Remodelled to house Denmark’s National Maritime Museum, a former dry dock squares up empathetically to the demands of the modern visitor attraction
Like some titanic and fugitive submarine packed to its torpedo tubes with contraband art, the new Danish National Maritime Museum is buried full fathom five − or some 10 metres − below ground. It is set between the town centre of Helsingør in north-west Zealand and the fairy-tale Kronburg Castle. Guarding the Øresund strait as it passes between here and Helsingborg, a 20-minute ferry ride away on the Swedish coast, the extravagantly decorated Renaissance castle has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. Strict planning and heritage laws protecting views of Kronburg, known across the Seven Seas as the home of Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s tragic Prince of Denmark, have forced the museum not just underground, but underwater, too.
All that surfaces is a clear glass balustrade designed to stop passers-by from falling into the former dry dock where the museum lurks today out of sight yet if not, as we will see, out of mind. What is very much out of sight and out of mind today is the very reason this dry Helsingør dock and the submersible museum exist. This exposed stretch of urban waterfront was, until a quarter of a century ago, Helsingør Værft, the shipyard where Jørn Utzon’s father, an engineer, worked and that dominated the town’s economy, its life and culture for a century from its opening in 1882. At its peak, in the 1950s, some 3,600 local people were employed here from a population of about 40,000: Helsingør made ships.
By chance, I witnessed the launch of what must have been one of the very last of these on a trip to the Copenhagen Furniture Fair in 1983. This was Al-Zahraa, a 3,860-ton ship described to me by a group of engineers watching the event as a Ro-Ro ferry. In fact, Al-Zahraa was an Iraqi line ship built to carry military equipment for its dictator Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. Soon after Al-Zahraa had sailed for Basra, her destined home port, Helsingør Værft closed up shop. It was a huge blow to the town. Slowly and steadily, however, the town has reinvented itself as a cultural force.
The old shipyard is now home to the ambitious Culture Yard located in 19th-century maritime warehouses cloaked in faceted glass by AART architects of Aarhus. The castle − whose first architect was the Italian-trained Hans Hendrik van Paesschen, who went on to design the first Royal Exchange in London for Sir Thomas Gresham in the 1560s − was newly renovated, yet it lost the national maritime museum that had, for many years, graced its high-ceilinged rooms. Although, this was a special and relaxed museum with models of historic ships in tall timber cases, just 50,000 people came this way each year, not enough to satisfy Helsingør’s new-found appetite for cultural tourism now that it had abandoned full-scale ships.
And, so you gradually descend the giant ramp down into that dry dock in the long, phantasmagorical shadow of Kronburg. While the museum was under construction, a forlorn and rusting Al-Zahraa, which had been impounded in Bremerhaven since 1990 as UN sanctions against Saddam’s Iraqi regime hardened, was towed to Lithuania where she was cut up.
As if in recompense, Bjarke Ingels Group (or BIG, formed in Copenhagen in 2005) and their Amsterdam-based exhibition architects, Kossmann.dejong − there are lots of bold yellow graphics here, always a sign that a Dutch firm has been doing the rounds − have done their less-than-level best to imbue the museum with the sensations of a ship at sea. Ramps and sloping floors, combined with eccentrically angled display cases and sea-sickness-inducing video projections on walls that refuse to keep still, are some of the architectural and design games employed here to keep visitors rolling in the aisles.
BIG’s museum has been designed to attract a big audience in need of rollicking entertainment. And, so, despite its being dug underground and underwater, the new maritime museum is a sensational thing. In fact, its subterranean location only makes it all the more entertaining. The big double-height glazed ramps that zigzag through the exposed 1950s concrete dock lead down, in playful fashion, through temporary exhibitions, auditoriums and a café to a squeeze of awkwardly shaped black-box galleries crammed − with hands-on displays, and those Captain Pugwash walls, and recorded sounds of the sea - into the sides of the dock.
Here are models and paintings, uniforms, sextants and figureheads and lots of digital games: you can even tattoo a virtual sailor. Somewhere in all the darkness, noise and projections you can find out about life on board a 17th-century Danish ship sailing to the colonies, about how between 1429 and 1857 up to two-thirds of the state’s income was derived from a toll paid by every ship making its way up Øresund to the Baltic Sea, and how food is containerised and transported absurd distances to supermarkets today in an improvident attempt to satiate our desire for ever more and ever cheaper calories.
The sheer noise of the architecture and exhibition fit-out combined seem designed as if to make up for the historic loss of the animated life of the decommissioned shipyard. The dock the museum sits in, and is a part of, appears to have been preserved as an exhibit of itself − a kind of void measuring an impressive 150 by 25 by 8 metres and symbolising, perhaps, the loss of shipbuilding in Helsingør. Even then, the ‘preserved’ dock is something of a conceit, as its walls have been rebuilt, and large windows cut into them to light museum offices and other spaces ostensibly secreted behind all that concrete.
The strength of the museum’s design lies, I suppose, in the ways in which BIG have made the maximum, if not necessarily optimum, use of space given the very specific and demanding planning restrictions placed on the site. And being BIG, the architects have upended these legal limitations to advantage, making what is certainly a sensational space. And, yet, wandering through these whizzy, dizzying spaces, I felt an increasing sense of nostalgia for the old maritime museum housed, as if on a happily becalmed sea, in the nearby castle.
This feeling took me in my mind’s eye to two Scandinavian maritime museums where the ships themselves and a true sense of the sea have always been more important than putting on entertainment for architectural neophiliacs while playing to the popular gallery to raise visitor numbers to the maximum. One is the calm, quietly inventive Viking Boat Museum at Roskilde, also in Zealand, designed by Erik Christian Sørensen, which was opened in 1969 to display a small fleet of longboats that had been deliberately sunk in Roskilde fjord in around 1070 to protect this settlement against raids.
Here, Sørensen’s layered, gently day-lit and restrained concrete boathouse not only allows visitors to understand the nature and construction of the skeletal ships on display, but it also serves as a base for fascinating work including the reconstruction of Viking boats on which visitors can sail. The sea here is happily real. Meanwhile, little prepares first-time visitors to the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy, Oslo, for the dream-like sight of the Oseberg ship, an astonishingly well-preserved Viking long boat crafted in oak and dating from about AD820.
Its structure can only fascinate any architect worth his or her timbers, while the quality of its decoration would have sent William Morris into literary overdrive. And, yet, this boat − and its siblings here at Bygdøy − are berthed in a modest, purpose-built museum designed by Arnstein Arneberg in the guise of what appears to be a chapel crossed with a boatshed. Here, as at Roskilde, the architect has taken a step backwards to allow the Viking boats to reap their full glory. At Helsingør, the architecture dominates even though it does its BIG thing below ground.
Perhaps, though, BIG and the Danish Maritime Museum have done the right thing in shaping their unexpectedly sensational building. I called up Trip Advisor, that gloriously comic log written by some of the world’s most determined malcontents, to find this written recently by a visitor to Bygdøy:’While the Viking ships on display are unique objects, paying 90 krone for entry is simply not worth it. As interesting as the idea of a Viking ship is, seeing three displayed in separate alcoves with a brief description of where they were found doesn’t make for very inspiring viewing.
The museum is regrettably too small, with little else on display, and not interesting enough to warrant the price.’ I thought the Oseberg ship was one of the most moving and beautiful objects I have ever seen, and it was more than enough to make a pilgrimage to Arneberg’s modest museum to experience this one exquisite exhibit. But, the Danish Maritime Museum knows that the vast majority of visitors today want a very BIG bang for their krone. The more objects, the greater variety of effervescent, blinking, bleeping entertainment, and the more fun ramps to climb up and down the better.
Curiously, though, one of the most celebrated of all Danish buildings not built in recent decades, is Jørn Utzon’s 1963 design for the Silkeborg art gallery in Jutland. This was to have housed a collection of contemporary European art donated to the town by the painter Asger Jorn. The galleries were to have been buried through three underground storeys with only a small sculptural clerestory visible to passers-by. A ramp would have wound its serpentine way down into the galleries, their plan and form shaped by equally complex geometries Utzon found in nature.
Silkeborg had been the headquarters of the Gestapo after the German invasion of Denmark in 1940; the Nazi secret police dug underground bunkers into the beautiful forest landscape. Asger Jorn, a communist resistance fighter sought, I can’t help feeling, to reverse the idea of these bunkers, to shape with Utzon a world of art and the imagination in the depths of the cool, welcoming earth.
The museum was to have been quiet, discreet and soulful. When in 1964 he was offered a Guggenheim Award, with a generous cash prize attached, Asger Jorn wired back to Harry F Guggenheim: GO TO HELL BASTARD-STOP-REFUSE PRIZE-STOP-NEVER ASKED FOR IT-STOP-AGAINST ALL DECENCY MIX ARTIST AGAINST HIS WILL IN YOUR PUBLICITY-STOP-I WANT PUBLIC CONFIRMATION NOT TO HAVE PARTICIPATED IN YOUR RIDICULOUS GAME.
The title of BIG architects 400-page comic-style book publicising the practice’s work is Yes is More. The strange thing about the new Danish Maritime Museum is that at first glance it appears to be about less − a national cultural building sunk into a raw concrete void − yet, once you take that first step down the ramp into the all-shantying world below deck, less becomes more and more, ever bigger and ever further removed from the calm beauty of maritime museums elsewhere in Scandinavia. Yet who could say that the Vikings themselves were a quiet, well-behaved and unambitious lot as they set sail to run amok in the world, big time?
Architect: Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG)