When asked “what is your favorite project?” Michael Christensen thinks for a moment, and then firmly responds: “The DTU Compute in Copenhagen (namely the Education and Office Building on the campus of the Technical University of Denmark, opened in 2015, seen on these pages, ed).
How could we disagree? It is a glass cube full of light, perfectly inserted in the landscape, totally designed for the students, whom we saw studying, conversing and relaxing (or also sleeping) in the shade of green indoor micro-oases. Born in 1960, founder and leader of the Danish studio Christensen & Co. Architects (which he opened in 2006 in Copenhagen, giving up the prestigious position as creative director of Henning Larsen Architects, a historic Danish architecture firm), for eleven years Michael Christensen has churned out hundreds of square meters of public spaces (above all schools and university campuses) with a very precise idea: to give form to ‘good architecture,’ i.e. architecture that is easy to inhabit, open to life, attentive to the nature of places. But where above all the sense of beauty is combined with that of social responsibility, giving rise to a wider-ranging concept of sustainability: not just technological performance, but also service, care, community. To guarantee widespread quality in everyday life, as the architect tells us in this exclusive interview.
Arch. Christensen, your studio is considered one of the pioneers of sustainable design: you have created the largest low-energy building in Denmark, the Navitas science facility in Aarhus. In your view, is sustainability synonymous with ‘good’ architecture?
Of course. There can be no quality in architecture if it is not able to respond to the needs of social and civil interaction modern society has to pursue, and all those needs that necessarily spring from the context in which you build. These are aspects that have to do with good common sense, and have always been part of the history of construction.
Just consider the more primitive expressions of architecture: from the origins, the construction of a building in a give geographical context was linked to management of its energy aspects, in the sense that case by case it was more logical to retain heat inside, or to release it outside, adapting the form of the building to the character of the climate. In Greenland, for example, the buildings have a rounded roof to ensure less exposure of the surface to the cold, and the same thing happens in African huts, this time for protection from the sun.
When is a project a success from the viewpoint of sustainability?
If you manage to optimize multiple aspects in a single solution, the result is somehow better. A design performs well when you realize that the quality of natural light is good, the proportions are well balanced, the space is carefully designed, the materials are chosen with care… In short, when the design process does not focus only on the technical aspects of sustainability, but on the wider objective of making a ‘good’ work of architecture.
What should never be missing in one of your projects?
Let’s talk about the two buildings you visited (the DTU Compute and the DTU-Life Science & Bioengineering, the new educational building for Aqua, Food and Veterinary Engineering, on the campus of the Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen, opened last May, seen on these pages, ed): you will have noticed that they are particular constructions. The shared idea is that of ‘using’ spaces to make people come together.
So if you ask me what makes our architecture special or what we would like people to think in this regard, the answer is this: to know how to bring people together, to make them meet, to foster dialogue. In short, what we call the ‘three-dimensional social level‘ of the building… Of course, then one also perceives whether the space is well proportioned, whether the natural light is controlled in the right way… but in any case, the most important basic idea is that of bringing people together.
And does ‘good’ architecture also imply social and cultural responsibility on the part of the designer? In the end, the architect ‘creates’ but at the same time he ‘destroys,’ contributing to transformations of the territory that are not always positive…
Obviously we have a social and cultural responsibility when we design houses, streets, squares, public buildings: we have to boost the most commendable individual and collective human behaviors. Of course responsibility has to be combined with quality, and this is one of our constant objectives, and also aesthetics, because it is obvious that if the result is not concretely attractive it will lose its value.
I would go so far as to say that beauty can be seen as a parameter of sustainability: a beautiful building is destined to last in time, encouraging its maintenance over the years, while an ‘ugly,’ poorly designed building is more prone to being demolished or altered, with added costs.
Your studio is well-rooted in the Scandinavian territory: you design above all in Denmark, Sweden, Norway… Is this a choice guided by opportunities, or do you not believe in the globalization of architecture?
Our roots are European, but there is definitely a Nordic sentiment inside our projects. We are always looking for light, for example, because here in the winter we have very little. Nevertheless, I believe in an egalitarian and democratic society, values shared by Italy, France, Spain, in short by the European historical and social tradition…
The reason we work mostly in Sweden or Norway is because we speak more or less the same language, we have a lot in common in cultural terms. But we are ready to make our contribution as architects anywhere, though asking ourselves this question: “Can we share the values of the people who live in this place? If the answer is yes, then we can work together.”
So the practice of architecture is linked to the values of civil society?
Well, there has to be some common ground. I think about just the aspects connected with sustainability... for many years – at least 15, I’d say – architecture had a sort of ‘Bilbao effect’ (referring to the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry in 1997 in that city, ed): even the smallest cities had to have their own museum, an iconic element, so architecture was transformed into a sort of exclusive, high-fashion product.
In my view this is the negative and above all non-sustainable side of the globalization of architecture, which loses its capacity for pragmatism, the concrete ability to do what is necessary in the most efficient possible way. There is a big difference between the iconic aspect of a building, which makes it spectacular and full of charisma, and what we might call the responsible aspect, which transforms the building into a product useful to the community, like houses, schools, universities…
You see, I firmly believe in substance. Architecture is not sculpture: a building, first of all, has to respond to the needs and requirements that come from the society. If then the architect is able to do that in an aesthetically convincing way, he has reached his objective: to combine the sense of beauty with the specific/logical needs that a given context calls for. Which goes beyond style, beyond language
photos David Zanardi – article Laura Ragazzola