By Lia Forslund
Operating out of a purpose-planned top-lit indoor courtyard filled with daylight, the architects of Henning Larsen evade any other definition of architectural strategy other than their own. Described as ‘a master of light’ Henning Larsen himself was intrinsically open. Deriving from a celebration of light as a tool to ennoble citizens, the practice was set up in 1959 to design clearly and generously for better environments and cities. Larsen emerged out of late modernism in the 60s and 70s, with a revival of the 30s modernism as a theoretical fourth runner: studying under—among others—Arthur Korn, a Bauhaus architect and urban planner who gave several provocative proposals on democracy and transparency of glass buildings. Henning Larsen set a similar direction, building an architecture and urbanist practice on seeking clarity: curious, investigative and accessible.
Trondheim University built by Larsen in 1978 became a symbol of a transparent and inviting streetscape, a mediator between passages of old European streets and modern decentralized planning. With glass-covered boulevards, he utilized light and openness to integrate past with future, building characteristics that would come to define the studio’s urban planning projects. He then went on to stage gatherings of diverse urban entities in Riyadh, putting the firm’s ethos of transparency into practice. Built in 1984, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh was a successful manifestation of the combined tactics of light and human scale, creating a variety of intimate and public spaces, reflecting traditional forms through a modernist lens.
Jacob Kurek, partner at Henning Larsen, recalls a case from the 2000s in which the firm was commissioned to redesign the inner harbor of Copenhagen, turning an old industrial backyard into a garden. Understanding the potential of strategically opening up instead of demolishing what you have, the studio addressed the harbor as a transparent public domain using thorough investigation.
"It is really about asking people what they dream about and then allowing people to come and use the space," Kurek explains.
"It is not about being a visionary architect but working with the context and improving the quality of life going forward."
For the Gdańsk imperial shipyard, Poland, first built in 1844 and re-planned for 2021, the strategy was clear, Henning Larsen responded to the context by declaring: 'whatever that is on the site today is not going to leave the site.' Every single material has been re-thought, upcycled or re-vitalized to continue to tell stories of Gdańsk, letting the legacy of the city live on to the next generation. Before the waterfront had limited access, but with Henning Larsen’s urban re-configuration everyone is invited, with all the stories embedded in the built fabric.
The added value of ‘opening up’, has since resonated with several harbor sites across Europe that suffered a loss of public realm by segregated industrial areas: the Swedish West coast harbor of Lindholmen, Key West Urban development in Brussels and Belfast Waterside were all given a Henning Larsen narrative, embedding a story rooted in the foundations of the past, as a strong link between the present and the future. No longer barriers to the city, but beacons for the community, these masterplans have laid the foundation for new social fabric and pedestrian life.
At Henning Larsen, urban planning has evolved into a process where strategic narratives are fundamental. ‘What do we want to achieve with this before we start designing?’ Design principle and partner, Louis Becker, asks his team before designing anything:
"Primarily, the narrative is based on an invitation, sending out a clear message for people to take ownership. Second, comes the strategic transparency—these are our two main tactics. If we fail these two, there are not one of our buildings."
The success of such a model lies in the delicate balance of Henning Larsen’s ethos of curiosity, with new generations actively applying it to a changing world. While still subject to the same objective of creating openness, new challenges await.
"How can we utilize the development of mobility to increase the quality of life in our cities?" Kurek asks. Entering a transitional period for urban transparency:
"Mobility is going to change the potential for a new kind of streetscape, one that puts value into historic urban planning as well as designing human cities for the future."
Since the last decade, Henning Larsen is focused on creating transparency between the end-user and their inherit context, investing in social anthropological, engineering and distinct sociological dialogue for every project.
"Contrary to the past, behaviors are more important today than acres and square meters. Our clients used to be the people paying for the project, but it is not like that anymore. Our client is end-users," Becker says.
Yet it is clear that bringing light to the humanity of every project is something that has always been the approach of Henning Larsen. Where in the last sixty years the firm has evolved from building streetscapes to accommodating for large city areas, the architect's focus has continuously been on openness and the transparency created. Rather than focusing on designing first, the firm has found a process that strategically deepens the knowledge of humans prior to buildings. Involving the end-user in urban interventions before committing to the design Henning Larsen successfully delves into the cultural past of a place, in narratives based on how the built environment can act as a tool to bring light and invite.