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NIELSEN ARRIVES WITH GRACE

'We are not like the Vikings, ' laughs Kim Herforth Nielsen, the 51-year-old principal of Danish practice 3XN.

Truth be told, I only have Nielsen's word for that. Before the beginning of last year I had never heard of 3XN and neither had pretty much anybody else in Britain.

When the practice first appeared on the UK architectural radar it landed, unnoticed, like a mysterious seaborne raider, and made off with one of the country's prize projects - the £63 million replacement for Will Alsop's doomed Fourth Grace project in Liverpool.

Then, just a few months after winning the National Museum of Liverpool scheme, the Danes stole into Manchester to snatch the competition for the new Salford Arts and Media Centre. On top of this, the practice is still hoping to get its hands on a housing scheme in one of the Merseyside Path'nder areas.

Even with these major projects under its belt, details about the Nordic practice and its roots remain sketchy.

This may have something to do with how the news of its Liverpool museum success was released to the British press.

Back in Denmark, the media lapped it up. The triumph was all the more impressive, the papers rightly claimed, because 3XN had seen off seven top architects - including Zaha Hadid, Snøhetta, David Chipper'eld, and Daniel Libeskind, to claim the competition.

Had this been known here in the UK, perhaps the world would have paid more attention to both the victory and the practice. Instead, it appeared the museum had decided to appoint a small, unknown architect in secret to avoid recreating the high-profile hullabaloo which surrounded Alsop's controversial Cloud scheme.

But 3XN - short for 3 x Nielsen - is neither small nor inexperienced. Set up in 1986 by three college friends, two of whom have now moved on, the 100-strong practice has offices in Aarhus and Copenhagen and has worked on a range of impressive projects around Europe. Among these are the Danish Embassy in Berlin - with its Arne Jacobsen-inspired lamps - built in 1999, and the recently completed music centre on Amsterdam's waterfront, which has been eight years in the making.

Nielsen is used to working on key cultural schemes and developments on riverside sites.

However, he admits that before winning the Liverpool project, he knew very little about the city other than Liverpool FC and the Beatles.

In some ways, this may have helped 3XN's competition bid. He says: 'When we started off we didn't know anything about Will Alsop's scheme and we didn't dig into it. We just wanted to create what the museum wanted us to make.' Since then, the architect has done its homework and the concept for the 10,000m2 museum responds to the historic views of the Three Graces and the flow of pedestrians along the Pier Head.

'It is a very sensitive site, ' Nielsen adds. 'But even though it is a World Heritage Site, it doesn't mean you can't build there. It just means you need to respect the site.' He goes on: 'We wanted to make something quite different from the old buildings, with abstract references to ships and the dockyards. We call it more of a structure than a building.' Yet Nielsen is determined not to fall into the same traps that derailed Alsop's ambitions for the Mann Island site. In some ways, he has already succeeded - the new museum secured planning permission in December 2005 and the project has been cleverly reduced in size to ensure it stays within budget.

Even so, the building will still boast around 5,000m2 of exhibition space, with two extensive galleries on each floor - making it one of the largest city history museums in the world. Plans to involve artists Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell on the interior also remain on the cards.

Despite rumours suggesting otherwise, Nielsen is adamant the building will be open in time for Liverpool's Capital of Culture year in 2008 - although the galleries will not be fully 'tted out until the following year.

If there is a similarity between 3XN's experiences and those of Alsop, it is the reaction to the proposals from Unesco advisory body ICOMOS-UK ( ajplus 22.12.05).

These unexpected criticisms infuriated Nielsen, who had worked closely with CABE and English Heritage throughout the design process.

The architect, who is a member of Denmark's own version of CABE, said: 'The only negative comments came from ICOMOS-UK just a week before the planning committee.

'They hadn't even asked for a meeting, then they came up with a lot of views about something they don't really know about.' What does worry Nielsen, though, is the way the rest of Liverpool's waterfront development is being managed.

He fears the city could be cut off from the River Mersey, similar to the situation that has occurred with the urban renaissance in Copenhagen.

Nevertheless, Nielsen's time in Liverpool has only served to fuel his desire to work in the UK. They may not have longboats and horned helmets, but, like the Norsemen before them, 3XN look certain to leave a significant mark on this country.

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