Interview with Jan Christiansen, City Architect of Copenhagen

April 21, 2010

Conditions: What is a compromise in your opinion?

Jan: In my opinion, the art of architecture is dependent on borders and a lot of compromises. Architecture is not a free-form art. It is a kind of art where you have to make compromises on the genius loci, economy and everything else. Compromise is to take into consideration other requirements needed for solving the task.

C: Can you say that a compromise is to reach an agreement?

Jan: You might say so. You have to look at the compromises and what the function of the building is. If you are going to draw a building with a spatial architectural idea, you will have to pay attention to the functionality inside and outside the building, the whole city and all the spaces in the city and so on. Architecture contains compromises, but still has it is own value as an art.

C: Is compromise a Scandinavian phenomenon?

Jan: One of the compromises I see as most difficult these days, or even in history, is democracy. When you create a detailed plan of a city or a house, you have to make some kind of democratic decisions; you have to ask the politicians, the people in the area. It’s a long process which could be, or should be, creative. In Copenhagen these days, it is normal to go through a large amount of democratic processes when making important additions to the city. From the first stages of a competition there is political involvement, and steadily more and more people from the city get involved. We start with the discussion: “what are we going to do here?” It’s important and I think Democracy is a necessary kind of compromise.

C: Is this linked to the welfare state or our social democracy in any way?

Jan: Yes, you know Christian IV, in Copenhagen, had no democracy when building Christianshavn and all the fine buildings in Copenhagen. There was no compromise; he decided himself what to do where. Today we have a totally different situation where we have to speak to a lot of people, a lot of institutions and a lot of politicians and citizens of the city and so on.

C: Would you say that architecture was better without the compromises?

Jan: No, you can’t say that. Compromises are part of the game. You can say that the architecture was more uncompromised. If it is better, I do not know. Free architecture is not possible today. You can look at the houses we are building today – Jean Novel’s concert hall, the Oslo Opera House and the new buildings from architects all over the world – but you can’t say whether it’s better or worse; the conditions are just different.

C: What is the relation between communication and compromise? Communication is a condition for compromise. How do you involve the different parties in the process?

Jan: Communication is one of the most important tools for democratic architecture, whether that be between two people, or between the architect and the whole of society. One of the ways the architect communicates with society is through the press. In Denmark there is a tradition of some very professional and serious architectural coverage in magazines and the daily press, such as Politiken and Berlingske. However you will still have journalists who are just going to make a story and talk about conflict. This can be detrimental. I’ll say it again though, it is so important to have real communication throughout society, in the schools, in the town halls, and have serious discussions about the plans for the area.

C: There are a lot of ways for people to involve themselves, and you have mentioned a few. What do you think is the right way for people to involve themselves in the shaping of the city? Is it through the established system, or…

Jan: This is really a difficult question, from my point of view, because I am also a professional architect, and I also like to make the best results. To create “democratic art” is kind of a contradiction, because art has to be free. You cannot do it together with all the people of the city. Therefore, there is a big question in architecture because you have to explain yourself. If an architect can’t explain himself and his project (what I am going to do here and why I am going to do it) then he’s got a problem. But, at some point you must stop the democratic process and say that this is the architect’s work. Of course you have to ensure that all the functions are ok: the functions of the house, of a city plan or a detailed plan. These things must be discussed as well as the forms and proportions. But, in the end, it must be the architects making the decisions.

We had a conflict on the opera house in Copenhagen where our best architect, Henning Larsen, had done some facades and elevations of the Opera House. The owner and donator, Hr Møller from Maersk, didn’t like them, so Henning Larsen drew some other ones. I tried to help, but I was not able to. There were some conflicts and maybe we did not get the masterpiece in architecture that only one man and his staff can do – like in Oslo with Snøhetta or in Sydney with Jørn Utzon. This is gesamtkunstwerk from one man and his crew or group and we were not able to get that in Copenhagen. It is a question of our communication and democracy. Architecture is a kind of art where the function should be there. I always said that you can only talk about architecture when the aesthetic, function and techniques are in the same place at the same time. And therefore the architect must be responsible for the aesthetics.

C: You divide architecture into three parts: aesthetics, function and techniques. Which part should the public involve themselves in?

Jan: Anybody can create a house that is beautiful, anybody can make a house that is functional and anybody can make a house which is technically ok. The question is will all three elements come together to create architecture and loci (or place). This is what I have told architecture students and everyone else. This is Vitruvius and the ancient Greeks, it is not so difficult to grasp, but it is important to understand.

C: You mentioned governance when talking about the Danish Opera; do you think that governance has gone too far? Have the private property developers become too powerful? How do you as a city architect relate to this?

Jan: Yes, of course the developers have gotten too much power. I have a problem when a man owns a piece of land and wants to build a specific kind of house there. Why should he ask the city architect “is this good enough what I have done?” and I say “no this is not good architecture, this is ugly architecture” and he can’t understand that. That is why it is so important to explain that if I am building in this area, where I am responsible for the architecture, it must be me and my staff’s word which counts. We have the last word every time. But of course we are responsible to the politicians and some mayors, and in the end the mayors are going to say “yes” or “no”. There is a lot of conflict between architecture and politics. I have been working for ten years as a city architect and I am familiar with the conflicts. This is a fight and a struggle and for me as a city architect. It is so important to explain myself, to communicate, otherwise I have lost. One of my strengths, as other people have told me, is communication. Most of the time I succeed in getting through to the owner of the land and he says “you are right, we’ll do that.” Of course the same goes for communicating with, and getting through to, the architect. I try to use only good architects, to make the communication easier.

C: You mentioned your role. You are in between the politician, the developer and the architect. Are you the only one without an agenda? Is your agenda neutral? Are you only looking at what is best for Copenhagen?

Jan: Yes, however it’s not only me operating without an agenda. But yes, what is best for Copenhagen is our only focus.

C: Do you find it difficult to maneuver and communicate in this landscape when the actors, such as the developers and the politicians, do not have a background as architects?

Jan: Yes, of course it is very difficult. Owners of land, developers and politicians do not have an architectural language, and you have to train them and explain what architectural quality is. We have just finished our architecture policy in Copenhagen. We created a book about the significance of Copenhagen, the experiments, the spaces and the processes in Copenhagen. We are also doing a lot of competitions. Every time we have a problem, we create an architecture competition. This year we are doing 50 of them. In the competitions we have discussions with the owners and the architects and so on. It is a really good thing to have a competition, either open or private, and have different offices working on several solutions to a task or a problem in Copenhagen. It’s our most important tool to get to a solution in a democratic and modern way, and together figure out what is good and what is bad architecture.

C: Society is constantly changing. Do you think today’s system – including the politicians, planning department, architects and property developers – is the optimal solution for the further development of our society and city? Is the system itself the right tool to ensure this development?

Jan: No, we have a big project in Denmark and also, of course, in Copenhagen where we have tried to create new and better systems and develop some new kinds of processes with which to qualify all of our decisions. Together with the national planning institute, we have done some reports on this and the goal is to get new processes involving all the people in the area, all the people who have an interest, into some kind of process where we are going to discuss architecture in Copenhagen and all over the country – a truly open process. My experience is that when we have this huge involvement of citizens in Copenhagen, we have the most radical answers to architectural problems. It is not conservative architecture at all we get by involving the people.

C: What you are saying is that your system is more dynamic, that you are constantly changing your methods and processes. It seems to me that your focus is on how to reach the best results.

Jan: Of course, yes. You have to get the best. We need to have fun, and making the best architecture is always fun.

C: What is a good compromise, and what is a bad compromise?

Jan: You know we do not like bad compromises. A good compromise is when you have had a process, when you listened to everybody and everybody has given something and we get new results we didn’t think of at the start. Having these symbiotic results is a good compromise. People who live in an area know that area and can therefore give valuable input to the competitions and the planners.

The bad compromise is when everybody gets heard, but nobody involves themselves enough in the process. It is so important for us to get people dedicated to the task. We have had some bad compromises, but we are getting better and are always looking for the best compromises and trying to get them even better.

C: From your professional view as a city architect, what do you see as the most common disputes and why?

Jan: The worst is the economy. We have been building in Copenhagen for the last five, six, seven years, in a situation where the money was flowing over the city borders. We had a lot of investors in Copenhagen and now these investors are gone. Now we only have a few with money and a lot without. The ones who build ask for compromises we can’t give. We should wait. Low cost could be fine, but together with the economy, the bad architects are coming with some solutions we can’t accept. The politicians say “we have these renderings and it looks fine”, but the money and the loss of money create some compromises which are very difficult. Everybody wants to build good architecture, but it is difficult when you can’t have the competitions because they cost money.

C: You mentioned bad architects coming with projects you have to say no to; are these architects the ones that compromise their own work first?

Jan: In Denmark at the moment, we really have problems and architecture firms have to close. They are saying yes to things they didn’t say yes to two years ago. They are really compromising. It is getting worse and worse. A lot of Danish architects are going to Sweden now because there are still things to do there. We really have a problem in Copenhagen, there is no action. We have some university and small housing projects, but the money is a problem.

C: How is the compromise visible and how does it affect the city and the citizens?

Jan: It’s not visible now, we’ve stopped it. In the 90s when we had the same situation, we built some areas in the harbor with some bad architects, bad construction , and bad material. Now it is incredibly ugly. I remind them about this today and I say we should stop and wait for better times. Of course there are still good architects who can design buildings at a lower cost, but you can see from the 90s that some of the projects at the harbor are a catastrophe.

C: Why did you decide to become a city architect?

Jan: Because of some the things I have told you today. It is so exiting to work in this field. I am an old man. I am 62 years old, I have tried a lot of things, I have won a lot of competitions and I have worked at the best offices in Copenhagen. But to use my experiences to fight in the political sphere of architecture, where you have to speak loud to people and say to people “stop it now, we have to do this as a competition etc…” is interesting. With my experience, and because I am a well know person in Copenhagen, I can do that, but it also gives me a lot of problems with the politicians. Still, the majority of the politicians say continue, we have to do what is best for Copenhagen. It is great to work in the political sphere with architecture in Copenhagen.

C: Do you have more influence as a city architect than as a good practicing architect?

Jan: Of course. You know, I have two-hundred cases as a city architect and as a regular architect only two or three projects to work with. I have had so much influence on what has been going on in Copenhagen the last 10 years. This is a very nice way to end a career.

C: Do you think magazines are relevant as a tool for communication in today’s society?

Jan: When I was a young guy, 25-30, and a new architect, I did a lot of competitions. At the time, we had one magazine for architecture in Denmark. Today we have three or four as well as magazines from all over the world. Architecture is so well known, and much of the success of architecture as a cultural form – like museums, art, operas – is because of the magazines and all those people writing about architecture. The magazines are a part of the cultural dominance in a way. I think it is a new kind of living. That’s why I think magazines are important.

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