Or to give the exhibition its full title … 

Groundbreaking Constructions - 100 Danish Breakthroughs that Changed the World

This is an important exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen that rewards time and effort … there are some striking models of buildings and engineering projects but the majority of the 100 constructions are covered by photographs and text.  

Perhaps the real message is that we, the public, the users of the buildings and the infrastructure, are getting blasé: we expect art galleries to look striking and novel; we expect buildings to sore or swoop or span huge spaces and we don’t even think about how that was achieved or even, at a mundane level, we do not think about how an airport was planned and arranged unless it doesn’t work and we end up queuing in the rain to get in or can’t find a toilet.



Here, in every example, you are encouraged to stop and think and actually feel awe and feel inspired. Above all, woven through the text are important messages about the political will that was required to instigate these projects which involve huge amounts of money - usually in Denmark of public money - and needed perceptive and often brave planning for complex schemes that took or may still take years or decades to be completed and prove themselves but, above all, the exhibition shows that many of the greatest projects actually required architects, engineers or clients … or in some cases all three … to think in novel or unconventional ways to achieve an end scheme that was beyond the imagination or the expectations of many. These projects are often about pushing the boundaries of what is possible in man-made structures in order to build bigger, to build wider, to build higher or to build for new functions or to solve new problems and often in challenging locations. 

The exhibition also tries to deal with less tangible concepts … to show how buildings and the infrastructure, that links them or enables them to function, and, as important, the setting or the spaces between the buildings should all support society, enable us to live together in large settlements, and enhance our lives and help us develop and advance. 

Ultimately, all these projects are about how people function in an ever more complex and inter-related society. To put this simply, if no one ever travelled between Jutland and Zealand there would be no need to build a bridge over the Great Belt; if no one wanted to sit with hundreds or even with thousands of other people to watch a sport contest or listen to a concert, there would be no need to build stadiums, sport’s halls, concert halls or opera houses and if we steadfastly focused on the future then no architect would be needed to build an art gallery or an archive.

To quote from the introduction to the exhibition, Denmark has a culture “where both public and private construction projects are realised through exceptional cooperation between developers, architects, engineers and contractors.”

Above all the chosen projects illustrate the way that architects and engineers have overcome challenges by using imagination and innovative solutions to meet the challenge of difficult building environments, to use old materials in new ways or to develop new materials or new construction methods to resolve specific problems.

“Some of the constructions are spectacular, beautiful and intense - you may already know them. Others are less well-known, but are included here because they demonstrate details or embody stories that had or will have an important influence on how we co-exist.”

The first section of the exhibition looks in detail at eight very different but fascinating projects that illustrate the complex partnership between architects and engineers working together with a client to produce groundbreaking projects. Each introduces a different theme or approach or challenge that influenced the outcome or in some cases drove the work to completion.


  • The Great Belt Bridge by Dissing + Weitling with the engineering company COWI

Completed in 1998, this was a major engineering challenge to span a wide and busy channel of water used by shipping so the central span is 1,624 metres long and the roadway is supported above the shipping lanes between two towers that are 254 metres high.

Look at a map and the long coastline and the numerous islands of Denmark are it’s most obvious topographic feature. For thousands of years the main way for goods and for people to move around the country was by water. Now, although shipping is still important for transporting bulk materials and international containers, road and rail links are considered to be the primary forms of transport for people and locally produced food and manufactured goods. The Great Belt Bridge and the road and rail link over the Øresund, linking Denmark and Sweden, and a new tunnel now under construction to form a link between southern Denmark and Germany will stitch together the transportation and travel links of the region.


  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh by Henning Larsen Architects from 1994

This is a fascinating building to include in the exhibition as it is primarily about the influence of Danish design and Danish taste as well as Danish construction skills and knowledge. This is about making the Scandinavian focus on natural light and natural materials and the use of complex but coherent spaces applicable in a completely alien geographic environment.


  • The Trans Iranian Railway begun in 1931 by Kampsax

The railway runs for 1,394 kilometres and links the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf and had to overcome huge challenges in terms of the terrain and the climate. It trialled new and imaginative structures like the Veresk Bridge.


  • The Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon

Sydney Opera House is an iconic building … both recognised and correctly identified by more people around the world than probably any other man-made structure of the last century. The exhibition focuses on the collaboration between the architect Jørn Utzon and the engineers Ove Arup to use both geometry and pioneering engineering to realise the original concept.


  • The Grand Arch in Paris by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and the engineer Erik Reitzel

Perhaps the most curious aspect of this project was the idea of twisting the enormous arch through just 6.33 degrees to take it off axis to bring the cube to life visually … so the view from the distance is not simply straight through the huge opening. What is also emphasised here is the pushing of boundaries to establish the strength and technical feasibility of the proposed structure with the complex new problems that had to be overcome in, for instance, constructing lift shafts that had to be held under tension to allow for glass outer walls. The phenomenal substructure had to take the weight of the building over not solid ground but amazingly across a transport tunnel.


  • Amager Resource Centre in Copenhagen by BIG

This project is significant because it illustrates the role of lateral thinking in major projects. 

Dealing with waste from huge urban settlements is now a key political issue. One simple solution could be to take waste away and just deal with it and in Copenhagen that would be relatively easy as waste could be loaded onto barges and taken to a distant complex to be dealt with out of sight but that would be out of mind as well.  

The Amager Centre will deal with 560,000 tonnes of waste a year and the enormous structure will be 85 metres high … one of the tallest structures visible from the centre of the city. It will have woodland around it and on the top to create a man-made mountain that the citizens can use for leisure including a viewing platform at the top and an artificial ski slope running down from the top. It will provide energy for communal heating but the idea is for the chimney to release vapour as smoke rings to remind the people of Copenhagen that the more rings released, the more waste they are wasting. This is what Bjarke Ingels, the architect for the scheme, has described as “hedonistic sustainability.”


  • Great Gabbard Windfarm

This is an outstanding engineering project … innovative engineering to create a relatively new structural type - a wind turbine in the middle of the sea - to resolve the relatively-new need to produce sustainable energy. There are 140 turbines in this group off the coast of England. The blades have a span of 107 metres but the main problem, apart from the exposed site itself, was the need to build huge substructures to support the weight and the stress of the turning blades. Conditions across the sea bed varied so each base had to be modified or adapted while the components of the base towers had to be as regular as possible to allow for the use of standard sections. This also appears to be the project that required the largest investment of capital for a long lead time before financial returns are obvious.

  • The International Criminal Court in the Hague by Schmidt Hammer Lassen

Again, this is a very new building type with unique problems that could only be resolved by both lateral thinking and by meeting new engineering challenges 

In planning, it was considered crucial that the courts should be seen to be open and accessible … justice, however fair, if secret or hidden, is quite rightly questioned … but inevitably the real challenge was the threat of terrorist attack. Defence is not a new engineering challenge … look at the castle of Kronborg or the sea fortresses built to guard the harbour of Copenhagen in the 18th century … but unpredictable attacks and ever-more destructive weapons demand new engineering solutions and innovative use of materials and planning.



The second part of the exhibition has outstanding buildings and engineering projects that are important just not for their plans or their form and style or their quality but for the way that they contribute to society in terms of being either innovative or because they establish new standards. 

They are divided into five groups, each represented by a main project - shown as a film on the upper part of the wall - and further examples are laid out below as double-sided cards on a sloping display shelf with a photograph on one side and on the back basic information and an assessment of what makes that project significant or the final solution particularly innovative.

Those five main themes are:

Industry - business architecture of the highest calibre represented on a video by Fiberline Composites A/S

This is a curiously diverse group … with several hotels including the Bella Sky by 3XN, the Nørre Vosborg hotel and conference centre by Arkitema, the ECCO Hotel in Tønder by Dissing + Weitling and Arne Jacobsen’s SAS Hotel and also by Jacobsen the National Bank and the Texaco garage along with the Radiohuset building from the late 1930s by Vilhelm Lauritzen … so this section might, more accurately, be described as commercial buildings. What it does show specifically is that there are important returns from investing in a building that is much more than a basic and utilitarian shell. Corporate investment in good buildings can have long-term returns from the satisfaction and improved participation of employees working in a good environment through to the prestige and positive publicity a company attracts by commissioning good buildings.

The National Bank in Copenhagen by Arne Jacobsen


Infrastructure - the structures that connect us with Cykelslanger - the Bicycle Snake - in Copenhagen

Although Denmark is a relatively small country in terms of the number of people - 112th of 257 and only 0.07% of the global population - it has a very sophisticated and well-developed infrastructure partly as a deliberate policy from a broadly socialist administration since the war and partly as a necessity with a land mass including large islands and fragmented by a complex coast line so that transport, power distribution and so on can be difficult in terms of topography. Included are a number of major bridges, innovative tunnels and the Metro in Copenhagen.

Sundby Metro Station, Amager, Copenhagen

It is significant that “Denmark has the most well-developed and widely distributed water, sewerage, heating and electricity supply system in the world.” And further, “investment in infrastructure is used to leverage urban and regional development.”

With all the sections of the exhibition there is a strong political and social element but particularly with infrastructure where there has to be a co-ordinated, long-term plan from national and regional government and the new structures should and do reflect and advance policy. So for instance, in Copenhagen, long-term transport policy is to discourage and replace the use of personal cars by encouraging people to walk - by providing pleasant pedestrian areas - use bikes - by providing segregated cycle routes - and to use an integrated public transport system: travel cards cover buses, trains, harbour ferries and the metro so it is easy to link different forms of transport to complete a journey and it is relatively easy to take bikes onto trains to connect together different parts of a longer journey. 


Housing - housing that paves the way for new lifestyles represented by Søndergård Park

From the late 19th century, housing in Denmark has been built to a high standard for space, light, sanitation and so on. Communal heating systems are unexceptional and there have been various experiments in the provision of more extensive communal facilities like laundries but also, in some developments, common kitchens and public dining areas and child care. In the city there is a high level of expectation, among ordinary people, that housing will be of a very high quality. 

There is also a wide range of housing types … Copenhagen has a large number and a wide variety of apartment buildings, many set around courtyards, but there are also, within the city, villas set in gardens, some terraced rows and even some low, single-storey housing of which perhaps the best example is Søndergårdspark, with low but dense housing, that was set out in 1949 and illustrates the importance placed on the landscape setting for residential buildings.

Gemini - conversion of seed silos on the harbour in Copenhagen to apartments and completed by JJD and MVRDV in 2005

With the redevelopment of the harbour in Copenhagen a number of dock buildings have been converted to apartments and these often provide a challenge that requires imaginative engineering solutions. Included here are the striking Gemini seed silos converted by JJD and MVRDV, the Torpedohallen - formerly a gun-boat maintenance facility - by Tegnestue Vandkunsten and outside Copenhagen the water tower at Jægersborg adapted by Dorte Mandrup to include youth housing.

Torpedohallen - conversion to apartments by Tegnestue Vandkunsten 2000-2003

Bellahoj with 28 towers by Henning Larsen and Erik Møller from the early 1950s were the first high-rise housing in the city and in contrast included in the exhibition are student housing by Lundgaard & Tranberg and several innovative ecological or sustainability projects including Lærkehaven and the Lavenergihus i Sisimiut project in Greenland.

The 8Tallet (the Figure of 8) apartment building by the architectural firm BIG - the Bjarke Ingels Group - is cited as a ‘prime’ example of new housing for the 21st century combining the 20th-century expectations for space, gardens and natural light with the apartment block form to create a new type of housing.

8Tallet by Bjarke Ingels 2010


Public Projects - the citizens as the client represented by DOKK 1 in Aarhus Harbour by Schmidt Hammer Lassen

What is striking in Denmark is the large number of public buildings that have been constructed or remodelled through what has been seen as a major and global economic recession. Not only has building work continued but the buildings themselves have been finished to an exceptionally high standard and, in many cases, use challenging architectural techniques and employ innovative engineering solutions.

The exhibition emphasises that “Danish architectural and civil engineering works are the face of the welfare society. The public buildings built by the state and municipalities … are physical expressions of the vision we all share of how we should learn, study, work and live - together.”

Prominent here are a number of schools - including Munkegårdsskolen by Arne Jacobsen but recently extended by Dorte Mandrup and Ørestad Gymnasiumby 3XN - and imaginative hospitals - particularly hospices and cancer centres.


Cultural Projects represented by the new Moesgaard Museum by Henning Larsen Architects

“A great deal of funding was invested in cultural buildings for the purpose of building a common cultural understanding. The buildings contain our collective consciousness, for instance about Denmark as a literary or a seafaring nation through collections of manuscripts and models of ships. But they also contain new statements about who we are today through contemporary paintings, art installations, stage plays and more.” Here are the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, the Blue Planet by 3XN and the new maritime museum - Søfart by Bjarke Ingels.

Blue Planet, Copenhagen by 3XN - completed 2013

These buildings are not just repositories for storing art and artefacts but stand as cultural icons, instilling a sense of context, a sense of identity and a sense of pride but of course they also look to the future because they act as an inspiration to encourage or guide the countries sense of forward momentum. Through innovation and by pushing boundaries or simply by presenting material in a novel way, the architectural envelope for the exhibitions, or the music or the dance or the theatrical performance can challenge people, challenge perceptions, and inspire new works.

Ambitious new cultural buildings also make economic sense where they can be a catalyst for the regeneration of an area … so in Aalborg the Utzon Centre, the House of Music and the Nordkraft cultural centre and in Odense the area around Brandts.


For children, but also as a pretty good way to explain to adults, there is an area where the common structural or engineering aspects of buildings are shown including two large arches with the blocks in covered foam to demonstrate how an arch, even without mortar, is completed and held together by the final element, the key block at the top. Tension and compression in construction are explained along with an explanation of post and lintel construction and drawings showing the way a Da Vinci Bridge is formed. Wood blocks and splints and straws with link elements are provided by a work table where you can try to make your own bridges and arches and domes. There is even a tank of soapy liquid and a wire frame forming a cube to show the structural principle of bubbles that inspired the form of the Great Arch in Paris. 

Complex constructions can be driven by political ambitions, social policy, or vision and imagination. The exhibition celebrates innovative buildings and engineering projects that are “the face of the welfare society” in Denmark and are the “embodiment of and framework for our shared vision of how to live, work and co-exist.”

Many of the buildings and engineering projects shown here are familiar … people walk by them every day … and it is often easy to forget that people were sceptical of possible success or even questioned the need for such a building when they were proposed or were shocked or amazed when it was completed. What most show is that these projects were realised not just because an architect and an engineer worked together to solve problems and make something possible but that there was the imagination and the drive, the resolve or the dogged determination that something could or should be done and the courage to push materials and structures to new level.


All the quotations in this post are from the information panels in the exhibition.

Groundbreaking Constructions continues at the Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen until 3 January