Danish architecture’s love of light and openness encourages a high level of spatial and social interaction. To mark Architecture Week, Martin Spring looks at four developments that typify the city’s fresh approach to sustainability
It takes just a few hours for British visitors to realise that Copenhagen is more convivial than most cities back home. The historic city centre is nearly traffic-free except for the ubiquitous easygoing cyclists, and the abundant cafes and restaurants are frequented by locals more than tourists. Even Tivoli Gardens, the world’s oldest amusement park, is an amazingly harmonious medley of toddlers’ merry-go-rounds, roller-coasters, boating ponds, oompah bands and stage performances that is perennially popular with all ages, classes and nationalities.
Not surprisingly, a high level of spatial and social interaction is designed into many Danish buildings. Rather than hiding behind net curtains, buildings open out to the cityscape around them. At the same time, they encourage interaction among a wide range of uses, the public and private realms and all building occupants, creating a sharing community spirit. In doing so, they contribute to highly sociable and comfortable communities that are truly sustainable in the social sense. Contemporary Danish buildings are also sustainable in the environmental sense, although more by being orientated towards the sun and highly insulated than bristling with high-tech, energy-saving gizmos.
The four newly completed buildings on the following pages all introduce strikingly original approaches to social and urban sustainability. They are a students’ residence, a high school and two private housing developments, all in Copenhagen’s new development zone of Ørestad, which in itself is a good example of a sustainable community. Two appear in an exhibition of sustainable Danish architecture, snappily named Sust-Dane-able, at the Danish embassy as part of the London Festival of Architecture. For more go to www.sustdaneable.um.dk/en.
Architect: PLOT (now JDS Architects)
Developers: Høpfner, Dansk Olie Kompagni
Long, sharp V-shaped balconies bristle at seemingly random angles from the south frontage of the VM dwellings. As they all project out by a full 5m, the balconies have been lovingly cultivated by their occupiers as hanging gardens and used as platforms from which to converse with neighbours.
The scheme is actually named after the V and M shapes that make up the two blocks. The architect came up with this configuration to give as much sunlight to the scheme’s 230 luxury apartments as possible.
Most are duplexes with panoramic views to the south and double-height spaces to the north. The exterior is equally open, as the apartments are all bounded by clear-glazed window walls stretching from floor to ceiling.
The flush curtain-walled facades belie the fact that the two blocks contain 40 different sizes and configurations of apartment, which makes for some complicated overlaps between them.
Architect: Bjarke Ingels Group
Developers: Høpfner, Dansk Olie Kompagni
Mountain Dwellings is the sequel to VM Dwellings, as it stands next door and has the same developer and architect (although in a successor practice). The big difference is that two-thirds of Mountain Dwellings is made up of car parking that serves both schemes. “Rather than doing two separate buildings next to each other – a parking and a housing block – we decided to merge the two functions in a symbiotic relationship,” says the architect, Bjarke Ingels. “The parking wants to be connected to the street. The housing wants sunlight, fresh air and views.
“What if the parking became the foundation of the housing – like a concrete hillside covered by a thin layer of housing, cascading from the 11th to the first floor? All apartments would have sun-soaked roof gardens, amazing views and street parking all the way up to the 10th floor! The Mountain is a suburban neighbourhood of garden homes flowing over a 10-storey building.”
In other words, suburban living at urban density, and with all the space and daylight demanded by the former.
Bikuben Student Residence
Bikuben Student Residence is a sharp-edged cube of a building. It is repetitively patterned with rectangular cladding panels in three shades of grey and windows of similar size and shape. What’s more, each side of the building is slashed across with deep horizontal channels that reveal clear glazing and a large bright orange panel at the back.
Bikuben is certainly a striking landmark, one that serves as a gateway to Copenhagen’s new Ørestad development zone. But how do its 107 student rooms fit into a deep plan block like this? The answer is that it is really a hollow-cored building arranged around a narrow courtyard or lightwell. It is also raised up on concrete stilts, leaving the ground floor little more than a windswept bike park for residents – but then the ground level lies next to a busy traffic intersection and is none too habitable.
Along one side of the block, an external staircase in galvanized steel rises from the pavement. Although it looks like a fire escape, it leads up to a large events room on the first floor. When it reaches the second floor, the staircase opens up as a roof terrace that slices right through the building to the lightwell. After that, the stairs spiral up and around the other three sides of the building, stopping off at an external terrace on each floor.
“Each terrace faces a different direction so that students can catch the sunlight and avoid the wind, depending on the time of day,” says Uffe Bay-Smidt of the fledgling practice, Aart, which won an open architectural competition for the building.
From each open terrace, a door leads into a lounge, gymnasium or laundry, shared by all 107 residents. Another door leads past the lift into a kitchen–diner. As these form part of the access routes to the students’ rooms, they encourage socialising. At the same time, they all face into the lightwell, giving them visual contact with one another. As for the bedrooms, these face outwards to give residents privacy and views.
These social connections are the key to the building’s double-helix layout. And underlying the whole design is the premise that, in Bay-Smidt’s words, “loneliness and lack of social relations are major problems for many students”.
Ørestad High School
Walk towards Ørestad’s high school and you are confronted by another rigidly cubic box, this one enveloped in phalanxes of colourful fins. Venture inside, and you find yourself at the base of a great swirling vortex of space. A wide timber staircase spirals up and around the central void and links the three upper storeys that appear overhead behind curving balcony fronts.
As you climb the stairs, the upper floors unfold around you, not as narrow balconies, but as open terraces stretching as far as the perimeter window walls. The three terraces themselves step up and around the building, with the effect that much of the first floor terrace is three-storeys high and the second floor two-storeys high.
By now you are wondering where all the classrooms have gone. There are a few strung along two side perimeter walls, but the rest of the interior is nearly all open-plan, with a scattering of tables, chairs and shelving cabinets. There are also a few drums containing larger spaces, their lids furnished with huge beanbags. Space, daylight and views flow unimpeded right through, up, down and across all four interconnected floors.
The school is designed by 3xN, the architect that won an international competition for the new Museum of Liverpool, currently under construction. It is the first to be created in response to Denmark’s educational reforms, which set out to encourage more interdisciplinary, dynamic learning, based increasingly on IT. Consequently, the educational vision behind the building is of communication, interaction and synergy. The architect has provided a range of spaces that offer students the options of learning in conventional classes, in larger assemblies or alone, when they can flop down on the beanbags with their laptops. At the same time, the open-plan arrangement enables different teaching and learning spaces to overlap and interact without obstruction.
This, the school hopes, will foster a community spirit and encourage interdisciplinary learning. But as deputy head Lisbeth Maria Hansen admits, it also demands a learning curve from the students, who start off feeling at a loss at being left to their own devices for much of the school day.