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Architecture takes place

Kim Herforth Nielsen

Architecture is a physical as opposed to free art that is bound to its purpose. It influences its surroundings and the lives of the people that inhabit it. Architecture can also shape behaviour: the specific shape we give to a building is intimately tied to how we want its users to interact with it. This also applies at a larger scale: we shape a building to interact with the city. This is what I think makes it fascinating.
Cities are growing, not only in China, India and Brazil, but across Europe as well. As architects face the many challenges posed by the 21st century - climate change, urban densification, increased demands for energy efficiency, rapid globalization - Jan Gehl proves himself more and more prescient. This Danish architect and urban planner identified the need for sustainable and people-centered design in his writing, research and practice beginning in the early 1970s, and has continuously emphasized: “Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life,” and more recently: “By making cities more people-friendly, we also create cities that are livelier, safer, more sustainable and healthier.”

Densification poses a challenge for architects:
to help make environments for good living
Across the globe in recent decades, we have established new urban centers that separated commercial, residential and social life. Happily, we are realizing that cities function best when all aspects of life are integrated. We learn from Jan Gehl how to recapture qualities from old cities across the globe and use them to improve both new developments and reshape existing urban centers that are growing as migration patterns bring more and more people from small towns to cities. As architects and urban planners, we must create buildings and places that connect and support people and communities. Architecture needs to be a catalyst for multiple activities and purposes. Architects are challenged to go beyond “form follows function.” Architecture interfaces with so many layers that we now can talk about “form follows responsibility.”

Architecture is an optimistic act:
We can plan and build for our better future
I believe that architecture should add something beyond a building; it should create something that is greater than the sum of its parts, more than a handsome building with no relationship to its broader surroundings. We should build within a specific context of site, conditions, and community.
One excellent example of this, and an inspiration to me, is the High Line in New York City. Architects, planners and citizens worked together to transform a moribund industrial rail bridge into an elevated park and public gathering place embraced by residents and visitors alike. A testament to its success, in its few short years the High Line has helped jump start the commercial development of the Meatpacking District, become a major tourist destination and favorite gathering place for locals, redefining what public space can be in this densely populated urban center.
A decade before the completion of the High Line project, I began to appreciate how architecture can both shape behaviour while simultaneously contributing to the development of the community when 3XN was commissioned to design the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam. Our client wanted more than a music venue: they asked for the building to be “a locomotive, a catalyzer for activities.” Beyond providing an exceptional place to hear live jazz and contemporary classical music, the goal was to weave the new building into the social fabric of the neighbourhood, part of a master plan developed by OMA, that used a cultural building to create a destination well beyond the city center. The building offers itself to the community 24/7, independent of concert activities. Wide staircases connect to the pier and the water and provide access to the building interior. Locals and visitors use these staircases as recreational space. Transparency and the play of light influenced the building’s appearance. The Bim Huis, the jazz house, has a glass façade behind the stage that allows passers-by to view glimpses of the concerts and activities taking place within. And the city lights become the background for the jazz music. A light feature pulsates in response to the music inside the classical concert hall, creating a visual as well as aural experience. A building that intentionally embraces its surroundings invites people to use it in myriad ways. Attending concerts is only the beginning, the Muziekgebouw fosters interaction among music fans, residents, and visitors - strengthening community ties and enriching the urban fabric.
Coincidentally, a 3XN project in Molde, Norway called “Plassen” also has jazz in its program. The Theatre and Jazzhouse are formed like a giant paper cutting. The building literally grabs its surroundings. It cuts and folds the surface. The result is a structure where inside and outside, surface and roof merge into one. In Plassen (meaning “the square or the space” in Norwegian) almost all surfaces, and spaces have more than one function. Together with the building’s roof, an existing staircase next to the building constitutes three outdoor amphitheaters that collectively accommodate several thousand spectators. During the day, the roof offers a café with outdoor seating, a recreational area with splendid views and exhibition space for the building’s gallery, while the staircase on the side of the building is an essential link between the city’s upper and lower districts, adding an important connection to the community.

Enabling a New Way of Learning
Shortly after the Muziekgebouw opened, we began to work on a new education project in Denmark that allowed us to further explore how architecture can shape behaviour and integrate architecture into the community. Ørestad Gymnasium is a high school in a new district of Copenhagen. Inspired by school reform and an innovative pedagogical philosophy, we designed the school to encourage collaboration, interdisciplinary teaching and learning and support a curriculum that is focused on problem solving. It is a radical rethinking of the “high school” typology, featuring few classrooms, large expanses of open space and no corridors, all intended to foster students’ ability to take responsibility for their own learning, work in teams and individually.
The college is built from both the outside in and the inside out. It is opened up to the street with an expansive glass façade and a welcoming café on the ground floor. Inside, it is interconnected vertically and horizontally. Our goals, similar to those in contemporary urban planning, influenced the school’s form and plan, i.e. to create an environment that promotes interaction, supports a wide variety of activities throughout the day, etc. Four boomerang shaped floor plans are rotated to create the powerful superstructure that forms the overall frame of the building - simple and highly flexible. Four study zones occupy one floor plan each. Avoiding level changes produces the maximum organizational flexibility and enables the different teaching and learning spaces to overlap and interact without borders. The rotation opens a part of each floor to the central atrium and forms a zone that provides community space and embraces the college’s goal of interdisciplinary education.
Initially planned for 800 students, its flexible design currently accommodates 1,200, drawn to the facility’s mutually supportive blend of education and architecture. Students leave this school better prepared for the real life.

Service not Sculpture
Architecture, like all things in our world, is developing faster than ever. Problems in our cities are becoming more complex. The many challenges we face are opportunities for all of us to create architecture that shapes behaviour for the better.  The stakes are higher and design will rise to meet them. Architecture is at the service of its users, its surroundings, its client and the environment. As architects we must embrace our responsibility. Using form to solve these challenges while also adding value for users and the city is what creates exciting architecture.

Kim Herforth Nielsen

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