Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Aiming for the best in architecture

COPENHAGEN/BRANDING A CITY. If there was a genre in entertainment called stand-up architecture, 35-year old Dane Bjarke Ingels would surely be one of its stars.
When he talks about the projects that brought his firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) to the world stage of new, young, exciting architecture there is lots of laughter, enthusiastic rounds of applause and the occasional “wow!” from the crowd.
Below you can find a video clip giving an example from a recent performance by Bjarke Ingels (left).
He is one of the young architects that have come to personify the Danish capital Copenhagen’s image as a breeding ground for modern architecture and urban development.
“This has nothing to do with nationality or ethnicity. More than half of the staff in my practice comes from other countries. They are extremely talented. What we have done is perhaps to send out the right signals to attract them to come here”, Ingels said when I met him briefly after a lecture, or should I say show, he gave in Copenhagen last year.
But there is no doubt that the Danish capital is a good place for architects, which Ingels confirms.
“I think one important reason for this is that we during the last couple of years have built entirely new parts of our city, which gave us the opportunity to try new things without having to worry about surrounding buildings”, said Ingels.
This, he adds, has been done in a spirit of “everything is possible”.
One example of this is Bjerget, or the Mountain (right), perhaps the most celebrated of BIG’s work, a combined residential building/parking garage that in 2008 was awarded a price as “Best Residential Building” in the world at the World Architecture Festival.
Ingels often tells the story of how they were asked to build an apartment building and a parking garage next to each other. Instead they came up with the unconventional idea of building the homes on a slope on top of the garage. All is done with the latest in design and sustainability in mind.
The exterior is a work of art, displaying a huge panorama of the Himalayas created by holes of different sizes in the wall of the parking garage.
Projects like Bjerget fits well with the ambitions of the city of Copenhagen when it comes to architecture.
Local authorities recently adopted a renewed version of the city’s architectural policy. In a document called “Architecture City Copenhagen” it is clearly stated that the ambition is to foster constant renewal while aiming to become a world-class city in architecture.
This shall be done with a respect for the city’s distinctive character (no skyscrapers in the old downtown) and with sustainability and environmental concern as a central part of all new plans.
The policy also clearly points out that local authorities want a lively public debate on the city’s architecture, and aims for developing the creative processes leading to urban development.
City Hall encourages tough competitions between architects to make sure the city gets the best on offer, domestic or international. At the same time the policy states that new and younger architects will get a chance to take part in the development of the city.
Copenhagen aims not only at being a green city. It also wants to be blue, which stands for reconnecting with the water. This process has been going on for the last ten years or so, with old harbour and industrial areas being converted into residential and commercial district.
A symbolic part of this was the “harbour baths” at Islands Brygge, where people now flock to swim and lay in the sun on warm summer days. This was one of the early projects by Bjarke Ingels and his colleagues.
Another feature in the architectural policy is to, when possible, use old industrial buildings and convert them into modern homes or offices. There are several spectacular examples of this, like the Gemini Residence (left) in Islands Brygge that was built in old silos, and the old Navy torpedo hall on Fredriksholm, converted into exclusive condominiums.
One of the most eagerly awaited projects in Copenhagen is the planned transformation of the old Carlsberg brewery in Valby, a gem of industrial architecture, into a new neighbourhood of 4,000 homes.
To top it all, Copenhagen now boasts four new cultural masterpieces that have received international attention. The new Opera house from 2005 and the Royal Theatre’s new Skuespilhuset (Royal Danish Playhouse) from 2008 stand opposite each other on the harbour inlet.
Further along the inlet stands the “Black Diamond”, the intriguing addition to the Royal Danish Library from 1999.
The latest masterpiece is the celebrated new concert hall (2009) by Jean Nouvel in DR-Byen in the new development Ørestad.
When I met Copenhagen city architect Jan Christiansen last year, we stood on a quay overlooking the Opera house and Skuespilhuset while talking about the dramatic development that began around the year 2000.
With the opening of the new bridge and tunnel to Sweden in the summer of 2000, the first permanent link from Denmark to its neighbour in the north, began a period of intense growth in what is known as the Øresund region (after the strait between the two countries).
With Copenhagen being the center of this region, money and resources gave the possibility to implement many plans.
“The money was there and it was used in a good way. We got some attention and things sort of fell into place all at once”, said Christiansen, but quickly points out that he doesn’t get carried away.
“”To be able to swim in the harbour or ride your bike on the streets is nice and romantic. But we stand before a great challenge in dealing with segregation in our city. That question is first and foremost on our minds”, said Christiansen.
But surely he must be proud to oversee architectural matters in a city that many call “the best place to live” in the world?
“There are many good cities. I’m satisfied if we are seen as the world’s best city for architecture”, answered Christiansen with a glimpse in his eye.

This is the second in a series of reports on Copenhagen. In the next article we will look at an on-going development that has been hailed for its architecture but criticized for its lack of human life.

City architect Jan Christiansen has a lot to be proud of.

The Opera house from 2005, one of several cultural gems.

An old Navy torpedo hall turned into luxury homes.

Bjarke Ingels talks architecture

ARCHITECTURE. Danish architect Bjarke Ingels presents his work during a performance in Amsterdam a few months ago.