As the new Aberdeen University Library building is unveiled this week, we thought we’d take a look at the Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen. Famed for their ‘Black Diamond’ (the extension to the Danish Royal Library), SHL aim to create distinctive, modern structures that focus on light, open-plan spaces and the interplay between building and its context in the wider environment.
SHL was formed in 1986 by architects Morten Schmidt, Bjarne Hammer and John F. Lassen in Aarhus, Denmark, but remained relatively under the international radar until the 1997 completion of the Katuaq Culture Centre in Greenland. This beautiful municipal building was overlaid with a screen clad with undulating waves of golden larch wood, inspired by the shapes created by the northern lights.
Katuaq Culture Centre: photos by Trine og Mads and Alankomaat
Later came other prolific works in Denmark and Scandinavia, including their most famous work: the Black Diamond. Born out of an architectural competition by the Danish Ministry of Cultural Affairs, the Schmidt Hammer Lassen design was chosen as the winner in 1993. Construction didn’t begin until 1995, however, and the extension was finally finished and inaugurated in 1999. Following this important work, SHL began to branch out, entering and winning design competitions outside of Denmark and Scandinavia, including works on the International Criminal Court at The Hague (2010), an eco-tower based in Warsaw (2011) and the Aberdeen New Library Building (2006). New offices were opened in London and Oslo in 2007, and the practice has undertaken design work as far away as China and Canada, proving their international standing. They also have the plaudits to back up their ideas: seven design awards won in the last five years alone, ranging from the MIPIM AR Future Projects award in the residential category to the 2011 LEAF award for structural design.
In line with their Scandinavian background, Schmidt Hammer Lassen are architects concerned with sustainability, context, welfare and social responsibility as well as the aesthetics and practicalities of a project. They are perhaps best known for their quirky, angular, neomodern structures, but their designs always focus on flexible, open plan spaces with lots of natural light, creating a building designed for its inhabitants rather than its inhabitants having to work around the design. Following the principles of modernist design, function takes precedent over form with lots of multi-use spaces and a heavy emphasis on sustainable design, but the finished product is far from perfunctory and practical and instead takes on a streamlined, minimalist beauty.
Halmstad Library: photo by ET Photo
In terms of design aesthetics, SHL tends to utilise a simple, almost sparse signature look that often centres on the interplay of lines and angles, with the occasional curve. Colours are often kept neutral and natural, with stone, wood and glass existing alongside soft renders and cold metals. The emphasis on natural light plays with concepts of inside and outside, with extensive glazing blurring the line between the two. Reflections of the sky and the surrounding environment within the glass also allows for interplay between the two binaries, as well as allowing designs to settle into the context of their surroundings more easily. A democratic process of architectural design at the practice allows for a recognisable, cohesive style to emerge despite the firm existing across three separate countries and four different offices.
THE CULTURE ISLAND, DENMARK
Opened in 2005, Culture Island (or KulturØen in Danish) houses a library, cinema, restaurant and tourist information, and is set alone in the harbour of Middelfart on the island of Fyn, just off the coast of mainland Denmark. The structure itself is an exercise in the interplay of sweeping curves and sharp angles, shapes inspired by its position on the waterfront and invoking images of sails and waves. In order to make the structure seem light, reflection both of the sky within the panels of glazing and of the structure itself in the water is used, again drawing parallels between the building and the water. The use of silver-grey zinc cladding also echoes the cold greys of the sea around Fyn. Here we can see that the environment of the site has inspired the design of the building, allowing it such a modern building to inhabit an isolated space within the old harbour without feeling out of place.
The Culture Island; images by Schmidt Hammer Lassen
NYKREDIT HEADQUARTERS, DENMARK
Schmidt Hammer Lassen won a 1998 design competition with their distinct riff on the traditional cuboid office block for the new Nykredit Headquarters. Essentially a large, glazed cube, the new headquarters feature cantilevered, glazed meeting rooms suspended in the large central atrium. As well as creating a dramatic visual feature, the building focuses on transparency, imitating the water of Copenhagen Harbour on which it is sited. There is also the suggestion of a transparency of business practices within the headquarters too, with meeting room spaces and offices visible throughout the atrium and even from outside of the building, transforming the traditional office from a place of privacy to a place where passers-by can literally view all of the company’s inner workings.
Nykredit Headquarters; images by Schmidt Hammer Lassen
The light, airy spaces within the building offer a calm place to work with beautiful views over the harbour, and the internal spaces have been decorated with specially commissioned pieces of art, including a 30 foot mural by Olav Christopher Jenssen and a water sculpture by Anita Jørgensen. The finished building won two awards: the 2001 Architecture Prize of the Municipality of Copenhagen, and the 2002 FX International Interior Design Award in the category Best Office Building.
UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN LIBRARY, SCOTLAND
Winner of an international design competition in 2005, the new library at the University of Aberdeen has been designed to serve not only the students, but also the wider community. Set on a bed of Scottish rock, the outside façade looks remarkably like granite under a microscope, giving a connection to Aberdeen’s nickname of ‘the City of Granite’. The Academic Square outside of the library is also designed to offer a link between the University and the wider community, allowing a public space where people can gather, with the library forming the west end of an east-west axis across the university campus.
New University of Aberdeen Library; images by Schmidt Hammer Lassen
The ten storey glass cube is given a surprising delicacy through the use of decorative external cladding, and the sharp angles of the external structure contrast with the organic feel of the interior. Unexpectedly, the sharpness of the exterior is counteracted with irregular curves and an eight storey spiralling atrium. The structure is also built according to sustainable practices, incorporating photovoltaic cells and a rainwater harvesting scheme on the roof and a displacement ventilation system with the technology to heat or cool occupied spaces only, thus saving energy as compared to conventional systems. The external decoration is also part of the sustainable design, as the panels and glazing have been worked out to a ratio that allows for the maximum amount of natural light with the minimum amount of solar loss and gain. The library achieved a BREEAM rating of Excellent.