A ring road runs through it: Blox by OMA
OMA’s long-anticipated home for the Danish Architecture Centre has opened as a waterside stack of blocks in Copenhagen. The project, which embraces a major road physically and metaphorically, sits at odds with Denmark’s pedestrian-friendly urbanism — but does it work?
Words by Francesca Perry
The picturesque city of Copenhagen is well known for its bike- and pedestrian-friendly urbanism. Since the 1960s, practitioners and advocates such as the much celebrated Danish urbanist Jan Gehl have helped the city push back against car-dominated design and move towards the goal of ‘liveability’ — through walkable, inclusive, people-friendly public spaces and streets.
So it may come as a surprise that the city’s latest project — the country’s first built work by Dutch powerhouse OMA — is essentially a building with a ring road running through it. ‘It’s an inhabited highway,’ OMA partner Ellen van Loon admits cheerily of the project, a 28,000 sq m, 2bn Danish kr (£236m), nine-level, multipurpose hub called Blox, which took a long 12 years to move from the drawing board to fruition. Sitting in her creation on a rainy Copenhagen afternoon, van Loon makes no apologies about her desire to largely contradict the prevailing ‘comfortable, leisure-focused’ urbanism of Gehl and his ilk.
Gehl was in fact invited to collaborate with OMA on the project — ‘he was forced on me,’ van Loon sighs — but after a divisive meeting, that effort abruptly ended. ‘The building is a critique of Danish urbanism, yes,’ she says. ‘There is a strong desire these days to beautify cities. But I feel [Copenhagen] is a bit too beautified and focused on leisure that I miss the original aspects of the city. I do miss the energy of cars. I miss noise.’ By putting so many internal and external functions close together in one project, and having the Christians Brygge stretch of Copenhagen’s inner-city ring road run straight through the building, van Loon has aimed to reclaim that complexity of the city. But discomfort is a strange thing to aim for in a project.
The colours of Blox reflect those of an overcast Copenhagen day, from the sea green of the harbour to the white-grey clouds. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj
That OMA’s building is an apparent critique of Danish urbanism is all the more surprising when you know what its primary function is: as the home of the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC). DAC’s institutional belief that ‘architecture can transform cities to more sustainable, liveable and loveable places for the many’ contrasts with van Loon’s disruptive approach, creating just one of the many tensions, if not contradictions, that arise in the project.
Alongside DAC — which stages an array of public exhibitions on the wider context of architecture, in addition to hosting educational, cultural and professional activities — Blox is home to a sleek public restaurant, 22 residential units, a fitness centre, and a member-based co-working hub called BloxHub.
‘It contains all the functions of a city,’ suggests van Loon. Although the brief for the site — which spans either side of the road — did not require that the building incorporate the route, the floor area requirements for these multiple uses meant it couldn’t all fit on one side — and building higher was not desirable. ‘We considered it very important the building stayed within the building height of this area of Copenhagen,’ says OMA project director Adrianne Fisher. ‘Our first sketches encompassed the road and it seemed a natural way to both neutralise the ill effects of this barrier (it wasn’t going to move anywhere else) and in changing its nature become a positive force in the building.’
Blox as viewed from Studio Olafur Eliasson’s Cirkelbroen pedestrian bridge on the other side of the Inderhavn. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj
Blox is not the first building along this particular stretch of quayside to have the ring road running through it, either. Right next door, the Black Diamond extension to the Royal Library (designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, completed in 1999) also spans across the road, incorporating it into the complex.
Designed with an aesthetic familiar to OMA of stacked, overlapping, glassy boxes, the striking building sits on the water’s edge near the city centre, on a plot of land that was once home to a nine-storey beer factory — and then a car park and temporary school playground after the factory burned down. The touted role of Blox is as a ‘connector’ between the city centre and the waterside (the Inderhavn, part of Copenhagen’s harbour) — and this word, connector, is one that comes up repeatedly in relation to the project.
OMA’s central approach to the building — to form this connection — both responds to and plays with the presence of the ring road, creating what the practice calls an ‘urban passage’ running beneath and perpendicular to the highway, descending from the city centre beneath the building and crossing over to ascend to the water on the other side. This is achieved using long dramatic staircases (one senses accessibility requirements are a reluctant add-on rather than a design opportunity here). The subterranean pedestrian passageway doubles as the entrance space for DAC, though the necessity of going through revolving doors to pass through the space (which will apparently be removed come summer) certainly dampens the notion of public connectivity.
As you descend the stairs to the DAC entrance, vehicles speeding past on the road are visible ahead, while the exhibition space can be seen above. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj
As you walk down the stairs, you can see the road running through the building through a glass wall ahead of you, as if in a vitrine. And it is this visual connectivity that thrives in the project, over the physical: wherever you are in the building, you have views — or momentary glances — through to other parts of the complex. Standing on the exterior entrance staircase, in addition to viewing the road, you can see up to the main DAC exhibition hall and BloxHub offices. In the exhibition hall, spanning the entire first floor of the building, you see across to the public restaurant, through to the DAC offices, up to the BloxHub spaces and down to the entrance staircase.
On the interior staircase between exhibition spaces, you look straight into the gym one side and through to the road on the other. Out on the DAC cafe terrace on the third floor, you look up to the residential units crowning the building. In the BloxHub space, you can even look down into a meeting room of the DAC staff offices. Amid all of this, there are multiple views through to the city and harbour. While this design approach engenders an emphatic and intriguing visual porosity between spaces, it can at times be disorientating and navigationally perplexing (what you can see, you can not necessarily easily access), not to mention lacking in privacy. But such visual permeability serves a wider role too: ‘It’s not only about the people inside the building,’ says van Loon, ‘but about attracting people in from the outside.’
On the harbour side of the building, you can see through to the fitness centre as you go down the stairs to walk through the urban passage. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj
To describe the layout and sequence of the building’s spaces is no easy task. Spaces and floors overlap, links meander, barriers dissolve and reform. An able-bodied visitor to DAC would enter in the urban passage under the road at the bottom of the large entrance staircase (Level -2), go through the museum’s ‘design shop’, and walk up a wide aluminium staircase to the first exhibition space, the 300 sq m Golden Room (so named for the hue of its seductive brass floor). This is followed by a snaking set of stairs with black sheet-steel sides to the main, 800 sq m, adaptable exhibition hall that sits atop the road and forms the heart of the building. ‘If Blox is a city within a city,’ comments DAC’s head of exhibitions Elisabeth Topsøe, ‘then this is the public plaza.’
From here, bleacher seating in pressed black rubber leads up to a 200-seat auditorium, while an aluminium ramp leads down to the museum’s education space (the ‘Educatorium’), with a side staircase accessing the museum cafe and terrace. DAC staff and BloxHub members, as well as Blox apartment residents, meanwhile, take lifts (arranged in two cores) up to spaces in the second and third, and fourth and fifth, floors respectively.
Technicians install rigs in the main DAC exhibition hall to prepare for a show, with the large steel structural trusses visible above. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj
BloxHub may look like your typical millennial-friendly co-working space — its interior is designed by Copenhagenbased agency Danielsen Spaceplanning — but all its members have to be committed to better urbanism, explains BloxHub director Torben Klitgaard. The companies and startups signed up cover the architecture, design, construction, engineering, tech and research industries; BloxHub provides them with space and facilities such as fab labs, a film studio and a virtual reality lab, but the simple act of bringing these companies together is the driving ambition.
‘Essentially we are matchmaking these companies,’ says Klitgaard. ‘We are a dating bureau for stakeholders in the built environment.’ That efforts are being made to complement the vision of DAC with a working culture focused on improving cities (rather than simply accommodating whoever can pay the most for desk space) is promising, and suggests this will indeed cement Blox as the hub it aims to be.
With interiors from Danielsen Spaceplanning, the BloxHub workspaces accommodate a range of built environment startups and organizations. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj
The 22 apartments, meanwhile, are set in their own private world over the top two floors of Blox around an oddly bleak courtyard, where the palette and materiality are minimal and industrial. The units range from 120 to 200 sq m; some have access to terraces with impressive views over the city. This may not feel like the most homely of places, but residents have largely yet to move in.
In addition to the passageway and DAC entrance, the project’s subterranean levels are home to the car park, which proved a surprisingly tricky engineering problem to solve. Chris Carroll, a director at Arup who has long collaborated with OMA and worked on Blox since its inception, admitted that in terms of engineering, the project was ‘more complex than the CCTV building’. Van Loon added: ‘It was more of an infrastructure project than a building.’ Due to the constraints of the road, the harbour, and the underground pedestrian passage, the space for the car park was limited. ‘It wasn’t possible to get a rational shape for a car park under the ground because of the road and building foundations,’ explains Carroll. So an automated, three-level, 350-capacity car parking system was implemented, using a mechanical system to transport cars to and from parking spaces (a 186-capacity bike shed is provided too, for the more typical Copenhagen commuters).
Blox’s residential units are set over the top two floors of the building, with a minimal, industrial aesthetic. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj
The car park was, by no means, the only structural issue to navigate. The criss-cross of routes through the bottom of the building, and the large space of the main exhibition hall, meant that a framework of deep steel trusses had to enable the wide column-less spans. ‘It looked like a Meccano set during construction,’ laughs Carroll. These trusses remain exposed throughout the building, however, in a style similar to OMA’s recent Rijnstraat 8 project and giving Blox the industrial feel van Loon is so keen on.
The translation of the internal spatial design to the building envelope has created an external vision of interlocking stacked blocks more than reminiscent of BIG’s Lego House (2017) just 265km away in Billund (‘Bjarke is a spinoff of OMA,’ van Loon comments coolly). Whilst the facade from the south-east approach along Christians Brygge is flatter and begins to make the building resemble a border crossing hub, viewing Blox from other aspects better reveals the playful, if jumbled, form of its blocks. The palette of muted colours — black, white, and reflective sea greens — responds directly to the watery surroundings, which boast almost the exact same green when bathed in typical overcast northern European daylight.
There is slowly evolving magic on the building’s exterior too. OMA had an obligation to reprovide a playground on site, but what they have designed — their first-ever playground, created in collaboration with local schools and residents — integrates play equipment and architecture in a delightfully unexpected way. For safety and security, some parts had to be fenced — but OMA wanted at least some of it to be open and publicly accessible, so the practice has designed an inventive playable roof that covers an enclosed play area.
Families engage with the playable roof, which rises from the public square up to the Educatorium. Image Credit: Hans Werlemann
Created of climbable slopes, steps, nets and slides, this roof descends down from DAC’s first-floor Educatorium — where it can be accessed by school groups — to the ground-level public realm. Because of its incline, the roof can also be turned into cinema seating for summer outdoor screenings. Additionally, there is a honeycomb climbing structure along the side of the building, with two fenced-off small sports courts. The complex is novel, and inviting (this writer climbed straight on to the roof ), only let down by the raw metal grille used for the enclosed areas resembling more of a prison yard fence than a playground.
The play area forms part of a newly designed public plaza on the building’s ‘city’ side, a flexible open space that can be used for a variety of events, with dashes of greenery but as yet no public benches or seating. The main public entrance to the building descends from this square, whilst the other access point to Blox is on the quayside, on the other side of the road, where public realm improvements to a narrow harbour promenade are still in progress. The offered reason for the main public space being located away from the harbour is Copenhagen’s harsh winter climate and the desire to have a sheltered space — but only next door, as part of the library complex, lies the attractive harbourside public square of Søren Kierkegaards Plads, with accessible, stepped wooden seating bringing the public down to the water’s edge.
The building’s main entrance is accessed from the north-east side, near the city centre, where OMA has created a public square. Credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj
It will be interesting to see how people use the surrounding spaces of Blox come summer and the opening of the harbour promenade, as it is no simple task to move — let alone absentmindedly wander — from one side to the other. You must either wait to cross the busy road, or walk down stairs, across the passage and up again. But in a more promising development of connectivity, the city is due to create bicycle and pedestrian bridges connecting Blox to the other side of the Inderhavn.
OMA, DAC and the developer Realdania all have lofty aspirations for the project: as a connector of places and people, and as a catalyst for better architecture and urbanism. Blox is ‘a part of making and creating better cities for all,’ announces Realdania CEO Jesper Nygård. ‘We want more people to love architecture, believe that it can make a difference, and to demand better quality architecture,’ adds DAC director Kent Martinussen. It is unclear whether as a physical intervention, Blox will improve urban life as its creators so hope; what is more measurable, however, is what happens inside. DAC already engages 10,000 children annually in architectural classes – the ambition with its new home is to double that figure. ‘We create tools to engage and empower kids to come up with ideas for their built environment,’ says Martinussen. DAC’s opening exhibition, meanwhile, is a broad and thoughtful exploration of the future of housing in Denmark.
While Blox’s public square is situated away from the water, the neighbouring Søren Kierkegaards Plads directly engages with it. Image Credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj
The fact remains, though, that the building is more permeable for cars than for pedestrians. While the design may indeed be a rebuttal of pedestrian-friendly urbanism, the ‘urban passage’ can feel somewhat like a 1960s underpass with added drama, and more of an artistic point than a practical approach. It is easy to wonder if spending the money on burying the road, instead of the passage, could still have created a project with the desired grit and complexity, while massively improving public accessibility.
But Blox’s internal functions will hopefully catalyse greater collaboration in Danish architecture and urbanism — and if the project’s built form provokes questions and debate about architecture and urbanism, well perhaps that’s what DAC wanted all along.