Monday, May 31, 2010

Top cities all have view of the Alps

RANKINGS. At an interesting seminar on urban planning last week I learned that all ranking lists of cities and their ”liveability” are pointless, since they are based on such crude measurements.
True, of course. It’s like trying to decide what painting is most beautiful or what food tastes best.
At the same event a person told me that “you’re a journalist, so you must love these ranking lists”.
Also true.
So, here comes another one. London-based Mercer, an international consulting company, has published its 2010 Quality of Living Survey. Here are their top five cities in the world:
1) Vienna, Austria
2) Zürich, Switzerland
3) Geneva, Switzerland
4) Vancouver, Canada
5) Auckland, New Zealand
You could think that one criterion was “must be near the Alps or equivalent” (Munich comes in 7th and Bern, Switzerland, 10th).
Mercer’s survey is intended to help companies to fairly compensate employees depending on where they are based. The rankings take into account 39 factors, grouped into the following ten categories: political stability, economic environment, social freedoms, health and sanitation, schools and education, public services and transportation, recreational activities, availability of goods, housing, natural environment.
The four Nordic capitals in my ongoing study of their status as cities with a high standard of living finish a bit further down than on other lists; Copenhagen is 11th, Stockholm 20th, Oslo 24th and Helsinki 35th.
Baghdad finishes last among the 221 cities in the survey.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Expanding a city centre across mental barriers

STOCKHOLM. In the Swedish capital, living in the “inner city” means everything to a lot of people.
There is no wall around the inner city (the water that surrounds most of it is enough), but the mental barrier that separates it from the “outer city” can be just as hard to penetrate. And remember, Stockholm is a small city by international standards. Only about 300,000 people live in the popular districts of the inner city.
Many more would like to live there and as Stockholm grows city planners are looking for an expansion of the inner city across the barriers separating it from the closest suburbs. The most important ongoing and planned urban development projects are all located on the fringes of the inner city, pushing its borders outwards.
The other day I spent a couple of hours walking around in one of those developments.
On a grey morning in an early summer drizzle there isn’t much going on along the waterfront in Liljeholmen just to the west of Södermalm, the latter being the preferred choice of address for many young professionals in the inner city districts.
Liljeholmen, one of Stockholm’s first suburbs, has been one of the most important regeneration projects in the city for some years. Old industrial sites are turned into office and residential districts, nicely located by the water.
The typical suburban centre is being rejuvenated. The old towering housing blocks of earlier decades overlook the new, modern Liljeholmen down by the water. When finished, thousands of new apartments and workplaces will draw people here. So far about 1,600 new apartments have been completed.
Liljeholmen has excellent public transit (above), with two metro lines connecting with the relatively new transverse light rail service running through a number of Stockholm’s suburbs.
The City of Stockholm has chosen the next phase of the area’s development, the western part of Liljeholmen, to be one of the city’s eco-profile districts. Exactly what this is going to mean is not clear yet, since planning is just getting underway. This new eco-district will be built on privately owned industrial land, which means that the project will not be under direct city control.
When you stand by the new residential buildings on the waterfront, you can see Södermalm a short walk or bicycle trip away (right). But mentally you are still far away from the inner city. Only time will tell if these barriers will crumble eventually.
Hammarby Sjöstad, the city’s first eco-profile district where construction began in the mid 1990’s, is located south of Södermalm on the same waters as Liljeholmen but further to the east. Administratively Hammarby Sjöstad is part of the inner city district Södermalm, despite the separating waters, and mentally feels more connected to the inner city than the suburbs.
The two most important development projects of the future will both expand what is now the inner city of Stockholm.
Stockholm Royal Seaport (called Norra Djurgårdsstaden in Swedish) will be a high profile eco-district adding new density to the eastern fringes of central Stockholm.
Norra Station (North Station) is a huge residential and research cluster development project straddling the wasteland between the northern parts of central Stockholm and the neighbouring municipality of Solna.
By 2020 or so, all these developments might have altered both the physical and the mental map of central Stockholm.

A new residential district on the waterfront in Liljeholmen.

The old housing blocks of Liljeholmen overlook new developments.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The art of building a new city district

HELSINKI/DESIGNING THE FUTURE. Arabianranta on the outskirts of central Helsinki could be just another waterfront development, but it isn’t.
Residents here live in a hub of creativity where art and design has become an important part of everyday life. Courtyards, public spaces and building entrances are given distinct identities through an unusual program of art installations.
This is where Helsinki’s ambitions to be a design city comes together in one place.
“The idea was to have art as an integrated part of the building project. It has been a huge success,” says Mikael Sundman, a legendary Helsinki urban planner who was a driving force in designing the district.
You will hear more from Sundman, who recently retired, in my following reports from the Finnish capital.
I take the number 6 tram from the heart of Helsinki in front of Eliel Saarinen’s classic railway station from 1914 for a 20-minute ride to Arabianranta (the Swedish name – Finland is officially bilingual – is Arabiastranden).
As you might have guessed, this is where the Arabia tableware, a classic in Finnish design, was (and is) made. The first thing you see as you reach the district is the old Arabia factory building (left).
I’m greeted by Tuula Isohanni, a Doctor of Arts at the Aalto University School of Art and Design located here. She has been a key person in making Arabianranta what it is today, coordinating the art installations in the district over the past ten years.
“It has been important to keep everything together. I have tried to think about what we are building for the future here. We have used art to awaken and develop the things that are already here,” says Tuula Isohanni.
Before we tour the area (visitors can pick up a brochure with a map and explanation to the art installations) we visit the complex that has grown out of the original Arabia factory. Here several of the most well known Finnish brands are now under one roof. Arabia was taken over by Iittala (glass) and today both brands, together with several others, are part of the Fiskars (scissors, knives etc) Group.
The Arabia factory can be seen on pre-arranged tours, but the real heart of creativity is found a couple of floors above the intense heat of the huge kilns where the ceramics gets its final shape through 20 hours of firing.
In a long corridor a group of ceramic artists have been given work facilities by the Arabia Art Department Society. The idea is to boost ceramic art in Finland through these independent artists, who work on a freelance basis.
“This is really an ideal situation for us”, says Pekka Paikkari, a veteran artist we run into who has also contributed to Arabianranta’s art work.
When work on the Arabianranta district began in the late 1990's, builders weren’t too happy to put aside the 1-2 percent of building costs for art work as the City of Helsinki required.
“They were not keen on buying something they couldn’t see. And we also had to put limits on the artists. We were not going to have mammoth pieces that cost a lot of money,” says Tuula Isohanni (above, right).
From the beginning some architects and builders were allowed to make arrangements with artists they already had contact with. But as the project grew, Isohanni understood the importance of coordinating the art installations.
“It was really important to make everything fit together.”
Arabianranta is located on the shore of the old Helsinki Bay where some of the earliest settlements of the city were situated. The residential buildings stand on reclaimed land that had to be decontaminated before construction began.
In ten years this wasteland has been turned into a pleasant urban district near water and attractive nature.
The last part of Arabianranta is still under construction and will be completed within two years. By then the district will have some 7,000 inhabitants and be the workplace for 8,000.
The creative hub also houses six educational institutes, mostly focusing on creative arts and technology.
The residential district is heterogenic with different types of housing, from expensive apartments to rentals for lower income groups and students. There are also homes for different groups of people with special needs.
“One early idea was that every entrance should be different and given its own character through artwork,” says Isohanni as we walk around the area.
Some have small pieces of art in the brick walls outside, others have brightly coloured walls in the stairwells (left). The art comes in all shapes and forms. High up on a wall sits a balcony that looks like a birds nest (a cooling-off terrace for a rooftop sauna). Above the entrance to one house you’ll find a birdhouse stuck to a bronze branch that “grows” out of the wall.
Perhaps the most well-known piece of art is the “Arabia Carpet”, a huge oriental carpet made of ceramic tiles. It decorates one of the courtyards, and like most of the artwork has a connection to the history and nature of the place (in this case the name).
In the final part of Arabianranta, the five open courtyards will each have a theme expressed through its artwork; quietude, movement, growth, senses and reflection.
As we come to the end of our tour, Tuula Isohanni shows me a square where the crown jewel of Arabianranta’s artwork soon will be in place. The famous American artist Robert Wilson has designed an urban park with nine square “rooms” separated by vegetation and lit from below.
She fought long and hard for this one. In place, it’s bound to be the highlight of an unusual and successful urban development project.

This is the second in a series of reports from Helsinki.

The Arabia Carpet, designed by Elina Aalto, in an open courtyard.

A giant bird's nest or a balcony?

Arabianranta; a gateway to the sea through works of art.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

To improve cities, keep an open mind

STOCKHOLM. Put away visions of “world class” and don’t try to fit your city into a single brand. Welcome the changes brought in by new multiculturalism and be open to varying concepts of beauty.
Those were some of the messages during an interesting day of thoughts on modern urban development when Stockholm’s City Planning Administration organized a seminar with a group of free thinkers yesterday.
The seminar marked the beginning of a dialogue the City’s planners are asking for in the wake of the recently adopted new City Plan. One of the messages from the speakers was pretty clear:
Don’t let the planning get to rigid, be open for change.
Gerard Reinmuth (right), an Australian architect and a founding director of the architectural firm Terroir with offices in Australia and Denmark, warned of the dangers of grand visions and the constant chase for top positions on league tables ranking cities according to “liveability”.
Using Sydney as an example, Reinmuth argued that such ambitions can be “the greatest inhibitor of becoming a great city”.
“You just create the image of a new city. And those lists are based on incredibly crude measurements,” said Reinmuth, who is a visiting professor at the Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark and a frequent commentator on urban issues.
Instead Reinmuth encourages politicians and planners to ask themselves what’s wrong with their cities in order to make real progress. But raising the problems, he said as I spoke to him afterwards, might of course lead to cities losing their positions in the global rankings.
I asked him what he thinks about Copenhagen’s and Stockholm’s ambitions to brand themselves as “climate capitals”, or Helsinki as the “design capital” for that matter.
“I find it highly problematic when you try to brand a city around one word. In a way I think it was good when COP 15 (the United Nations Climate Conference) in Copenhagen (below, left) failed. It made everybody take a step back and think about this strategy.”
“Cities often cast themselves as brands. But cities are not Nike.”
“Sustainability” is one of the key words when cities proclaim their visions of “world class”. Reinmuth sees the issue of sustainability mostly as a “branding instrument”. The real issue is the reuse of the existing building stock, he argued, and showed some examples of work that his firm has done in that field.
Instead of aiming for “world class” and bringing in consultants to copy models from elsewhere, Reinmuth would like Stockholm and other cities to try to become “better versions of themselves”.
Do you have an example of a city that has managed to do that?
“I think Melbourne (in Australia) is an example of a city that has had the self confidence to build upon what it’s good at. It has been looking at itself, fixing what needs to be fixed instead of looking too much at other cities.”
Stockholm, like many other cities, is in the midst a big changes with huge urban development and infrastructure projects. There is a heated debate on how to preserve the beauty of the city in times of change.
This debate is often dominated by “nimbyism” and a reluctance to accept new ideas.
Several speakers at the seminar expressed a wish for more open mindedness. Thérèse Kristiansson and Annika Enqvist from a group called the New Beauty Council argued for an acceptance of varying concepts of beauty in the public realm.
Anders Wilhemson, a maverick architect who is no stranger to provocative ideas (he once presented an idea, see illustration below, where the housing shortage in Stockholm 2030 could be solved by placing 500 slim, 54-storey towers throughout the city), simply asked:
“Does the city have to be so huggable?”
Gerard Reinmuth also asked for a re-evaluation on what’s beautiful and what’s ugly, and put the issue in the interesting context of the multiculturalism that’s a fact of life in Stockholm and most other major cities today.
He urged everybody to stop “jamming people into your own model” as global migration changes the faces of cities. Instead Reinmuth suggested that cities help their people understand the added value migration brings, even when it changes the cityscape.
“Stockholm today is not like Stockholm 500 years ago. Should the clock have been stopped 500 years ago?” Reinmuth asked.
My mind wandered off to London, where I on a recent visit saw the famous mosque on Brick Lane (right). As the population of the district changed over the years, the building has been used as a Protestant chapel, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now it’s a mosque. The only controversy seems to be whether the new “minaret” attached to the building actually is a minaret or a “large steel art sculpture” as the local authorities see it.
Sweden and many other European countries may have a long way to go before accepting the multicultural urbanity Reinmuth advocates, which countries like Australia and Canada and cities like London and New York embraces.
“This fear of losing your own thing is just a lack of confidence. What you will get is an evolutionized version of Sweden”, said Reinmuth.
In a day full of thought-provoking ideas Jens Lanvin, a trend analyst from the Swedish communication consultancy Bodén & Co, put his finger on an important factor for the development of Stockholm’s future.
“Leadership is crucial for both the present and long term success of the city. This is difficult with the changes in politics that we regularly see. I wish we had a more long-term approach.”

Copyright: Wilhelmson Arkitekter/Vasco Trigueiros (ill.), Pressens Bild (photo)
Architect Anders Wilhelmson's idea of solving Stockholm's housing shortage.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Design and development, hand in hand

HELSINKI/DESIGNING THE FUTURE. When the international magazine Monocle, a barometer of coolness, names Helsinki as one of the top five cities in the world the live in it’s a sign of the dramatic changes the Finnish capital has gone through.
Go back to the early 90’s and the image of the city was people lining up at soup kitchens for a free meal as Finland suffered through a deep economic crisis with a whopping 20 percent unemployment rate.
That’s when things began to change. City authorities forged a strategy where the strong Finnish traditions in design would be used as a lever to raise the city from the economic ruins.
Now Helsinki is getting ready to be World Design Capital (WDC) in 2012 and the international media is already focusing attention on this Finnish miracle (Monocle was said to be in town when I visited Helsinki last week).
“In 1994 the city decided on a strategy where creativity and culture would be worked into the city brand. Something new came into our thinking. And it has simply continued since then”, says Pekka Timonen, the City’s Director of Culture who now heads preparations for WDC 2012.
“Branding can sometimes be seen as controversial. But we have quite openly said that we aim to be one of the leading design cities of the world, and not only when we are World Design Capital but also after that year”, says Timonen.
Being World Design Capital is not an award, but a designation for a city chosen by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design biennially. Helsinki will be the third WDC, after Turin (2008) and Seoul (2010).
Pekka Timonen already has a busy schedule, not only with Helsinki’s own preparations but also with visiting delegations from cities that want to learn from the Finnish capital. Beijing and Kobe are just two of those, with their own ambitions to be chosen design capitals.
Visitors to Helsinki enjoy classic design products from companies like Iittala (glass), Arabia (china) and Marimekko (textiles), mobile phones from Nokia or architecture by giants like Alvar Aalto.
A part of the capital with plenty of small, independent shops now calls itself Design District Helsinki.
“The Design District is a grass roots movement”, says Timonen, and mentions it as one example of how the WDC-designatiion “didn’t come out of nowhere”.
Many leading Finnish companies, like Nokia, depend on good design for their success. And design is very much part of daily life in Finland. The theme for Helsinki’s bid for the WDC was “embedding design in life”.
“One reason why we were chosen was that we have a long background and tradition as a design city. Another was that design is so much a part of our identity. We have a way of finding sustainable, aesthetic, enjoyable and high quality solutions from often scarce and poor sources”, says Pekka Timonen (left).
“And this is not so easy to copy.”
But Finnish design is not only about a beautiful vase or a slick mobile phone. Helsinki has what Timonen calls a “holistic approach” towards design. Everything from a major urban development project to the little doorknob can be improved through design.
“Design is about creating a better city for the end user. There are design challenges everywhere. Traffic solutions, energy solutions and many other functions can be improved by design”, says Timonen.
In my following reports from Helsinki we will see how design has played an important role in Helsinki’s urban development.
This city with some 600,000 inhabitants is small by international standards. The extended metropolitan region has a population of about 1.3 million. Neighbouring cities Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen and Lahti share the WDC-designation with Helsinki.
The region has experienced a dramatic geopolitical change that came when the Soviet empire crumbled in the early 90’s. All of a sudden Finland wasn’t an isolated island between east and west, carefully watched by the rulers in the Kremlin.
New markets opened up in the independent Baltic States, with Estonian capital Tallinn just a two hour ferry ride from Helsinki. And the Finnish capital became a gateway to the east. The national airline Finnair’s excellent connections to the booming urban giants of the Far East have become a success.
And these developments are far from over. By the end of this year, Helsinki will get a new high speed train connection with St. Petersburg in Russia. Travel time will be cut to three and a half hours, down from nearly six hours today, and formalities will be eased.
This is set to become another boost for Helsinki’s economy. St. Petersburg is the often forgotten sleeping giant of Europe, with nearly 5 million inhabitants the fourth largest city on the continent.
Pekka Timonen underlines that being World Design Capital 2012 will not be seen as a celebration of what Helsinki has achieved, but rather as a beginning of a new era.
“This designation is not only about what you are, but what you are capable of becoming. This is an operation for the future.”

This is the first in a series of reports from Helsinki. In the following stories we will look at ongoing and planned urban development on a massive scale.

Classic design; Helsinki Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen.

Design comes in all shapes and forms in the capital's Design District.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Politicians vie for "bicycle helmet liberals"

STOCKHOLM. We’ve heard of “latte liberals”, those modern urbanites with a keen eye on the trend of the day.
I hadn’t heard of “bicycle helmet liberals” before I read Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter this morning, where the culture editor used the term to describe an urban class with an interest in making minimal ecological footprints.
These people, constantly growing in numbers as the Swedish capital becomes more like its bicycle crazy Danish counterpart Copenhagen, are becoming an important group in Stockholm as Sweden heads towards national and municipal elections later this year.
Svenska Dagbladet, the other Stockholm morning paper, ran a big story this weekend on how the city’s politicians are beginning to look for votes from the bicyclist with promises of improvements in biking conditions.
The number of bicyclists on Stockholm’s street have grown rapidly in the last couple of years and almost doubled in the past ten years. City authorities encourage this and would very much like Stockholm to have Copenhagen’s reputation as a bicycle capital.
But the bicycle scene in Stockholm is much more chaotic. The paper interviews Lena Maria Hagensen, a Stockholm resident who lived ten years in Copenhagen and can compare the two cities.
In the Danish capital, Hagensen says, the bicycle is a form of transport equal to cars.
“As a bicyclist in Stockholm you are downgraded. Car driver’s awareness of bicyclist is non-existent. In Copenhagen bicyclists and drivers communicate”, says Hagensen to Svenska Dagbladet.
Bicycle planning in Stockholm has many deficiencies that are pointed out in the story. Politicians from the opposition leftist and green parties promise more money for investments in bicycle lanes and other improvements.
When Swedes go to the polls in September we’ll see if this is enough to attract the “bicycle helmet liberals”.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Iconic stadium gets a facelift

HELSINKI. It’s a classic stadium and one of the landmarks of this pleasant city. Now the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, used for the 1952 Summer Games, is getting a facelift to keep it up to date as a sports venue and preserve it as a symbol of elegant Finnish design.
Helsinki is beginning preparations for what might be the city’s biggest event since the Olympics when it becomes the World Design Capital in 2012. The Finnish capital has gone through a remarkable development since the gloomy days of the deep economic crisis of the early 1990s.
I just got back from a trip to Helsinki. Beginning next week, I will write a series of reports on how design has become a driving force in the development of the new Helsinki.
The Olympic Stadium is a must for every visitor to Helsinki. The stadium was originally built to host the 1940 Olympics, games that were never held due to World War II. It was designed by Finnish architects Yrjö Lindegren and Toivo Jäntti in a sleek, functionalistic style.
The 72-metre tower (above) ha become the symbol of the stadium. From the top of the tower visitors get a nice view of the city.
The Olympic Stadium has hosted two World Championships in athletics (track & field), in 1983 and 2005. This being a national sport of Finland, it’s only natural that a statue of former running giant Paavo Nurmi stands outside the stadium.
Right now the stadium is a bit of a construction site, as a new football pitch and a new running track are laid out. Later this year the tower will be renovated. The stadium will be back in use in August with a two-night concert with rock giants U2.
Helsinki is already full of old style posters advertising another milestone event that will take place in the stadium in February 2011, when the two local ice hockey clubs Jokerit and HIFK will meet in an outdoor game in front a of an expected capacity crowd of over 40,000 spectators.

Running giant Paavo Nurmi in front of the classic Olympic Stadium.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Water as an inspiration for architecture

COPENHAGEN/CITY OF ARCHITECTURE. Kim Herforth Nielsen (below) only has to look out his office windows to see a source of inspiration for his architecture.
“The water in itself adds quality to this city”, he says of the extensive harbour front of Copenhagen that houses a lot of the city’s new architecture.
Danish architecture has risen to new heights over the past decade. Kim Herforth Nielsen’s firm 3XN is one of the standard-bearers in this wave of success that has reached far beyond the borders of tiny Denmark.
Copenhagen has become a center of creativity. Next to 3XN’s office in the pleasant Christianshavn district lies Noma, recently named the world’s best restaurant. The two are working together as the research department of 3XN is developing a food laboratory for Noma, to be placed on a house boat.
The connection to water is present in many 3XN projects. It’s definitely the theme for what is bound to be one of the firm’s signature buildings – the new Danish Aquarium called The Blue Planet (Den Blå Planet in Danish) that is being built just outside Copenhagen near Kastrup Airport.
In The Blue Planet water is the inspiration for everything, not least the shape of the building. Passengers on approaching flights will see a building that looks like swirling water when it’s finished in 2013.
Another of Copenhagen’s major building projects designed by 3XN will also define the city’s new waterfront. A new “UN City” that will house six United Nations local offices under one roof will be part of a spectacular development of Marmormolen on the inlet to Copenhagen’s harbour.
The star-shaped office complex is set to become one of the more significant buildings in a part of Copenhagen where the future is being shaped. Next door planning is under way to create a model for sustainable urban development at Nordhavnen (Northern Harbour) where eventually 40,000 people will live in a district that is meant to shape the future of city life.
“Nordhavnen clearly has qualities that can make it special”, says Kim Herforth Nielsen, whose visions for architecture have been in focus in Copenhagen the past months with a big exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre (left).
Titled “Mind Your Behaviour”, the exhibition (which closed May 13, but continues online here) deals with 3XN’s idea that architecture can shape people’s behaviour. In a number of projects on display the viewer gets a demonstration of how architecture affects behaviour.
One prominent example is the Ørestad College in the new Copenhagen city district with the same name. With open, flexible spaces permitting easy interaction, the building helps students work in line with the intentions of the Danish school system. A huge central staircase dominates the interior of the building, which is seen as revolutionary solution to the design of modern educational institutions.
Nearby a new 3XN-designed hotel complex, to be called Bella Sky (below, right) , is nearing completion. In an example of playful architecture, the two leaning towers of the hotel can be seen as a dancing couple.
3XN was originally founded as Nielsen, Nielsen and Nielson in Århus in Jutland in the Western part of Denmark. Now the firm under the leadership of Kim Herforth Nielsen has offices in Copenhagen and Århus.
Their work is described as “based on the Scandinavian tradition of functionality and aesthetics, although not bound by tradition”.
Kim Herforth Nielsen agrees with outgoing Copenhagen City Architect Jan Christiansen, interviewed earlier in this series of reports, in his view that Danish architecture has developed rapidly lately.
Ten years ago, when foreign architects were lured to Copenhagen through international competitions for prestigious projects, it gave inspiration to a Danish architecture that Kim Herforth Nielsen says was “frozen” to a standstill.
“Since then a lot of good things have been done here. Of course, some things have not been that good. Here at our office we have really seen a lot of development the past six years or so”, says Kim Herforth Nielsen.
He thinks the city’s high ambitions to be “world class” when it comes to architecture, outlined in a new architectural policy document, has helped the development of Danish architecture.
“After all, the talk of world class isn’t such a bad idea. Same thing goes for the architectural policy. Just the fact that we are talking about it is a good thing”, says Nielsen.

This is the fourth and final in a series of reports on architecture in Copenhagen.

Copyright: 3XN
The Blue Planet aquarium looks like swirling water from above.

The open spaces of the revolutionary Ørestad College.

The Saxo Bank headquarters, designed by 3XN, in Hellerup north of Copenhagen.

Copyright: 3XN
The "UN City" office complex will be a signature building on Copenhagen's waterfront.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A touch of Amsterdam in a Danish harbour

COPENHAGEN/CITY OF ARCHITECTURE. When I ask outgoing Copenhagen City Architect Jan Christiansen to give an example of a successful new development in the Danish capital, he points enthusiastically at a series of photos.
The pictures show houses on canals with apartments that have direct access to the water and small boats tied to jetties. It could have been in Amsterdam, but this is Sluseholmen in the southern part of Copenhagen’s inner harbour.
“It’s like a modern version of Amsterdam, with the canals and blocks where the houses have different facades and scale that is Copenhagen. I think it turned out really well”, says Christiansen.
Others would beg to differ. Sluseholmen is one those new Copenhagen developments that have been accused of lacking life and deemed a failure. Many of the new apartments have remained unsold as they reached the market in the midst of a global financial crisis. When some were turned into rental flats instead, people have moved in and the area seems well populated.
As I tour Sluseholmen on a gloomy early spring day, with grey skies overhead, the place isn’t exactly full of life. But it’s easy to imagine the pleasant atmosphere on a warm summer day. And when you consider that this used to be an industrial wasteland, you can’t argue with the improvement the Sluseholmen development started in this part of the Danish capital.
When Sluseholmen was planned the City of Copenhagen brought in Dutch architects Soeters Van Eldonk from Amsterdam to create a master plan for their version of a new city on the water, together with Danish firm Arkitema. The model resembles the Java Island development in Amsterdam, also designed by Soeters van Eldonk, but Sluseholmen and its future surroundings are much bigger.
Most houses have direct contact with water. Manmade canals separate the blocks, which in turn are connected by several bridges. Twenty different architects were brought in to design the individual houses with varying facades reminiscent of old Copenhagen traditions.
Sluseholmen has some 1,300 apartments. In 2007 the first residents moved in. Now neighbouring Teglholmen is under construction as this part of Copenhagen expands.
A new bridge connecting the two developments is due to open early next year, which will improve communications for Sluseholmen. Now residents can take a ferry bus through the harbour to central Copenhagen, or walk to a regular bus stop that feels a little bit too far away for comfort.
As a further attraction next to Sluseholmen you can see an unusual residential building called Metropolis, described as a “futuristic fantasy”. The 40 metre tall building stands alone, surrounded by water as example of architectural playfulness with its round form, unusual balconies and windows. But not everybody likes it, since it’s a radical departure from Sluseholmen’s general architectural idea.
When Sluseholmen last year won a prestigious Danish urban design award, there was renewed debate on whether the development was a success or a failure. It led a resident who had lived there from the beginning to defend his new neighbourhood in an op-ed piece in daily Politiken.
“On Sluseholmen life and water join in a higher entity, as there are plenty of both”, concludes Troels Brücker, a librarian, his article.
City Architect Jan Christiansen, who leaves office in a few weeks after his ten-year tenure, sees Sluseholmen as a good example of the benefits of bringing in foreign architects to enrich the local urban landscape.
He doesn’t agree with those who fear that cities will all look the same as local leaders aspire after “world class” architecture for their cities.
“On the contrary. The foreign architects that have come here have been inspired by our city and are often better at reading the place than the domestic architects. You can skip the term world class, but when local and international goes hand in hand, that’s when it becomes interesting”, says Christiansen.

This is the second in a series of reports on architecture in Copenhagen. Tomorrow we’ll meet one of Denmark’s star architects.

Amsterdam of the north; the canals of Sluseholmen in Copenhagen.

Metropolis, a "futuristic fantasy" on the water.

The courtyards of Sluseholmen are open to enter.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Preserving character in times of change

COPENHAGEN/CITY OF ARCHITECTURE. If you go to, the official website of the Danish state, and click on the “at a glance” presentation of the country you’ll find architecture as one of the first subjects (followed by design).
This is a place where architecture has risen to become a leading asset for the country, and nowhere is that more visible than in the capital Copenhagen.
The past ten years has seen a spectacular transformation of the Danish capital and Jan Christiansen (below right) has had the time of his life overseeing it all. In a few weeks, Christiansen’s ten-year appointment as Copenhagen’s City Architect comes to an end.
He leaves office with a recently approved new architectural policy for the city in place and a long list of interesting projects either completed or under way.
“The past ten years have been remarkable, not because of me but because of all the things that have happened here”, says Christiansen when I meet him for an interview in his office near the city’s regenerated inner harbour.
Copenhagen has in the past ten years seen the rise of a number of prominent new cultural buildings, new city districts, a transformed waterfront and pleasant urban spaces. Not everything has been a success and there is a lively debate on the quality of some of the projects. The financial crisis has also put some developments on hold and left many new apartments unsold.
But it has also given architecture and urban development in general a prominent position on the local and national agenda.
Three years ago the Danish government adopted a national architectural policy. The aim was to give governmental support to architectural quality in a broad perspective, from the small suburban house to urban planning, education and global marketing.
One result of this can be seen at the ongoing Expo 2010 in Shanghai, where the Danish pavilion designed by young starchitect Bjarke Ingels is one the most frequently mentioned in the reports from the fair.
Ingels and his BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) is one of the 20 leading Danish architecture firms presented on, many of whom have risen to international fame in the past decade. Stars of the past like Arne Jacobsen and Jørn Utzon have many followers as Denmark seems to strengthen its position in international architecture.
“In Bjarke Ingels we now have a young architect who is revolutionizing the art of building. Architecture has definitely developed. The top 10-20 firms in Denmark are becoming sharper and sharper”, says Jan Christiansen.
The new architectural policy (Arkitekturby København – Archictecture City Copenhagen) is part of Christiansen’s legacy as he now prepares to leave office. The policy, adopted by the City Council late last year, has four main themes – character, architecture, urban spaces and processes.
“This policy is more thorough than the one we had before, but in my opinion it’s not thorough enough. Therefore we will continue to develop methods for analysis that we can use in our work with detailed plans”, says Christiansen.
The idea is not to have a legally binding document that demands certain things from developers. Christiansen points out that architecture is a form of art and you can’t have a law determining what art is good or not.
It’s more about giving architects a chance to make a difference in the creation of the future Copenhagen.
“My goal has been to have good architecture in Copenhagen. You only get that if you use the best architects, either through competitions or workshops. Ten years ago we hade three or four architecture competitions a year, now we have 50 competitions and workshops”, says Christiansen.
Part of the policy has also been to promote young architects, which probably has added to the rise of new talents in Copenhagen.
Jan Christiansen and the policy document talks a lot about Copenhagen’s character as something that shall be strengthened trough both preservation and development. That character is defined by the small scale of the city, the towers rising above the generally low-rise cityscape and the extensive harbour front.
A number of new urban spaces have been created, most notably along the old harbour front
on Islands Brygge outside Christiansen’s office. On a sunny summer day hundreds of Copenhageners flock here to enjoy the sun and swim in the harbour waters.
“The urban spaces are very much part of Copenhagen’s character. It’s fantastic that we now can swim in the harbour”, says Christiansen.
The clean water is such a source of pride for Copenhagen that enough of it to fill a large pool was shipped to Shanghai as part of the Danish pavilion.
As we look at photos of new developments Christiansen points out how modern architecture delivers new versions of traditional Copenhagen features, like the pointed balconies on BIG’s hailed VM-houses (above left) in the otherwise often criticized Ørestad development (read more here and here).
Ørestad was planned to become the “new European city” with excellent public transportation, cutting-edge architecture and closeness to green parklands. But a giant shopping mall has been blamed for killing street life and the master plan left buildings standing too far away from each other. The feeling of desolation has been enhanced by the halt of construction due to the financial crisis.
“I understand the debate and I often take part in it myself. Parts of Ørestad need to be densified. But I think part of the criticism is unfair. Ørestad has only been around for ten years. Building a great city takes great architects, good land and 200-300 years. Give it time and I think Ørestad will become a great city district”, says Jan Christiansen.
He now packs his bags and moves on to teaching and research. Ten years in the center of Copenhagen’s architectural scene has given him material for a lifetime.

This is the first in series of reports on architecture in Copenhagen. Tomorrow we’ll look at how foreign influences are brought in and given a Danish touch.

Cultural gems; the Royal Danish Playhouse (2008), left, and the Opera (2004).

Creative architecture; the 8-houses by Bjarke Ingels Group.

Enjoying a summer day in the old harbour on Islands Brygge.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Danish bikes at Expo a security risk

COPENHAGEN. The Danish pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai was meant to demonstrate how pleasant life can be in a green, sustainable city like Copenhagen.
Fresh water from the city’s harbour was shipped to Shanghai to show the Chinese that it’s clean enough to swim in. And 250 of the famous Copenhagen city bikes, that visitors to the Danish Capital can use for free to explore the city, were brought in as a central feature of the pavilion.
But the bicycles remain locked up since they turned out to be a security risk for the Chinese visitors, reports the Ritzau news agency in the Danish newspaper Information. Several visitors have crashed with the bikes that have no hand brakes, just foot brakes which the Chinese are not used to.
A 56-year-old Chinese man who broke his leg is considering suing the Danish pavilion, according to the report.
Except for bike-problem, the high profile Danish pavilion designed by young architect Bjarke Ingels has been a success with 20,000 visitors daily and a lot of coverage in international press.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Debate over public transit investments

STOCKHOLM-COPENHAGEN. A new tram/streetcar network and a significant expansion of the metro system are signs of visionary investments in public transportation in the Swedish and Danish capitals.
But these are expensive investments and now fears of cost overruns are raised in both cities.
In Stockholm the new Spårväg City (Streetcar City) is taking shape in front of prestigious department store NK on Hamngatan (left), one of the main shopping streets. Rails are in place and in August traffic is expected to begin between Hamngatan and the popular recreational area on Djurgården.
Spårväg City will mark the return of tram/streetcars in central Stockholm. The old network was dismantled in the late 1960’s when the first parts of an extensive metro system were opened.
The Social Democrats, who are in opposition in Stockholm’s City Hall, have called the streetcars a waste of tax payer’s money. According to daily Dagens Nyheter, the Social Democrats now claim that the project is already costing more than expected and that new money has been set aside for the cost overruns.
Spårväg City is planned to eventually connect the western edges of inner Stockholm to a new development on the eastern edge of the city.
In Copenhagen the relatively new metro system is being expanding with a new ring line expected to be opened in 2018. The modern, driver-less metro (right) has been a success and was earlier this year named the best metro in the world.
But according to daily Politiken, experts now see sign that there is a risk for delays and cost overruns in the project. A representative of the Danish construction industry says that an old-fashioned bidding model for the project will lead to conflicts with higher costs and delays as a result.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The changing face of American cities

URBAN TRENDS. Cities in the United States are usually grouped together geographically. We have East Coast or West Coast Cities, Sun Belt or Rust Belt cities, Midwest or New England cities.
Now the Brookings Institution has found a new way to look at this. In its new State of Metropolitan America report, released yesterday, Brookings identifies seven categories of metropolitan areas based on their population growth rates, their levels of racial and ethnic diversity, and the rates at which their adults have earned college degrees.
Together these indicators say more about the metropolitan areas than their geographic location.
These are the categories of metro areas found in the study:
Next frontier: Cities like Seattle, Dallas, Houston and Washington, D.C., where population growth, diversity, and educational attainment exceed national averages.
New Heartland: Also fast growing with high education levels, but lower shares of immigrant populations. Examples: Atlanta, Columbus (Ohio), Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Portland (Oregon).
Diverse giants: Features some of the largest metro areas in the country, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, with above-average diversity and educational attainment, but below-average population growth.
Border growth: Mostly in the southwestern border states, cities like Phoenix, San Antonio and Las Vegas, with a significant presence of Hispanic immigrants, many less skilled.
Mid-Sized Magnet: Similar to the Border Growth centers, but with lower shares of ethnic minorities. Examples: Tampa, Oklahoma City, Chattanooga (Tennessee).
Skilled Anchor: Slow-growing, less diverse metro areas with higher-than average levels of educational attainment, cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Cincinnati.
Industrial Core: Largely older industrial center that are seen as demographically disadvantaged, cities like Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland.
After the tumultuous 2000s decade, the United States now faces a series of “new realities”, according to the Brookings study. Major cities are at the front lines of these dynamics and Brookings new way of looking at the metropolitan map of America shows how these challenges affect the country’s major cities.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A touch of Sweden on classic English territory

LONDON/SNAPSHOTS OF CHANGE. Standing in the courtyard of Forum House, the first in a series of new residential buildings next to Wembley Stadium, things feel distinctly familiar.
The balconies of the building, the bike sheds and the portals to the high-tech waste management system, it all looks very much like the Hammarby Sjöstad district just outside of central Stockholm.
And that’s why I’m here, of course.
I wanted to see an example of ideas that have spread from the Swedish showcase of modern urban development, through the many study groups that have visited Hammarby Sjöstad over the past decade.
Representatives of Quintain Estates and Developers, a British developer with a strong interest in sustainability, made the trips on several occasions during the planning process of Wembley City, one of London’s most modern residential districts now under construction next to the iconic Wembley Stadium.
“There were many lessons that we have learned from trips to Stockholm, and other cities as well,” says Julian Tollast, Head of Design Development at Quintain, when I meet him later at the company headquarters in central London.
“What’s interesting with Hammarby Sjöstad is trying to get an understanding of what has worked both in public realm design and in building design, and also the management of public realm buildings and how that is then explained to the wider audience,” says Julian Tollast.
One of the things that caught the interest of the visiting Quintain delegation in Hammarby Sjöstad was the vacuum waste disposal system designed and installed by the Swedish company Envac. I’ll get back to that.
Tollast shows me a series of photos from his visits to Stockholm; front doors, mail boxes, balconies, more balconies (“I get sadly obsessed”, he admits with laughter).
“Design development can add value, and not just financial value, but also social, economic and environmental value at all scales from district to doorknob”, he explains.
It’s a beautiful spring day when I take the Bakerloo line tube westwards to Wembley Central, a 20 minute ride from central London. A ten minute walk through this ethnically mixed neighbourhood takes me to the giant, new Wembley Stadium, opened in 2007 with seats for 90,000 spectators.
The arch above the stadium is a new landmark that the world will learn to know in the summer of 2012, when parts of the Olympic Games will be held here. Wembley Stadium could also be the scene for the 2018 football (soccer) World Cup, if the English bid is successful.
The new stadium is just one part of the regeneration of Wembley. Quintain’s project covers the area around the stadium and the new Wembley City will ultimately hold over 4,000 homes, hotels, shops, restaurants, offices and new public spaces like the Arena Square between the stadium and the refurbished indoor Wembley Arena.
Forum House, the first of the residential buildings, was completed in 2008. Quadrant Court (right), the second building, is nearing completion. Next in line is a student home, a hotel and a designer outlet. The project might run another 15-20 years before it’s completed.
The symbol of Quintain’s sustainability ambitions is the Envac waste management system, the first to be installed in the United Kingdom. The system allows Quintain to maximise space use and minimise carbon emission through unnecessary traditional waste collection.
Rubbish is now collected at one central collection station, which through underground pipes receives waste from the buildings in the neighbourhood.
Julian Tollast and his colleagues were inspired by what they saw as “clever touches” when they visited Hammarby Sjöstad.
“The Envac portals are part of the public realm, together with the bike sheds. It’s a simple detail. You walk out in the morning with your rubbish, little and often, and then you hop on your bike”, says Tollast.
The Envac scheme fits well with Quintain’s environmental profile. CEO Adrian Wyatt pushed for the waste management system, wanting to look beyond the initial costs for the investment. Now people choose Wembley City partly because of the environmental profile.
Julian Tollast sees Hammarby Sjöstad as an inspiration, and now ideas will spread further through the Wembley City development.
“Yes, I think so. Because now Wembley City is becoming a place that people want to come and see.”

This is the fourth and final glimpse at the ongoing regeneration of London.

Classic territory; living next to Wembley Stadium.

Copyright: Quintain Estates and Development
Wembley City as it might look in the future. Forum House to the far right.

Forum House and the waste management system from Envac.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Housing shortage hampers Stockholm's growth

STOCKHOLM. In a new regional development plan expected to be adopted by the County Council assembly today, Stockholm sets the ambitious goal to become Europe’s most attractive metropolitan region.
But the plan, called RUFS 2010, lists a number of challenges on the way to realizing that vision. One of the big obstacles will be the acute shortage of housing that hampers the growth of Sweden’s capital region.
There are plenty of statistics that illustrate the problem. RUFS 2010 expects Stockholm County, which today has just over 2 million inhabitants, to grow with more than 22,000 inhabitants yearly up to 2030. That’s probably a low estimate, considering that the population of Stockholm County grew by almost 38,000 in 2009.
In an exhibition in central Stockholm (right), visitors can view a model of the City of Stockholm (one of 26 municipalities in Stockholm County). The model shows plans for new development projects. A lot of new housing is in the pipeline, but far from what is needed especially if you look at it on the regional level.
An estimated 13,200 new homes per year are needed in Stockholm County (for a population growth of 22,000). Last year construction began on 5,100 homes, according to the Stockholm County Administration Board. This year the figure is expected to be 7,400.
The Property Federation (Fastighetsägarna) in Stockholm released a study a few months ago that illustrates the problem in a different manner. The study compares how long it takes to find and sign a contract for a small (40 square meters) rental apartment in eight European capitals.
In six of the cities in the study – Oslo, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Brussels, Madrid and Berlin – you could find an apartment immediately. In Amsterdam it would take you one to five week.
For Stockholm the figure was a shocking 307 weeks.
When OECD did a study of Stockholm in its Territorial Reviews series four years ago the housing shortage was pointed out as one of the main problems for the continued growth of the region. Not much has changed since then
Depending on whom you ask, the slow pace of construction in the Stockholm region is explained by a number of reasons from complicated planning processes and high costs to lack of competition in the building sector.
The political blame game is gaining speed as Sweden heads for national and municipal elections in September. The housing shortage will, as usual, be a hot issue in Stockholm.