Subtle and Sublime - An Ode to the Sun

Caleb Dean is a founder, creative, and consultant at Owl, Fox & Dean in Portland, OR. He is downright passionate about good design and innovation. Today, Caleb shares his musings on sunshine, design, and intentionality in two cities north of the equator: Portland and Copenhagen. Enjoy.

One of my favourite memories from studying abroad in Copenhagen is of a cool and blustery day in January when, for an afternoon, the clouds receded and the sun shone down on the city. My friends and I met at a cafe near Sankt Hans Torv, in Nørrebro, to catch up and commiserate on our finals. I noticed empty tables and chairs set up outside while walking into the cafe to place my order. It was cold, probably too cold to sit outside even with the warmth of hot drinks. The barista said she would bring our drinks to us and asked if we would be sitting inside or out. Just as I was about to say that it was probably too cold, she offered us heavy fleece blankets. The sun was out and Copenhagen was prepared. 

I’m reminded of that afternoon during these spring days in the Pacific Northwest, where the monochromatic grey blanket that has been covering us for more than half the year is lifted. 

Portland (OR) sits just above the 45th parallel while Copenhagen is a full ten degrees farther north. Their climates are quite similar and surprisingly temperate, given their northerly latitude and my own personal experience of growing up with cold and snowy winters in New England on the 42nd parallel. Each city’s climate, classified as “oceanic”, is characterized by cool, wet, grey winters and dry, warm summers that are full of sun. 

Both cities know that despite the long dark winter days, the sun is just above the clouds - ready to shine at any moment. In both cases, each place and its people are prepared for when it does.

It isn't obvious while enveloped in grey, but when the clouds part, the intentionality behind the design and orientation of things throughout each city is revealed. The true nature of perfectly situated cafe chairs, south facing glass walls, once vacant patios, and open spaces planted with lush grass becomes apparent. There’s a consideration of the sun and its affect on people in the design vernacular of each place that can only be truly appreciated during those moments when our eyes are squinting and our faces basking in the warm glow. 

This consideration can be both subtle and sublime. 

In Copenhagen, the subtleties I experienced ranged from the supply of blankets at cafes to the orientation of trees in city parks that allowed for maximum solar exposure during prime afternoon hours. Subtle considerations in Portland include glass windowed garage doors that open at the first sign of sun - connecting office dwellers and shoppers to the outdoors - and the increased number of cyclists on the roads on a sunny day. 

Another dominant memory from Copenhagen is of a warm and sunny afternoon studying in the Black Diamond - itself a sublime ode to the sun that shimmers from afar and warms from within. I cannot think of another glass, steel, and granite clad structure that I would describe as hygge. When it comes to sublime consideration of the sun in Portland I think of the vistas from the Rose Garden in Washington Park that look east and on a clear sunny day perfectly frame majestic snowcapped volcano, Mt. Hood - our own shimmering marvel. 

Thousands of miles away and separated by land and sea, Copenhagen and Portland have more in common than a similar climate. They share intentionality in their design that aims to capture the precious resource that warms us and lifts our moods. When we are at our best, experiencing scarcity allows us to fully embrace moments of abundance. Like yin and yang, the dark winters allow us to fully appreciate the sun when it returns. 

I’ll never forget how the sun felt on my face that day in Copenhagen. In that moment, the long months of cool, grey, and dark were worth it. In fact, the long winter was almost necessary to feel so good. 


Words & Images 1, 2: Caleb Dean
Image 3: Randall Fransen