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The Royal Arena in Københavns Ørestad by 3XN. Photo: Adam Mørk
The Royal Arena in Københavns Ørestad by 3XN. Photo: Adam Mørk

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Designs that work: Meet stellar architect Kim Herforth Nielsen

Bella Sky, National Aquarium Denmark, UN City, and Ørestad Gymnasium. Architect Kim Herforth Nielsen and 3XN are behind some of Copenhagen’s most eye-catching new buildings, including the new Royal Arena, which opened in February. Here he tells us about his vision and about what makes designs work.

The inauguration of the Royal Arena by the world’s biggest heavy metal band on February 3 did hardly  pass by quietly. “It was actually Metallica themselves who called the developer and asked if they could inaugurate the arena, as they have a tradition of opening arenas in America,” Nielsen says, “and it probably also means something to Lars Ulrich too, given that he’s Danish.” 

Nielsen is the man behind Copenhagen’s new arena, and his 3XN design studio is one of the country’s biggest and most influential. They carry out projects all over the world and you’ll find buildings designed by Nielsen from Stockholm to Sydney. 

Bella Sky: De skrånende tårne giver udsyn og lys til alle værelser. Foto: 3XN

There’s something fitting about the arena opening with a bang. For although Nielsen appears a relatively quiet person, his buildings are not afraid to make some noise. In Copenhagen, he’s well known for the distinctive offices of companies such as Saxo Bank, Deloitte, and FIH, and with the Bella Sky Hotel’s sloping towers he’s given the slightly anonymous Bella Center a landmark that is not to be overlooked. Throw in Den Blå Planet (National Aquarium Denmark), UN City, and the new Royal Arena, and 3XN is gradually becoming responsible for a large proportion of Copenhagen’s new architectural landmarks. 

Den Blå Planet. Foto: 3XN

Although the design of each building is unique, they’re all based on Nielsen’s architectural vision. His mission is to design buildings that work and that make a positive difference for their users and their surroundings.

“My philosophy is that architecture creates behavior. If I were to mention one building that really was a breakthrough for this philosophy, it would have to be Ørestad Gymnasium.”

The high school, which opened in 2006, was the first newly built high school in Copenhagen in 35 years. Traditional spaces such as classrooms and lounges were dispensed with in favor of four open-plan study zones on different levels, all connected by a broad, spiral-shaped main staircase.

“The staircase is the school’s lifeline,” Nielsen says. “It’s used as a platform and as a break area, and it helps the students to get some exercise. They go up and down five floors using the staircase 10 times a day and only disabled people with a special key card have access to the elevator. It’s on the stairs that interaction takes place and the creative environment develops.”

Ørestad Gymnasium Photo: 3XN

“Ørestad Gymnasium has shown what space can do,” Nielsen says. “The teaching methods are different and the students achieve better results than average, even though they have a completely average background. They emerge as independent, socially-aware individuals who take their inspiration from their interaction with others.” 

“The same can be said of the competition department here at the design studio. It’s by working together that synergy is created. If they were to sit alone in their rooms, they wouldn’t be able to come up with the things they do.” 

His interest in the impact of buildings on their surroundings has prompted him to hire five researchers to investigate what makes people feel comfortable in different kinds of spaces.

“How do people move around at an exhibition, a museum, or a market?” Nielsen says. “What should characterize a space that promotes learning, cooperation, and interaction? The research we’re doing looks for answers to the question of what works on a theoretical floor plan. You have to be able to demonstrate to the developer that if you do things a certain way, it will work. And it won’t be a secret – it’s something everybody can enjoy.”

The idea that buildings should make a positive social contribution to their surroundings is also the basis for the design and location of the new arena.

Photo: Adam Mørk

Glass lined with panels of light, acid-treated wood creates visibility and daylight in the rooms and corridors, while much of the interior can be seen from the outside. Both inside and out, the arena is designed with its surroundings in mind.

“The Royal Arena will be a semi-urban cultural center with restaurants and stores on the ground floor, so it will still be a thriving place even at times when there are no events,” Nielsen says. “The stairs are a platform in themselves, with plenty of seating, playing fields on the north side, and water, trees, a network of green paths, houses, and businesses as neighbors. Whereas other arenas are often located in remote areas with a parking lot as their only neighbor, the Royal Arena will become an arena plus, a central focus in this part of the city that gives something of itself and draws life towards it, rather than pushing it away.”

Photo: Adam Mørk

As he and senior project manager Gry Kjær show Scandinavian Traveler around the arena a few days before the opening, everyone is busy with all the final preparations. But the broad outline and the beautiful details have long been in place. From the nightclub-like lighting to the discreet luxury of the VIP lounges and the amazing acoustics in the soft darkness of the arena.

“It’s been one of our biggest and most complex projects in Denmark,” Nielsen says, “but it turned out really well.”

The Royal Arena was officially opened on January 28 by H.R.H. Crown Prince Frederik. Minister of Economic and Business Affairs Brian Mikkelsen, Minister of Cultural and Ecclesiastical Affairs Mette Bock, and Lord Mayor of Copenhagen Frank Jensen were also in attendance. The arena opened to the public on February 3 with four sold-out Metallica concerts. 

Text: Lise Hannibal

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