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A SYNTHESIS OF HUMANISM AND MINIMALISM - A KIND OF 'HUMINALISM'

BUILDING STUDY

Lars Gitz Architects is an international studio for architecture, planning and design, based in Copenhagen, Denmark. The practice was established in 1997 by Lars Gitz after he won the first prize in a competition to design housing for students while he was still studying at the Royal Danish Art Academy. Recent projects have included a luxury villa in Spain, apartment complexes in Copenhagen and proposed designs for a 10,000m 2 hotel and restaurant complex, also in Copenhagen.

Speaking to a largely student audience many years ago, David Chipperfield advised that it was important to choose your point of entry into the profession carefully: get known for cheap kitchen extensions and it could prove hard to move upmarket seemed to be the basic message. As points of entry go, Lars Gitz's building for the World Health Organisation's (WHO's) Copenhagen offices, won in competition with two other Danish practices, would be hard to better. At 2,000m 2 it is both small enough to master - feeling as much like a large villa as an office building - and large enough to flex serious architectural muscles.

Gitz came to attention in Denmark some 10 years ago when, while still a student at the Royal Danish Academy, he won a competition for young people's housing in the Danish region of North Zealand. That came to nothing, but he established his own office and has spent much of the intervening time working as a consultant on long-term plans for Copenhagen's celebrated Tivoli Gardens area - of which Norman Foster's recent competitionwinning hotel is, internationally, the best known outcome to date.

The WHO building is in the north of Copenhagen on Scherfigsvej, just inland from the sea near the start of Strandvejen, where Arne Jacobsen's pioneering Bellavue complex and nearby petrol station remain objects of architectural pilgrimage. It sits between contrasting neighbours, with traditional villas to the east, and a low, somewhat Miesian building to the west; it is entered from the south, while to the north mature trees screen an area of medium-rise housing.

At first sight the organisation appears conventional in both plan and section: a horseshoe of open-plan office spaces is wrapped around an atrium and service core, and the offices stacked on largely uninterrupted floor plates of uniform height.

The offices are naturally ventilated, with both heating and - for occasional summer use - cooling provided in the ceilings. A covered parking area is tucked underneath one side and, as if in response, the upper floors are cut back on the other, to the west, to create a large terrace. Only the variously angled, regulationdefyingly long stairs hint that something rather more inventive might be going on.

Intriguingly, neither the plans nor sections immediately disclose Gitz's organising idea for the building, which was to allow the various functions, surfaces and spaces a degree of autonomy, while also combining them into a unified composition. All becomes clear in an oblique view from the south east. The three floors of accommodation to the east, above the covered parking, are treated as a single, cedar-clad volume with vertical louvres, while the remainder of the accommodation is articulated by a continuous, zinc-clad ribbon. Working with the manufacturers of Rheinzink cladding, Gitz was able to eliminate both vertical and horizontal standing seams, lending the surfaces the combination of smoothness and variability in changing light and seasons that he was pursuing.

The zinc ribbon begins as the broad, return-end of the west elevation, wraps across the second-floor slab and then cranks up and across the top floor to float above the projecting cedar-clad volume. The second floor, sandwiched by the zinc ribbon, is fitted with solar-control glass, while the floors above and below have external horizontal louvres. The glass alone cannot quite cope with the full effects of the sun, but the uninterrupted glazing has its compensations: a member of staff who complained about the warmth also declined the offer of moving to a workspace elsewhere in the building.

Volumetrically, therefore, the building can be understood as an extrusion of its long section. The majority of visitors, arriving by car, enter at ground-floor level from the covered parking directly into an open reception area. The architectural promenade through the atrium, however, is announced by an external stair that rises from the edge of an elliptical paved area and lands the visitor on an entry bridge placed at right angles to the main facade. This traverses a rectangular pool - symbolic, in Gitz's mind, of leaving Copenhagen behind to address the problems of the wider world within - before sliding into the atrium. From there a bridge to the right enters the cedar-clad volume and a 'bridgelet' to the left leads to the other offices and core. Ahead rises the first of the angled stairs, the vertical journey beginning on a regulationcontravening broad step before settling into the repetitive rhythm of risers and goings.

Nineteen uninterrupted risers later you arrive at - or rather a riser above - the second floor, on another wide, landinglike step. This unusual celebration of arrival brings to mind a restaurant by Morris Lapidus in which guests were led up on to a low platform from where, after being the centre of attention for a few seconds, they descended to dine. Here, however, the aim is primarily to reinforce the overall architectural strategy. Like the zinc ribbon, the precast-concrete entrance bridge and stairs can be seen as a continuous slab of reinforced concrete, cut and folded to link the different floors, on to which the stairs seem literally to have been dropped. The angling of the stairs offers a dynamic contrast to the orthogonal structural grid. Treating them as elements placed on - rather than simply leading between - the floor slabs both intensifies our physical engagement with the building and emphasises its volumetric composition.

Compared with many, understood-at-a-glance office atria, Gitz's is a spatial tour de force, opening and closing ingeniously, and beautifully lit. It is also, as one expects of Danish buildings, immaculately detailed. Horizontal light and views are filtered by glass blocks, and to achieve the required one-hour fire rating, their vertical and horizontal joints are reinforced by steel. Walls, columns and beams (made of precast conrete almost entirely throughout - hence the necessity of the small column bay to support the projecting timber volume) are painted white, and the oors are clad in ash, save for the precast-concrete stairs and bridges, which are immaculately smooth and grey - this contrast between the different finishes is doubtless crucial in ensuring that people take note of the unusual arrangement of risers.

The steel balustrades are far more open than British - or for that matter, Danish - regulations are supposed to allow. Like the continuous, landing-free runs of the stairs themselves - vital to the architectural idea - they were a concession from normal requirements. The building inspector, Gitz explains, liked the architectural concepts and was happy to make 15 such dispensations to ensure that they were not compromised.

The doctors and researchers who make up most of the staff at the WHO were at first reluctant to leave their familiar cellular offices, and to help make them feel at home with the open-plan oors Gitz developed a new office system, which he named 'Flexus'. Its design began with a circle, ergonomically subdivided into three 120º segments, which in turn are elaborated with convex and concave curves to wrap around the user. Slender corner posts support storage units at various levels, computer monitors, low screens and, above, a delicate parasol. Screens and parasols combine to provide a measure of acoustic damping, and the units can be arranged in compact circles or allowed to sprout jaunty-looking 'wings' - intriguingly reminiscent, in plan, of an aggregation of cellular automata encountered in computer simulations of artificial life.

Seen in its Danish context, where a cool, sometimes forbidding minimalism has been the favoured mode of serious architectural expression since the mid 1990s, the WHO building represents Gitz's determination 'to bring man and architecture together again' in a synthesis of humanism and minimalism - 'a kind of huminalism', he suggests. The term may not be destined to enter the architectural history books, but studying his building you sense what he means by it: the varied volumetric organisation, physicality of the stairs, combination of materials, atmospheric responsiveness of the zinc - all combine to render the building more approachable and engaging than most essays in seamless minimalism.

In an international architectural culture that prizes novelty, little in the WHO building may appear especially original. With rainscreen cladding as today's technical norm, the combination of timber and metal is familiar. And compositionally, the 'big idea' of linking oors and walls to form a continuous folded plane has been explored in many recent projects by, amongst others, Diller and Scofidio in New York, MVRDV in The Netherlands and, closer to home, by Foreign Office Architects for the BBC. The catalyst for all these surely lies in Rem Koolhaas' early work - the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, or the Educatorium in Utrecht - and they in turn, like most of Koolhaas' major spatial ideas, stem from Le Corbusier: from the Villa Savoye, ultimately, perhaps, but more directly, I suspect, from the late project for a Congress Hall in Strasbourg.

One could go on: might the entrance stair and bridge, for example, be distant relatives of the similar arrangement that leads out into the garden of the Villa at Garches? Despite obvious differences, the atrium brings to mind Terragni's Casa del Fascio, while the rhetorically exposed columns and beams that frame the second-oor terrace recall a fragment of Aalto's Paimio Sanatorium - which in turn was indebted to Dutch, and probably also Russian, models and is encountered frequently in Richard Meier's work. Gitz's expressive handling of the stairs evokes Herman Hertzberger's 'invitations to use', while to me, at least, the geometry and detailing of the office furniture brings back other Dutch memories, specifically of Aldo van Eyck's delicate ESTEC complex at Noordwijk.

To suggest that many of these specific 'references' or 'precedents' were active in Gitz's conscious mind would almost certainly be wrong, and the building is anything but wilfully eclectic. But they, or others like them within the broad, stillgrowing tradition of Modern architecture were essential to the making of the WHO building, and it is within that tradition that the building must be understood and assessed. My only quibbles are with details.

The contrast between the rhetorical start of the architectural promenade and the 'real' principal entrance tucked into the corner of the covered car park seems slightly unresolved.

Likewise, the contrast with the zinc ribbon might have been better emphasised by detailing the ends of the projecting, cedar-clad volume as a slice through the construction (as Jean Nouvel did on the screen-like facades of the Cartier Foundation in Paris), not wrapping the timber over the walls and slabs. This might also have relieved the slight feeling that it weighs rather heavily on its diminutive pilotis. And once inside, I personally find the way the timber handrails are threaded through the at steel balusters slightly awkward, because they interrupt 'the network of touch' - as George Baird described the detailing of such elements by Aalto - and seem to be governed by visual rather than tactile considerations.

But these are minor issues, and ultimately matters of preference. What is so satisfying with the WHO building is the fact that its success lies not in a pointless search for novelty in a now conventional building type, but in a convincing and, for a 'first' building, impressively mature ability to assimilate and work within the modern tradition to create a life-enhancing workplace that is both visually elegant and experientially rich. On this evidence, Lars Gitz is clearly an architect to watch.

Credits

Tender date 1 April 2004 Start on site date 1 November 2004 Contract duration 17 months Gross internal floor area 2,010m 2Total cost 2.97 million euros (£2 million), land not included Client Conceptor Architect Lars Gitz Architects: Lars Gitz, Samuel Staalgren, Jon Clausen and Sanne Bentzen Structural engineer Midtconsult A/S Selected subcontractors and suppliers Electrician Hareskov Elektric; plumbing and heating service Ramsø VVS; ventilation Pro Ventilation; ooring Miko Gulve; ceilings and walls Deko Loft + Væg; painter Jørgen Pedersen; bricklayer Vesla; chartered surveyor Landinspektør-rmaet Vektor; road and landscaping Einer J Jensen; concrete staircase Hi-Con; concrete-slab delivery and assembly Spæncom; exterior spiral staircase ScanTrapper; concrete panel assembly Stabilo Montage; rendering of garden wall RW Byg; facade (aluminium windows and exterior doors); roof covering Nordisk Tagentreprise A/S; flooring Miko Gulve; painter Jørgen Pedersen; zinc work Rheinzink DK; heating Ramsø VVS A/S; lift Otis

STRUCTURE The building's main supporting system comprises a classical column/beam construction. The choice of the structural system has allowed considerable freedom in the selection of facade material. The structure enabled the use of elements such as large window sections in aluminium and glass, sun blinds and sheet cladding. The columns and beams are made of prefabricated concrete elements and the oor divisions are prefabricated prestressed hollowcore slabs. The stability of the building is ensured by a panel effect in the oor divisions, which transfers the horizontal loads to the central core. The stabilising central core contains lifts, WCs and plant.

The skylit four-storey atrium maintains its light feel through the use of prefabricated fibre-concrete elements to connect individual oors. These elements have a concrete strength of up to 100 million Pa. This strength removes the need for bulky oors which could detract from the atrium's feeling of spaciousness. The building is founded on drilled piles on top of non-controlled -ll and organic freshwater deposits, which made a traditional replacement and incorporation of a sand blanket too costly. A self-supporting double-reinforced concrete ground slab was chosen in a mushroom design. The combination of the architectural design, the varied choice of materials and considerable movement in the facade made the building vulnerable to considerable thermal bridging. In an attempt to minimise these effects, a high level of detail was pursued in the design of the facades. The large twostorey steel-framed frontage provided the final structural design challenge. To allow for thermal expansion and contraction, the joints must be able to absorb lengthwise expansion of the steel while having sufficient anchoring to withstand wind loading in the lateral plane. A gliding joint was chosen as the best solution.

Jill Strømsholt, Midtconsult A/S

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