by Zohra KhanJul 11, 2020
In a time of multidisciplinary practices, there is still a polemic stand on what constitutes architecture, and more importantly what defines an architect. Constructing forms, spatial experiences and buildings are no longer terms exclusive to architecture. The increasingly overlapping nature of architecture and art has enforced a more nuanced understanding of our terminology. In any given experimental project, terms like space, place or expanse can sometimes reveal the primary disciple of its designer. Architects tend to extend their practices beyond structures and buildings, incorporating product, art and landscape into their work, in an attempt to craft a holistic narrative. What would happen should that narrative be reversed? Giving voice to this didactic discourse is Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann’s latest spatial installation Fjordenhus (Fjord House). Designed as the new headquarters for Kirk Kapital, the building sits off the man-made harbour of the city of Vejle, Denmark, seemingly floating in the Vejle Fjord. The company’s origin can be traced back to 1932 and Ole Kirk Kristiansen, the founder of LEGO.
While Behmann is an architect, Eliasson is not, and herein lays the discourse. Studio Other Spaces (SOS) co-founded by Eliasson and Behmann in 2014, was set up with the intention of creating and realising large-scale experimental architectural projects, with both names attributed to the creation of the project. Fjordenhus is the first major project to be constructed since the foundation of SOS but remains a Studio Olafur Eliasson creation, while marking itself as more than an art installation. There is a synergy to the dual nature of the building, which took almost nine years to be realised. Both a work of art and a functional structure, the building can be seen from two distinct points of view. While Eliasson talks about the experiences and framed vistas from within the structure, Behmann discusses the importance of the setting and the connection of the building to its context. Never implying that art and architecture are the same, the duo emphasises the importance of being able to collaborate to create something new.
The collaboration is not limited to Behmann designing the building and Eliasson filling it with spatially sensitive artwork. The building itself is designed as a work of art, undergoing both an artistic and architectural design process. The combined process is evident in the joint description of envisioning the building emerging from the water, even at the concept stage. Being in the building and seeing the building - these are the two dialogues the building has written into its own architecture.
The structure itself has a primal spatial understanding that looks at volumes as opposed to form. Taking inspiration from the local harbour structure, the Fjordenhus opens up its volumes from the inside looking out. The driving design feature is the vertical voids that are cut out along the periphery of the structure. These distorted voids were formed by connecting a circle at the top with an eclipse at the base, making this detail a good analogue for the conjunction of the two streams working together - connecting the more ephemeral aspects of art to the more physical forms of architecture. A systematic repetition of the deformed cylindrical void encircles the defining circular plan to create a sculpted drum with parabolic arches framing its periphery. Four of these drums were then interconnected to the mass of Fjordenhus. The surface cut-outs and windows may seem like they are parametrically designed details, but were in fact further modulated to take into account the sun’s path to minimise its impact on the building. The complex curvilinear surface of the building called for an equally understated material expression. Constructed essentially in bricks that are designed in 15 different colours and multiple shapes, there are three additional bricks that are glazed in three distinct colours, giving the surface of the structure a unique visual finish. Some of the bricks were custom designed to incorporate specific functions like acoustics and airflow, almost paying homage to Kirk’s Lego heritage.
The ground floor of the Kirk Kapital headquarters is a double heighted open plaza that can be accessed by the public. Due to the parabolic cut-outs along the perimeter of each individual drum, the complete plan allows for interesting spaces for Olafur Eliasson to situate his larger than life installations. At the same time, the office floors are also confronted with cylindrical spaces with contorted perimeter walls. This particular spatial quality led to the conception of a custom furniture system designed particularly for this building and potentially limited to this project. If the furniture system is limited to the Fjordenhus, how does it differ from the ceiling mounted Fjordhvirvel or the Undervandsforventning installation in the plaza? This is where the conversation between art and architecture perhaps becomes a bit more complicated. Does unique furniture designed by an art studio become art? If not, then are the artworks in the plaza, products? And do they have a purpose beyond completing the architectural narrative? In fact it could be argued that the bricks themselves are a product.
Behmann states, “The plaza has no programme. The programme is the artwork.” A private building with floor space that does not have a quantifiable value is a rare occurrence. However it was always a part of the design concept; according to Behmann the client wanted to give something back to the public and to the city. Since the opening, the plaza has been privy to over 600 visitors daily, each coming to experience the ground floor, its materiality, its vista’s and its artwork. These moments are only possible with a client willing to experiment; it is possible to offer a public space in a private building without any compromises.
Tethered to the edge of the question ‘what is architecture and what is art?’, Behmann simply comments, “We don’t say that art is architecture and architecture is art, but very closely together you can really form something extraordinary with multidisciplinary thinking. We also collaborate with other people, dancers, philosophers, but the strongest connection is our common spatial thinking. We wouldn’t say it is purely art or architecture, it is somewhere in between and it is more or less created between the dialogues spoken with each other.”
(The article was first published in Issue#20 of mondo*arc india journal – an initiative by STIR.)