Innovation in Scandinavia: BIG and Bigger

Contrasts help define every city. Copenhagen, of course, has a few contrasts to speak of, but the one we studied is age-old: new vs. old. On our second day in the city, Bo, our local architecture professor/tour guide, led us out to a new neighborhood called Orestad, built on land that was, he said, “recently reclaimed from the sea.” Afterward we toured historical Copenhagen with another guide, Gordon, who walked us through the thatched-roof houses at Dragor and took us to the Royal Palace.

Orestad is, in all regards, still developing. The infrastructure is in place – on the brand-new and completely automated subway, it’s a pleasant eight-minute ride to the center of the city – but most of the land sits poised. The hope is that a good number of the thousand or so people who move to Copenhagen every month see Orestad as the ideal option.

So far, many have, thanks in part to work by the young but increasingly prominent architect Bjarke Ingels. His firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (better known as BIG), is consistently putting out some of the world’s boldest new buildings, and he was commissioned to create three housing complexes in Orestad: the 8 House, shaped like a giant figure eight; the VM Houses, which is really two buildings, one shaped like a V, the other an M; and the Mountain Dwellings, a slab of homes sitting atop a sloped parking garage and shaped, naturally, like a mountain.

The buildings’ straightforward names belie how inventive these complexes are. Ingels, like his former boss, the “starchitect” Rem Koolhaus (excuse the pejorative), has a knack for taking standard building shapes and tweaking them into something dramatic that also solves the problem posed by the site or the programming. And with little else on the property, the architects weren’t constrained by context.

Each of the shapes serves a purpose. The “mountain” satisfied the client’s desire to build a parking garage as well as apartments. The V and the M ensure that the apartments get daylight on both ends (the other prominent shape here is the triangle, creating a porcupine of porches on one façade). And the figure eight, which incorporates both residential and office space, creates courtyards and a sense of community, with a rising and falling sidewalk connecting each of the apartments. (Even on a relatively cool March day, many residents opened their doors and sat on their front “porches.”)

That morning, we also stopped by the design-centric Bella Sky hotel, site of the 2009 climate conferences. The hotel itself isn’t as beautiful as the BIG homes, but its top-floor sky bar provides a view of the neighborhood’s potential. If we were to come back in ten years, we’d likely see less space and more structure.

Certainly, Orestad is an experimental neighborhood, and it’s not completely clear where all the demand was coming from, even if the city is still growing. But the results of this experiment are worth watching. These buildings may very well foretell a new, better, and more sustainable suburbia.

Enough words. Here’s a slideshow. ~Brandon Wall

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