Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Architectural Disaster?

The Copenhagen Opera House opened in 2004 to much controversy, and has been widely panned by critics and the design community. Photo ©Darren Bradley
I just learned that the architect Henning Larsen died on the 22nd of June of this year, just a few weeks ago. He was 87. This gave the the opportunity to think about his work and legacy. Larsen will likely be most remembered for his opera house in Copenhagen. I'm sure he would have preferred it otherwise. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley
First, a bit of history. Shipping magnate A.P. Møller (who founded Maersk) did what fabulously wealthy and powerful men have been doing since time began - he turned to philanthropy and decided to focus on leaving a legacy (and monuments!). So he bought a plot of land on an old Navy base, and announced that he would donate it and a new opera house to the State, in exchange for complete design control. He also dictated the architect: Henning Larsen. 
Copenhagen Opera House
Photo ©Darren Bradley
Larsen was already one of Denmark's most well known and established architects, with an impeccable pedigree (he worked and studied under Arne Jacobsen and Jorn Utzøn). Seemed like a good match and a crowning achievement to a distinguished career. Except that it wasn't. 

Møller fancied himself a bit of an architecture afficionado, and decided to insert himself into the design process. He and Larsen fought bitterly and publicly. I won't go into details but one of the issues I remember reading about was a dispute in the use of strong horizontal banding across the glass bubble. Larsen was opposed to the idea. Møller wanted it. Guess who won? 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
It reminds me of that scene in The Fountainhead, where the directors of a bank congratulate the architect, Howard Roark and tell him that the commission is his! ... But he just has to make a few small changes to his design...

Public opinion and outcry against the Operaen was almost universal. Critics hated it. The public hated it. Other architects hated it. They thought the building didn't work with the materials or scale of the surrounding structures. (It's limestone instead of brick!). They resented Larsen for compromising on his principles (but how many would have done the same?). They resented Møller for being so brash, boorish, and obnoxious (his lack of reserve is not very Danish). So instead of his crowning achievement, the Opera House became his albatross. Even Larsen called it "an unsuccessful compromise". You know it's bad when the parent rejects his own child, right? 

But is the Opera House really the unmitigated disaster that it's been made out to be? Or have the nearly 10 years since its construction given us a different perspective on the building? 

I had the chance to see the Larsen's oeuvre in person a couple of years ago. And let me say, at the risk of losing all credibility as an architecture snob, that I thought it was brilliant. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
It struck me as quite beautiful. Its scale gave it a powerful and commanding presence, and I felt its lack of context with the surrounding area actually worked in its favor here (there's not much else around the building anyway, to be honest). Yes, there are things I don't like. The rear of the building, facing the street side, is a disappointment and an afterthought. It's as if he just forgot to design that side. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
But overall, I really like the building and it was one of the most memorable structures that I saw there. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley
It's very sad that Henning Larsen never lived to see his redemption. But I'm going to bet that history will be a kinder judge than his contemporaries. 


Craig said...

Awesome stuff. Didn't know Larsen beyond the name. Beautiful building though, that floating plane is amazing

Unknown said...

I am an architect and I also thought the building was wonderful. I can't understand why it is so controversial. Most great buildings, including the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou Centre etc, seem to suffer from similarly controversial beginnings....