THE DANISH-NORWEGIAN WRITER Aksel Sandemose was a minor literary figure, a notorious crank, when he wrote the 1933 novel containing a set of commandments that would become one of Scandinavia’s defining social texts. “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” is a barely veiled send-up of his hometown, Nykobing Mors (renamed Jante) and an uncomfortably close-to-the-bone satire of Nordic conformity. Jante is governed by the “Law of Jante,” rules for living that reflect both Scandinavia’s ethnic homogeneity and its long-held belief that people are happier when both pleasure and pain are spread among all citizens:
You shall not believe that you are someone.
You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.
You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.
You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
You shall not laugh at us.
You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.
These days, Scandinavians bristle at the mention of the Law of Jante. Such stereotypes, they insist, no longer have such a stronghold in a modern world, one where Stockholm now leads in billion-dollar technology companies per capita, second only to Silicon Valley.
Yet it is hard not to think of Sandemose as you drive along the winter-deserted roads of Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, a 40-minute flight south from Stockholm. About the size of Long Island and flat as a soccer field, it is the country’s sunniest locale. (Admittedly, that doesn’t say much in a place that spends most of the year in frigid darkness.) And along with Faro, its companion island off its northern tip, it is forever associated with the director Ingmar Bergman, who set many of his greatest films here and lived in Faro for the last decades of his life. In July and early August, Gotland is a tourist mecca; young professionals, starved for heat and light, party in the beer gardens of Visby, a port town of 24,300. An hour or two away, up and down the coasts, are the summer houses of the country’s politicians and business executives, fronting beaches dotted with rauks — gigantic, craggy sculptural formations unique to the area, as ghostly as something from Stonehenge, created by ice-age reef erosions. Scarlet poppies and brilliant blue viper’s bugloss carpet the meadows and line the roadside ditches.
But by late August, tourist season is over. There is no gradual wind-down here, just a sudden deflation, like the circus pulling up stakes in a rush. Unlike the Stockholm Archipelago, a set of islands near the capital that Swedes visit year-round, Gotland seems to disappear like Brigadoon. A number of restaurants and inns outside of Visby, including the minimalist 19-suite Fabriken Furillen, owned by the former photographer Johan Hellstrom, shut down, and the flora dies as well, laying bare the local architecture. So stripped-down and uniform are the farmhouses of Gotland’s interior, no matter what century they were built in they seem to have been drawn by a 5-year-old: rectangles topped with triangular roofs, each with a plain door and a few tiny frameless windows. The summer cottages along the largely unmarked roads are also free of embellishment: low-slung bungalows painted a familiar Falu red, the auburn-hued weather-resistant oil pigment derived from the copper mines of Dalarna, in central Sweden, during the 16th century. “People have always come to Gotland to get back to tradition and nature,” says Joel Phersson, a 35-year-old architect who works and lives on the island. “If you were to tell your friends in Stockholm that you’re going to your family’s vacation house here, you’d perhaps be telegraphing that you are well off but very low-key. Ostentation is a high crime.”
But recently, a generation of homeowners and architects, including Phersson’s firm Skalso, have started not just ignoring, but defying the Law of Jante. Working around restrictive zoning laws that prioritize “protection and preservation” of the island, which was settled more than 9,000 years ago as an agricultural hub, they have spent the last decade building contemporary houses as distinctive as the topography. From cast-concrete bunkers to glass-framed aeries, the new houses shock, subverting long-established order with a cool blast of modernity, while also paying homage to the island’s chilly dignity.
HANS MURMAN AND his wife, Ulla Alberts, architects who own a firm in Stockholm that often designs health spas, were in a perfect position to experiment on Gotland. The secluded parcel on which they built their Juniper House is owned by Alberts’s family; she spent barefoot summers in her parents’ still-standing red cottage. Before conceptualizing their own house, the couple designed a number of structures for relatives on the 2.2-acre plot, inadvertently creating a sort of stages-of-man evolutionary chart of their aesthetic. In addition to a studio that they made as newlyweds — little more than a shack — the property includes her brother’s unadorned two-story limestone farmhouse built in 2002 from plans that the 54-year-old Alberts drafted in architecture school, as well as a 1,700-square-foot, midcentury-inflected villa with a peaked wooden roof and bright orange accents that the couple finished in 2014 for Ulla’s sister. Over a decade ago, they completed the home that would become their ultimate statement, a dwelling in dialogue with the thicket of 15-foot juniper trees in which it hides. To create its innovative cladding, the 71-year-old Murman photographed the conifers, then had the images transposed in 1:1 scale onto a vinyl scrim. The mural wraps around the building’s wooden exterior on a galvanized steel frame about two feet from the walls. The house, a mere 540 square feet puzzled out with the ingenuity of a yacht to accommodate their two sons, recedes into the forest during the day — somewhat of a poke to local officials who fretted that a modern structure would mar the landscape — yet glows at night like a botanical Noguchi lantern. “We are in our own world here,” Murman says. “Among these houses there is every era, every generation. Just walking around you can travel through time.”
A 45-minute drive away, past a weathered windmill and fields of sheep fat with winter wool, Asa Myrdal Bratt has come from the mainland to meet me at her house. Built right on a rarely traveled road, it seems to rise from an empty field like a giant charred barn after a merciless prairie fire. That is precisely the effect that Stockholm-based architect Jens Enflo was seeking when his firm built it in collaboration with Deve Architects several years ago: “I wanted it to seem as though the land was just growing all the way through it,” the 42-year-old Enflo says. Clad in nearly black stained pine, a hue virtually unseen on Gotland and one that suggests shou sugi ban, the ancient Japanese burnt-timber treatment, the structure plays with proportion and transparency in a painterly way, contrasting against the flat, tree-void site. Almost 80 feet long but just under 15 feet wide, with a peaked 22-foot ceiling and a single lofted bedroom, the house’s front and back walls are partially glass, as are most of its interior walls; the central area between the living room and the small guest wing holds a covered courtyard, completing the illusion of a raw, skeletal frame. Myrdal Bratt — a brand consultant in her 50s, who, with her husband, a doctor, bought the house in 2014 — says that the place is warm, even cozy, despite its openness; from the outside, it appears provocatively barren, a stripped-down interpretation of the working livestock barns that you can see in the distance.
NOT ALL OF the several dozen modern houses on Gotland are entirely at peace with the island’s natural and agricultural history; some, in fact, actively challenge the surrounding landscape. Consider the harshly reductive house that the 48-year-old architect Bolle Tham’s firm built for his family: From the outside it resembles army barracks, with an exterior of local plaster, colored with carbon and troweled smooth atop a masonry core. Inside, all of the rooms face a central courtyard, giving it a snug, insular feel, though there are several wall-size windows that swing out like barn doors on summer days. Although it’s one level, some of the rooms demand several steps — a necessary design quirk after Tham resisted blasting the underlying rock to lay a uniform slab; he felt the house should follow the landscape’s topography. The living areas are nearly naked, the bedrooms cell-like, the finishes plywood. “Gotland’s vacation homes had become cliché, so we thought it was time to do something that wasn’t a replica of an old limestone farmhouse,” he says. “We wanted to be in conversation with the past, but not just repeat it.”
Still, Tham’s shed-like edifice seems recessive, even humble, compared with a collection of homes being built on the island’s Bungenas peninsula, a few miles from the seven-minute ferry to Faro. In 2007, the 49-year-old real-estate developer Joachim Kuylenstierna bought a gated 400 acres that had originally been a quarry and then, during the Cold War, the site for 100 bunkers.
There are now more than 30 homes on Bungenas, in addition to a coffee house, a six-room hotel and a concert venue converted from an old barn. All the businesses and a majority of the homes have been designed by Skalso, the firm Kuylenstierna founded with Phersson and his fellow architect, the 38-year-old Erik Gardell, because there wasn’t anyone on the island who could shape the sort of avant-garde vacation community they desired. The commune alludes to the Sea Ranch, the meticulously planned 1960s utopia in Northern California — albeit modified to include Gotland’s bunkers, some of which Skalso modernized by scooping out enough earth on one side to allow for an entry, making them a kind of Swedish hobbit dwelling. Most of these subterranean residences, which owners tend to furnish with a sparseness that borders on clinical, are less than 600 square feet, a size that the economical Swedes deem sufficient for a family of four.
But one owner, a Swedish industrialist who bought one of the largest bunkers in the development six years ago, asked Skalso to take the firm’s concept to astonishing depths, both aesthetically and literally. On approach, his house appears to be a one-story ultra-Brutalist box, made from concrete — a material rarely used for houses on Gotland — that had been poured into wooden molds to lend it a grain. Yet the 1,300-square-foot building that’s visible above ground, which includes hushed, honed public spaces in dark wood, a welded metal kitchen and two minimalist bedrooms, represents less than a fifth of the total living space: The rest is beneath grade, on three floors, descending nearly 50 feet.
The excavation and underground construction process felt like laboring in the mines. Skalso preserved and exposed as much of the original concrete structure as possible, connecting a series of high-ceilinged, lavishly spare, skillfully lit rooms with a spiral, matte-black steel staircase. In addition to a vast dining room, there is a large, round marble-lined hammam installed in a former missile silo; the sky is visible through a glass porthole three flights above. Next to it is a “spa” with custom rubber sofas. Despite how sleek and chillingly soundproof the place is — you half-expect to hear muffled screams from somewhere in the depths — the owners, who, incongruously, have two young children, are clearly aware of their house’s inherent drama: In a niche along one of the subterranean corridors, Skalso added a metal shelving unit stacked with cans of baked beans and bottled water, a wink to contemporary survivalist clichés.
It is an extreme way to live, but in the end Gotland, despite its reputation for placid beauty, is pretty extreme itself: remote and wind-whipped and fierce — with, finally, a corresponding architecture. There are more contemporary houses in the works on the island over the next decade, including a streamlined enclave of a dozen on the island’s northeast inlet anchored by the Fabriken Furillen inn. The Law of Jante, it turns out, especially its final tenet — “You shall not believe you can teach us anything” — is no longer true here, amid the quiet farmhouses, the monochrome of Falu red, the biblical sky that never ends. Subversion, it seems, takes its most intriguing form when there is something beautiful and pure to bend. “You need the right background to change the way people think,” Enflo had said, staring out at the field from the wide-open house he designed. “It’s that contrast that makes you free.”
Nancy Hass is the writer at large for T Magazine.