Copenhagen’s harbour has been an ongoing experiment in Danish design. The country’s fixation with good design and architecture, and its attempts to create and reinforce an identity as a bastion of civic architecture, nice chairs, humane urbanism and pedestrian-friendly policies have been boring us for years. As a showpiece of contemporary urbanism it is pretty dull: Henning Larsen’s opera house has a fine interior but does little to enliven the city; Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s ‘Black Diamond’ Royal Library extension is a grim corporate cube, a throwback to some of late modernism’s mirror-glassed mistakes.
And, newly completed, there is the Danish Architecture Centre, the DAC/BLOX, a building incorporating an architecture centre, design space, offices and apartments. It, too, is a throwback to a particular kind of modernism; bridging a busy road, it resembles London’s Barbican Centre with Beech Street running through its underbelly and its mix of residential and culture. But its stacked, cubic forms and its eccentric combination of subterranean monumentality and glazed, fragmented immateriality are odd and intriguing.
Designed by Rotterdam-based OMA, the building is a bundle of boxes, stacked slightly carelessly. A monumental stair descends to below the water level, defined on one side by rusting sheet piles to impart a touch of dockside authenticity. The apartments are stacked on top of the centre, above the offices. The arrangement, referred to by architect Ellen van Loon as a “heap” — which I like — creates a “mixity”, a deliberate vagueness of purpose, so that the cultural facilities, offices, incubators and homes are hard to separate out.
On a practical level, the heaping allows each flat to have its own terrace, the interiors flowing outside in the same way as the building allows the traffic to pass beneath. It also creates a harbourside footpath. Elsewhere in the building, terraces are used to accommodate children’s playgrounds.
The interiors of the 22 apartments are neutral, surprisingly sober and characterised by city views that are unusually expansive for this low-rise capital. A central courtyard has been made as green as possible and creates a kind of semi-public space on the roof around which the units revolve.
In a very Danish manner, these are not super-luxury waterside apartments but good, solid, bourgeois dwellings expressed in an unspectacular but thoughtful and careful way. There are no pools or huge ceilings, just good-sized rooms and lots of sky, water and red-tiled roofs outside. Olafur Eliasson’s terrific rotating bridge sits just over the water, surely one of the most elegant engineering structures of recent years.
Built by Realdania, the DAC/BLOX has not been universally popular, criticised as being too big, too bulky, too slow, too expensive and blocking views.
The architecture centre itself, however, is impressive: an almost industrial-scale space, with a bookshop and lecture theatre. It is intended to become a forum for a city unusually concerned with its architectural culture. As it begins to be used, it may transition from unloved to indispensable. Perhaps.
It is difficult to think of another city prepared to invest such effort — and such a prominent site — in a celebration and serious discussion about architecture and design. To then integrate it in such a compelling way, addressing and solving a number of urban problems en route, is unusual indeed.
Photographs: Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST; Plans and impressions: images courtesy OMA