Alexandra Lange | Essays

Super 8

All images from Dwell

This seems to be the week of the 8 House. It is on display at Scandinavia House's Snohetta-curated Nordic Models + Common Ground exhibition. It is featured in a slideshow at Dwell. Architect Bjarke Ingels of BIG has opened a New York office after designing the second-most popular pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. And he's partnered with the Durst organization on high-rise housing around a central courtyard for a site at the end of 57th Street. Obvious nickname: The Slope. The sudden ubiquity of BIG and its big building is one of those strange confluences of events that points to the increasing unreality of the way we consume architecture: digitally, with little means of distinguishing rendering from reality from cleaned-up-for-the-photo-shoot.

The first thing I must note about 8 House is: it's not ready. This would not bother me if I hadn't been there three weeks ago in expectation of seeing a finished product, and found instead a construction site with a sales office and a fancy cafe. The sales office is ironically marked with pink vinyl signs reading HOME, in what has to be one of the least homey environments I have recently encountered. The cafe was marked with paper signs, more homely but in the same font, and arrows leading you past the maisonettes, past the earth movers, and to the prow of the 8-shape ship that is the building. Shades of Le Corbusier, twisted. I couldn't believe it but the cafe was open, busy, serving excellent French fries with a view of the savanna: a vast open grassland, flat as can be, between Orestad and the airport. No animals, but many exercising people.

To get to 8 House you take the subway (nicest I've ever been on, silent, concrete tunnels so clean you could eat off the floor) south of old Copenhagen, past Jean Nouvel's blue cube, past other glassy high-rise blocks in the shape of an O, an open book, a wave. Past a new glassy mall that forms the center of Orestad, the satellite encampment of glass apartment houses of which 8 House is only the latest and not necessarily the most extreme. Another one under construction, seen from the subway, seemed to have one wall covered in pixellated wallpaper, a la the Venturi Scott Brown Best showroom.

It took me some time to realize that what I was seeing was a vertical suburb. Mostly housing, shops concentrated at the mall, a cultural center, a university, more housing. Easy access to public transport for the commute to the center, but still, moats of parking lots. It was only the form that was un-American. Here we build our glass houses for rich people, in cities, with a view, along the lines of 100 Eleventh Avenue or On Prospect Park. There the idea seemed to be bigger apartments for families on the outskirts, a radiant city built by many hands but with the same aesthetic. There was a kindergarten in the base of one block (indicated by bouncing porthole windows), and tiny playgrounds dwarfed by their surroundings tucked into the corners of others. The building that amused me the most, the open book, had a sort of Seven Dwarfs climbing structure in its central nook, clearly added after protests by the hundreds of owners of bikes with baby seats parked along the base of the el. The play architecture didn't fit with the rigorously geometric ground plane, and the sentimentality of the little house didn't fit with the big one.

I felt disturbed by Orestad for two reasons. One, it made the contemporary architecture in New York look like nothing: this was an entire Eastern Parkway of buildings built in the last five years. And two, is this the way to live? It had the access to transportation, reasonable density, light and air and open space, interesting architecture (within an extremely limited range) that are the way we Americans talk about building in the inner ring. But it totally lacked urbanism. Nothing was happening at ground level except bike storage, design-y multi-color mailboxes, porthole windows for the five-year olds. 8 House had a cafe, but a 7-11, ubiquitous in other parts of the city, was hard to find. Nouvel's cube had cool outdoor furniture by a new canal, but no gondoliers. All that design, and it still felt like I was pushing my stroller across the deserted streets in some part of Vienna, looking for Loos. Except this time it was a parking lot. The stairs to all those floor-through apartments, which Ingels describes as a slanted street, seemed very steep for anyone, and particularly a small child, someone carrying groceries, a bicycle. I could see every kitchen through the glass front doors (Arne Jacobsen faucets, of course). In interviews, Ingels emphasizes numerous attempts at intimacy, at recreating the multi-dimensional space of a townhouse in a flat, but his attempt looked tortured to me. Hot on the westside. Lacking privacy from the twisted and canted "street." The cafe was an oasis, but 8 House was hardly a neighborhood.

Posted in: Architecture

Comments [1]

Can we consider the Orestad a cataclysmic influx of speculative building? A field of dreams? Alternatively, are we expecting too much out of design - expecting things to be so different or so much better overnight? What about a period of gestation where the residents get to know each other and the 'neighborhood' and live into the place?
That said, I agree - what guarantees are there that a real, living neighborhood can grow here? While we can exalt the Orestad for its move toward so-called complete neighborhood design, the most problematic aspect is the speed with which the neighborhood is being developed. No time for demand to evolve, rather, speculation and investing provide the same old top-down planning - only at warp speed.

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