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The Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts

Copenhagen, Denmark

ChristofferStory

Tutor: Christoffer Harlang

Which institution do you teach at?

Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark

How many students do you have?

110

What level are your students at?

Diploma/Masters

When did you start teaching there?

Tutor from 1986. Became professor in 2009 and started Transformation Masters Programme in 2010

What qualities or attributes do you want your architecture students to emerge with?

I believe there are two overriding aspects to the work of an architect and that is what I wish to impart to my students. First, I want my students to realise that all excellent architecture is based on sympathetic insight: insight into use and context, and insight into what it takes for architecture to support the individual human experience of belonging to the world. This requires a good pair of eyes and an open heart. The second aspect, with which I set out to equip my students, is what is known as ‘design competence’. This refers to the capacity to design with a sense of sensitive security: in the scales of 1:500, 1:50 and 1:1. That is something they can practise.

How and what do you teach your students?

I teach them everything I know. Maybe that does not sound like very much. But I try to teach my students a method based on acquainting themselves thoroughly with the contexts, out of which their architecture grows, and hence how they are changed by them. This method always involves three aspects of the world around us: the technical, the historical and the phenomenological. I want to teach students to move within a dynamic structure, in which these aspects prevail. That means I require insight into, and mastery of technique, knowledge of history and a phenomenological sensitivity. No more and no less.

What tools, techniques, or methods do you use in your teaching?

A couple of years ago I had the great fortune to work with Robert Wilson at Watermill in the United States. Part of the agenda was to create a theatrical performance on the subject of the life of Arne Jacobsen. Wilson taught me that we can perceive and express our visible world by deploying the same genre-based perspectives on which European painting is based: landscape, still life and portrait. I have pilfered that method, so all my students now apply it to all their assignments. This trains them constantly to take into account what context they are dealing with, and accustoms them to balance proximity with distance: the big within the little, and vice versa.

I do my utmost to articulate what I believe architectural quality to be; we work on the basis of very clear methodological concepts; and we demand that everything, EVERYTHING, the draught of all of the work they submit, be in accordance with excellent graphic standards.

One of the seminal ideas which has led to the success of our teaching is the fact that we have created an academic environment, in which teaching and research are totally integrated. Everyone works on the same themes and according to the same methods.

How does your approach to teaching sit within the ethos of the institution?

It would seem that our method and techniques are considered extremely rigid. But I believe that our students find them very liberating, something that inspires them to enhance their own individuality. I believe that they represent a concrete and broader interpretation of the distinguished Beaux-Arts tradition, which the Royal Academy represents. We are literally transforming tradition.

Does your approach sit within a wider school of thought?

The funny thing is that the integration of research and education is not something we invented. It was exactly what Kaare Klint and Kay Fisker did in the 1930s, when they created the department of furniture and the housing laboratory in the Royal Academy. And there is little doubt that this had an unambiguous impact on the design of furniture and housing in Denmark.

Is this a local school of thought or a national ethos; continental or global?                                                              

What we do must be totally relevant to anyone who wishes to practise culturally based architecture. So we have a strong link with inspiring environments: particularly in England and Switzerland, where we share our fascination with the reciprocity between cultural creation and cultural preservation with talented colleagues at ETH and the London Metropolitan University.

Has your approach changed or evolved since you started teaching? If so, how and why?

Yes. It evolves all the time. It has to. Because the conditions that determine the practice of architecture are evolving radically. In my department all the teachers are practising architects, and we make a conscious effort to ensure that the practical projects we work on are both relevant and typical, in terms of what the students will experience, when they graduate: in architecture practices, administrative departments and other areas of the architectural sector. But the fundamental approach to the essence of the subject has remained constant throughout all the years that I have been involved: that an architect is shaped out of mental empathy and technical mastery.

How were you yourself taught? And by whom?

I studied at the Royal Academy under professor Erik Christian Sørensen, and in the mid-1980s I studied with Mohsen Mostafavi at the AA.

How does the way you teach today relate to how you were taught then?                                                                            

I am indebted to Sørensen, who was a great source of inspiration. He still is. Not a day goes by without some kind of reference to his teaching and to the culture of architecture that he embodied. My time at the AA is also of great importance for me and I am sure that, were it not for friends such as Elizabeth and Brian Henderson, I would not be where I am today.

Who has/have been your most successful/surprising student(s) and what are they doing now?                              

I try to involve my best students in my practice and in the department at the Royal Academy. One of the great rewards of being a tutor is to meet former students and to see how successful they have become out in the big wide world. Victor Julebäk, Ask Aistrup and Mette Hübsmann are just some of the many talented individuals out there. The pay is ridiculous, but the rewards are enormous!

Why do you teach?                                                                          

I think I started as a teacher because I loved the atmosphere at the Royal Academy and because I knew that it was the best way to improve my own skills as an architect. Today I teach because the students inspire me in so many ways. These young people constitute enormous collective energy.

What is your greatest responsibility as a tutor?

To give the students the courage and the skills to contribute to the further development of architecture. In the words of Gustav Mahler, it is not about teaching students to worship the ash, but to maintain the flame.

What have you learnt from teaching?

I have learned that it takes a long time to become a good teacher and a good architect. I like to think that I get better at both, each and every day.

Does your teaching relate to any of the other activities that you do, for example, your practice? If so, in what way?

I consider them two sides of the same coin. Everything works beautifully together. The problem is simply that the teaching profession is extremely time consuming and extends beyond the studio. But I cannot imagine one without the other.

What is the greatest piece of advice that you could give to students entering the profession today?

Only enter it if you are prepared to let it consume your whole life. Just as a woman cannot be 50 per cent pregnant, an architect cannot be 50 per cent an architect. But also remember that there are many different ways of being an architect. Find your own.

What is the greatest piece of advice you have been given over your career, and who was it from?            

Exactly what I just said. Sørensen encouraged me to enter the architectural profession in my own way.

What is the purpose of architectural education today? Has this changed from when you studied?

Both yes and no. Because the profession has changed so much, the education had to change too. That goes without saying. The field of knowledge is much greater today. It is more complex and intricate, and no one can claim to master it all or to have a full overview. But that is why it is vital to teach the students a methodical way of working, to teach them to acquire relevant knowledge and, most of all, to enhance their capacity to design in the most sensitive and precise way. It is important to maintain this aspect of teaching, maybe more important than ever before.

What is the biggest challenge facing architectural education today?

The biggest challenge, or even threat, comes from the institutions themselves. The heads of many architecture schools throughout the world do not understand the specific professional architectural culture in which excellent teaching and excellent research can flourish. We are inundated with principles and values which are drawn from academia and new public management, and this is poison for creative education. It is hard for me to appoint talented architects from practice in my department. But a PhD opens all sorts of career opportunities. That is not ideal.

What is the biggest challenge facing architecture today?

The practice of architecture has become both marginalised and proletarised in the last 30-40 years. Throughout the world, the conditions for promoting quality in the built environment have become much less favourable; in some places almost impossible. The biggest challenge to architecture is that it lacks legitimacy. It will only regain it if it gets better at creating cultural and social value in the form of identity and presence. In the 20th century the struggle was to do with social justice and economic progress. Now it is about achieving balance in society and nature. While architecture can provide a beautiful framework, it can also be an active co-creator. And, while the former is excellent, the latter is much more fascinating!

Student: Julia With

Project Information

Project Title: Small Movements – A Transformation of Raadmansgade 14
Completed: May 2012

What did you design for this architectural project?

This project was the transformation of an industrial backyard from the 1920s, where Danish sculptor Astrid Noack created some of her most important works. I worked with different levels of transformation – subtraction, rehabilitation, transformation and an addition, to preserve the atmosphere in the backyard.

What was the starting point of the project and how did it develop?

The starting point was the backyard context, and the atelier of sculptor Astrid Noack. The project became an investigation into how the subtle differences and fine nuances of an existing situation could be transformed into architecture that could be ordinary and highly specific at the same time. By looking very closely I found a ‘quiet awkwardness’ there – small displacements that create the backyard frame, something that can hardly be seen, more just felt.

Working with motifs from the backyard I came to understand how the buildings affected the backyard space. These motifs informed new situations that influenced my transformation of the yard and the additional building. The new addition became part of the backyard pathway and was informed by the qualities I found there.

What was the most important thing you learnt designing this project?

I got the opportunity to investigate how a site atmosphere and physical limits can act as a generator to create new buildings. By working with the site on its own terms it was given an identity that was grounded, and this I think allows for survival into the future. Even though this project was very specific, the methods I developed are general and something I try to use in every project, at any scale, anywhere. I believe the best way to work with a project is to base it on an empathic and open-minded approach.

What do you want your architecture to be about? Does this project express that?

I want my architecture to have a strong presence that is grounded in an open questioning and empathic understanding of the site and the context it writes itself into. My intention and ambition was to make the project express this.

1._Julia_With_siteplan

Site plan, Ydre Norrebro, Copenhagen

2._Julia_With_castmodel_of_the_path_and_new_addition

Negative cast model of the backyard room and new additional building as part of the same path

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Backyard registrations and the transformation into new building components

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Looking into the backyard

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Artist residential interior

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Backyard plan

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Section through backyard and new addition

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New building addition

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Site model

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Room between existing and new buildings

Student: Mette Johanne Hübschmann

Project Information

Project Title: Interweaving Old and New in Wedding, Berlin

Completed: 2013

What did you design for this architectural project?

The project is about a number of large and small interventions and transformations on a site in the Wedding district of Berlin. The site is approximately 20,000 square metres in size and comprises an industrial structure, forming a sequence of linked courtyard spaces, and a partly preserved homeless shelter built in the 1880s.

The project is based on the existing building structures and their current status, the as found condition. The programme for the interventions on the site was chosen with the intention of creating a place that over time will be used by Berliners as an integral part of urban life.

A strategy based on the idea of layering was the guiding principle of the project. The ambition is to enhance the found condition by adding new layers rather than subtracting. The strategy is dealing with addition, transformation and reuse in a way that lets the new and the old coexist and be closely linked and interwoven.

The project has been developed by working simultaneously with three different scales, where each of the scales is equally important. Three terms are used to describe the three different scales that the project is focusing on. These are: Landscape – 1:500, Still life – 1:50 and Portrait – 1:10.

For the large scale – Landscape – the aim is to rewrite the city fabric in a way that is similar and thereby continuing the surrounding urban structure. A typology typical for Berlin, which is found within the site, is the many courtyards that are linked through passages in characteristic spatial sequences. I consider them to possess a spatial quality, as they create a fascinating layering of the city – from the street space to courtyard space. The structure is therefore worth preserving and continuing. The large and small interventions are spread over a rather wide area, altering some parts while leaving others open for later transformations.

A little closer – Still Life – the project is about defining some specific building volumes and courtyards embedded in the existing structures. This scale is focused on local relations rather than on overall shape. The buildings are of different typologies and functions. This is with reference to Berlin’s backyards where the diversity of functions is wide. The shaping of the new buildings is largely determined by the existing brick walls of the ruin, as the new buildings are mainly inserted within these – adding a new layer to the existing one.

Close up – Portrait – the goal is to develop a vocabulary of details, such as window types, to create a dialogue between the old and the new. Brickwork is the main material in the existing building stock and the additions. Many of the brick walls of the former homeless shelter have been without a roof since the Second World War and are significantly weathered. These walls are no longer able to carry the load of a roof structure, so an additional layer in the form of a diaphragm brick wall is added to support the roof structure. Diaphragm brickwork is a brick construction method, where the brick itself is the load-bearing system, and it is usually built from two brick layers connected and stabilised by brick fins.

This construction type is used throughout the whole project: where building masses are added, and where the existing structures are reused. In the case of reuse, the existing wall is considered one of the two brick layers in the diaphragm construction. The new brick layers and connecting fins are built up inside the old walls. Internally, the new brickwork is treated in different ways depending on the situation. In the window glade and in relation to the rooflights, the wall is whitewashed with a thin layer of chalk, while the other parts are untreated. In those places where there is no constructional need for a supporting internal layer of brickwork, old brick texture is exposed inside the building, thereby contributing to the variation of colours and textures.

What was the starting point for the project and how did it develop?

The starting point for the project was a fascination with this specific site in Wedding, Berlin. Within the site some old freestanding brick walls had a beautiful colour and texture – something that a new brick wall wouldn’t have even if it had been built with reused bricks.

The design strategy of layering came from my fascination with the old walls. The choice of the diaphragm brick construction was a pragmatic one, it was the most suitable solution to layer on existing brick walls.

For the overall composition of the area, the aim was never to draw a masterplan, which is something I discussed a lot with one of my tutors. I decided that the project would be about these large and small interventions within the site, and I was encouraged to continue looking at different places within the project site, keeping it open where I would do the interventions and what they would be like in the first phase of the project. By working on more than one intervention the project developed in many places simultaneously. When I got lost working on one thing I just started another, until I came up with a solution for the first one. In this way the project grew over time, and I got to do some things that I didn’t expect to do in the beginning. The process was quite dynamic as there was an internal dialogue between the different interventions, but also in an ongoing discussion with the tutors about the project.

What is the most important thing you learnt in designing this project?

That might be the understanding of how building on, and adding layers to, existing structures can create great atmospheric and spatial quality. To illustrate the relationship between old and new, I used images to express and qualify the atmosphere and character of the space. Generally you could say that one thing I learnt throughout my studies at the CTR is that you don’t need to invent something new to create a place with a character, you only need to engage with the project and its context in an authentic way.

What do you want your architecture to be about? Does this project express that?

In general I am more interested in an architecture that departs from context and the concrete rather than abstraction and concepts. All the interventions I did for this project are related in many ways, but still specific to the place, use and situation – the concrete isn’t simplified or conceptualised. This creates a complexity in the interweaving between old and new. I know that it might be a difficult way to actually build, regarding site lines, contractors etc, but ideally I would like my architecture to be like that.

1._Mette_Johanne_H__bschmann

Sketch from site

2_Mette_Johanne_Hubschmann

Large and small interventions, clockwise from top left: inserted courtyard door in industrial block, park on a former empty and overgrown lot, passage to the new sports building, shop or gallery inserted in the industrial block.

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Plan - the as found situation

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Plan and section - the new and the old

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Small courtyard space, in between old and new

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Space for sport above the café, and dancehall space built within the existing walls, following theirshed-roof profile

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Still life – plan and section

Story

Studio space with a gallery and apartment, built within the existing walls

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Café space in the sports building

10.Mette_Johanne_H__bschmann

Portrait – elevation plan and sections, details of window typologies

Student: Even Olstad

Project Information

Project Title: Hansen and Hanssted: an addition

Completed: January 2013

What did you design for this architectural project?

My final postgraduate project at KTR was a meta-project in the cultural heritage field, where I examined works by the Danish municipal architect Hans Christian Hansen (1901-79). For my project, I wanted to discover some general themes and ideas that could influence my future work.  The focus shifted from transforming a work of architecture, to transforming an architect’s collected work.

By looking at his thoughts, as well as his finished work, I wanted to learn how to design in the spirit – rather than the style – of Hansen. Using the findings from my analysis, I would design a 1500 square metre addition to his first school, Hanssted, some 9 kilometres from the centre of Copenhagen, Denmark.

What was the starting point for the project and how did it develop?

Graduates at KTR work within a field of flexibly applicable theory. . In any normal transformation, an existing building or environment is analysed for historic, technical and phenomenological properties. The KTR approach to analysis was adapted to make a tool for chronological comparative analysis of multiple works of architecture.

To discover what Hansen built, all available archival material was gathered and scrutinised, to collect an exhaustive list of all his works. Focusing on the 13 projects Hansen made as project manager for the municipality of Copenhagen, the projects were subdivided into five categories by function/programme. One project was selected from each category. .  The five projects were visited and photo-registered.

Their blueprints were digitalised to make plans, elevations and sections of each project in 1:50 and 1:5. The classrooms of Hanssted and Gasværksvej – Hansen’s two built schools – were also surveyed.

Short texts were written about each project, emphasising the three scales of the KTR approach: Landscape (site and surroundings), Still-life (building) and Portrait (detail). The photos, drawings and texts were collected in a book, to be cited as a reference for what Hansen built.

In order to discover how Hansen built, dissection – another KTR tool - was applied. The two schools were axonometrically taken apart, and divided into Skin (climate screen/surfaces), Meat (space) and Bone (construction). The dissection revealed a fourth category in Hansen’s work; Muscle (secondary construction).Wedged between the primary construction and the perceived space, this secondary construction – typical of Hansen – animates the sections. This animated section, together with eight other identified properties typical of Hansen, were collected in a visual dictionary, as a reference on how Hansen built.

An understanding of why Hansen built like he did came through model tests. Four significant properties (element, joint, rhythm and animated section) were selected for continued development in a final model, representing a drastically condensed version of Hansen’s work. It had a level of abstraction that made it operative for the subsequent production of a project, without alluding to the aesthetics of the eventual result.

As with all projects from KTR, the proposed addition followed logically from the analysis. The dissection-tool was inverted to construct a building with Hansen’s four layers (Bone, Muscle, Meat, Skin). All four layers were organised as rhythmic conglomerates of elements, joined in layers for an animated section. The facades subtly reference Hansen, while the building as a whole relates to him in spirit, rather than expression.

What is the most important thing you learnt in designing this project?

Hansen and KTR offered me an opportunity to be an explorer in my own project. As I delved deeper into Hansen’s work, I discovered new paths to follow in my own. By focusing on research and analysis, I tried to rid the process of preconceived ideas. In the end, I was able to surprise myself architecturally,  and make a project that went beyond my normal limitations. I have tried to keep that trust and open mind in my professional work. Ideally,  I start every project by analysing possibilities and shortfalls, and follow opportunities to their natural conclusion. It is a liberating way to work, and has made me feel more like a gardener, helping my projects grow, than a shepherd, herding unruly projects to a destination.

What do you want your architecture to be about? Does this project express that?

I want my projects to have a grounded sense of place. A sense of place through atmosphere, and a sense of their place in time. It is a difficult thing to achieve, and I am too inexperienced to make it work every time. Sometimes I come closer to the mark than others. This project somewhat accomplished good balance. The building itself has – to me – a genuine sense of place, and through its relation both to Hansen and contemporary architecture, it feels related to its location and its time. In that way,  Hansen helped me discover what I want my input to architecture to be about.

1_Even.Olstad

Eastern facade of the existing Hanssted School (1954-58) by Hans Christian Hansen

2_Even.Olstad

Initial sketches of Hansen’s constructions, and their transformation into the subsequent interpretive models of the animated section

3_Even.Olstadl

The first kinetic model, exploring the animated section. Though the full turn of a handle, the model opens from a box into spatial motifs know from Hansen’s work and back into a box

4_Even.Olstad

The second kinetic model, exploring the animated section, and Hansen’s use of construction-as-space. Though it’s morphology, it could contain all the spatial rhythms in Hansen’s work

5.Even.Olstad

Early façade sketch, with façade louvers in closed, semi-open and fully open position

6._Even_Olstad

Final construction drawing, with the four parts from the dissection (skin, meat, muscle, bone) separated. Bone, the part most characteristic of Hansen, is highlighted

7_Even.Olstad

Final section of the east wing, showing the animated façade sections

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Interior hallway, showing the use of construction-as-space and animated façade louvers

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View from a study room for after-school groups, towards the existing school

10._Even_Olstad

View from the outside, where the new addition finishes the encircling of the school yard, begun by Hansen in 1954

Students: Victor Boye Julebäk and Ask Anker Aistrup

Project Information

Project Title: Transformation Berlin

Completed: 2010

What did you design for this architectural project?

The project is an urban transformation of two listed, former industrial sites on the Spree in Berlin, that are to be torn down as a part of the Mediaspree Plan.

What was the starting point for the project and how did it develop?

As an attempt to provide an alternative to the aggressive, rather generic urban renewal taking place at the moment, the project engages on different scales and deals with subjects such as cultural heritage and everyday life.  Notions from a four-month field study in Berlin became the basis of the project which was exhibited as 500 pages laid out on a large floor. All pages had something different to say about our meeting with Berlin and contained a variety of texts, drawings, photographs, surveys etc. Like Berlin, the project became one of layers and stories. It is not interested in making a choice between conservation or new construction but thrives in variation, ambiguity and juxtaposition, producing a diversity of spaces unimaginable with a generic approach to a living city.

The many sub projects range from a loose sketch or an idea to more elaborate proposals touching the three cornerstones of the urban transformation: the technical, the historical and the phenomenological aspect.

What is the most important thing you learnt in designing this project?

Cultivating impressions, and developing a sensitivity to spaces through their particularities, invites us to be in them rather than looking at them. It engenders a distinct architectural vocabulary that, in conjunction with technical and phenomenological surveying, documents the specific and the inherent emotional qualities offered.

What do you want your architecture to be about? Does this project express that?

I want my work to be informed by a sensitivity to experience – an awareness of specific atmospheres through the physical qualities of architecture. The project formulated a set of strong ethical values that provided an alternative to the generic, an alternative that was attentive to slowness without ignoring the economic and political realities of  building a city.

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