With a trio of buildings for the Unesco-protected Wadden Sea and a bold glacier visitor centre in Iceland, Dorte Mandrup’s eponymous practice is fast becoming a specialist in water projects. But alongside climate conscious innovation, there is contradiction and unpredictability among the Danish studio’s works
Words by Oliver Lowenstein
Out along the far edge of south-western Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula is the Wadden Sea, an extended shoreline of marshes, creeks and beaches stretching across Holland, Germany and Denmark, where tides flood in fast over expansive flat sands. Unique in Europe, the tidal wetlands now form a Unesco-protected park and World Heritage site.
Up until recently, the Wadden Sea was unremarkable architecturally — but now a trio of projects, led by the Wadden Sea Visitor Centre (2017) in the Danish town of Ribe, is changing this, and in the process drawing attention to the architect involved, Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter (DMA), the Copenhagen studio responsible for each one.
One of Mandrup’s Wadden Sea projects, the Trilateral Wadden Sea World Heritage Partnership Centre in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, is due to complete in 2021
Dorte Mandrup’s studio is currently riding its own wave of acclaim and recognition across Denmark and northern Europe (including an exhibition celebrating the practice at Copenhagen’s Danish Architecture Center). Its lengthening list of well-received projects, in addition to the thatchfacaded Wadden Sea Centre, includes: IKEA Hubhult (2015), a 1000-employee office hub for the company on the edges of Malmö, Sweden; the Amager Children’s Culture House (2013) in Copenhagen, and the sculptural Råå Preschool (2013) along the Swedish Öresund coast. At last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, Mandrup’s immersive Conditions installation was at the heart of the main exhibition in the Arsenale, tantalising the international audience with the studio’s upcoming glacier visitor centre in Ilulissat, Greenland — the Icefjord Centre.
With two further Wadden Sea projects on the horizon — one in Germany and one in Holland — the firm is seemingly positioning itself as a specialist in building with water. Back in Denmark, and in absolute contrast, the studio is gearing up to build Scandinavia’s tallest tower, for Danish fashion company Bestseller — not in Copenhagen, surprisingly, but near the town of Brande on Jutland’s flatlands, with an entire new village planned around it.
Another future Wadden Sea project, in Lauwersoog, Holland, will focus on the conservation of seals
Wadden Sea Centre’s use of thatch may seem an odd choice for an innovative architecture practice, but this is the flipside of the practice’s palette which has been characterised by Mandrup’s liking for tough, cheap industrial materials, primarily worked into the urban grain of the tougher inner-city wards of Copenhagen. The common thread is the focus on everyday, or — to borrow from the Sixties Italian art movement, Arte Povera — ‘poor’ materials, whether pre-industrial thatch or an industrial-era polycarbonate, from the early phase of the Anthropocene.
The Wadden Sea Centre, located in the south-western Danish town of Ribe, was opened in 2017. Image Credit: Adam Mørk
Three community regeneration projects, close to one another in Amager, a relatively deprived suburb over the water in southern Copenhagen, clearly signalled this material preoccupation. The first of these, the Jemtelandsgade community centre (2001) an all-glazed raised stick structure standing on a forest of engineered timber, was followed by the Crystal (2006), a much larger sports hall and culture centre, fusing structural glulam and steel with a polycarbonate, panelled facade, and then skilfully woven on to the adjacent red brick tenements.
The Crystal (2006), a sports hall and culture centre in Copenhagen’s Amager suburb, fuses structural glulam and steel with a facade of polycarbonate. Image Credit: Torben Eskerod
More recently, there has been the safe interior space of the Amager Children’s Culture House. Each project recalls the kind of materiality, texture and tactility that was beginning to arrive in spades across the world of architecture in the Eighties and early Nineties.
Mandrup studied at the Aarhus School of Architecture, graduating in 1991, alongside fellow Danish practice 3XN’s leading light, Kim Nielsen. At the time, postmodernism was all the rage, which Mandrup says she didn’t identify with. She was from Rungsted, a small town north of, but close to, Copenhagen. The faraway Aarhus school ‘was sort of liberating,’ she says. ‘At the time it pushed students to pursue problems they found interesting. It was a different attitude to the big city — at that time, the school [in Copenhagen] was not exciting. I was an in-betweener. It was the postmodern period, which I didn’t quite relate to. It was an in-between moment.’
The use of thatch in the Wadden Sea Centre refers both to local migrating birds and vernacular farmsteads. The material holds up well in salty climates and speaks to an Arte Povera sensibility. Image Credit: Adam Mørk
Timeline-wise, 57-year-old Mandrup sits between the wave of homegrown studios — such as 3XN and Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, who broke out of Aarhus and led the internationalising of Danish architecture in the Nineties — and the younger generation: Bjarke Ingels, COBE’s Dan Stubbergaard, Cebra, Effekt and co. Venerating Rem Koolhaas and the punky SuperDutch scene, these Danish ‘new pragmatists’ and their shock tactics have brought even more attention to the country’s architectural scene and its global profile, even as this onetime-youthful boys’ zone is now in eclipse.
Mandrup has also made waves, representing — along with Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter’s Lene Tranberg — the forefront of Danish women in architecture. It’s a point she doesn’t care for, though, asking rhetorically: ‘Why do we have to be women architects? How come we have to do this “women’s architecture”? Why aren’t there men doing their men’s architecture?’
The sculptural Råå Preschool (2013), along the Swedish Öresund coast, uses hardy Robinia wood. Image Credit: Adam Mørk
Mandrup’s profile is in-between in another way, in the push-pull between Aarhus and its big brother Copenhagen, making DMA something of a singular presence, further emphasised by the thatched walls and rooflines of the Wadden Sea Centre. The transformation of the courtyard rebuild speaks to Mandrup’s sculptural sensibility, sitting low in the land, and can be interpreted as landscape — land art even — while its sharp aerodynamic form chimes with the hundreds of thousands of migrating birds that regularly stop over on the wetlands.
‘We were asking, what is this area about?’ says the project architect Kasper Pilemand. ‘The story of the birds flying in and staying for six months. We thought, let’s try and do the project with thatch.’ Historically part of the building palette of West Jutland’s farmsteads, older farm and other rural buildings up and down the countryside are often clad in the material. Robust in salty climates, the thatch lasts longer and provides an effective layer of insulation. Pilemand says they were drawn to using ‘a peasant craft, getting something beautiful out of something that doesn’t have volume’.
The practice’s Amager Children’s Culture House (2013) in Copenhagen. Image Credit: Jens Lindhe
Two years on from its opening, Mandrup continues to feel ‘very good about Wadden. It still works very well, and has a great ambience.’ In the interim period, it can look as if her professional life is overflowing with water-related projects. The first of the two further Wadden Sea projects is the niftily titled, cross-border Trilateral Wadden Sea World Heritage Partnership Centre for the Wadden Sea Organisation, in Wilhelmshaven, northern Germany, sitting on a Second World War U-boat submarine base. The second is another visitor centre, this time a regeneration-led project in Lauwersoog, northern Holland. The mainly steel building will sit directly in its stretch of the Wadden Sea’s shallow coastal water and will be more easily accessible at low tide. ‘It’s about exposing the horizon,’ says Mandrup, right in the eye of culture and nature.
Sweden’s greenest office complex yet: the IKEA Hubhult project in Malmö (2015). Image Credit: Adam Mørk
‘I know more and more about the Wadden Sea,’ she continues, ‘from the history of the area, to the transformation of it into one big park.’ It has helped give her a crash course in the workings of the planet’s ocean and sea systems, which undergirds the studio’s high-profile Icefjord Centre project.
‘Do you know how much ice melts from the glaciers per second in Greenland?’ Mandrup asks, her eyes widening. ‘Five hundred tonnes every second!’ she says, after I’ve guessed, wrongly. ‘I have more knowledge after each visit to Greenland and the Arctic each year,’ she adds. ‘It is the most beautiful place I’ve seen.’
Another landscape piece for the studio, the long, low-slung and chevron-curved (or boomerang-shaped) Icefjord Centre will have an open roof deck leaning out over the edge of a rocky promontory, signalling accessibility and openness — these days almost de rigueur across Nordic cultural projects since Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House (2007) opened. A Unesco-protected part of the icy giant island’s Sermermiut valley, Icefjord is due to open in 2021, with the seemingly paradoxical aim of boosting Ilulissat as a sustainable tourist destination.
Visualisation of the studio’s Icefjord Centre project in Greenland, in summer
Structural glulam and interior wood cladding is used, the timber being designed in prefabricated kit parts before shipping to Greenland, and will be mounted as quickly as possible. ‘We only have two months to do the build,’ says Mandrup.
Timber is a relative constant thread through the practice’s projects — Wadden Sea Centre uses hardy, durable Robinia wood, and is a Danish Wood award finalist. Mandrup insists she’s ‘tried to push CLT in Denmark’ for a long time, and although it has been ‘really really difficult’, her studio is now doing a CLT holiday homes project. ‘The Danish building industry is really conservative,’ she adds, though had it come off, the Opal — a dome-like sphere in Copenhagen with technical textile cladding, which had been prepared by the practice for the Society of Danish Engineers — would have likely pushed Denmark’s materials debate on in yet another country where concrete remains king. But in 2017, the project was cancelled.
Designs for The Opal, a project that was ultimately cancelled
To experience where Mandrup and her team have demonstrated their sustainability credentials most fully, you need to visit the IKEA Hubhult project in Malmö. Hubhult has picked up a sheaf of sustainability awards, including the first Outstanding BREEAM award in Sweden, and the Swedish Green Building Council’s imprimatur that it is the country’s greenest office to date. Its two blocks convey Mandrup’s tough, industrial aesthetic well; gun-metal grey facades, and a saw-tooth roof, translating the big blue and yellow boxes of IKEA’s out-of-town stores into the office realm.
The IKEA Hubhult project in Malmö (2015). Image Credit: Adam Mørk
‘No nonsense’ is how Mandrup describes the company’s approach, reflected by IKEA’s project manager Lars Wingren: ‘It’s not seen as a funny building, it’s not a showoff. The pragmatism cuts through the whole building,’ he says. It comprises four floors of open, shared working space, along with smaller meeting rooms that sit on the inside of the ground-floor corridor, with contrastingly sized windows to break up the regularity. Inside, the feel isn’t so much industrial, as collegiate. Mandrup has dropped two large voids through the centre of the building as part of the natural lighting and ventilation strategy. Diagonal staircases criss-cross the main light-well void, up the remaining storeys, deployed in part to showcase IKEA.
Outside, rows of fifteen sun screens are used on each face and floor of the building, rhythmically punctuating the facade, bringing a touch of Mandrup’s sculptural sensibility to this practical building. Meanwhile, DMA’s collaboration with IKEA will see a new project complete in Copenhagen this year: a 74,000 sq m mixed-use masterplan along the Kalvebod Brygge waterfront including a large warehouse/ store for the company.
DMA is building Scandinavia’s tallest tower, for Danish fashion company Bestseller, on Jutland’s Flatlands. Image Credit: MIR
The fact that Hubhult is a concrete building returns me to the paradox of Dorte Mandrup’s present and recent workload. The high-profile Icefjord Centre and the low-tech, medieval-thatch Wadden Sea Centre, along with the new Wadden Sea projects, have brought with them an inward rush of new knowledge regarding climate change for Mandrup and company. The common climate anxiety around these water projects makes the studio’s decision to take on designing and building what will be Denmark’s — and the Nordic world’s — tallest building out of concrete all the more curious. The water lapping at the steel foot of DMA’s Dutch Lauwersoog centre might well be the very same water molecules that melted from a Greenland glacier.
This may not be quite schizophrenia, more complexity and contradiction, 21st-century style. As Nordic architecture’s water woman, Mandrup is uniquely placed to explore these broader issues in the context of the built world. The next years will tell us whether or not she decides to take up this opportunity.