Photo © Dragor Luftfoto

8 House

Bjarke Ingels Group

Copenhagen, Denmark

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

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“Humble” seems an unlikely word to associate with an architect who, at 36, has already built three inventive apartment complexes on his home turf of Copenhagen, has a high-profile commission for another in New York City, and is the darling of the design blogosphere. But that’s one of the adjectives (along with “talented”) that Danish developer and general contractor Per Høpfner uses to describe Bjarke Ingels, founder of the six-year-old Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). According to Høpfner, Ingels knows how to listen to his clients and is sensitive to budget issues.

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For anyone familiar with BIG’s work, it won’t be surprising to hear that the firm’s goals are larger than keeping costs in check. “We build in the most economical way,” says Ingels, “but are constantly asking ourselves, ‘What can the project provide for the neighborhood and its residents?‘“ Otherwise, ”the money is wasted and the opportunity is lost.”

For the most recently completed and largest of Ingels’s Copenhagen residential projects — the $133 million 8 House, which includes 476 apartments and more than 100,000 square feet of commercial space and shared facilities — the aim was to build a “three-dimensional community even though the building is in the middle of nowhere,” says Ingels. The “nowhere” is about 7 miles from the city center at the southern tip of Ørestad, a still somewhat barren district rising along a branch of Copenhagen’s new metro line. Ingels’s two earlier residential projects — the 221-unit VM Houses, named after the shape of the complex when seen from the air, and the Mountain, which features 80 apartments that terrace down over a parking garage — are located not far away in the same developing quarter. Høpfner joined forces with the Danish Oil Company to develop the first two buildings. For 8 House, he teamed with holding company St. Frederikslund, but has since sold his interest in the project.

Design work on 8 House, which is reportedly Denmark’s largest private development, began in 2006, before Copenhagen’s housing bubble burst. In order to create an architectural framework for the community the designers envisioned there, they based the 8 House scheme on the typology of a perimeter block, but squeezed it in the middle to form a bowtie shape that defines two courtyards. At the central “knot,” they created a 30-foot-wide passageway that connects the east and west sides of the site. They then layered the components of the program one on top of the other like a cake: Commercial uses, including retail space, a café, a day care center, and offices, are placed near the base, so that they can benefit from direct contact with the street, while the different types of apartments — townhouses, flats, and penthouses — are stacked above. And in order to provide the residential units with daylight and views of marshes and grazing lands that sit directly to the south, they raised the building’s northeast corner to 10 stories, sloping it to only one story at the diagonally opposite corner by stepping down each successive line of apartments. The result is plenty of variety in the building’s precast-concrete structural components.

The most unusual aspect of 8 House, one that stops just shy of gimmicky, is a continuous open-air ramp. Along with stairs and elevators, it provides access to the townhouses and penthouses as it loops around the building, stretching from the street level to the top floor and back again. More than any other feature, the ramp is intended to imbue the mammoth complex with a sense of community: “Where social life, the spontaneous encounter, and neighbor interaction are traditionally restricted to the ground level, the 8 House allows them to expand all the way to the top,” explains Ingels. The resulting environment, according to the firm’s promotional literature, is a “lively urban neighborhood” with the “intimacy of an Italian hill town,” even in the midst of Copenhagen’s flat-as-a pancake terrain.

In 8 House’s big, bold moves and its geometric complexity one can easily recognize the influence of Rem Koolhaas and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (both Ingels and Julien De Smedt, his former partner in the now-dissolved practice PLOT, are OMA alums). The inventiveness extends to the smaller scale with cleverly conceived components, such as a zigzagging cable system supporting the stairs inside two-story apartments and the outdoor ramp’s stone paving pattern delineating a slope gradual enough for people in wheelchairs. However, on the whole, 8 House isn’t a project of refined details. Some elements, like the aluminum rainscreen cladding, feel undeveloped; at certain locations, the spaces between the individual facade panels read as gaps or awkward joints, rather than carefully considered reveals.

Although they may be a little rough around some of their edges, the 8 House units, which are considered “mid-market” by Danish standards, seem like appealing places to live. Most apartments have dual exposures and all have open and airy layouts, terraces or garden spaces, and niceties such as tiled baths and hardwood floors. And then there is the allure of BIG’s social vision. But it is too soon to know for certain if the hoped-for sense of community and neighborhood vitality will materialize, because current market conditions are very different from those during the boom times when the project was conceived. A little over half of the apartments have sold since the building’s completion in December and a 25-unit apartment tower included in the original scheme has been put on indefinite hold.

However, there are encouraging signs of 8 House’s potential. On a gloomy early spring afternoon, the café, which sits at the building’s low, southwest tip, had customers even though it was well after lunchtime. Patio furniture had begun to populate the terraces and entry gardens, and from a vantage point in the northern courtyard, office workers could be seen busy at their desks.

The building is apparently popular with nonresidents, including architectural tourists. There are enough of these visitors that one page of the sales office website has instructions for obtaining permission for tour groups. It is the only part of the site in English — one indication that the building is already a destination for design junkies from all over the world.

According to Ingels, the building also attracts people from other parts of the city. In good weather, they stroll on the looping path’s man-made terrain. “Since Copenhagen is so flat,” he says, “they come to enjoy the urban landscape."

Owner: St. Frederikslund Holding

Completion Date: December 2010

Gross square footage: 650,000

Total construction cost: $133 million

BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group
Norrebrogade 66D 2nd Fl
2200 CPH N, Denmark
T  +45 7221 7227
F  +45 3512 7227

August 2011
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