“Danes have this obsession with open access to the water’s edge” says OMA partner Ellen van Loon, “but after a while it gets rather boring. We decided to do something else, and make people come through the building.” After twelve years of development, Copenhagen’s new architecture center is finally ready to open its doors to the public, in an attempt to bring some excitement to the city’s harbor.
Home to the relocated Danish Architecture Center (DAC) as well as an array of other functions, the 27,000m² BLOX completes Copenhagen’s Cultural Harbor Ring – the latest in a collection of iconic cultural institutions placed along the water’s edge. Initiated and funded by the philanthropic association Realdania, BLOX is ambitious in its scope, attempting to weave together the surrounding urban fabric with new routes, bridges and public squares, while providing a hub for all things architecture.
Renowned Dutch architects OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) emerged as the obvious choice for the project, relishing the opportunity to resolve such a complex brief in such a prominent and central location. OMA were resolute in placing DAC at the heart of the complex, defining the architecture center as the threshold between the city, the harbor and the other activities dispersed throughout BLOX.
The building’s external form is the direct expression of the many activities it hosts – a stack of black steel and emerald glass blocks that contain cafés, a restaurant, a fitness center, terraces, 22 rental apartments, and an ‘urban innovation lab’ dubbed BLOXHUB. The terracing of these blocks attempts to dissolve the building into its historic context, differentiating its mass with color and material while challenging the formal singularity of its more recent neighbors such as Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s Black Diamond. But the busy road running through the site forces upon these two buildings the same unavoidable condition – a need to bridge over, or tunnel under, the road.
Despite the protests of Danish urbanists Gehl, OMA focused on the latter, designing three monumental staircases that descend from the surrounding plazas and converge beneath the road in ‘DAC Passage’. These public staircases “pull the surrounding city in”, attempting to create a seamless route from the city to the harbor, and from the anticipated Lille Langebro bridge to the Black Diamond, while providing a single entry to the building’s vertical circulation. The main entrance from the city is generous and intriguing, yet undeniably shaped by the presence of the road. In one of the most pedestrian and cyclist friendly cities in the world, this order of priority seems a missed opportunity, serving to frame the persistence of the road rather than elevate those on foot. The entrance sits within the shadow of the adjacent playground, a terrace of steps, slides and seats that seems more inviting as a public space, inviting visitors to ascend above the level of the road but only to be confronted with a impenetrable glass wall.
According to Chris Carroll of Arup engineers, it was this road that rendered the project’s structural gymnastics even more complex than OMA’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing. Despite the construction of a multilevel automated car park beneath the road, and the cantilevering, projecting volumes above, traffic was uninterrupted throughout the build.
From within the bowels of BLOX these structural and functional complexities are ever-present, with vast black trusses delineating the building’s many intersecting volumes. In an attempt to reflect the heterogeneity of the wider city, the diagram of an intensely multi-functional architecture has been pushed to the extreme, resulting in many surprising and engaging spatial relations. A dedication to transparency creates a dizzying array of reflections and perspectives, with DAC’s main exhibition hall overlooking BLOXHUB’s co-working spaces, DAC’s offices, conferences rooms, and the road below. DAC’s CEO Kent Martinussen accepts that this is far from a typical Danish exhibition space, but thinks that “younger audiences are ready for a new kind of experience”, complete with distraction and encounter. Elsewhere these functional relations become almost farcical, with DAC’s exhibition stair colliding with a sprawling fitness center, bringing cultural visitors eye to eye with exhibitionist gym goers.
While many have their reservations about how BLOX sits within its urban context, it is clear that OMA’s focus has been the overlooking and intersecting that the building facilitates. The social implications of these spatial connections will only be clear when BLOX is in full use, but DAC are confident that it will have a “transformative impact on society, and society’s engagement with the built environment”.
Twelve years of negotiation between many stakeholders has shaped a building that feels somewhat compromised, polarizing public opinion in Copenhagen. But perhaps this struggle is inevitable and appropriate for an organization like the Danish Architecture Center, that claims to be fundamentally of the city and for the city. Despite OMA and van Loon’s efforts to divert movement through the building, the public has demanded their right to the water’s edge and a wooden pier now projects over the harbor – an expression of this compromise. For those that aren’t quite ready for an architecture as radical as BLOX, there’s always the ‘boring’ harbor route.