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

Innovation in Scandinavia: Nordic Eats

Late on Day 3 (well, early on Day 4), it’s becoming clear how intense Chazen trips can be. We’re packing it all in: culture, adventure, tours, food, fellowship. It’s been nonstop. We arrived on Saturday in Copenhagen – considered one of the world’s most livable cities, capital of what may be the world’s happiest country – checked into the Scandic Palace (as nice as it sounds, featuring both modern amenities and the weight of its own history), and began our quest for aesthetic indulgence.

Our first event was a group lunch at Radio, which served us locally sourced, creative combinations that can be called “innovative” without any sense of irony. The five-course meal included salsify root, scallops, veal tenderloin and licorice cake with white-chocolate foam and apple ice cream. It set the bar ambitiously high, to say the least. The restaurant is owned by Claus Meyer, the man behind Noma, which San Pelligrino named the best restaurant in the world for the second year running, and it was the perfect place to start the trip. (NB: Three of our group arrived a day early and were able to score last-minute reservations at Noma, as well. Think a few dozen courses, beginning with fried moss. All report that if you have an opportunity to get in, don’t pass it up.)

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By the time we’d left Radio, Copenhagen had transformed itself from gray and rainy to crisp (enough) and (relatively) sunny, and we took the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the city. The group splintered off in various directions. Josh and I began our unsuccessful hunt for bikes to ride, a goal that still truly eludes us (more on that later). Some went shopping, or headed to the market for duck sandwiches (apparently delectable), or moseyed around the city’s web of streets.

But in keeping with the day’s culinary theme, a group of us reconvened to cap the evening at Geist, another highly recommended panacea for hungry gourmands. Like Radio, Geist is grist for the argument that Nordic food is in the midst of a revival. It’s bigger than Radio and a bit shinier, but it too focuses on local ingredients and satisfying the adventurous. The plates are small, and seven of us passed around a host of offerings: lamb’s heart, raw ox and roe, suckling pig, turbot, cod roe, potato mash and crab, and black lobster and endives. We were too full to eat dessert, but we ordered it anyway, after our waiter, without a tinge of a smile, told us the “air in air in air tiramisu” was unlike anything we’d ever had before. He was right.

Tomorrow (Day Four) we visit the BIG offices and Designit, a strategic design consultancy. We visited some of BIG’s key buildings on Day Two, which I’ll write about tomorrow. With an early morning ahead of us, it’s key to get some R&R – we want to have enough energy to tick a few last things off our to-do list before heading north to Sweden. ~Brandon Wall

Innovation in Scandinavia: Norwegian Wood

In his seminal “Towards a New Architecture,” the inimitable architect Le Corbusier delivered what is probably his most famous quote: “A house is a machine for living in.” What’s most striking about that idea is how often most of us forget it – we rarely think “machine” when we think of the buildings we inhabit. Such is the curse of architecture. When it works, it risks going unnoticed.

I imagine we’ll be reminded of Le Corbusier’s sentiment often over the next week as we, participants in the Chazen Innovation Tour of Scandinavia, march around Copenhagen and Stockholm in search of what drives design in what is decidedly one of the world’s most stylish and forward-thinking regions. More than that, we’ll be encouraged to expand that sentiment, to include not just houses but all buildings, to think not just about architecture but about design in general.

On tap for the Copenhagen leg of our journey are visits to BIG (one of the most exciting architects working today), Novo Nordisk, the Copenhagen Innovation Lab, and Designit; in Stockholm, we’ll visit Spotify, Ericsson and Skanska (and maybe one other). But we’ll also tour the cities, eat at their finest restaurants and get to experience the Scandinavian culture firsthand. We’ll all leave with a better understanding of how good design works, what it looks like and where it comes from. That is, we all leave, I hope, with a notion of how good design can make life more worth living.

With that quest in mind, and as a second-year unshackled by the burden of mid-semester exams, I decided to tack on a pre-Chazen excursion to Oslo, Norway. (I recommend that future Chazen-trippers, if they can, take advantage of the “extended” spring break, as well. It’s a luxury that shouldn’t be ignored.) Norway is not part of our official itinerary – Copenhagen and Stockholm are both better known as design centers. But if innovation is the charge, I didn’t want to skip the work of the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta – especially its relatively new opera house.

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The building – or, rather, the machine – opened in 2008, built on formerly flat industrial land that juts out into the fjord. It rises out of the water, a mound of glass and white-marble and oak. It foretells the area’s future – it was the first building to open as part of a rejuvenation of the area, and spillover is already in effect – as much as it recalls its history. Step inside and you’ll be delightfully overwhelmed by Norway’s favorite building material: wood. Wood is, simply, everywhere in this country. Sloping wooden beams hold up the Oslo airport, and it lines the walls and floors of even my budget-friendly hotel room. It’s warm and sturdy and striking to look at.

I bought tickets to the opera – Wagner’s Tristan og Isolde – and sauntered into Snohetta’s opera house – commissioned, of course, by the state – with a few hours to spare. I gawked at the oak “wave wall,” which wrapped the concert hall itself, and at the way the glass box framed views at the city and the surrounding hills. I investigated the pedestrian-friendly (though treacherous, slippery as it was from the day’s new snow) roof. I shot photographs of the Olafur Eliasson-designed interior cladding. And, of course, I studied the ubiquitous oak.

As the rest of the patrons trickled in, they were jubilant and talkative and fancy – this was, it was clear, an event. But most everyone focused less on the building’s details. To them, it was just a platform on which to place their cultural and social experience, a place to take in an opera. Surely, few of them would claim not to have noticed it, or say that their experience wasn’t impacted and enhanced by it. But the building in some ways seemed to disappear. Ah, to behold the power of a well-designed machine. ~Brandon Wall