For 3XN founder Kim Herforth Nielsen, his buildings will always take second place to the people who inhabit them.
All of 3XN’s work starts from one core belief: that architecture has the power to create and shape behaviour. The buildings Nielsen designs are just the setting for whatever is going to take place in them, he tells me, and the form comes about because he has learned that if he creates buildings in a certain way, that will encourage users to respond in positive ways.
“We believe that architecture has extraordinary power, and always try to design buildings that positively influence the behaviour of the people who inhabit them,” he says. “We want our buildings to encourage their users to feel good and use them in positive ways. Likewise, a good building plays a similar role in the fabric of the city.
“Architecture can get people talking. Architecture can facilitate learning. It can make passive people more active. Architecture can encourage people to find new paths, meet new people, have different conversations and discover new aspects of their environments – and of themselves.”
This approach has resulted in a series of varied and interesting buildings, which include the Blue Planet national aquarium in Copenhagen, Denmark; the Muziekgebouw Concert Hall in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; the Museum of Liverpool in the UK; and the Plassen Cultural Center in Molde, Norway.
In February 2017, the 35,000sq ft 3XN-designed Royal Arena opened in Copenhagen with four sold out concerts by Metallica. Unlike many international arenas, the Royal Arena sits within the city, and was designed around the idea of being a ‘good neighbour’ to the surrounding buildings and the local community. The stadium has been designed in a way that encourages the community to use the public spaces, staircase, small plazas and gathering spaces outside the wooden-clad building, promoting life and activity when the venue isn’t being used.
Looking ahead, 3XN are working on a wide range of projects, including a new building for the Sydney Fish Market; a mixed use tower in Sydney featuring offices and leisure facilities; an educational climate centre on the west coast of Denmark; a new arena and masterplan in Bergen, Norway; and a new headquarters for the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland.
I meet Nielsen in Venice, a city he holds up as an example of good design. “It’s a very liveable city,” he says. “It has plazas for pedestrians, lots of water of course, and also lots of bridges. The diversity lies in the differences between the small lanes and bigger plazas – diversity is key in creating a good place.
“When you think about creating a building, you have to see what works in a city, and what works in the wider world,” he continues.
Kim Herforth Nielsen launched his practice in Aarhus, Denmark in 1986 with Lars Frank Nielsen and Hans Peter Svendler Nielsen as Nielsen, Nielsen and Nielsen (later changed to 3 X Nielsen, and then 3XN). Both of the other Nielsens have now left, and Kim Herforth Nielsen owns the practice, together with senior partners Jan Ammundsen, Jeanette Hansen, Kasper Guldager Jensen and Audun Opdal. They have offices in Copenhagen, New York, Sydney and Stockholm.
I ask Nielsen if his approach to architecture has changed since those early days.
“I always wanted to do more than just designing buildings,” he says. “In reality, the fact of just designing a building is somewhat boring. It’s what the building can do for people that I find exciting.
“As architects, of course, we enjoy creating a beautiful form, but only if that form has meaning. Designing form for form’s sake doesn’t work for us. The work has to have a deeper purpose.”
If you think about how you would like people to behave inside your buildings, the form almost designs itself, Nielsen tells me.
Staircases, for example, often play a prominent role in 3XN’s buildings, and Nielsen is a big believer in their role in encouraging people to meet and interact.
In the 3XN-designed Plassen Cultural Center in Norway, a wide staircase doubles as an outdoor arena, with planned and unplanned activities taking part on its steps. Sweeping dramatic staircases have been designed to encourage interaction at the Museum of Liverpool in the UK and at the UN City headquarters in Copenhagen.
At experimental high school Ørestad College – also in Copenhagen – the building rotates around the large central staircase, which was conceived as a kind of ‘catwalk’ or town square, and only disabled students with a special key card have access to the elevator.
SYDNEY FISH MARKET
Last summer, 3XN were announced as the winners of an international competition to design a new home for Sydney’s iconic Fish Market, with the aim of creating a vibrant food and dining destination for tourists and the local community.
The new Fish Market building will be located by a park and on the waterfront at Blackwattle Bay on Sydney’s inner harbour and will house a variety of restaurants, cafes, bars and food stalls, as well as the market itself.
“We’re excited about this project,” says Nielsen. “It’s so much more than a market. It will be a place for leisure, an iconic destination that’s predicted to attract eight million people a year. That’s the same number as the Sydney Opera House.”
3XN and its green innovation arm GXN approached the project from the inside out, says Nielsen, with a careful analysis of the site, the area and the surrounding community.
“Instead of designing the building first, we started by thinking about the market and all of the qualities it could give to the area,” he says. “We then designed the building around that.”
Sustainability has always been at the heart of 3XN’s work. In 2007, they set up research and innovation arm GXN (the G stands for green) to work on researching, creating and implementing new sustainable materials and technologies. The core goal of the division, explains Nielsen, is to develop a sustainable building culture that positively affects the world we live in.
“We started GXN because we realised we were only following what was on the shelf in the building market, and we thought it was more interesting to be at the forefront with new materials and technologies,” he says.
“It’s developed to be a lot more; it’s about new software, new techniques, artificial intelligence, robots, research into how design affects behaviour. We’re interested in anything new that influences how we design buildings.”
Partnering with a range of experts across various industries, GXN has designed products including the Gotham Luminaire streetlamps, which use the latest solar cell and lighting technology to produce more energy than they use, and the ‘world’s first self-supporting biocomposite façade panel’, which they created with Arup and which won the 2015 JEC Innovation Award in the construction category.
They are currently working on a range of products, including the development of green roofs and façades that use local species of greenery instead of sedum shipped in from overseas. The division is also looking into how waste from the food industry can be turned into building materials (“like potato peel into fluorine materials or tomato stems into building boards”).
I ask Nielsen whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about the future for the planet.
“Humans have always been very innovative,” he says, “but we are lazy too. If there’s a lot of oil, we’ll use a lot of oil. If there’s no more oil, we’ll cope with that and do things in a different way.
“The building industry is a very conservative industry – they’ll say ‘we have to use bricks because we’ve always used bricks’, ‘we have to use concrete elements because this is how contractors work’. In the future, they will have to work in different ways, and they will learn to do so. In that sense, I’m optimistic and quite excited to see how they will move forward. As architects, we have to push them though. The building industry isn’t moving anywhere if it doesn’t have to.”
Much of GXN’s work focuses on the idea of a circular economy – a move away from a throwaway building industry to a future in which buildings are designed and constructed so that they can be dismantled and their materials reused.
“We’re looking at how we can create buildings that have no waste when you have to demolish them, so when they come to the end of their lives, we take them apart and use all their different parts in a new building,” says Nielsen.
A NEW WAY OF BUILDING
3XN’S other major project in Sydney, the mixed use Quay Quarter Tower, is a good example of this approach. The 49-storey, 200m tower – which is being developed as part of the A$2bn ($1.54bn) Quay Quarter Sydney project being undertaken by investment house AMP Capital – will offer office space, shops, bars and restaurant facilities. Instead of demolishing AMP Capital’s existing building, around two thirds of it will be retained and redesigned, while the materials from the demolished third will be reused in the new design.
“We’re pulling part of the tower down but building around the existing core, resulting in a building that will double the square metres and look entirely new,” says Nielsen. “This way it will be very sustainable and will also save a lot of resources and money on construction costs.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time it’s been done on this scale; keeping an existing high rise building and making a new building out of that.
“I love challenges and constraints,” adds Nielsen. “The more we have, the more we have to be innovative, and think of new solutions. And out of that comes more interesting buildings.”
Other ongoing 3XN leisure projects include the Grow Hotel in Stockholm; the Grognon cultural complex in Namur, Belgium; and La Defense hotel and office in Paris, France.
Meanwhile, Olympic House, a new headquarters for the International Olympic Committee, is taking shape on the shores of Lake Geneva in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The new building will bring together up to 600 IOC employees, currently working in offices around the city, and will feature a surrounding park and campus. The building will include a green roof and terraces and a fitness centre.
The building’s form was inspired by the idea of the movement of an Olympic athlete, while the central circular staircases echo the Olympic rings.
“The IOC is all about movement, so our idea was to make an open, sustainable building that shows the idea of movement in its form,” says Nielsen.
“The philosophy of the IOC under its president Thomas Bach is all about openness, so they wanted a very transparent building,” he continues. “You might have expected big fences around it, but the façade is permeable, and the public can walk right up and look into the building.”
Olympic House is due to open in summer 2019.
As with all of 3XN’s projects, sustainability is key, and the effect of the design on the people who will use the building has been considered right from the outset.
“It’s about using your brain when you’re designing,” says Nielsen.
“It’s about creating buildings that are attractive for the people that use them, but that aren’t just about the way they look. They must perform well, they must engage with their surroundings, they should bring out the best in people and foster positive cultural change.”