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BIG’s CopenHill waste-to-energy plant-cum-ski slope opens in Copenhagen

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After years of delay, Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) 100m-high infrastructure/leisure project mash-up, complete with après-ski bar, has completed. But is it just a wilful one-liner? Hattie Hartman visits the ‘hedonistic sustainability’ project to find out 

The Amager Bakke waste-to-energy plant-cum-ski slope, newly renamed CopenHill, opened in Copenhagen last Friday, just in time to receive the 1,000+ C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group delegates gathering in the Danish capital this week. Almost a decade in the making, this hybrid building is the ultimate oxymoron. A municipal waste incinerator that operates at 1,000 degrees C is wrapped in a thermal blanket and topped with a ski slope in a country whose highest elevation is 171m.

According to BIG founder Bjarke Ingels, this is precisely the point. Avid skiers and snowboarders will no longer have to make the six-hour trek to Sweden or fly to the Alps. Now they can ski in central Copenhagen.

04 big arc copenhill image by dragoer luftfoto

04 big arc copenhill image by dragoer luftfoto

Prior to visiting, CopenHill seemed to me the definitive expression of BIG’s heavily marketed notion of ‘hedonistic sustainability’ – making green fun – and an architectural one-liner in the lineage of BIG projects such as VIA 57 West in Manhattan. Arriving by bicycle at an incongruous après-ski café in the car park at the foot of the 90m high building, I found a Salomon ski shop, men in lederhosen drinking Tuborg on tap and Bjarke Ingels in a striped ski bonnet.

Situated in the formerly industrial waterfront area of Refshaleøen, CopenHill today is surrounded by a mix of housing (just 200m away), tech start-ups, hipster bars and restaurants. NOMA, Copenhagen’s legendary Michelin two-star restaurant relocated a 15-minute walk away just last year to another BIG-designed complex.

A decade ago, Refshaleøen was visited primarily by extreme sports afficianados in search of thrills such as paintballing or year-round water skiing. These activities sparked the concept behind BIG’s competition-winning proposal for ARC, Copenhagen’s not-for-profit municipal waste operator, back in 2011.

CopenHill processes residual household waste – what’s leftover after recycling -– from Copenhagen and four nearby municipalities, currently about one-third of the region’s waste stream. Last year it processed 450,000 tonnes of waste (delivered by 250-300 trucks daily), transforming it into district heating for about 72,000 households and electricity for another 30,000.

06 big arc copenhill image by laurian ghinitoiu

06 big arc copenhill image by laurian ghinitoiu

It is surprising to learn that the UK and Ireland shipped 30,000 tonnes of waste to the plant last year. The plant is oversized for the five municipalities it serves, a decision which ARC director Jacob Hartvig Simonsen justifies as a climate win, because the gains of importing waste outweigh the losses, even when transport is considered. Europe currently sends approximately 44 million tonnes of waste to landfill annually so Amager Bakke’s supply is unlikely to run short. Simonsen provocatively promises to shut down the plant should this occur within its – surprisingly short – 30-year design life.

BIG was instrumental in shaping the plant’s industrial kit into a volume that could accommodate a ski slope. The primary architectural challenge was to introduce human scale to what is essentially an enormous shed, using a material resistant to sea water humidity and the almost constant billow of steam discharged from the plant’s 124m-high chimney. BIG’s concept-stage proposal for smoke rings that would mark each tonne of CO2 emitted from the chimney was eventually abandoned because it negatively impacted environmental performance.

CopenHill shimmers from afar in response to changing light and BIG’s sometimes overly simplified details are effective here both on the horizon and at close range. The building is clad in what the architects refer to as ‘alu-bricks’, 1.2 x 3.3m blocks of rolled aluminium. Those on the 10-storey wing of administrative offices and at ground level will double as planters.

08 big arc copenhill image by rasmus hjortshoj

08 big arc copenhill image by rasmus hjortshoj

The proximity of industrial, recreational and administrative activities posed unprecedented safety challenges for ARC. On a conventional waste-to-energy plant, in the event of an internal explosion, the roof would lift off, clearly an unacceptable fix here. Instead the windows on one façade are designed to pop out in extreme heat.

Equally challenging was sourcing a suitable surface for year-round skiing. After the client test skied several products, the architects opted for a plastic mesh fabricated in Italy that is used in the Alps to prolong the ski season for summer training. A bespoke bright green fire-proof version – entirely recyclable according to the manufacturer – allows grass to grow through the surface.

Ingels is quick to point out that the uplift for Copenhill’s recreational rooftop represents only two per cent of the £495 billion project cost. As the business plan for the recreational activities took shape, it became clear that year-round operation of the ski slope was essential, as well as other attractions such as a climbing wall and a rooftop café, which would cater to sports enthusiasts as well as anyone keen to check out the spectacular view.

Free public access to the roof of CopenHill is the genius of this project. Three routes take visitors to the top: Denmark’s first ever newbuild ski lift, a glass elevator with Star Wars-like views into the plant’s sci-fi interior (all kit is painted silver grey, per the architects’ specification) or a trek up a 490m mogul-filled hiking trail through a token landscaped park alongside the ski slope.

13 big arc copenhill image by soren aagaard

13 big arc copenhill image by soren aagaard

Whatever reservations one might have about CopenHill’s conceptual conceit, it is a sure sign that architecture is alive and well in Denmark. Bjarke Ingles has exported his Danish brand across the globe with more than a dozen projects currently on site, including Google campuses in London and California.

An ambitious six-month (until 12 January 2020) retrospective at the Danish Architecture Centre captures the spirit of the practice, leading visitors from a gallery with 25 BIG projects in Lego surrounded by tubs of Lego to make your own, into the main gallery where an onslaught of almost 70 projects are presented through a plethora of models and suspended photographs on panels in eye-popping pinks, purples and yellows, grouped under debatable themes such as ‘grow, marry and productize’.

Nonetheless, CopenHill is a remarkable achievement. BIG has demystified, humanised and brought into the public gaze a building typology normally devoid of architectural merit and banished to the urban periphery. Copenhill’s target of 300,000 visitors annually (including 65,000 skiers) may be optimistic, but its rooftop view is a must for visitors and locals alike, and it is not a one-liner.

02 big arc copenhill image by aldo amoretti

02 big arc copenhill image by aldo amoretti

Architects’ view

CopenHill is a blatant architectural expression of something that would otherwise have remained invisible: that it is the cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in the world. As a power plant, it is so clean that we have been able to turn its building mass into the bedrock of the social life of the city – its façade is climbable, its roof is hikeable and its slopes are skiable. A crystal clear example of Hedonistic Sustainability – that a sustainable city is not only better for the environment – it is also more enjoyable for the lives of its citizens.

To me CopenHill is a perfect example of the world changing power of architecture. That we have the power to give form to the future that we want to live in. My son turns one next month – he won’t ever remember that there was a time when you couldn’t ski on the roof of the power plant – or climb its facades. He will take that for granted – and so will his entire generation. Clean energy and skiable power plants is going to be the baseline of their imagination – the platform from which they will leap and propose new and wild ideas for their future. Standing at the peak of this human-made mountain that we have spent the last decade creating – makes me curious and excited to see what ideas this summit may spark in the minds of future generations.

Bjarke Ingels, founder and creative director, BIG

We wanted to do more than just create a beautiful skin around the factory. We wanted to add functionality! Instead of considering the Amager Ressourcecenter (ARC) as an isolated object, we mobilise the architecture and intensify the relationship between the building and the city – expanding the existing activities in the area by turning the roof of the new ARC into a ski slope for the citizens of Copenhagen.

By proposing a new breed of waste-to-energy plant, one that is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable, the facility becomes part of the city and redefines the relationship between production and recreation, between energy infrastructure and social infrastructure, between factory and city.

David Zahle, partner, BIG

05 arc copenhill image by sla

05 arc copenhill image by sla

Landscape architect’s view

CopenHill’s nature roof park and hiking trail invites locals and visitors to traverse a mountainous landscape of plants, rockscapes, 7,000 bushes and 300 pine and willow trees atop the world’s cleanest waste-to-energy plant. It also acts as a generous ‘green gift’ that will radically green-up the adjacent industrial area. CopenHill becomes the home for birds, bees, butterflies and flowers, creating a vibrant green pocket and forming a completely new urban ecosystem for the city of Copenhagen.

Rasmus Astrup, partner and design principal, SLA

07 big arc copenhill image by sla

07 big arc copenhill image by sla

Client’s view

We are very proud to have built the most energy efficient waste-to-energy plant in the world. At the same time the plant delivers the best environmental performance with hardly any environmental emissions, enabling us to have neighbours only 200m away and to be located less than 2km from the Queen’s Residence. Last but not least, we have succeeded in building the safest waste-to-energy plant so local citizens and guests from all over the world can ski on the roof.

Jacob Simonsen, managing director, ARC

14 big arc copenhill image by laurian ghinitoiu

14 big arc copenhill image by laurian ghinitoiu

Project data

Start on site March 2013
Completion October 2019
Gross (internal + external) floor area 41,000m2
Architect Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) 
Client Amager Ressourcecenter
Structural engineer MOE
M&E consultant Rambøll
Façade consultant Lüchinger+Meyer
Interior designer MTREE
Landscape consultant SLA
Exterior lighting consultant Jesper Kongshaug
Project manager Rambøll
Competition collaborators AKT (Façade & Structural Consulting), Topotek 1/Man Made Land (Landscape), Realities:United (Smoke Ring Generator), FRONT
Main contractor Zublin
Silo capacity 22,000 tonnes, equivalent to three weeks of waste delivery
Oven capacity Two ovens of 35 tonnes each, yearly at full capacity: 560,000 tonnes

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Readers' comments (1)

  • A 21st century building type? - the form is reminiscent of Renzo Piano's NEMO science museum over the city portal of the IJ-Tunnel in Amsterdam, but far more assertive.

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