Editorial: Learning from Denmark

In the Danish university city of Aarhus, the Grundfos Dormitory by CEBRA encases a 12-storey atrium with mirror-clad balconies, creating drama with an economy of means. Mikkel Frost
In the Danish university city of Aarhus, the Grundfos Dormitory by CEBRA encases a 12-storey atrium with mirror-clad balconies, creating drama with an economy of means. Mikkel Frost

Last month, I had the opportunity to tour Denmark’s two largest cities, Copenhagen and Aarhus. Organized by Danske Ark (the equivalent of Canada’s RAIC), the trip came at a timely moment, as Danish architects are enjoying an increasing presence in Canada. Bjarke Ingels’ firm B.I.G. is designing towers in Calgary and Vancouver, schmidt hammer lassen is constructing a small library in Edmonton and a large one in Halifax, and other firms such as 3XN and C.F. Møller are shortlisted or sub-consulting on major projects in Calgary and Toronto.

In many sectors, from wind power to bacon, Denmark is known to be strong in international trade. Architecture is no exception. The term “Danish Design”–synonymous with Mid-Century Modern furniture and architects like Arne Jacobsen and Jørn Utzon–lingers as a legacy for a new entrepreneurial generation of architects. Foreign projects account for 16% of Danish firms’ work. By comparison, in Canada, 2.7% of architectural revenues come from work completed abroad. Relative newcomer B.I.G. is widely known outside of Denmark, and for established practices including schmidt hammer lassen and 3XN, international work makes up over half of their current projects.

While many of the Danish architects’ foreign projects are in Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East, Canada is an attractive market because of its relatively low ratio of architects to the general population. About three architects serve every 10,000 Canadians, compared to the European average of eight per 10,000, and over 10 architects per 10,000 Danes.

Valuable synergies emerge between Danish and Canadian design cultures. A common stereotype is the rule-abiding yet relaxed Dane, living in a socially progressive state–not dissimilar to the Canadian self-image. This plays out in designs that adhere to strict building codes while searching for economical means of expression in the margins around those regulations.

In Aarhus, for instance, a stunning new student residence by local firm CEBRA derives its plan from the maximum gross floor space permitted to qualify for state-subsidized apartment rental rates. CEBRA turned the 50-square-metre per student area limit (including circulation, common areas and wall envelope) into an opportunity to create a generous atrium, clad with mirrors that create kaleidoscopic views between floors. Concrete was left rough in the hallways wrapping around the open space, freeing up budget for the extra building volume.

In Copenhagen, a high school by 3XN pushes the envelope by reimagining classrooms as freestanding wooden pods topped with learning lounges. The school met standard cost guidelines since its pod design saved 25% of the square footage by removing corridors. A custom fire plan was developed with the city fire department–the kind of working-through regulations that may become more prevalent in Canada with the implementation of the objective-based National Building Code.

The inventive and practical outlook of Danish architects is a welcome and natural contribution to Canadian design. As the first Danish-Canadian buildings are completed, it will be rewarding to observe how the values of both cultures are married and translated into architectural form.

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com