Young talent transforming Danish architecture

17 November 2017



With firms rivalling the world’s best in scale and creativity, and young talent rapidly rising, the Danish architecture scene has never been more exciting. JDS Architects founding principal Julien De Smedt, 3XN’s Jan Ammundsen and Brian Vargo of recently founded Vargo Nielsen Palle speak with Bradford Keen about how core principles shape the national aesthetic and why they’re finding favour beyond the country’s borders.


When a pair of ambitious young gunslingers left the safety and prestige of OMA to start their own practice in the early 2000s, Copenhagen did not seem like the most obvious place to set up shop. Belgian native Julien De Smedt, armed with a skateboard, a vision and a desire for societal change, alongside his then partner Bjarke Ingels, a native son of the Danish capital, established PLOT in 2001. Although they have since parted ways, it is testament to what happened in the country in the years that followed – despite both architects’ reputations and practices growing well beyond its borders – that they have remained firmly rooted in the city.

“We were in a vacuum,” De Smedt says of those early days in Copenhagen at the beginning of the millennium. “There was nothing going on – definitely nothing interesting. Unemployment among newly graduated architects was around 95%; no new offices had been created in the past 10–15 years. There were a handful of architect offices getting all the jobs. We were in a situation where change needed to happen.”

The transformation came when architects began tackling societal issues, and injecting new and meaningful ideas into projects.

“We were having interviews with the daily newspapers, discussing architecture in terms of how it benefits society, and that was a shift,” says De Smedt, who subsequently founded JDS Architects in 2006, with offices first in Copenhagen then Brussels, and new studios set to open in Stockholm and New York before the end of the year.

Social cohesion has now become a hallmark of Danish architecture.

“All the guys doing cool stuff and good work today worked for us back then,” De Smedt says, citing the success of Cobe, Jaja and EFFEKT. “I feel happy and proud that those issues went beyond our work and got to invade everybody else’s mind.”

Trust in the next generation

Danish architects know how to tell convincing design stories, setting the narrative within a context of social and environmental responsibility, boldness and a focus on the future.

This national philosophy finds embodiment in the new Aarhus School of Architecture. Favouring the designs of fledgling Vargo Nielsen Palle (VNP) – a little over a year old – instead of plans proffered by established practices such as BIG, SANAA and Lacaton & Vassal, the purpose-built school will be part of a community regeneration project that provides a social space for all in the neighbourhood.

Brian Vargo, co-founder of VNP, launched the firm with “three friends sitting around the kitchen table in Copenhagen”. They entered the NEW AARCH competition and are now responsible for the 12,500m² campus in Godsbanearealerne, set for completion in 2020. The architecture school has been situated in its ‘temporary home’ in Nørreport for over 50 years but will move into the former industrial area to serve multiple user groups beyond students.

“If we hold two thoughts together – appreciation for the site’s ethos and mutual ambition to make a school of architecture that isn’t just an institution – the design writes its own story,” Vargo says. “The school is just the backdrop for what this context already means to the city and to the creative process generally.”

VNP winning the architecture school project is indicative of a greater trend in the country: trust in young architects. Vargo calls it a “new era, where graduate architects work on design competitions, and build their own identity and brand organically, instead of following the traditional model of working for 20 years at an established firm before pursuing their own practice”.

“It’s great because we are a creative industry,” he explains. “The more people that are creating the culture of what architecture is, the more voices you have, and the more it can evolve and develop. Just because you’ve been doing something for ten years doesn’t mean that you’re the best at doing it. You have to evolve, and I think that’s a fundamental thing that has probably been supported more in Denmark than other places.”

3XN, meanwhile, is neither new nor staid. After 30 years of operations, the firm continues to find innovative ways to invigorate architecture locally and abroad. Senior partner Jan Ammundsen says that a defining trend among Danish architects is being bold.

“There seems to be a belief that new things can be better,” he says. “It’s not only what has worked in the past or what is good; architecture can make a city, school or hospital different – if you try to – and that is really important. It’s possible to do better and try something new.”

Ammundsen says that sitting within the industry makes it harder to tell definitively what drives the design evolution in the country, but a substantial component comes from the government and resulting support structures. Foundations such as Realdania – a philanthropic organisation committed to social development – are vital for fostering new thinking and ways of doing.

So ingrained is this national culture of innovation that sources of recognition even come from the queen, who often awards cultural medals to young, progressive people.

“Denmark has understood one thing that most countries haven’t: being progressive and innovative is a ticket to growth and success,” says De Smedt.

Feeling the environment

Currently lecturing at Syracuse University in New York, with previous semesters at MIT in Massachusetts and the University of Stockholm, De Smedt says academia gives him space to contemplate theory in a way that the daily management of a successful architectural practice precludes. A major topic he addresses is the combination of infrastructure and architecture, and how architects can plan projects with communities and municipalities in order to optimise them.

“A lot of money has been put into infrastructure, and sold as a combination of infrastructure and architecture, but it could be a lot more cost-efficient and society could do more interesting projects,” he says.

Focusing on design’s ability and responsibility to build a better society is a conversation that has lately grown in popularity. Social togetherness, integration and dynamism are at the heart of Danish debate about the built environment.

“There’s the belief that design makes a difference and that it’s possible for it to ‘feel’ rather than just ‘do’,” says Ammundsen. This can be achieved by creating narratives for buildings through the progressive societal and environmental power of architecture.

“Our way of looking at sustainable solutions as a part of the foundation of what we do is really important,” Ammundsen continues, “and it links to where we come from, our climate and our design tradition. It’s not something we add on at the end; it is a major part of how we think. It’s also about finding a new problem to solve within different constraints, and that pushes design to find different ways to drive sustainability even further.

“Design style is not an expression or picture of something; it’s a way of thinking. What we try to do is reduce the constraints in all projects to design around them. We use them to inform the design.”

Break the mould

An important part of overcoming constraints is choosing the best way to discuss projects. Referring to the Blue Planet, Denmark’s national aquarium based in Copenhagen, Ammundsen says, “We invent a language to inform the design and as a way to speak about the building. That’s how we know if it’s the right thing for the building or not.

“We spent a lot of time during the construction phase telling the story to all the companies we were working with. It’s easy for people to build if they understand the story behind the design.”

Danish architects are telling an increasing number of these stories overseas. Building Design’s list of global top firms, based on the number of fee-earning architects they employ, includes Danish practices CF Moller (at 72 employees), Henning Larsen (at 81) and BIG (at 89), and there are a host of smaller firms trailing them and picking up international commissions.

With so many Danes designing in the global space, do they run the risk of losing those quintessential homegrown characteristics? Will they ditch the skateboards to become part of the establishment? De Smedt has his concerns.

“My only regret about the way it is going today is that it’s a little more conventional and it is stuff you’ve already seen,” he says. “Ten years down the line, there should be new things coming out. When anything happens that is revolutionary, you also become a victim of your success. It becomes a method of how to do stuff. It’s time for a new revolution.”

So where does it begin? “You need a real problem,” De Smedt explains. “I think what’s happening with migrants is becoming an issue in Europe in general, and we already see it triggering resistance and reactions that are bad and good. I think it is probably going to be the crisis to trigger new ideas.”

Regardless of whether or not you agree that Danish architecture needs to change, the Scandinavian nation has already helped define a humanising movement. By fostering community, demanding sustainability and harnessing the potential of youth, the country celebrates its bold culture of design.

The NEW AARCH mixing chamber, designed by Vargo Nielsen Palle, ADEPT and Rolvung og Brøndsted.
The International Olympic Committee headquarters, designed by 3XN following its entry to an international competition.


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