by Jens Kvorning, professor emeritus, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture
Every epoch and every artistic grouping has its dogma, its particular thinking, and its favorite figures and forms. Early modernism aimed for a complete showdown with the classical concept of city and begin anew. Historically, wars and fires have created quarries, but the reconstruction and expansion of the city has usually confirmed the thesis of it being a palimpsest – a constant overlay, addition and construction on previous period structures with modern era buildings and ideas. It is this continued dialogue between all the historical layers and voices, and the needs and ideals of a new age, that creates the dynamics of the city and makes it the great civilizational narrative. My definition of a good architect is the ability to enter fruitfully into this dialogue with the architecture of its own time.
Vilhelm Lauritzen was a committed and sovereign interpreter of modernism's program and language. Despite this ingrained modernistic skepticism of the classical, dense city, he managed to enter into an enriching and empathetic dialogue with his working context - whether classic or the new city - at the same time as he created genuinely modern buildings.
The self-understanding of Danish architects is in part why our tradition and our education holds a special attention to the context in which it is built. Lauritzen inscribes himself with great certainty in this tradition, but with a sensitivity, that also captures early qualities and tones in the landscape, he works his way into and changes. Therefore, Lauritzen is not only one of the most important representatives of international modernism in Denmark, but also one of the most important stewards of this Danish tradition of dialogue with the landscape.
The Lauritzen narrative begins with a person, but quickly becomes a collective union. The good architect is then about the extent to which this collective union is able to develop a professional culture that can further develop the constructive dialogue between contemporary architecture and the palimpsest of the urban landscape. There is already evidence that he was successful early on, and many later examples from Lauritzen's production show, that focus was to deal with the dogma of modernism.
Today, a similar study would assess whether the collective culture in a fruitful meeting is able to handle the pressure from an increasingly vociferous and spectacular architecture that launch new collections as fast as the fashion industry. And who is uninterested in any dialogue with the city's many layers and voices.
Early modernism had an ambiguous relationship to the city. The big city was seen as the prerequisite for the modern project to flourish and unfold. Simultaneously, there was a strong critique of the classic city with squares and streets considered unhealthy and culturally conservative. With his projects from 1923 (La ville Contemporaine) and 1925 (Plan Voisin), Corbusier had argued for 'a new beginning'. Where building brand new cities or renovating large parts of Paris, respectively, was seen as necessary steps to create space for the modern - for the machine age as he called modern society. Walther Gropius, Hannes Meyer and other leading modernists had presented very schematic projects for large new settlements, which through standardization and repetition were to support rational mass production. The avant-garde movement CIAM similarly argued for the scientific approach to the planning of new urban areas, pointing to the same schematic as hailed by the Gropius and the Frankfurters. Fit and context were absent concepts in this focus on breakups and ‘new beginnings’.
Lauritzen orientated early on towards international modernism, and he was one of the few Danish architects who had participated in the avant-garde movement CIAM's conferences and participated in the CIAM architects' discussions of what modern architecture should deal with - and how. From an urban architectural point of view, it is therefore interesting to look at how Lauritzen, as an enthusiastic and well-founded modernist, operates in the city. There were no thoughts in Denmark of completely new cities, but in fact, after the First World War there was quite a strong urban development in the new suburbs around Copenhagen. In addition, the dense city opened from time to time with small pockets, which had to be filled with the facilities and ideas of the new age. In the 1920s and 30s, Lauritzen was commissioned to design some of the new densification points in both the emerging suburban landscape and in the suburbs.
Vilhelm Lauritzen had met several of the leading forces behind the movement and organization CIAM from 1928 – i.a. Hannes Meyer, head of the Bauhaus school after Walter Gropius. Lauritzen's use of the sober and scarce oblique projections as outline drawings is closely related to Hannes Meyer and Gropius and other early modernists. Drawings that focus exclusively on the building. There are no or only weak hints of the surrounding buildings and other parts of the urban context. This again points to early modernism's ambiguous relationship with the city. The city was the hero because it was the place of the dynamism that drove and had to realize the modern project. But the classic, dense city of lanes, streets and squares was at the same time the enemy, because it was unhealthy and considered culturally conservative. It had to be fought according to Corbusier's: 'Il faut tuer la rue corridor' (It is necessary to get rid of the corridor street).
The interesting thing about Lauritzen is that, as an obviously active and well-orientated representative of international modernism, he effortlessly enters into dialogue with both the classic city and the new suburb with his buildings.
The classic city centers visually and in terms of meaning around the Cathedral, the Prince's Palace and the Town Hall and the squares that stage these buildings and make them special significant places that guide our orientation and reading of the city. Lauritzen and the design studio did not come to design cathedrals or princely palaces for good reasons. But the design studio's production contains both the new-age town hall and many of the building types and places that became the new points of concentration and orientation in the welfare society's city and daily life: the radio house, the sports palace, the school, the airport, the department store - and the single-family house. It is therefore exciting to take a closer look at how Lauritzen – as a person and a design studio – based on international modernism – articulates and embeds these new collective manifestations in an urban, spatial context.
The open suburb is immediately most in tune with the ideals of modernism and the desire to leave the classic city behind, so let's start by looking at Lauritzen's approach to developing and adapting to this new urban landscape.
The basic substance in the Danish suburb is the villa. Among Lauritzen's earliest villas, Tuborgvej 76 from 1926 stands as an interesting example of Lauritzen's understanding of the road and the relationship between private and public space in the suburban landscape. The villa is set back 5-7 m from the street line and a garden wall has been built in the street line which separates the front garden from the road. But this garden wall folds in towards the front door, and in this way forms a space that can both be considered a semi-public reception space for the home, but also acts as an extension or unfolding of the street. When you pass the house, it is experienced as a generous and enriching gesture towards the street space, which in this way is given an extra beat. This solution gained traction in several of the larger villas from the 1930s and 40s. Whether it is Lauritzen who introduced it is not certain, but if he was not the first, he was at least one of the first and thus very early on with a look that was not only interested in the house as isolated, but also in its relationship to the road and as creator of the road's architecture and atmosphere. He created an atmosphere on this part of Tuborgvej characterized by low-key friendliness and hospitality, as if the house greets you when you pass by. Unfortunately, renovations have been carried out which have weakened this fine feature.
We jump out of the temporal chronology and move forward to the 1950s. Here, Lauritzen comes again with a sensational take on the villa's relationship to the road. In 1956, he built a semi-detached house for himself and his daughter on Bernstorffsvej. All the villas on Bernstorffsvej are set back from the road, but Lauritzen places his house as far towards the street as possible. The other villas are almost all on 2 floors and have an approximate cube format: 8-12 m long, 8-10 m deep and 6-8 m high. But Lauritzen's semi-detached house is an elongated, low 1-storey building, 40 m long and 3 m high. When you move along Bernstorffvej, you experience an almost constant rhythm of the 2-storey villas, which are located at a uniform distance. But there is also a kind of double beat, or polyphony, because most villas have a low garden wall facing the street, which creates a kind of underlying low, continuous melodic voice, with short interruptions. When you then get to Lauritzen's house, the picture reverses. The low garden wall grows up and becomes an elongated, horizontal format. The heavy, regular beats disappear and the melodic voice takes over and makes this place on Bernstorffvej something special. There are probably many practical considerations behind this layout, but they were managed so that here too a low-key but significant addition to the new city's architecture is created. It was possibly, here in that time again in the post-war period, also a conscious contribution to the debate about the new city, that the architect's efforts were not only about the large villa, but about how the ordinary and low-key could be articulated.
The suburb also came to accommodate a number of new building types. The town hall is not a new building in the city, but the town hall in the emerging suburb was built at a time when the suburban municipalities got more administrative functions and the town hall thus became bigger and became part of the city's daily life in a different way than before. This required consideration of both the design of the building, but also to a large extent how it should manifest itself in the new, emerging urban landscape. Both the program and the norms of modernism dictated that it should be a rational office building, articulated as a sharply cut cubist structure on an open surface. Lauritzen followed the recipe to a certain extent, but with some small, discreet adaptations he was able to create a facility that managed to create a special place and a point of orientation in the new urban landscape.
In the mid-1930s, when the town hall was to be built, Søborg hovedgade was a rather unremarkable country road flanked by newly built villas, small shop properties and farmhouses for the original farms. At the place where they had chosen to build the new town hall, the road curved gently towards the site. Lauritzen organized the town hall in an L shape and took advantage of the curvature by allowing the gable on one leg of the L to step completely into the street line, so the town hall complex, like a crooked hand, catches the passers-by and leads them into the area delimited by the two legs in the L. The gable with its elegant semi-cylindrical staircase stands out in the street line and when you come forward, the facility opens up perpendicular to the road into the depth and creates the new town hall square - a place that speaks both of the suburb as the open city and of the town hall as a new densification point, but also as a new democratic house that kindly invites you inside. The additions and densifications that came later have unfortunately shifted the attention a little, but it was Lauritzen's facility that created this quiet, democratic center of gravity in the new city.
The radio house was also a new function and a building type that had to find its form and its meaning and place in the urban landscape, but here an urban landscape that already contained many layers of meaning and architectural statements. It is both an office building, a public concert hall and at the same time a symbol of enlightenment and democracy.
The entire neighborhood around Rosenørns Allé was newly built or under development, because it was the area where the royal barn had been located and the railway lines from the surrounding towns were collected before they were taken to the former main railway station. The new quarter is based on a traditional square plan and much of the quarter was built by neoclassical architects, some buildings, such as LO's old headquarters, however, as a last remnant of Eclecticism's enthusiasm for monumentality. Almost at the same time as the radio house is Kaj Fisker's residential property with the large, distinctive round corner facing the lakes and Aage Rafn's technical school, which is probably on the way with modernism, but still with roots in neoclassicism.
So what does the full-fledged modernist do in the architectural company and in this urban landscape. The rational, inward-facing office building, the outward-facing concert hall and the symbolic meaning must be articulated both in the building itself and in its embedding in the urban landscape. Here, too, we are talking about a slightly curving street, but it curves away from the plot, not towards it. The plot forms a corner between the main street Rosenørns Allé and a side street, Julius Thomsens gade. Diagonally opposite, where the street bends the most, it was decided to establish a park that juts out from the curvature like an elongated figure.
Almost all former theaters and concert buildings hide their great hall behind a monumental facade, composed according to classical principles. With the starling box, Copenhagen had, however, seen an approach to an independent exposure of the hall's volume, and there had been proposals in a number of international competitions from the 1920s and 30s that made the hall appear as a sculptural volume that stepped out of the overall complex.
Lauritzen chose to articulate the different parts of the radio house, thereby giving him the opportunity to approach the surrounding city's spaces in different ways – or to create these spaces with different atmospheres.
The office building will be articulated as the sober, modern office building with horizontal window bands as Corbusier would have it, but it will be divided into two volumes with different heights. The low long one is built in the street line and thus accepts and builds on the classic city street space. The higher part of the office building is pulled back, creating an extension of the street space, which is perceived as a small access square where the main entrance is located.
The concert building appears as an independent, sculptural volume, provided with a lower front building which contains access. Formally speaking, it is a repetition of com the position of many Renaissance and Baroque churches, but translated into the modernist language of pure volumes. The concert part has access from the side street and juts out from the rest of the complex so that a series of small rooms or niches are formed next to it. The lower access building is located in the street line of Julius Thomsens gade and helps to maintain the city's traditional language and room categories, but precisely because of this it also opens up the exception in the form of the faceted space that is formed between the access building, the concert hall and the gable of the office building. Here, according to the logic of the square city, there should have been a built-up corner, now there is an informal square from which you can read the wealth of form and all elements of the composite building complex. And this informal square is located precisely where the street turns and where there is contact with the park on the other side. It thus takes on both a role as a rhythm provider for movement through the city, as a marker of the side street, as a prelude to the concert hall and as a local space.
The Radio House creates a place where a traditional street space is replaced by back and forth jolts of volumes, which introduce a series of beats into an otherwise uniform rhythm and throughout the day create very changing light conditions. All in all, it becomes a place to orient oneself in relation to when moving through the city and a place that kindly and quietly refers to this important public building and forms a local focal point.
The corner in the inner city has traditionally – and especially in eclecticism – been the subject of monumentalisation with tower structures, columns and pilasters or large cut-offs that made it possible to turn the corner into an independent facade, finished with a pediment or the like. Modernism abhorred the heavy, monumental corner and tried to avoid the full corner by leaving the corner open - without construction -, by letting a number of additions dissolve the potential heaviness, or by letting the facade bend around the corner without any change in rhythm and window dimensions , and without any strong corner columns.
With the radio house, Lauritzen succeeded in adding a particularly elegant model to this rejection of the traditional, potentially monumental corner. But there were other places where there was no room to hollow out or leave out the corner. Dael's warehouse needed all the volume that could be placed on the plot between Nørregade and Fiolstræde, so it had to be built all the way to the corner. But still, it succeeds, quietly, in interpreting and managing modernism's skepticism towards the corner. With just a few meters of offsets, the wings along Nørregade and Krystalgade are joined together so that they appear as two independent buildings that interfere with each other. But the gable on the Nørregade wing is raised 2 storeys above the rest of the volume, creating a new form of tower and also a new form of monumentality, which can be seen as a new interpretation of an old urban architectural theme. In this place where Lauritzen, so to speak, enters C.F. Hansen's heavy urban architectural narrative with the dialogue between the Cathedral and the Cathedral articulates and inscribes Lauritzen's new-age monument in the city's architecture in a deft negotiation between the prescriptions of tradition and modernism.