Safe Harbor

Young Danish architects create a wavy structure that reclaims a polluted waterfront site for the community.

Copenhagen’s island neighborhood Amager has long been a place where the city sent the things it didn’t want: sewage, refuse, and noxious industry. In fact, Amager is partially comprised of waste materials.

The neighborhood has been undergoing a spate of redevelopment of late, but its legacy was the first thing confronting architects Bjarke Ingels and Julien De Smedt, cofounders of the Copenhagen firm Plot, as they designed the Maritime Youth House project. Funded largely by the local municipality, MYH would preserve the ad hoc sailing club that had taken up residence on a ragged stretch of Amager waterfront and create a place where local disadvantaged youth could learn to sail.

Nearly a third of the project’s budget was dedicated to waste removal on the polluted site. “The plan was to dig a meter of topsoil and drive it five hundred meters away,” Ingels says. “They are heavy metals, which don’t evaporate, so they would just sit on the other site. For the same money we could cover the site with a wooden deck and not pay the environmental tax.”

The result is what the architects term an “animated wooden landscape”: a series of gracefully arcing planked decks wrapped around a cabinlike series of glass and stainless-steel interior spaces. The site hums with abstract maritime metaphors. The form evokes the wind-shaped dunes of the Danish coast or an upside-down ship’s hull; the wood and stainless steel hint at a luxury sailing vessel. The deck is far more than an environmental cap—it makes the space seem larger than it is. As it soars to create a promenade with a view, it provides room underneath for the community’s activities and for boat storage. The deck became a fluid topography, dipping down and curving upward to contain its varied program. “It’s a negotiation between conflicting requirements,” Ingels says.

The MYH is the firm’s first completed building, but a slew of others are under way or awaiting approval, ranging from a large apartment complex rising in the Ørestad section of Copenhagen to a competition-winning design to build a green urban space on the roof of the central Magasin department store. In the meantime, they have enjoyed watching the MYH, open since last May, blossom into a new public space—shared by everyone from the sailors, who take one corner, and the winter-bathing “Vikings,” who huddle in another, to the kids, who reinvent the deck landscape for their own games. A sign warns against skateboarding, biking, and sliding. “That’s for liability,” Ingels says, adding, “I don’t think you can stop the kids from sliding.”

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