What To Do With A Building Falling Into The Ocean? Turn It Into Art

A group of architects is giving the doomed Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse a proper send-off.

Not many architects expect to watch the destruction of their work. But the designers behind a new installation on the northwestern coast of Denmark are doing just that.


The 116-year-old lighthouse, known as Rubjerg Knude Fyr, isn’t long for this world. Creeping coastal erosion and huge sand dunes are slowly engulfing it, and the building has been abandoned since 2002. “Each year storms are eroding large portions of the coastline,” writes Jan Yoshiyuki Tanaka, a partner at Copenhagen studio Jaja Architects, one of the firms behind a new project inside the long-vacant structure. “Some years back the authorities gave nature ‘free reign,’ which has caused a summerhouse and even a church to have been taken by the sea.”

Those authorities say that the lighthouse will crumble into the ocean within the next decade or so. But as this slow-motion disaster is unfolding, people still flock to the lighthouse, making pilgrimages to photograph the incredibly weird and beautiful sight of an imposing building buried in sand (there are dozens of videos shot with drones online). A group of cultural organizations and local agencies are giving the landmark a proper send-off, by commissioning Jaja, alongside Bessards’ Studio, to turn the empty tower into a piece of usable art that would give people a new opportunity to experience the building.

To make the tower climbable again, the group stripped out the remaining interior and used prefabricated steel elements to create a new staircase winding around a darkened central shaft. Where the old lantern used to be, they installed a wind-powered rotating mirror structure, carefully designed to reflect the landscape around the tower down into the mirrored shaft below.

If you stand at the base of the tower, you’ll see a cut-out in the structural core where you can duck into its central shaft to watch this giant, wind-powered ocean kaleidoscope cast its fractured gray and blue patterns down to the ground floor. It “shows how soft-spoken and respectful architecture can help to make the experience of a place more intense and meaningful,” as one of the organizations behind the project, Realdania, put it in a release.

The installation opened this spring, but it may not exist for long. As Tanaka explains, the erosion is being closely monitored, and when it reaches a critical safety point the installation will be disassembled and recycled. Then, the authorities will stage a controlled demolition. They’re talking about “making an event out of it,” he writes over email. “And what is amazing about that is that the sand dunes, which today are split because of the turbulence from the tower, will most likely join again and create a natural amphitheater. It’ll be like the natural elements is setting the stage for the event.”

Will it be difficult to watch the work come crashing down? Not at all, Tanaka says. “We went into the project knowing that it would be temporary. That is the condition of the site and what we think makes it so beautiful. The solitary lighthouse tower and the sea.”


Photos: Hampus Per Berndtson

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.