July 1, 2009
Inspired by a trip to Brazil, two Danish architects bring Oscar Niemeyer’s bold thinking home to Aarhus.
“A cultural shock” is how the Danish architect Mette Wienberg describes her first encounter, during a 2002 trip to Brazil, with Oscar Niemeyer’s work. Having grown up with the Scandinavian architectural tradition of finely crafted details, Wienberg found the experience of Niemeyer’s bold, object-oriented designs to be transformative. “It was inspiring to see how Niemeyer was not paying attention to the detailing,” she says. “He makes such a dynamic impression with light, shape, and form, you don’t notice how rough he is with everything.”
So impactful was the South American Modernist’s example that, six years later, Mette and her husband, Martin (also an architect), imported it, applying Niemeyer’s approach to the remodeling of the home they’d purchased in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city.
By focusing on form rather than detail, the Wienbergs transformed a nondescript U-shape residence into a striking architectural creation. Their strategy was relatively straightforward: in addition to modernizing the existing building (notably, by replacing small, multipane windows with larger glass squares), they added a two-story volume. Containing a living room and a kitchen/dining area, and topped by a loft space, the addition closed the U and created an inner court. Niemeyer’s grandly gestural influence becomes apparent in the couple’s decision to finish all the spaces in a single color or material—most dramatically, the sculptural living room and loft, which are clad entirely in oiled oak—in order to strengthen the interior’s connection to the wooded site. “If you have quiet rooms, the views of the garden look almost like paintings,” Mette says. Maintaining an ultra-simple palette also helps bring the outdoors in, she explains, “by keeping the focus on how the light is moving around the house.” That’s especially true in the bedrooms, located in the original house, which are finished entirely in glossy white. The transitions between the monolithic zones (including the courtyard, which is painted black) are powerfully dynamic. “Instead of having small changes between materials in each room, we make large changes in the atmosphere,” she says.
The Wienbergs discovered another benefit to their strategy: it cost approximately 25 percent less than a more complicated design would have. “The fewer changes in material you have, the easier it is to make a low-cost house, because you don’t have to be so exact,” Mette explains. “Every time you make a change from the floor to the walls to the ceiling, the details have to be precise. Otherwise it looks trashy.” Focusing on the rooms’ overall impact—rather than worrying about a series of small, costly transitions—amounts to an architectural sleight of hand. “It’s a good trick,” Mette says, “if you want to make something a normal person can afford.”