Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen

Danish Architecture Reset Urban 1

Garth Falconer shares his thoughts on design after a recent visit to Denmark.

Imagine putting design at the centre of our cities? Hard to imagine right? But the Danes have done it. In the centre of Copenhagen, along the Kobenhavns Havn riverbank linked by a wide walking and cycling Lille Langebro bridge, is the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC).

The sleek modernist black box of a building called “the Blox” ,complete with a black soft fall playground in front was opened in 2018.  With 4 floors of design, it’s positioned as a “must see”  attraction for visitors to the city. It also serves as an everyday home base for locals, with conversations about the future of architecture in its broadest sense with hosting exhibitions, tours, events and networking opportunities .

Formed in 1986 by a cross disciplinary effort involving architects, designers, engineers and contractors,  the DAC mission has been to engage people in design. DAC promotes itself as being future focused and very much keyed into the current challenges of making the transition to sustainability.  With a strong positive approach to what design can contribute to society, DAC’s central belief is that architecture is about the pooling of resources and interaction of different views and skills in order to make effective change. 

The ground level of the Blox has a “What’s On”  foyer with installations and a large book and gift store that seeks to appeal to all ages and interests. Next level is Denmark’s National Gallery of Architecture ; a permanent exhibition devoted to explaining the history/heritage of Danish design. From Viking villages to difficulties of building on an exposed coast, the post war penchant for simplicity to the current feature of co-housing.  The clear theme through the range of engaging models, details, and cinema is that architecture has always been at the centre of Danish culture and that the ongoing commitment to democratic design continues. 

Next level is a full floor exhibition space with an amphitheatre, break out rooms, and an auditorium. When I visited there was an exhibition on called “Copenhagen in Common” which centred on the tradition of community involvement and open discussion on the ‘making of community’. The immersive exhibition invites you in and envelopes with all types of startling items such as suspended tree roots and plaza seats. The information panels pose a series of core  questions such as, “how does architecture support and strengthen communities?”,  “who decides what architecture should look like?”, “how do we show consideration for those with the greatest needs and the most vulnerable in the city ?“ The exhibition had a focus on urban open spaces, and housing. I wandered into a panel discussion which as it was Danish (I had no idea what they were talking about) but I could sense the fervent interest in the topic across the room. On the top floor is a café with panoramic views of the central city spires and riverfront edged with public pools. 

In 2023, Copenhagen was selected as The World Capital of Architecture.  Walking tours show off old and new designs in the city, and open spaces support a series of installations that commemorate the honour.   

The Danes also have built up an international brand for their prowess in designing virtually anything: from furniture, to kitchen utensils, to buildings.  A number of multi disciplinary design companies such as Hennings Larsen and BIG conspicuously ply their trade across the globe.  

As to what is the root of the Danish success, a recent survey of by the Danish Design Centre (another cross industry foundation promoting design) sought a wide range of views on what constitutes the Danish design DNA. The results were able to be distilled clearly into 10 values that make up the uniqueness of Danish design:

1. Danish Design is human – caring, emphatic and inclusive. 

2. Danish Design is social - non-hierarchical and rooted in social movements.

3. Danish design is embedded in a democratic understanding of society that is fundamentally conditional to the Danish society as a whole.

4. Danish Design is Holistic - to function, technology, systems, and user-context.  

5. Danish design is quality - highest standards of materials, crafting and detailing.

6. Danish Design is craft and craftsmanship – based on deep subject knowledge, detailling and tactility.

7. Danish Design is transformative - innovative, collaborative, multidisciplinary, and process-oriented.

8. Danish design is factual -  unpretentious and based on rigorous rationality.

9. Danish design is user-driven - sensible, transparent, user-centered, and rooted in everyday aesthetic.

10. Danish design is simple - focusing on the essence of the forms in pure volumes and simplification of type.

For a narrow archipelago surrounded by larger countries, the Danes confidence in their non-hierarchical work culture and can-do approach to finding solutions is both impressive and refreshing. If we are not already, we could surely learn a lot from them in developing our own unique applications.

Originally published in Landscape Architecture Aotearoa, Feb 2024.

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At Reset Urban Design, we offer a broad scope of services within the specialist areas of Urban Design and Landscape Architecture. We also actively engage in research and have contributed two published books on the history of design in New Zealand.