July 1, 2006
In Copenhagen, two OMA alums create an ingenious housing complex with a staggering variety of apartment layouts.
Standing on one of the triangular steel-mesh balconies that jut out like rows of jagged shark’s teeth from the side of the V House, architect Bjarke Ingels—shaggy-haired and wearing high-tops—momentarily loses the measured theoretical reserve of his profession and lapses into proud homeowner mode. “I’m really looking forward to moving here,” he says as we walk the snow-dusted outer parapet of the ninth floor. A driverless Metro train whisks by below. “The location is a bit strange,” he allows, gesturing toward the sleek Ballardian sprawl of office parks, convention centers, and assorted construction sites, “but it’s a supermodern experience. Sitting here in the summer, you could see the bridge to Sweden and the airport tower.”
The building is one-half of the VM Houses, a new residential project designed by PLOT, the firm Ingels founded with fellow architect Julien De Smedt. The scene is Ørestad, a growing infill neighborhood inspired by the speculative extension of Copenhagen’s relatively new subway line. This is Denmark in February, so Sweden is lost in diaphanous gloom—but the view still impresses.
Back at PLOT’s offices, Ingels assumes the more traditional register of an architect as he explains the thinking behind the building. “We believe it’s the optimal urban volume within the framework of a perimeter block,” he says. Popular opinion seems to agree: all 221 units sold out in three weeks, 80 percent on the first day. And critics are equally enthusiastic. The VM Houses (shaped respectively like a V and an M when seen from above) recently won the Forum Prize for best new building in Scandinavia. As no less an eminence than Peter Cook observed in his jury deliberations, “You have to ask yourself what you might have designed yourself. I have done two housing projects, and I know that I would not have been able to do this as well. It would be like burying your head in the sand not to award the prize to PLOT.”
The object of Cook’s paean began life as a piece of land, owned by Danish developer Per Høpfner, in the Ørestad master plan. The plan called for a square perimeter block—an urban housing form that uses a courtyard to create a public “front” and a private “back.” The parcel was bounded by two canals and had the strange requirement that one section be shorter than the other due to an established neighborhood of single-family homes on the west side. VM took shape based on an initial rendering of the simplest configuration: one rectangle at each end of the block with a courtyard space in between. “We wanted to squeeze as much quality out of this square perimeter block as possible,” Ingels says.
So he and De Smedt began to push the rectangles into different shapes. As a set of models in the offices demonstrates, they experimented with any number of permutations, the totality of which—collected on a display board—looks like some strange alphabet. They eventually settled on fashioning the south-facing block into a V and the north-facing block into an M. “By bending the shapes,” Ingels says, “you open up the maximum toward the two canals, which ensures that the apartments, instead of just looking at one another, all have orientation toward the landscape.” It also ensures that both evening and morning sun can enter the courtyard. The move shatters what would be a dense rectilinearity into a kind of crystalline parallax-view refraction of light and circulation.
VM was the first residential project to be built in Ørestad. “It meant that we had to deal with planning regulations and constraints based not on an existing context but on virtual variables,” De Smedt says. “We decided to create an attitude that would react to the only neighbor we had, a medium-size ugly office building to the south, and try to use the guidelines of the planning to our advantage, setting up new rules for a better quality of living.”
The complexity of the angles is compounded by the grade of the buildings—the V House slopes and the M steps dramatically upward—a function of the varying zoning height requirements at either end of the parcel. This meant that the simple floor plans PLOT originally created were “contaminated by the forces of urban design,” as Ingels puts it. Because of the sloping roof “you get this avalanche of variations,” he says. The end result is a staggering 76 floor plans in 221 units—with none repeated more than a dozen times and well over a dozen of them unique. The randomness extant at V House is most evident when you simply stand on one of the dramatic cantilevered balconies and try in vain to discern a pattern among the placement of the neighboring balconies.
Flipping through the sales booklet, which has pages of unit plans, is like reading the assembly blueprints for some massive urban machine with interlocking component parts. These are not the typical serial repetitions of rectangular flats. For example, floor plan v14 has a serrated linear sawlike form; v15a is L-shaped; v37, which is found right at the bend of the V, looks something like the head of a wrench clamping down around the stairwell. And that’s just the V House. The M House gets into even weirder forms—boomerangs and geometric shapes you never got around to learning in high school.
The various three-dimensional blocks of the different floor plans—or “typologies,” as Ingels calls them—put one in mind of an insane megascale Tetris game, in which apartments rain down into big empty volumes and must be rotated to the correct orientation. It was of course more rigorous than that—PLOT built a 1-to-50 model and put each typology under scrutiny, making adjustments where necessary. For example, the roof compromised ceiling heights in a number of top-floor V House units, so portions of it were chopped off and replaced with stepped rooftop terraces. But because of what Ingels calls the “friction” between the different forms, PLOT ended up with “a lot more eccentric typologies than we ever could have invented if we were designing from scratch.” Pointing to a particularly rhomboid drawing, he asks, “How would you convince a client that this is necessary?”
Indeed the VM Houses, De Smedt notes, violate the routine developer practice of having as small a range of apartments as possible. “As if people, you and me, would fit in one or two types of apartment and nothing else,” he says. “We live in a world where individualism has a larger resonance than previously. Diversity is well accepted, even desired. People who live in a housing complex of 221 apartments should have the same access to individuality.”
The payoff comes when one enters random units in the V House, each bristling with its own particularities. Because of its location near the highest point, Ingels’s future unit happens to feature a 46-square-foot private terrace that serves as a fire-escape route. It is accessed by a white steel bridge that hangs over the living room. We enter another unit, a single-height L-shaped affair that features a long wraparound wall of nothing but glass. The resident has hung temporary curtains along one section to reduce the glare on his laptop—truly a luxury in the light-starved Scandinavian winter.
There does not seem to be a bad apartment in the entire mix. “Even when you’re standing in the middle [of the V],” Ingels says, “you see that the logic is completely working—you have this amazing view to both sides.” Staring at the V House dead-on is like peering into a fascinating cabinet of urban curiosities—little cubes of Danish life, blond wood gleaming under Poulsen lights. The exterior, with floating panels of anodized aluminum, is cool and austere. (“The materials are so puritan because of the complexity of the spaces,” Ingels says.) But playful touches abound, such as the large ground-floor mural of Høpfner, the developer, done in standard bathroom tiles. “Until we devised the idea that it could be a portrait of the client, he didn’t want to pay for it,” Ingels jokes.
VM’s success has brought changes to PLOT, a firm that began more than five years ago out of a would-be film collaboration by two young ex-OMA architects. Ingels and De Smedt have now parted ways, each forming his own firm. “There were simply too many things, and it became hard to coordinate decisions between me and my partner,” De Smedt says. His new firm, JDS Architects, is now working on everything from an installation in New York to a hotel complex in Las Vegas. “I’ve always been very keen to work on large-scale projects. The more mass there is, the more there is to play with,” he says. “But I’d like to tie it together with the small scale. They’re two sides of the same coin: architecture is a frame, a vehicle; people and furniture populate it.”
Ingels’s new firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), has a decided tilt toward large-scale urban projects; the first, dubbed the Mountain (which De Smedt collaborated on), is located adjacent to VM. Like its neighbor, Mountain is predicated on making the best available use of the peculiar requirements of the site—in this case the apartments are to be built on top of a massive parking structure (which will also service the VM Houses). The result is a huge half-pyramid with 11 stories of cascading terraced apartments—faint echoes of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, in Montreal. Ingels calls it a “Cubist mountain range overlooking the suburbs.”
“Do you know the Notorious B.I.G.?” Ingels asked me as we returned from the VM Houses in his Volvo wagon. “I read in Wikipedia that B.I.G. stands for ‘Business Instead of Game.’” If gangsta rap and progressive Danish urbanism seem worlds apart, Ingels views Biggie Smalls’s nickname as a simple metaphor for his own “big,” moving toward ever more ambitious, and realizable, urban schemes. When the small firm PLOT landed the VM project four years ago, it was the largest commission they had ever received. “At the time we hadn’t built as much as a square foot, and the prospect of designing —and building—250,000 square feet was thrilling,” De Smedt says. VM stands as a monument to precociousness, a moment when youthful architectural idealism entered the real world and triumphed. Its high parapets are an appropriate vantage point for the former principals of PLOT to see a horizon brimming with projects and promise.