Dutch architect and planner Sjoerd Soeters remembers his work on Amsterdam’s Java Island with a shudder. Although the conversion of neglected docklands into a residential neighborhood is highly regarded today, local authorities were originally hesitant to embrace his idea of carving canals into the site and commissioning multiple architects to design a contemporary urban palimpsest. “We were trying to transplant the spirit of Amsterdam’s city center to Java Island,” Soeters says, “and they thought it was a waste of space and money.”
Not so in Denmark’s capital, which is experiencing a population boom. In 1999 Copenhagen representatives approached Soeters to perform another transplant—of Java Island into the industrial South Harbour district. “An important element in the housing strategy is to focus on the harbor, to make use of the unique qualities it provides,” city project manager Claus Ravn says. The master plan follows Java Island’s example almost to a tee: canals crisscross the 14.5-acre site, forming a grid filled by apartment and row-house blocks, each with a central planted courtyard. The first 600 units were completed in late 2006; the remaining 500 should be finished by the end of this year.
Jørgen Bach is a principal of Arkitema, the 300-person Danish architecture firm that helped realize Soeters’s vision for the Sluseholmen development, which has some significant distinctions from its Dutch counterpart. “Well, first of all, it’s not an island,” Bach says. The modifications he points out include the cast concrete that Danish builders prefer to poured-in-place cement, and wider spaces between buildings to account for the lower angle of the sun. And to approximate the social experiences of the old city, Arkitema limited each unit to one interior landing, whereas those in Java contain several. “We see Sluseholmen first as an architectural concept,” Bach explains. “But we also want families to relate to one another.”
Sluseholmen will ultimately include about 150 different facades, creating the illusion that it accreted over time. Arkitema was responsible for many of the panels in this patchwork—Bach recalls, “I went around the company asking young architects, ‘Who wants to make a house in the Sluseholmen?’”—but also commissioned 20 Danish architects to work within a set of design guidelines. “Denmark is a very small country, so we asked almost everybody,” he says. “Architects who wanted to work on the project got the chance.” For example, 33-year-old Christian Dalsdorf and 30-year-old Andreas Lauesen, of Force4, created two row-house facades—one featuring wood cladding and sliding shutters, and another in which windows cantilever from a frosted-glass facade—and were then asked back to design 11 more.
Despite the success in Denmark, Soeters still has reservations about outsourcing the model. “I think the exportation of architectural ideas brings with it a great risk,” he says. “They may not have anything to do with the mentality or the culture of foreign people.” But Bach—who has been working as a full-time Sluseholmen guide, fielding inquiries by municipal architects from Stockholm and Hamburg—thinks there is an international call. “It’s the same problem throughout all of northern Europe,” he says. “The big container terminals have been moved out to sea, and the inner harbors are left alone. People are looking for new ideas for these places that bring value to the whole city.”