Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Preserving character in times of change

COPENHAGEN/CITY OF ARCHITECTURE. If you go to denmark.dk, 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 denmark.dk, 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.