Making a Mountain

Between downtown Copenhagen and the outer district of Ørestad, the cityscape morphs from quaint to blandly suburban. Nondescript office parks, a shopping center, and housing projects emerge in the south of the Scandinavian capital. But then an unusual form pops out of the flat Danish landscape: a stack of chalets seems to scale the side of an errant metal ridge. These are the Mountain Dwellings, and their architect, Bjarke Ingels, calls them “a true hybrid project.”

The distinctive facades to the north and west—bearing a sweeping photorealistic image of snowy Himalayan peaks etched into perforated raw-aluminum plates—conceal a parking garage for 480 vehicles. Topped with 80 blocky apartments that diagonally descend 11 stories to ground level, the artificial summit, which was completed last summer, is a brilliant response to two completely different directives. After the success of the adjacent VM Houses (one of Ingels’s early projects, done in 2005 in collaboration with his former partner, Julien de Smedt, now of JDS Architects), the developer, Per Høpfner, wanted to construct another apartment building. When he discovered that a parking company was planning a garage on the lot he had in mind, Høpfner arranged to be the contractor for both projects. He turned to Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, to merge the two programs on the 86,000-square-foot site. Stacked on an angle, the upper third is now devoted to housing, and the lower two-thirds are parking for both Mountain and VM residents. “It is a symbiotic relationship rather than an unfriendly neighborship,” says the 34-year-old architect, whose Copenhagen-based firm, established three years ago, employs 60 people.

This is symbiosis with a serious edge and plenty of contrasts. The “mountainside” exteriors are industrial and jagged, but the southeast-facing side looks warm and livable. Harking back to Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67—Ingels is a fan of Safdie’s early work—the apartments are clad in untreated hardwood and sport large private terraces lush with greenery. “The materials have been chosen to accelerate the schizophrenia,” Ingels says. “There is a contemporary urban side in aluminum with megaphotos and psychedelic colors, and a superorganic suburban side with wood, turf, and ivy.”

Inside, the slanted ceiling of the airy, double-height parking garage (what Ingels has called “the cathedral of car culture”) is painted in a bright rainbow of Panton hues. “It’s blue on top for the sky, going to green on the bottom for the earth,” Ingels says. “That’s very literal, but I like the literal.” The mountain metaphor continues with a Swiss-made funicular, or mountain railway, that connects the garage to the residential hallways—a practical solution that replaces what would otherwise have been 11 elevators.

Angling the residences above the parking provided the same benefits as building on a natural incline: access to greenery, fresh air, and unobstructed vistas. “Copenhagen is mostly flat, so if you want a nice southern slope with a view, you have to do it yourself,” Ingels says. The design also offers more practical, energy-saving advantages: the parking area’s height encourages natural ventilation, and the large southeast-facing windows optimize light and passive solar energy; even the planters, which are positioned to block direct views between apartments, collect rainwater to irrigate plants during the drier season.

If the glassy VM Houses are about openness, then the Mountain Dwellings are an exercise in privacy. “It’s like a thesis and anti­thesis,” Ingels says. This October the Mountain Dwellings won the World Architecture Festival’s award for housing, but the jury’s main criticism—that Ingels seems to have “thrown all the ideas that have passed through his head for ten years into the scheme”—doesn’t appear to have fazed him. Down the road in Ørestad, BIG’s next project has already broken ground. It’s another mixed-use collaboration with Høpfner, whose vision seems to be just as grand as Ingels’s. “Normal developers don’t dare to take risks,” Høpfner says. “But our aim is to make a spectacular building.” With more than 500 housing units atop commercial spaces, the 8 House is an outsize manifestation of its namesake numeral. Sloping stairs and bike paths snake around the facade, and the plan features plenty of common space where residents and shoppers are meant to intermingle. It’s exactly the type of encore one would expect from an architect whose motto is “Yes is more.”

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  • Træprisen
  • courtesy BIG Architects
  • Jakob Boserup
  • Ulrik Jantzen
  • Jakob Boserup
  • Jakob Boserup
Træprisen courtesy BIG Architects Jakob Boserup Ulrik Jantzen Jakob Boserup Jakob Boserup
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