Greenland’s Color-Coded Houses

Visitors to Greenland often believe that the colorful houses in every town are an inspired idea to add brightness to a monochromatic arctic setting. But they would be wrong.

After Hans Egede arrived in Greenland in 1721, Scandinavian culture began to impose itself on the new colony. Prefab houses were shipped north as kits, and buildings with a certain function generally had the same color. In an era without street names or numbers, this made some of the key municipal buildings easier to identify.

Since most Greenlanders at the time couldn’t read, the colors also served as commercial signs. If you wanted something from the store, you looked for a red building. If you needed a hospital, you headed for the yellow building. Fishermen would bring their catch to a blue structure, indicating the local fish plant.

Nowadays, many of the colors are simply decorative, although some buildings still follow the old tradition. And residents need approval before painting: Nonconformists can’t express their individuality by going for an outlandish color that clash with every other house in town.

Below, the key to the color palette of Greenland houses:

Red: Churches and stores, including the houses where the priest or shop owner lived. The most commonly used color.

Yellow: Hospitals, including the houses where the doctors or nurses lived.

Green: Radio communications, or later, telecommunications buildings in general.

Black: Police.

Blue: Factories, fish plants.

Nowadays, many house colors are random, although you still need approval before painting. You might not be allowed a fuchsia polka dot motif, for example. Ilulissat. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


Nowadays, houses may follow their traditional color-coding, or they may be just decorative. Sisimiut. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


The historic red church in Upernavik. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


Even modern churches are often still red. Upernavik. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


…though not all churches. Kangamiut’s church is yellow with red trim. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


Sometimes, Greenland’s own natural colors compete with even the brightest buildings. In Kangamiut, some local houses echo the bluebird skies and yellow flowers. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko