big-box architecture?

BLOX - by Ellen van Loon of OMA opened to the public on 7 May 2018



Why, for more than fifty years, has the go-to answer for any major new building on the harbour front in Copenhagen been a box? 

Not just a box but a big box or, and worse, a big stack of boxes that defy all the building history of the city, disregard height restrictions that make the city such a good place to live - because, on the whole, buildings and streets and squares in the centre of Copenhagen keep to a human scale - and why do most completely ignore the sight lines and the street frontages and the materials and the tone and the colours of the more modest buildings around?



They are not all bad buildings or bad architecture … far from it.

The National Bank by Arne Jacobsen was completed in 1971 and is really very very clever and stunningly beautiful with a constraint and a command of proportions and an understanding of materials and colour and a quality of construction that the others lack.


The Royal Library by Schmidt Hammer & Lassen from 1999

To be fair the Library is also a clever building and one of the best and most dramatic modern public interiors in the city and the building does look incredible at night when internal lighting makes sense of the planning and the form of the building.

At least the library expresses that great dramatic atrium on the exterior and libraries are all about book stacks and closed spaces and protecting the contents so that too could be pleaded as mitigation. 


The Opera House by Henning Larsen Architects from 2006

The opera house has the scale of the others, is certainly too dominant and does have a very large flat roof but, seen straight on or from the sides, that great keel of a shape at the front and that incredible over-sailing roof keeps it from being a box and even from the side towards the canal, the side away from the harbour, the tighter and slightly restricted sight lines actually reduce the impact of the scale of the building … so after some consideration … no not a box.



Royal Danish Theatre designed by Lundgaard & Tranberg architects and opened in 2008 ... a theatre has to have a fly tower so there is a reason but why that colour and that stolid material?



I’m not suggesting that the harbour needs Disney-World versions of 18th-century warehouses or pitched roofs and certainly not fake turrets and copper domes but the buildings should have more architectural articulation - so appropriate use of vertical and horizontal features to express somehow what is going on inside - and very definitely more shadow from elements stepping forward or stepping back.

Few of the big-box buildings consider either neighbouring buildings and the materials they have used or historic plot divisions or sight lines along the streets leading to the building - so plot area - 'achieving' the maximum footprint rules and rarely does plot locality seem to matter. Perhaps a bit less about ego - less look at me me me - and maybe more about being a good neighbour. 

Ask not what the city can do for your building or what the building can do for your reputation .... ask what the building will do for the city and its citizens.



These government buildings by Thomas Havning from 1962-1967 - on the city side of the harbour south of the bridge at Knippelsbro - are of a high quality and use the materials and colours well but then you can see the spiral twist of the spire of Boursen - the 17th-century Exchange - and just the tip of the spire of Christiansborg and you realise just how large these blocks are and what important views back from the water they block


On the Christianshavn side of Knipplesbro this massive block from the 1950s was offices for the engineering company Burmeister & Wain and most recently for Nordea but is now empty with a proposal to convert it to a hotel with two more floors on the top ... presumably for the value of what you see when you look out from the building rather than from any consideration of the cost to the neighbourhood when you have to look at the building


The blocks now march down the harbour south of Langebro ... not bad architecture as such but pretty unrelenting.

Nykredit Bank was completed in 2001 and was designed by Schmidt Hammer & Lassen.

Note: the tower and spire between the buildings is the city hall ... when completed, at the start of the 20th century, one of the biggest and one of the tallest buildings in the city