockholm.
Photo by Anne Tate.



Anne Tate is a Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a particular focus on large-scale sustainable urban design challenges. She has been a policy advisor to governments at the state, region, and city scales. At RISD, she teaches studios and an interdisciplinary course “Beyond Green Urbanism” with sociologist Damian White.

Header photo of buildings in Stockholm accepting and reflecting autumn light by Anne Tate.

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