UN City, Copenhagen by 3XN

Actually, the reason for walking along the Langelinie quay was not to take photographs of a man painting a cruise ship - that was just a fortunate coincidence. It was the right time of day and the weather was good to take a photograph of the new United Nations building on Marmormolen in the old Free Port. The building appears to be almost finished and cranes on the adjoining site have been removed and the Oslo ferry had not left on it’s late afternoon sailing so it is there to give a sense of location and a sense of scale.

UN City will house seven departments of the United Nations and these new Scandinavian offices were designed by the Copenhagen architectural practice 3XN.

The site is slightly unusual … the end of a quay with an angled end and with some historic port features that had to be retained. Probably the best viewpoint is this one from the opposite side of the entrance to the Free Port or possibly better is the view from the deck of a ferry as it enters the port. 

Light and extremely elegant, the design in part echoes the design of the building by 3XN on the Langelinie Kaj itself, the Finance Institute for Danish Industry, but here, rather than a single and substantial block, the plan is star shaped with the wings of the star coming to almost impossibly sharp points.

That might suggest a dramatic building but, in fact, it has a curious and subdued anonymity. If this building for a major international organisation had been constructed fifty years ago it would have been done with much more display and bravado. Is the reason humility? Wanting to appear mindful of expenditure? For once I’m not sure that I agree with the assessment in the Danish Architecture Centre guide. They suggest that the architecture “must express the UN’s values and authority. Efficiency and professionalism are balanced by dynamism and openness in this star-shaped building which opens up to embrace its surroundings.”

For realistic reasons, for security, the the site is not open but actually isolated and this has been reinforced with a moat on the landward side that is crossed by a rather ominous and forbidding iron approach bridge.

From the images that have been published on the 3XN web site, the interior will be spectacular with a winding staircase with solid sides in black - rather than an open balustrade or railing - but with a pale wood lining and steps forming curving tentacles across the central atrium but I wonder how many ordinary citizens will ever see the interior.

What the building also illustrates well is the problem with a complex site where, however good the design, it has to compete with visually complex neighbours. The former silos being converted to apartments loom over the UN building although they are on the far side of the dock to the north and this photograph - taken recently from the railway station and the view the largest number of people will have of the building - shows that the setting is muddled by the proximity of the housing complex going up between the UN building and the busy coast road, Kalkbrænderihavnsgade.

It is possible that the UN building will also be dwarfed by a proposed development designed by the American architect Steven Holl in 2008 but presumably on hold through the economic recession. If that goes ahead there will be a substantial new tower block close to the south side of the UN building with a second massive block at the end of the Langelinie quay and these will be linked at the level of the 17th floors by a pedestrian bridge across the dock under which the ferries will sail.



Towers with a high-level pedestrian walkway across the entrance to the docks - the design by Steven Holl proposed in 2008. The UN building is the schematic block on the right. A reference point is the historic brick dock building shown here at the base of the right tower. If the development proceeds, the tower on the left will be at the North end of the Langelinie quay.