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What UK architects could learn from Denmark

Denmark faulknerbrowns 4 credit sam poullain
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Could the Danish concept of hygge be the key to urban design that embraces experimentation and community involvement, asks Damien Graham of FaulknerBrowns

Engaging people in activity has never been more important and the design of our towns and cities has a major role to play. As a practice, we have been investigating the impact a progressive active design agenda can have on the mental and physical wellbeing of a city’s inhabitants. Earlier this year this initiative brought us to the Danish city of Copenhagen.

One of the reasons why the Danish are renowned for the quality of their architecture and urban realm is the great emphasis they place on creating buildings and spaces that give more than they take, a design process that involves both their cities and their inhabitants. This may be partly due to the Danish concept of hygge. Pronounced ‘hue-guh’ and roughly translating as ‘cosiness for the soul’, the concept is an integral part of Danish identity and one that plays a significant role in capturing the quality of life experienced in Danish society.

It may also go some way in explaining the disposition of the Danish Architectural Policy (for which there is no UK equivalent), which is very much about putting the people first and ‘shaping society into a form that is characterised by humanism’. The policy is broken down into four sections, which cover its key objectives, all of which fundamentally have people at their core. The policy also encourages progression and experimentation in the built environment.

This method of experimentation is manifested in architects’ willingness to step outside of their comfort zone and investigate new ideas. In Aarhus, over the last eight years, Danish architecture firm Schønherr has been testing out large-scale ‘experimental urban interventions’, which have seen the reprogramming of main roads and streets in the city into new public spaces and parks. This has transformed how people see and use the city and forced those in cars to adjust to a more pedestrian-focused environment. With every intervention, new lessons are learned and it appears to be a great way of letting the people decide how they want to use the city. This receptiveness is also apparent in their buildings.

In order to translate this attitude to the UK, a big issue that must be addressed is the perception of architecture as a final product. Architecture is a socially responsible discipline that can deliver real cultural value, however, due to commercial pressures in the UK, it can often result in imprudent buildings that aren’t properly judged and take more than they give. 

Denmark faulknerbrowns 3

Denmark faulknerbrowns 3

UK architecture must challenge the commerciality of life in order to reinforce its civic responsibility. We need to understand that each project is not a product with a predetermined output, but rather a fragment of an ever-evolving landscape. A celebration of placemaking would ensure that buildings go beyond their end users, to consider the dialogue with those people who aren’t using them, and their presence in the urban environment.

Compared to the Danes, UK architecture currently falls short of its potential for public leadership. This may be partly due to the current planning legislation which can be detrimental by placing urgency on new development, rather than allowing time for the correct development. Both architects and planners must pay closer attention to local knowledge and consider ways our efforts can support the conception of meaningful places that create a more human-centric environment.

Denmark faulknerbrowns 1

Denmark faulknerbrowns 1

Furthermore, a culture of shared risk is needed to challenge the distinct fear of failure within the construction industry; the apprehension of trying something new for fear of not getting it right first time round. This may be perpetuated by the aforementioned pressures, which place a return on investment per square metre, over a return on investment in the community.

The Danes don’t always get it right; but with a viewpoint similar to the ancient tradition of wabi-sabi, they embrace their shortcomings and find beauty in the imperfection. This is because they understand that failing is a rite of passage necessary in order to move forward and ultimately progress as a society.

Damien Graham is an architect at FaulknerBrowns

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