context and modern design in copenhagen (a one-firm series of case studies)

September 21, 2007

At the suggestion of one of my advisors, Peter Thule Kristensen, I’m beginning my time at the Danish Royal Academy with a literature review and a quick survey of the projects of a local firm, Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter. The reason I’ve chosen to look at this firm is because Dorte Mandrup has become known in recent years for doing “modern but contextual” really well, and has recently been getting more and more attention for her projects in Copenhagen. She also has a strong connection to Amager, the island just south of Copenhagen proper, on which I live. Amager will likely be one of my case study areas, because it exhibits many interesting contrasts of building types, ages, and functions, and because it is more of an “ordinary” municipality than many of the older neighborhoods within the city of Copenhagen. Dorte Mandrup herself has also contributed significantly to the creation of the Amager atlas, created using the SAVE program methodology. I hope to be able to interview her eventually about both her approach to context in her architectural work as well as her involvement in the SAVE program. For now, I’m visiting her firm’s completed projects on Amager, which is a great way to get a sense of the island and its neighborhoods. The six projects on Amager are described below (please see for more of this firm’s work):


Tårnby Courthouse (New construction, 2000)

an overview of the building (you can see the enclosed yard in front and the “tower” that houses the atrium)

So today I went to visit my first Dorte Mandrup project, Tårnby Courthouse. It’s further south off of Amagerbrogade, south of where I live. It was actually a little difficult to find, as the building is part of a campus of civic/public structures (schools, churches, meeting halls) and many of the roads in the vicinity are actually bike and pedestrian paths and are not well marked. I biked through the campus for a little while, which gave me a sense of its cohesive elements (and it did, indeed, feel like a campus – only later, after doing some research on the internet, did I find out that it actually is designed to be one): brick; long, low walls; “towers,” or taller vertical elements to mark important interior spaces, enclosed yards. I took some exterior photos of the building, and was immediately impressed by the way in which it fit in with its surroundings – it has the long, low walls of the same height as its two immediate neighbors (a church and an elementary school), a semi-enclosed “front yard,” and although not made out of brick, the colors (maroon and white) and simple exterior finished help the building to blend in a bit. It’s actually quite nice that it’s not a brick building, because many of the brick buildings on campus seem to have been built at about the same time (maybe 1970’s?) – the Tårnby Courthouse is clearly a modern building, and it’s nice that the designers didn’t feel that they also had to use brick.

Upon entering the building, I learned that it is no longer a courthouse (as of six months ago), but is now a police station (glad I asked permission before I took any interior photos)! A very nice and helpful policeman gave me a tour of the building, pointing out areas of particular interest (the atrium, and kitchen-like meeting room, the garden), and those that are no longer used (“wasted space,” he said – the atrium, hallways, many of the restrooms) because the building now serves less of a public function than it did as a courthouse. Being inside the building also helped to give me a clearer sense of its relationship to its neighbors – views of nearby buildings were nicely framed, and the relationship of scale from one to the others was quite nice. Although I’m hoping to see some projects in a more urban context, I thought that this building was a great example of how a modern building can fit into an established and cohesive campus context while still retaining individual qualities and a modern feel. The spaces inside were also quite nice – well-lit, many double-height areas. I look forward to visiting a more of Dorte Mandrup’s projects.

framed views from the building: you can see the church next door (photos on left) and the school across the street (photos on right) – the outer yard enclosure carefully frames the views of these buildings from the courthouse

the building entrance/path to courthouse entrance from the sidewalk

here you can see the relationship between the “tower” of the courthouse atrium and the church massing (top photos) and the relationship between the enclosed yards of the courthouse and the school (bottom photos)

the enclosed garden (in the rear of the building)/rear view of the courthouse

exterior view of the atrium space/interior view of the atrium space


interior views and details


Holmbladsgade Sports + Culture Center (New construction, 2006)

the building from the front (street) side. approached from this direction, it really stands out! notice how the upper part of the building meets the abutting apartment house.

This is an extremely photogenic building, particularly the bright green interior. It was difficult to stop taking photos. I have to say, that after having seen photos of this building in architecture books and online, I was skeptical about how “contextual” the design might actually be – after all, it’s a huge, silver, prismatic gymnasium amidst a street full of six-story red brick walk-ups. I was actually quite impressed with how well it fit into its surroundings. They key to the building’s ability to do this is its shape – it is pulled back from the street, and from the rear of the building, so that it forms a trapezoid in plan (the longer “base” being where it abuts the neighboring apartment houses, and the shorter “top” of the trapezoid being the free end of the structure that sticks out. (See photo of plan below for further reference.) The material does stand out, but as noted in the Tårnby Courthouse (/police station), this actually helps. And the shape of the building, the fact that it isn’t a dominant part of the streetwall, really helps it to retain a modest presence. Approached from the west, it’s quite evident (though not overpowering); approached from the east, you can’t see it at all until you’re right next to it. The sports and culture center also abuts a pair of older brick apartment buildings, as noted earlier. The building actually meets the bays of the neighboring buildings as if it were continuing their shape (which can be seen in some of the interior photographs – this results in four “house-shaped” shared walls between the buildings). That the architect chose to abut the neighboring building instead of making a completely separate structure is also significant; nearly all of the buildings along this street share party walls, regardless of their function. That Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter was able to accomplish such an elegant point of contact between the new gymnasium and the old building is quite impressive.


approached from the other direction, it melts back into the block/exterior meeting of old + new structures


detail of material interface/plans of building


the sport center from the back; its shape creates an open space connection to the prags boulevard bicycle and pedestrian path


more material interface detail


viewed from the back also, the building “melts” back into the block, which keeps it from being overpowering amidst the brick walk-ups


a detail of how the structure meets the abutting buildings


interior of the sports center


you can see the shape that is created where the sports center meets the apartment building next door – it’s a reflection of the neighbor building in section/detail of same


interior shot facing in the direction of the abutting buildings


Neighborhood Center Jemetelandsgade (Rehabilitation + addition, 2001)


view of the project from the front; it’s both an addition and an adaptation of an existing building.


the project from the back (alley) side – although the addition is very modern-looking, its massing is appropriate to the space, and it reflects neighboring buildings in its glassy exterior

This project is an intervention within an older brick building using a frame to stabilize the structure where new openings in the brick walls were created. The frame also carries newly added circulation elements, and provides spatial organization for the main atrium space. Besides the frame, the most interesting part of this project is the new addition on the east end of the building. The architects created a freestanding “box,” which accommodates special events, classes, and workshops. Because the size of the box is so diminutive compared to the hulking brick building it’s attached to, it’s hard to say whether or not it’s contextual per se – but it’s definitely unobtrusive. It’s also placed in the back of the building, which makes it unlikely that visitors to the library or community center would actually see it from the outside. When I visited the building, there was a special class going on inside the box, so I wasn’t able to get interior photos of that part of the building (no doubt I’ll be back; it’s a very interesting project). From the exterior, the box does seem to do a good job of fitting in; nearby building facades are reflected in its glassy exterior, and it fits snugly into the pattern of bays of its host building as well as following the setback established on the rest of the block.


the building exterior, facing the other direction/the main atrium space (with newly inserted frame)


atrium space/detail of frame


the addition meets the building/the cube “floats” on concrete columns


approached from the back, the addition is hardly noticeable/view from the rear


view from rear (check out that reflection!)/detail of box

**27/11 update!  I was able to go inside the addition today…here are some photos of the interior:


it’s used for special events (meetings and conferences) – all of the walls are glass, but can be covered with curtains to modify the light in the room.  there’s also a pull-down screen for multimedia presentations.


looking across the addition back toward the original brick building – they connect at the door


curtains on, curtains off!


Seaplane Hangar H53 (Rehabilitation, 2001)


the front of the building – new windows have been inserted into the facade


the rear of the building – new glass panels and doors were inserted into the existing frame structure in order to create a transition to the deck and leisure area outside

I think that this project is technically on the Island of Amager (it’s quite close to Amager’s border with Holmen, the island on which my school is located). It’s more of a straight adaptive reuse project than a contextual intervention, but it’s quite interesting and definitely worth mentioning here. The building previously functioned as a seaplane hangar – the entire area used to be a naval base, so perhaps it was part of that use – and is today the home of a newspaper. The interventions made by the architects are quite simple but powerful, and make for a dynamic working space within the giant hangar. The reuse strategy basically involved using inserted, multi-level steel frame structures to accommodate various office spaces and meeting rooms. Curtains are hung from these structures in order to provide partitions between uses while allowing all of the spaces to remain flexible in terms of being “open” or “closed.” I wasn’t able to walk around inside, but I was allowed to take photographs from the reception area, so there should be enough images to convey the kind of space created inside the hangar. I really like that the reuse design kept the industrial character (through the use of steel frame structures) and the very open feeling of the original hangar space (through the use of light and temporary curtain partitions) alive. It seems that the designers used the simplest interventions possible, and only where absolutely necessary, which I feel really kept the simple but powerful feeling of the original building intact.

entry detail – new glass panels have been added to create a separate and sheltered entry space


rear elevation of the hangar – an outdoor deck has been added as a place for newspaper employees to escape to for smoke breaks, barbecues, and cell phone calls


deck space detail with a view to the interior of the building


interior detail – bookcases used as simple partitions/exterior detail – corner and frame detail of existing building


details of the inserted steel frames with curtain partitions


interior office space


interior office space – simple partitions and added lighting


Workshop Buildling 53A (Rehabilitation, 2003)


This “workshop” building is a former warehouse turned into office space. The exterior of the building was difficult to photograph, since much of the adjacent area is “off limits,” but I did the best I could. The first thing I noticed about the building were the punched window openings, which seem to have been widened from the original ones and fitted with large windows and sliding exterior shades. A new steel staircase was fitted onto the front of the building, leading to the lobby, and a wooden deck to the rear of the building provides an outdoor space for workers (much like at the Seaplane Hangar). The building currently houses a design agency and a landscape architecture firm. The manager of the design firm was kind enough to let me photograph the first two floors of the building. I was really impressed with the quality of the interior space. I recognized many familiar elements from previously viewed Dorte Mandrup projects, such as movable partitions (here in the form of rolling bookcases), glass rooms with curtains for privacy, and the use of the entire height of the industrial/warehouse space to create an open and well-lit working environment. Again, this project was more about adaptive reuse than new contextual design, and much as in the Seaplane Hangar building, it is successful because it uses simple elements to create the greatest effect while being true to the character of the original building.


front of building/back of building


where the workshop building meets the adjacent warehouse/entry stair detail


interior entrance lobby – use of green glass block as a standout detail


the main open space, with tall windows and view toward the harbor


a view in the opposite direction, showing the loft-style second level


another view – notice the glass block again (the other side of the lobby)


upstairs “loft” working space – large windows, good light quality


another view of the upstairs work space – movable bookshelves partition the space


Administration Building (Rehabilitation, 2005)


front view of building (the workshop building is actually right behind this one)

Of the six buildings I visited on this study, this one was admittedly the least exciting (one of them had to be). In fairness, it’s a rehabilitation/adaptive reuse project, and the building that the firm started with wasn’t perhaps the best to begin with. It should actually earn extra merit points for rehabilitating the building instead of tearing it down and building anew (as I’m sure we would have done in this case in the States). Also, this is the only building I was not able to enter. The interior spaces of all the other projects have been quite impressive and inspiring, and I’m sure this one is no different. However, there was keypad access and no reception area within view of the front door. I had to satisfy myself with exterior photographs. The only interventions I could see on the exterior were graphic panels added (?) above and below the windows. This project was completed relevantly recently (2005), but the building is clearly much older than that and is not wearing particularly well. The panels give it a little bit of character from the outside, but this was the only one of the six projects that I didn’t immediately recognize as a Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter project upon seeing it. I don’t mean to give it a bad rap – I’m sure that it’s quite nice inside, and maybe I’ll have a chance to visit it in the future. It still gets high marks for having been rehabilitated at all.


two side views


entry detail


exterior panel detail


view from the north


In conclusion, this was a very informative and enlightening exercise. Although I began by seeking specific examples of contextual design (meaning new design in an existing established neighborhood context), I also came across some very interesting adaptive reuse (or rehabilitation, as they are called here) projects. These are also contextual in their own way, through their preservation of the existing fabric; they are even more “contextual” than the new projects…but new construction in urban areas presents a particular challenge, and I was glad to find some extremely innovative and impressive solutions presented by Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter. I was particularly excited by two of the projects, the Holmbladsgade Sports + Culture Center and the Neighborhood Center Jemetelandsgade (the two are connected by another great project, Prags Boulevard). These two projects involved brand new construction within a clearly defined context, and were both extremely successful. The new buildings themselves are simple, elegant, and functional – and unabashedly modern in both form and use of materials. The designers found creative ways to help them fit into their surroundings without “copying” what was around the site, but simply by taking important cues from the surrounding environment and by not setting themselves completely apart. My next step will be to meet with some of the people who have been involved with the SAVE project in Copenhagen, and particularly on Amager. This will hopefully include Dorte Mandrup herself, who I think will be an excellent resource – I can see through her firm’s work that she has great concern for contextual design. I look forward to learning more about the experiences that both residents and professionals have had with the program.


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