Set Designs and Cinematic Wonders
Words SUBIN ANDERSON
Photography IRINA BOERSMA CÉSAR MACHADO
Dorte Mandrup is a Danish architect who gives life to form to document the world of yesterday, live within the present, and shape the passage of tomorrow.
Mandrup’s practice is led by irreplaceable design combined with detailed research elevating the meaning of the space while addressing environmental and societal issues. Every approach starts with understanding the importance of need and purpose. Mandrup’s architectural practice opens a dialogue of how one can feel, sense, and recall memories through each structure—thus making a special connection with each encounter.
Subin Anderson: How are your days like these days?
Dorte Mandrup: Since the pandemic, I feel like I have spent most of my time in front of a screen. It has been challenging, but recently our team has been back in the office and traveling again. Towards the end of last year, I had a chance to visit the opening of the ‘Ilulissat Icefjord Centre.’ It was a wonderful experience to see the building functioning as a natural meeting place for people on evening walks or attending informal cultural events.
Fortunately, we have been staying busy throughout the lockdowns. Currently, we are working on the Exile Museum in Berlin and hopefully will soon start the next phases of ‘The Whale.’ Another project we are working on is in Gothenburg, Sweden; we are working with an incredibly ambitious client on what will become one of Europe’s largest wooden buildings.
SA: You’ve been in different fields before becoming an architect. How did your interest in architecture begin, and how have these studies affected your professional formation?
DM: Like any others, I sought out many different paths before deciding what I truly wanted to do. When I finished high school, I went to the United States for a year to study sculpture and ceramics at Georgia Southern University. At that time, it seemed so untenable because only a few people were accepted to the Academy of
Fine Arts in Copenhagen, let alone became acclaimed artists. So, I returned to Denmark and studied medicine for a year before finally transferring to architecture school. It was an opportunity to combine my interest in art, natural sciences, and social conditions.
Now, thinking about it, it is difficult to say what influenced what. But I feel incredibly at home when working directly with materials. I like to experiment with its limitations [and] possibilities—and explore surfaces, volumes, shapes. These different interests and disciplines have all become intertwined by combining scientific, analytical, artistic, and intuitive approaches relating to the context.
SA: What are you most excited about when encountering a new project?
DM: When I arrive at the point where there is a sense of release—things fall into place and somehow connect within the concept. The possibilities this opens make it truly exciting.
SA: Surely, research plays a vital role in each project as well. I’m curious to know if you have areas of interest that you explore that then find their way into building designs.
DM: We are a relatively small design studio, which means that the research we do is of a smaller scale and from our initiative. Especially in the competition phase, we spend quite a lot of time on knowledge-gathering, analyzing, and testing. We often partner with experts outside the architectural field who can also provide insights from other disciplines. For example, we worked with a marine biologist when developing our proposal for ‘The Whale.’ And we brought in Minik Rosing, a [geology] professor and expert on Greenland, during the competition for the Icefjord Centre.
SA: Inspirations can lead to the start of a creative process in various ways, but I want to touch base on the historical periods of architecture. Are there any specific periods that you come back or currently draw your interest in? Perhaps, do you have a place you would like to visit or a space that holds a special place in your memories?
DM: There are many different historical periods that I find especially interesting. Lately, I have dug into the period around 1900 to the 1920s in northern Europe since I am still puzzled by the political ambiguity. I am also preoccupied with early Nordic and European modernism and on the American Westcoast: John Lautner, and Richard Neutra. At the moment, I am rediscovering some of the Brutalist masters. And then, of course, I have always been very fond of traditional and contemporary Japanese architecture for its un-monumental lightness and poetics. I have traveled a lot, and usually, the whole office goes on a study trip together every two years. But I have so many places on my list that I still need to visit and countless works I’d like to experience. Hopefully, to Mexico and Brazil next!
SA: Your recent project, a part of the UNESCO-protected Icefjord area, ‘The Ilulissat Icefjord Centre’ in Greenland, was completed in 2021. With a distinct exterior shape, the Centre functions as a hub of research, education, and exhibitions exploring the impact of climate change in that region.
DM: The ‘Icefjord Centre’ is closely connected to the landscape. It’s a small building, which makes the landscape even more spectacular. The building levitates over the bedrock, like a boomerang or a snowy owl gently touching the ground. It creates dynamic movement through the building, so you discover the Icefjord as you venture through.
Besides the overall construction, which I will get back to, we felt the importance of the bedrock. The Greenlandic bedrock is one of the oldest in the world, and if you destroy the fragile flora and fauna that grows here, it can take many years to restore it. Also, it is impossible to create a building in Greenland without considering environmental, economic, and social impacts. Therefore, we placed the building as carefully as possible, only lightly touching the ground.
It’s a challenge to design a building under these conditions. You have to comprehend the snow, the wind, and the extreme cold. Since Greenland has no naturally-sourced building materials, everything was designed and planned to be packed, […] shipped, and […]mounted on-site in a short construction window of two or three months to close the building before winter. Most importantly, the central part of the design has been sustainability within the climate and context in which it is placed. The aerodynamic shape prevents snow from building up against the façade, and by lifting the building from the terrain, water can drain in front of the building and down to the lake. And the roof creates its own landscape and a communal outdoor space where you can overview the Icefjord. A gateway between the town of Ilulissat and the wilderness.
SA: The choice of using wood, in this case, contrasts the rocks that surround the land of Ilulissat. This material provides a sense of comfort and warmth, in contrast to the atmosphere of Ilulissat, creating a balance.
DM: There are many reasons to use wood in Greenland. We chose wood to reference the infinity of time itself on the emotional level, which contrasts the wood’s perishability and the permanence of the bedrock. Indeed, the wood also provides warmth and a pleasant and protective atmosphere in the cold. On a technical level, the choice of wood makes sense as the most CO2-neutral material. Therefore, wood is used in the majority of the construction and cladding. The mainframes are steel-enforced since the accelerated movement between frost and thaw following climate change is much more volatile, making the wood less durable.
SA: Sustainability is long synonymous with your work.
DM: I believe that reason and necessity are keywords in sustainability. It is not about showcasing; it is about working all the way responsibly through. Our knowledge about climate and the environmental aspect of sustainability is constantly evolving. There is no quick fix. We will always try to dig in, as deeply as possible, with the materials and building methods in relation to the context.
It is also a question of investigating the potential of what is already there. Transformation and repurpose of existing structures might not be as sexy as a new net-zero building or utilizing a brand-new technology, but it is, in many cases, more sustainable. In addition, social and economic sustainability is about equality, being inclusive, and recognizing that architecture impacts individuals, communities, and society. We will always prioritize well-being, diversity, and community spaces.
“I believe that reason and necessity are keywords in sustainability. It is not about showcasing; it is about working all the way responsibly through.”
SA: In that way, architecture is a form of communication that doesn’t involve words. It can leave people with strong emotions, and for the ‘Exile Museum’ in Berlin, you have built a museum space in a site that holds crucial historical moments.
DM: With the ‘Exile Museum,’ history is significant and becomes the foundation of the overall concept. Anhalter Bahnhof is both a monument to a flourishing capital in the 1920s and then later a backdrop to the horrors that followed the rise of Nazism, where thousands were deported and countless others fled their homes for an unknown future. The ‘Exile Museum’ addresses an onerous history, but it also tells a pivotal story of what it means to be in exile. This understanding has maybe never been more critical than today, where millions of people are forced into exile due to nationalism, religious conflicts, wars, or civil strife.
SA: The ‘Wadden Sea Center’ is another UNESCO site project acting as a visitors’ center on the Wadden Sea. The building has a thatch roof, which has a unique angle to provide large windows at one end. It’s interesting how it kept the local traditional look.
DM: With every project, we try to find something that can root it to the site. The ‘Wadden Sea Centre’ explores how we could use something as traditional as reeds without being sentimental or evoking something from the past. Almost endless horizontal lines characterize the landscape surrounding the ‘Wadden Sea Centre;’ and by inserting the diagonals, the building seems to grow from the landscape. The thatching technique relies on handcrafting, giving it a sensory and textured surface that invites direct interaction.
SA: I want to continue about the ‘Wadden Sea’ trilogy.
DM: The three projects are very different due to their context and content, but the unifying tidal system ties them together. In Wilhelmshaven in Germany, we are working with a historical context and are integrating a bunker from the Second World War into the new building. In Lauwersoog in the Netherlands, the building relates more to an industrial harbor and the seal theme. With the building in Ribe that we just talked about, the reference point is the horizontal planes of the landscape, the rural vernacular, and the Viking history of the place.
SA: What do you pay close attention to when undertaking a project?
DM: There needs to be a necessity and an answer to the why. We always try not to be excessive in our designs. But whether a lot is necessary or not, it always has to be meaningful. The quality also has to do with the body’s senses; there is an informal sensory communication in architecture that goes beyond what we can see. And in the end, it probably comes down to the emotional—the feeling that we are humans together and that we are here on common existential grounds.
SA: ‘The Whale’ (Norway) rises as a soft hill on the rocky shore. The building naturally flows with its surroundings, and [is] rhythmical in how the glass is curved and its unusual parabolic form allows people to broaden their perspective. From the single curved concrete shell roof to the texture of each material, can you walk me through what this space will encompass?
DM: ‘The Whale’ is actually located even further North than the Icefjord Centre on the island of Andøya in Norway. But the climate here is much milder because of the gulf stream. The island lies right on the edge of the deep ocean, where the bottom forms a deep-sea-valley. These valleys are essential feeding grounds on the whale’s annual migration route and make it one of the best places to see these magnificent creatures. The terrain above is a continuation of the landscape, with only the surface of water separating the two. So, we created a building that rises like a hill creating a cavity underneath—almost like someone made an incision into the earth’s crust and lifted it up.
The exhibition space is a continuous long horizontal view of the archipelago, the mountains, and the sea, creating a visual connection between the show and the landscape. The curved glass in the façade is actually helping us structurally to withstand the wind load and create a surreal texture. We have created an open flow throughout the exhibition space with small pockets where guests can delve deeper into the different themes. The main focus is on sensory and innovative storytelling through larger installations, sound, and light.
SA: It will be breathtaking to witness the site with a mission to protect marine life and [to] see the home for these majestic creatures. Aside from this particular project, architecture, as a whole, is an innovative way to connect with humans, nature, and cultures. In this sense, how do you perceive innovation?
DM: I see it as a way of finding new angles to the discussion. Innovation is an idea that is not stuck in a particular tradition or thought but is a critical response to what has become comme il faut in our own time. It is about having a natural curiosity toward new opportunities and keeping room for experiments—not about being iconoclastic or opposing everything. But as architects, we must keep challenging and developing the existing. Otherwise, we are not relevant.
SA: You have created cultural spaces and numerous educational places (‘Råå Preschool,’ Sweden / ‘Amager Children’s Culture House,’ Denmark) for children. In a space where kids can build their curiosity and imagination, what have you kept in mind during the production?
DM: It is always interesting to work with children because they have an immediate and open-minded reaction to space. As adults, we don’t react as sensorily to spaces as children. We are restricted by specific behavior that children are less inhibited by. As children have no say in how their daily surroundings are shaped, I feel an obligation to respect the need for integrity and the right to be able to both interact and withdraw. And to design areas where children have the freedom to roam free, without adult control or supervision—hopefully enabling them to create their own world.
SA: We’ve discussed vast areas of your work, ranging from scale, style, and materials. With all that in mind, do you have a singular approach, which underscores all your work?
DM: Our method and process are always consistent. We try to keep open-minded with all projects, and we work very thoroughly with the specific context to gather as much knowledge as possible. Then, we develop several concepts in parallel. One informs the other, and we test against the parameters defined in the analysis. Lastly, the intuitive choices seem to be much more informed.
SA: Space can change the quality of our life, bring back old memories, and create new experiences and anticipation. Wherever we are, we will always surround ourselves with different forms of architecture. With that in mind, I want to close this interview by discussing your belief in pushing the boundary of forms and what changes […] you would like to see in the future of architecture.
DM: Today, the world is, in no doubt, facing enormous challenges. The discourse is rapidly changing, and some of the crucial issues yesterday are no longer relevant. We must take steps to combat climate change and global inequality now. Just like the rest of the world, architects have to respond immediately. And we do have a possibility to be an essential part of the solution as we are trained with a truly holistic approach to see interconnections and synthesize knowledge.
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