Historically home to vikings, kings and queens, Copenhagen is a vibrant city that mingles contemporary architecture with traditional waterways, narrow cobblestone streets, old timbered houses and ancient castles. Filled with history, its buildings embody a historic legacy that traces the memory of all the characters, epoques and events in which the city has passed through. How to keep all this history alive? By refurbishing traditional buildings within modern design, Copenhagen respectfully enjoys its historical architecture while adapting to current trends.
Taking a moment to envisage the existing built environment before addressing a clean slate, refurbishment allows architects to repurpose existing structures for a new use, preserving its character and history while reducing the environmental impact of new constructions. Through the most outstanding cases of rehabilitation of classic buildings in the city, the following article analyzes three different strategies for reusing historic buildings through innovative and sustainable design.
Integration: Bridging the Old and the New
Walking the streets of Copenhagen means passing by and experiencing medieval, gothic, renaissance, baroque, rococo, neo classical and modernist architecture; its 1,000-year evolution of architectural styles proudly displayed. Within the combination of traditional and modern elements, the city is known for reviving historical buildings through simple yet bold measures.
Transforming a former post office, Postgarden opens up the building onto the street, inviting the public inside. In order to preserve and emphasize the building’s historical features, the renovation process works with an understanding of the original drawings.
Based on the analysis of the building and its surroundings’ potential, the revitalization strategy creates a new framework for diverse businesses, showrooms and stores to receive a stream of people each day. With this, Postgarden is once again bursting with life and activity, "helping to turn the city into a collective space," according to Mikkel Westfall, creative director and partner at Arstiderne Arkitekter.
Originally built in 1861, the Valencia Pavilion has witnessed the rapid growth of its neighborhood. Exposing the neoclassical building’s unique spatial qualities, the refurbishment intensifies its visual connections and spatial flows, cleaning the individual rooms for unsettled architectural additions. With its facade facing the busy Vesterbrogade, the front building –a classical Copenhagen property in five floors– radically opens the entrance into a modern minimalist and transparent ground floor with continuous facades. Renovating the existing walls as gently as possible, with neutral floor and ceiling materials, the triple high hall is maintained as a unique wide space inside a dense neighborhood.
Addition: Incorporation of Contemporary Architectural Features
Refurbishment strategies in Copenhagen tend to include the addition of contemporary and unexpected architectural elements, giving texture, volume and character to unused historical buildings.
Such is the case of The Silo, part of the North Harbour renovation, a vast post-industrial development currently being adapted into a new city district. With an inside-out transformation, keeping the interior preserved as raw and untouched as possible, the 17-story former grain building’s facade has been reclad with an angular faceted exterior made of galvanized steel to serve as a climate shield. Assimilating the original harbor industrial character and material feel, the building’s new overcoat combines roughness and raw beauty.
By revitalizing our industrial heritage, we discover new potential and highlight historical traces in our cities. They represent a built resource. They represent our history. By doing so, we can transform what many people perceive as industrial trash into treasure. - Dan Stubbegaard, Founder and Creative Director of COBE
With a similar strategy, the project for converting the Jaegersborg Water Tower into a mixed-use building adds geometric balconies to the preexisting facade. Both the crystals and the communal balconies change its industrial aspect into a human and sculptural layer that emphasizes the landmark character of the tower.
Converting a run down factory into a base camp, Sjakket Youth Club has created a safe place for immigrant youth who often turn to the streets. Besides providing spaces for different age groups, the refurbishment establishes a positive statement that serves the area, as the addition of the studio announces Sjakket as an iconic presence on the industrial skyline of Northwest Copenhagen.
Managing the gables and structural walls preservation rules, the design uses the generous barrel vaulted spaces of the former factory for two new uses and adds a half pipe deck to connect and differentiate both spaces. Incorporating the existing building while overlaying the architectural elements provides a futuristic and bright environment for the young users.
Since 1926, the Designmuseum has been housed in one of the finest rococo buildings in the area –the former Royal Frederiks Hospital– constructed during the reign of King Frederik V in the years 1752-57. Placing new exterior display cases, the project opens up the arrival area of the museum, creating a more inviting and transparent setting. Within three elements –the repaved plaza, a new outdoor display case, and a new entrance through an adjacent café/ticket office/shop– the project creates a correlated whole, which captures the city and creates a public space where visitors and passers-by can experience and explore design through an open sky museum.
Cohesion: Annexing New Spaces
Copenhagen has integrated the design and construction of new buildings within refurbishment projects, always aiming to respect the existing structures. Besides the comprehensive transformation in which the almost 100 year-old Grøndalsvængets School has undergone, the project has been extended with two new buildings whose design follows the identity of its surroundings.
Strengthening the connection between the school and the city, the two new buildings reinterpret the pitched roofs and gables of the area. With a sustainable focus, the new buildings are built with recycled bricks from a nearby hospital and Cradle-to-Cradle certified mortar, ensuring that they can be reused in the future and become part of a long-term circular economy. In addition, by not leaving the existing building aside and transforming it to fit with contemporary student necessities (such as having differentiated learning spaces), the project’s carbon footprint is reduced and it adds to Copenhagen’s environmental future.
With a focus on the future of architecture, and as a testament to its history and architecture, in 2023, Copenhagen will be the UNESCO-UIA World Capital of Architecture and the host of the UIA World Congress of Architects. For more information about historic buildings' refurbishments, go to VisitCopenhagen.