Pragmatic Utopia

TEXT Ian Chodikoff

What lessons can Canadian architects learn from a country like Denmark? On a recent tour of Copenhagen last November, I had the opportunity to visit several inspiring Danish projects that were neither exorbitantly expensive nor demonstrative of technical complexities beyond the general capabilities of Canadian architects. This quick survey of the evolving Copenhagen architecture scene revealed several case studies from which innovative and energetic architects can derive some inspiration when designing current and future commissions in Canada.

The success of contemporary Danish architecture can be attributed to a pragmatic approach to sustainable design and quality of life. For example, the elimination of air conditioning in Danish buildings through strict legislation and performance criteria means that the associative costs of designing substantial HVAC systems can be transferred to improving the quality of architecture. On an urban scale, Copenhagen is a densely built city with low-to mid-rise buildings designed with smaller footprints which makes for buildings that are inherently more efficient, especially when it comes to natural daylight, egress and code compliance issues. For example, a typical Danish townhouse is 12 metres deep, whereas a typical Dutch house is roughly 20 metres deep. As for urban design initiatives, Copenhagen’s transportation and circulation infrastructure–which includes subways, canals, light rail, and designated bicycle lanes–have all contributed to successful urban design.

There are several factors contributing to the rich environment in which contemporary architecture flourishes in Denmark. In the last two years alone, Danish architects have won more than 50 international prizes and awards. For a country of 5.5 million people, this is truly remarkable and could be attributed to the fact that the country has a strong awareness of the relationship between economic development and good design. Denmark is traditionally cited at or near the top of the World Economic Forum’s ranking of the best places to live in the world. It currently ranks third, just behind the US and Switzerland, but far ahead of 13th-place Canada. Its high ranking is partly due to the fact it spends a larger share of its Gross Domestic Product on social programs than Canada. And its healthy economy is largely due to an enduring pragmatism that such a small and culturally homogeneous country has adopted over the past 40 years, achieving great strides in such areas as energy production and the financial services sector. Many of the country’s recent architectural commissions have directly benefited from innovative or newly created financial institutions or banks, proving that a commitment to economic development and progressive architecture are not mutually exclusive. And of course, special acknowledgment should also be given to the Danish government’s $20-million commitment to promote architecture through its comprehensive architectural policy entitled “A Nation of Architecture–Denmark.”

Any success story relating to Copenhagen (population 500,000; the metropolitan region is 1.2 million) must include a brief mention of the Strget, a pedestrian-friendly district created in 1962 as part of the city’s initiative to enhance public space. For decades, Copenhagen has encouraged commuters to leave their cars at home and ride into the city on bicycles via designated bike lanes. It is therefore not surprising that in 2007, roughly 40 percent of its citizens arrived at school or work on their bicycles. To further control traffic volume, Copenhagen has reduced the number of cars in the city centre through the elimination of parking spaces at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year. While there are no strict height limits in Copenhagen, the city has not adopted the tall building as an expedient solution to citybuilding. And besides, low-rise buildings are receptive to the reliable westerly breeze coming off the resund, which passes through the thousands of naturally ventilated apartments, houses and office buildings throughout the city–efficiently and free of charge. Tower configurations don’t lend themselves to cross-ventilation strategies.

The breeze coming in from the resund is of considerable benefit to the city. With revenue earned through taxation–such as the onerous luxury tax on automobiles–Danes have invested heavily not only in the creation of bicycle lanes, but in wind technology as well. The Danish government hopes to have 30 percent of Copenhagen’s electricity generated by wind technology by 2015. Beneath the city, Copenhagen operates a subway system with vast amounts of natural daylight present in every station–an important design feature given the short days of winter.

A lawsuit in the making by Canadian standards, small trays of burning coal positioned throughout Copenhagen’s famous Tivoli Gardens symbolize an important aspect of the Danish sensibility regarding public life. Although a convenient way to warm one’s hands or the little faces of snowsuited children strolling through the city’s famous outdoor winter gardens, these platters of burning-hot embers could easily become a safety hazard– were it not for the willingness of Danes to responsibly engage in an active public life in winter. Throughout the city, Copenhageners can also enjoy numerous outdoor cafs that provide blankets to patrons, while heated benches and gas-lit heaters on street corners make winters in the city extremely enjoyable…Canadians take note.

One of the earliest buildings representing the recent architectural renaissance of Copenhagen is the expansion to the Royal Library, completed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen in 1999. Known as the “Black Diamond,” the project has become a focal point of the city’s harbour. In addition to containing millions of books, the black granite-clad building contains a concert hall, an exhibition space, a bookshop, a caf, and one of the city’s best restaurants. The project’s enduring legacy is that it has renewed Copenhagen’s faith in the value of its numerous waterfronts.

Founded over 20 years ago by three architects sharing the common Danish surname of Nielsen (two have moved on to other pursuits, while Kim Herforth Nielsen remains as the only original partner), the architecture

firm of 3XN have emerged as an internationally recognized firm with a consistent output of high-quality built work demonstrating a commitment to research and the development of structure and materiality. A 2007 publication by Black Dog Publishing entitled Investigate, Ask, Tell, Draw, Build profiles much of the firm’s recent work.

The Danes are relatively pragmatic in their architecture, although perhaps not as pragmatic as the Dutch, Nielsen explains. Many of 3XN’s projects amount to roughly $250 per square foot. And according to Nielsen, construction budgets in Denmark tend to be about 30 percent less per square metre than in England. With projects currently in design and construction in the UK and across Europe, Nielsen is confident that Danish architecture and talent has benefited from globalization. The international architectural community will eagerly await the results of this phenomenon in the coming years as more Danish projects reach completion on the world stage.

In 2005, 3XN achieved a turning point in its history by completing the highly acclaimed Deloitte Touche headquarters in Copenhagen. Using a double-skin glass envelope, the project plays with a sleek, solid exterior envelope while sculpting an open, interior architecture employing numerous sustainable design strategies such as natural ventilation and exterior sun-shading devices. Following the success of this project is the recently completed restad College, an experimental school focusing on media, communication and culture. After beating out Dominique Perrault, Massimiliano Fuksas, Sauerbruch Hutton, and three other Danish firms in a design competition for a new high school, 3XN managed to convince the

Opposite Led By The Master Plan Team, An Informal Co
mpetition Was Held To Design Numerous Faades To Encourage Greater Architectural Variety In An Ambitious Development In Copenhagen’s South Harbour. Above Designed By Henning Larsen Architects, The Copenhagen Opera House (2005) Remains One Of The City’s More Controversial Projects, Largely Due To The Way In Which It Was Commissioned And Financed By Copenhagen’s Wealthiest Citizen, Sir Mrsk McKinney Mller, The Owner Of Mrsk Shipping Lines.

client that they could integrate the building’s circulation requirements into the classroom program, thereby resulting in a successful experimental open-planned high school measuring 12,000 square metres instead of the 16,000 square metres of program initially required by the college. The program is essentially divided into four levels or study areas, and each level is shaped like a boomerang that is slightly rotated, providing two and three storeys of open space around an atrium–in which a central staircase behaves as a primary social condenser. Throughout the college, several “drums” comprise classroom spaces with special light and sound requirements. On top of those drums, piles of giant beanbags are strewn about, on which students can think, socialize or simply relax. Canadian architects can only sigh as our commissions for secondary schools continue to be tendered on increasingly constrained budgets. The final budget for restad College cost 27 million, or about $300 per square foot.

Of the more radical firms in Copenhagen, one need not look any further than BIG. After work- ing for Rem Koolhaas from 1999-2001, Bjarke Ingels founded the firm PLOT with his Belgian friend Julien De Smedt. Together, the two began entering competitions all over Europe, winning enough projects to build up a sizable office. Under the aegis of PLOT, they completed their VM Housing project in 2005, a 240-unit apartment complex named for the shape of its two buildings which were designed in the form of a “V” and “M” respectively. Shortly after VM’s completion, PLOT disbanded. De Smedt formed JDS, a 35-person firm with offices in Brussels and Copenhagen, while Ingels, an avid self-promoter, went on to establish the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), an office currently hovering at around 85 people–quite an accomplishment for an architect still in his early thirties. BIG has already completed about seven significant projects and has over 300,000 square metres of construction on the drawing board. Ingels was recently invited to display his High Society project as part of a current exhibition on contemporary architecture entitled Urbanopolis which is being held at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City until April 2009.

One of the questions that arises when touring BIG’s office is the source of Ingels’ financial backing. It seems that there is no shortage of private investors and banks prepared to support his designs. One of his more ambitious projects currently under development is Big House, a 62,000-square-metre 540-unit residential development with retail and office space. Here, the most expensive unit is afforded the best view, but occupies the lowest level of the project. This is done so that the remaining units are given reasonable views of the adjacent protected natural habitat. The project is unique in that there is a continuous promenade and cycling path up to the tenth floor. For a transit-oriented development situated along the environmentally protected Kalbeod Flled, it is interesting to note that the clients include Hopfner, Frederikslund and the Danish Oil Company.

Shifting from the young radical character of BIG to a firm with a more corporate structure, Arkitema is one of Denmark’s largest firms with over 300 employees. One of their recent and ambitious projects is located in Sluseholmen, an innovative new residential community crisscrossed by newly constructed canals leading off Copenhagen’s South Harbour. Spread out over 2,000 acres and incorporating 135,000 square metres of new construction with nearly 38,000 square metres devoted to commercial and residential functions, the overall master plan was developed in conjunction with the owners of the land–the Port of Copenhagen and the City of Copenhagen–and the Dutch firm of Soeters Van Eldonk Ponec Architecten. While this development offers a group of standardized units to emphasize diversity and variety in the neighbourhood, Arkitema invited several smaller firms to design numerous faades throughout the development to encourage greater architectural variety. With some units already occupied, the entire complex will not be finished until 2012.

To be sure, one of Copenhagen’s more recent and controversial projects over the past few years is the Copenhagen Opera House, designed by Henning Larsen Architects. The project’s controversy derives largely from the way in which it was commissioned and financed by the wealthiest citizen in Copenhagen–Sir Mrsk McKinney Mller, the owner of Mrsk shipping lines. It is believed that Mller, a man in his nineties, played an active if not overly intrusive role in the project’s design process, creating a difficult situation for Larsen, a relatively younger man (only in his eighties!), who intended the Opera House to represent the capstone project of his career. While it is generally regarded as a success, the architectural merits of the Opera House remain in debate, largely due to the manner in which this private citizen directed such a high-profile public project.

Founded in 1959, Henning Larsen Architects has grown over the decades to number just under 175 staff representing 19 different nationalities. Like 3XN, the firm views itself as a very international firm, to the extent that just over 75 percent of its work comes from projects abroad. Some of the more interesting work includes a few projects in Reykjavik, such as the Icelandic Concert and Congress Centre, a 250-million building whose envelope is based on the concept of basalt stone columns which grow into uniquely shaped hexagonal clusters that are commonly found in Iceland. The concept of the basalt stones morphs into a double-skin wall comprised of cellular glass structures filled with geothermally heated air.

Perhaps one of the most intelligent projects recently completed in Copenhagen is Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter’s Sports and Culture Centre in Holmbladsgade, a working-class neighbourhood. Traditionally populated by immigrants, Holmbladsgade was an industrial area known for its dye and glue factories, metal works and chemical plants. Beginning in the late 1800s, five-storey housing blocks were built which continued until the 1970s and ’80s when larger housing projects began replacing former industrial sites, and a Turkish immigrant influx altered the character of the neighbourhood. Over the past 20 years, social problems have persisted: poverty, unemployment, drug abuse and the ghettoization of immigrant and ethnic minority groups in this area of the city. In a relatively culturally homogeneous population, this neighbourhood comprises a population of 20 percent foreign-born with close to 50 percent of students coming from non-Danish ethnic backgrounds.

In 1998, City Council decided to build a neighbourhood centre and community drop-in centres for social activities in Holmbladsgade. Through community involvement at a variety of levels, a Neighbourhood Charter was developed and presented to public officials and policy makers to identify a coherent action plan to establish outlets for creative and physical activities. Thus began the mandate for a new sports and cultural facility. In October 2006, the neighbourhood’s dream was realized when Dorte Mandrup completed this exceptional community centre. The 3,400-square-metre building’s construction budget came in under $2 million and uses a material palette that includes polycarbonate and unfinished wood. To cut down on HVAC costs and maintenance, the building utilizes the stack effect for cooling in the summer while a geothermal heating system yields maximum temperatures of around
10-12 degrees during the coldest days of winter–warm enough for boisterous youth to enjoy a good game of basketball. When touring the facility more than a year after its opening, it is amazing to see how many children actually use the facility. Despite kids hanging off guardrails and soccer balls bouncing off every surface, the building remains in pristine condition–a telltale sign of respect by the community.

The level of innovation in a country like Denmark stems from an overall appreciation of good design combined with practical solutions. Many lessons can be learned from how the Danes design: maximizing natural daylight, encouraging healthy living environments, and incorporating inexpensive material palettes–all of which can still produce a rich architectural experience.CA