how tall is too tall for Copenhagen?

 

the Scandic Hotel built in 1971 from the opposite bank of the lake - Sankt Jørgens Sø

 

the inner harbour looking south - the distant blocks are the scene tower of the National Theatre and beyond it the tower of the Radisson Hotel - not exactly threatening but the proposal is to add 10 more floors.

 

the Kastellet - the gate and fortifications date from the 17th century. The towers of buildings around Amerikas Plads do not dominate the view but do break the silhouette

When buildings are tall, they have a serious impact on streets and buildings immediately around, creating shadows across lower neighbours and in some situations they funnel wind and rain in disconcerting ways, but they also have a much wider impact on the appearance and the character of a city and over a considerable area. 

And it’s not just a matter of their height but the impact of tall buildings also depends on the overall baulk of the tower and the colour and tone of facing materials. These are less-tangible problems than shadow and funnelled blasts of wind and driving rain … much depends on whether the design is subtle and polite or insensitive, egotistical and challenging. Basically here the problem comes down to judging style and taste which can be much more of a problem when a building is very high and very big - when the style of the architecture and the taste of the architect and/or of the client can be imposed on the whole area. 

Clearly, some developers and some architects want their buildings to be very big and very obvious … possibly because, having invested that much money, the last thing they want is for it to be ignored. Challenging architecture is often described in planning applications as being advanced or novel or setting a new trend … the implication there being that it is our problem and not that of the architect if we fail to appreciate the merits of a design.

Planning departments now stipulate that there has to be a thorough assessment of the visual impact of any proposed scheme and with modern CAD systems it should be relatively easy to judge but it really is difficult to assess the impact of a design even for planners who are used to dealing with architectural drawings. For a start, no architect won a commission or kept a client happy by producing ugly or simply realistic presentation drawings. That is why many drawings show people walking through the scheme - ostensibly to give a sense of scale, but invariably the groups include a toddler held by the hand or better still running ahead to play as a lazy way of suggesting these people are relaxed and happy. Conventional elevation drawings, without perspective, give a poor or no impression of what a building will look like when you are standing below it and looking up and do not show what the building will look like when seen above roof tops or through a gap between buildings.

In many cases, these large new towers loom over older buildings and even over a considerable distance they can change the silhouette or skyline to the detriment of major historic monuments. They look rather like a sumo wrestler invited to a wedding … when anyone looks at the wedding photos afterwards, all they see is the huge man at the back looming over everyone else. Size can be threatening even when that is not what was intended.

Many would argue that high-rise buildings are a clear expression of both progress and of economic success - or possibly the driving force of economic success - and some would argue that the price paid for protecting the historic core of the city in Copenhagen should be more freedom to build high around the edge. 

In most cases, these high-rise blocks around the city rarely seem to be justified on the basis of having too little land on their plot. In a tightly-packed city centre some would argue that the only way to get financial returns on an investment is to build up but that just isn’t true in the new development areas. It seems, rather, that building up is seen as an easy symbol for both modernity and status.

Tall buildings can provide a point of focus or mark an important topographic point in the streetscape, such as the visual expression of an important destination or marking the change of alignment in a long street, but that is difficult to achieve, both in terms of the architecture itself and in terms of strategic, long-term planning. Basically it needs the right amount of investment available for the right plot of land at the right time. 

The real problem is that tomorrow’s symbol of prosperity (or hope) quickly becomes yesterday’s misplaced investment in what is at best an unfashionable eyesore and at worst an expensive and brutal blot that is too expensive to demolish. 


 

Danhostel - formerly the Europa

Danhostel, previously called the Hotel Europa, is on H C Andersens Boulevard. This tower was planned in 1947 as part of the post-war regeneration of the city. Photographs from 1954 show the tower still under scaffolding but close to completion and for a short period, from 1955 to 1958, it was the tallest high-rise in Denmark.

Designed by Mogens Irming (1915-1993) and Tage Nielsen (1914-1991) the original idea was to have a matching building on the other side of the bridge to form a sort of gateway to the inner harbour.

At the beginning of this century the tower was remodelled by Henning Larsens Tegnestue. The effect of that work is curious: the original building was rather odd, quirky and clearly dated, looking its age, but is now just aggressively bland.

The site here, hard against the road bridge, is tightly restricted. Although there is a sort of lower base to the tower, essentially it rises straight off the pavement. In some situations, for instance in a modern financial district that is predominantly tower blocks, that can be dramatic but set in a historic street of much lower buildings it is difficult to make the transition anything but aggressive and stark and the tower certainly has no visual relationship to the apartment buildings to the east.

The Nykredit block, to the west of the hotel, by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, when it was completed in 2001, was the largest commercial space in the city but is only 9 floors high and accommodates that floor space by bulk rather than height and keeps the facade elegant but relatively transparent.


Nørreport

There is a relatively new building with 12 floors at the junction of Nørre Voldgade and Frederiksborgade that illustrates several problems when high blocks are constructed in a street of older and lower buildings. Obviously it breaks the roof line but here the office building also ignores the rhythm of the other facades along the street that all play with vertical and horizontal elements.

The elevation of the tower is just a stark grid and because the corner upright is given the same width as the spacing between the windows it actually makes the corner look weak. Large, simple square window openings are here inappropriate, again breaking the rhythm of the other facades where the windows are vertical rectangles and the lack of glazing details, fine in many situations, seems to lack character, as if large holes have been punched in the wall and left open or as if the building is somehow wearing dark glasses that give nothing away. Curiously it has picked up one feature in many of the buildings here in that the ground floor and first floor are treated in a different way to the floors above but with the tall block it is not obvious why. With the older buildings the second floor is given a more pretentious architectural treatment because that is where the best apartments were.

 


 

new buildings around 8Tallet - the 8 building

It is not just historic buildings that suffer when neighbouring plots are developed with tall buildings. The 8 House by the Bjarke Ingels Group was completed in 2010. One important feature of the design of this very large complex of apartments was that it stepped down rapidly and dramatically to the south where there is an expanse of water before open land that is a protected nature reserve. One problem with tall buildings on the edge of dense building is that they undermine the traditional transition when arriving in a city from the countryside where there has, in the recent past, been a gradual change through increasing density and height through fringe housing to suburbs to inner-city buildings, getting gradually higher and more densely packed.

Perhaps that is an unnecessary nicety or subtlety now but it was good to see the 8 building respecting that idea of transition. Clearly with the more block to the west, views over the countryside are the premium so it virtually maintains its full height right up to the lake and looms over the south end of the 8 building particularly from the courtyard.  


apartments in Ørestad

In Ørestad, an extensive new area of development to the south of the city, there is a new park, Byparken, running from east to west from the line of the metro and flanked north and south by large new blocks of apartments. Again, to some extent, land area available was not a problem so it seems strange that here the apartment buildings have been taken up much higher than is normally allowed in the city, up to 12 storeys on both sides of the park. Are the buildings, as a consequence, stark and grim?

It will be interesting to see if these buildings develop the same sense of community found in older apartment buildings in the city. The additional height from the ground may increase feelings of isolation. 


Bohrstårn 

Bohrstårn is part of the redevelopment of the site of the Carlsberg brewery. Designed by Vilhelm Lauritzen and 100 metres high, this is the first of nine new towers planned for the Carlsberg development which will be between 50 and 120 metres high.

The view from Enghave Station at the end of Sønder Boulevard is dominated by the tower but it is visible from much further away: the tower can be seen from the lakes - from Fredensbro - which is 3.75 kilometres or 2 ½ miles away. An eye catacher? A point of location? An intrusion that's imposing itself on the city skyline? 


the Panum building

Nearing completion, the Mærsk Building is an extension of the Panum complex on the north campus of the University of Copenhagen. It was designed by C F Møller and when completed will have 15 storeys and be 75 metres high.

The architects on their web site have said that the building is "intended to act as the generator of a positive urban development in its immediate neighbourhood and in relation to the entire city.”

As well as the overall height and massive size of the tower an additional problem seems to be an odd relationship to the streetscape breaking the line of the road frontage with a lot of glass. Again the explanation from the architects is that it is the "transparent ground floor that will help to blur the boundaries between the building and the city."

The main tower certainly looms over Sankt Johannes Kirke as you approach the church from Sankt Hans Torv and the it now stands out in the view across Sortedams Sø.

Perhaps the only view where its scale actually helps is with the large and rather brutal block along Tagensvej to the east, part of the complex built about 1970. It could be argued, be it grudgingly, that the view the from junction looking along Blegdamsvej has been improved with a stronger sense of block massing and recession of spaces between the buildings.

 


 

photographs flatter the building - in reality the design is grim. The refacing of the tower proposed might be an improvement by why does it need 10 more floors on the top?

the Radisson Blu hotel

The Radisson Blu was completed in 1973 - from designs by the architects Ejner Graæ (1914-1989) and Bend Severin (1925-2012) - and is 86 metres high with 26 floors for 544 hotel rooms.

Originally the hotel was owned by SAS and Graæ had worked in the office of Arne Jacobsen from 1936 until 1943 so there are obvious reasons why the basic arrangement of the Radisson is so like the SAS hotel in the centre of the city - with a high tower rising off a broad and deep block forming a base two storey high.

But the design is heavy and clumsy and has few redeeming features. It is also an inappropriate height for its location overlooking the historic and important outer defences of Christianshavn.

There is an ongoing proposal to add a further 10 floors to the tower - to add 300 more rooms and take the height to 120 metres. The foot print of high block itself is only approximately 60 by 16 metres so is a very poor use of the large plot of existing land it sits on.

The plot is 122 metres by 140 metres and there is a large area of car park beyond, behind a petrol station, so the additional rooms could be achieved by rebuilding that area without heightening the tower and would be an opportunity to improve the street scape by respecting the street line. The positive gain for the hotel would be some attractive and private courtyards for hotel rooms looking inwards. There is certainly space for the additional rooms … the Sankt Petri hotel has 268 rooms in an area 96 metres by 40 metres and is only 7 storeys high.

The photograph taken recently from the bridge over the canal between Ny Kongensgade and Tøjhusgade in the early evening shows the hotel beyond the cranes and building works for the Bryghusprojektet. The lights of the hotel look good but it is hardly an ringing endorsement of a building’s design to say that it looks good in the dark.