The fate of the Rubjerg Knude Fyr, a turn-of-the-century lighthouse that once towered over the North Sea in far northwestern Denmark, was decided long ago.
Built over the course of 21 months with construction wrapping up in 1900, the 75-foot-tall, red lantern-topped masonry structure served as a seafarers' beacon up until in 1968, when it became evident that Mother Nature had other plans for this dramatically self-altering stretch of coastline.
Within just a few short decades, Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse — originally erected a safe 200 meters (650 feet) from the water’s edge — was overwhelmed, engulfed practically, by formidable mountains of shifting sand that made it increasingly difficult for passing ships to hear the tower's fog horn. All the while, coastal erosion has chipped away at the buffer zone between the lighthouse and the ocean, putting the sand dune-dwarfed structure at risk of toppling over a cliff and into the North Sea.
And so, the municipality of Hjørring, recognizing a potentially perilous predicament, did the smart thing: officials decommissioned the lighthouse only to reopen it to the public in 1980 to as a regional history museum — the Sand Drift Museum.
Pictured here in 1990, the sand dune-engulfed Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse is expected to fall into the North Sea within the next 15 years. (Photo: Rüdiger Stehn/flickr)
While opening a historical museum dedicated to the capricious nature of wind-shaped geologic formations within a building that itself is steadily being buried by northern Europe's largest migratory dune was a blatant exercise in fate-tempting, the Sand Drift Museum remained open for over 20 years. In 2002, it was wisely decided to yield to Mother Nature and the historic tower was completely abandoned. (Rubjerg Knude's two small auxiliary buildings didn't enjoy the longevity as the lighthouse proper — they were shuttered in 1992 due to the aggressively encroaching dunes and removed completely in 2009.)
As the Vendsyssel Historical Museum explains in a super-informative website dedicated to the lighthouse and its "sand problems" along with other cultural attractions in the surrounding area:
Coastal erosion causes the cliff to move further and further inland, and the sand dune grows continuously. In 1992 the fight against the sand was completely given up, and the sand now is allowed, year by year, to 'eat' the lighthouse buildings. Oddly enough it was the sand that, in the end, won the fight.
And so, Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse was forsaken and left to be claimed by the sea, a true casualty of the sands of time.
Nearly 15 years later, the lighthouse is still standing. Its time, however, is limited.
To give it one last hurrah before it disappears forever, the abandoned tower has been transformed into a prismatic art installation overseen by Copenhagen-based Jaja Architects and Bessards’ Studio. If you think about it, transforming the site into an immersive art installation is a highly appropriate send-off is only fitting for a local landmark that’s been standing, against all odds, for well over a century.
Commissioned by the Realdania Foundation and the Danish Nature Agency as part of a larger effort to open up endangered and overlooked Danish architectural landmarks to the public, the installation essentially repurposes Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse into a massive kaleidoscope in which the public is permitted, for a limited time, to enter the retrofitted structure, say a final goodbye and witness a stunning light show produced in part by the very same natural element — the wind — that has ultimately done the lighthouse in.
At the heart of the installation is an oversized, wind-powered prism that replaces the lighthouse’s traditional lantern. As the rotating prism catches natural light and reflection, this “dancing sea of light” is cast downwards into a mirror-lined central shaft. A temporary prefabricated staircase wraps around the lighthouse’s hollowed-out kaleidoscope core, allowing visitors to ascend to the top of the structure and take in sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding coastline and its famous building-eating dunes.
With a closing date that's largely up to Mother Nature, the transformative kaleidoscope installation at Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse will eventually be recycled and reused at other sites. (Rendering: Jaja Architects)
"The project at Rubjerg Knude shows how soft-spoken and respectful architecture can help to make the experience of a place more intense and meaningful without taking your breath away, what is the main attraction — namely nature,” explains Realdania project manager Christian Andersen in a press release.
While the installation has been up and running since March, an end date is uncertain — that's kind of up to Mother Nature. Coastal erosion in the area is closely monitored so when it gets to the point that the lighthouse is deemed too dangerous for public access, the installation will be dismantled — the interior staircase along with the prism can easily be removed and remounted or recycled elsewhere.
Perhaps there are other aging Scandinavian lighthouses of similar height ripe for a temporary transformation?
It’s anyone’s guess when Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse will be sealed off for good, although Realdania anticipates that the tower will be completely swallowed by the North Sea within the next 15 years, perhaps sooner than later depending on winter storm activity. According to the regional tourism bureau that oversees the "Top of Denmark," the average annual rate of coastal erosion is roughly 2 meters (about six-and-a-half feet) and the space between between the lighthouse and the sea has shrunk to just 30 meters (just under 100 feet) or so. You do the math ...
Whatever the case, Jan Yoshiyuki Tanaka of Janjan Architects mentions to Co.Design that before that's allowed to happen, the lighthouse and its long-extinguished flame will be snuffed out in a less poetic manner, not at the hands of Mother Nature but via controlled demolition.