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A Highway Runs Right Through This Copenhagen Building

When the infrastructure is already there, build around it.

Most cities are built around cars. And if you can’t get rid of the cars, you have to build right through them.

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That’s what architect Ellen van Loon of the Dutch studio Office for Metropolitan Architecture did for a new mixed-use building in Copenhagen. The structure, called “Blox,” will have apartments, a coworking space, a cafe, retail space, and a museum called the Danish Architecture Center–all while one of the city’s busy ring roads is rushing through its center. The building, which opens in early May, was commissioned by the organization Realdania, a philanthropy that grew out of a mortgage credit association.

[Photo: Rasmus Hjortshøj/Coast/courtesy OMA]

Blox’s design is part of a global push to make cities more pedestrian friendly. Oslo and Madrid plan to ban all cars in their city centers by 2019 and 2020, respectively. Copenhagen’s mayor has announced a plan to ban diesel cars by 2019. Others are investing in more robust bike lines. But you can’t always do away with the car-centric design of cities, where roads and highways reign–at least not immediately. This is a clever workaround.

It was also the central challenge of the building, van Loon says. The plot of land, one of the last undeveloped pieces along the Copenhagen waterfront, consisted of two parts, one on either side of the road, that weren’t big enough for the scale of a building that OMA needed to develop. “The only thing that made sense was to make a large square block city where the road goes through,” van Loon says.

[Photo: Hans Werlemann/courtesy OMA]

One of the building’s important features is an underground automated parking structure that can fit 325 cars. Copenhagen is moving toward a car-free zone in its historical center, and the parking garage will give people a place to store their cars before walking into the old town, a five-minute walk away. The building will also have a pedestrian passageway between the old part of Copenhagen and the waterfront. Any tourist looking to traverse the distance will literally walk through Blox. To do this, the architects had to build right up to the waterfront, which is typically banned to ensure park space and walkways for pedestrians. But they were able to convince the local government that the building had its merits as a public space, and received an exemption.

Because of its role as a public-facing building, van Loon thinks of Blox as a miniature city unto itself. Besides having so many different functions, the interior was designed so that all the different tenants are visually connected, through glass. The apartments, which are on the top of the building, look down via a glass roof into the building’s core. In essence, that means that the people who work and live in Blox won’t be closed off from each other. Instead, the flow of the building will hopefully bring them closer together, and potentially even provide a place for the scholars at the Danish Architecture Center to study urban life up close. That’s the primary reason that the building looks like shiny glass boxes stacked in a frame around the road–Blox’s unorthodox shape is meant to facilitate these connections.

“We wanted to show everything happening in the building, like a little city,” van Loon says. “When you normally walk through the city on the street, you see all the city’s functions. What we did here was make a pressure cooker out of it”–while keeping the cars at a safe distance.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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