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Henning Larsen Architects on fostering communities and sensible living through architecture

by Rebecca Lo on Nov 5, 2019 in Architecture , Dose of Design , Interview
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The Wave, award-winning housing in Vejle, Denmark. Photo: Jacob Due

The Wave, award-winning housing in Vejle, Denmark. Photo: Jacob Due

Henning Larsen Architects brings environmental consciousness and community building to each of its projects, with site-specific solutions that address clients' needs.

Scandinavian design is internationally respected for reasons beyond its minimal aesthetic. Its underlying principles have much to do with ideals found at the heart of many welfare states: people living in harmony with each other and with nature, where the good of the whole is not at the expense of the individual. Founded in Copenhagen in 1959 by the Danish architect Henning Larsen, the firm that bears his name today employs 400 people in seven offices around the globe. Larsen passed away in 2013, but long ago he designed each studio to be independent, while at the same time mindful of Scandinavian ethos through every project executed. His succession planning meant the ascension of Mette Kynne Frandsen and Louis Becker, who now head the Copenhagen office of Henning Larsen Architects (HLA). Further, it propelled the founding of a Hong Kong studio that, in just five years, has begun to shape how Asia views what a 'living room' for the local community could be through its sensitive place-making projects.

Claude Bojer Godefroy and Elva Tang

Claude Bojer Godefroy and Elva Tang

Husband and wife architects Claude Bøjer Godefroy and Elva Tang met when they both worked for the Hong Kong office of OMA; Tang was Godefroy's intern. She completed her master's degree in the United States after a bachelor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and first learned about HLA while competing with the company for a project. "I found their approach very fresh in comparison to American firms," Tang recalls. "They talked a lot about sustainability. Their design scheme was really different." She eventually moved to Copenhagen in 2004 to be reunited with Godefroy, and joined Henning Larsen's team. "Mr Larsen liked to go into the office on the weekends to work with younger architects there," Tang says, recalling the days working with her mentor. "He was always very frank, but never harsh."

The late Henning Larsen. Photo: Creative Commons

The late Henning Larsen. Photo: Creative Commons

Godefroy, on the other hand, was well acquainted with the work of HLA, yet decided to travel the globe first. With French and Danish parents and educated in Denmark, he spent six years in Paris working with Jean Nouvel before returning to Copenhagen. "HLA has an international character," he says. "The office is very much a studio. There is no one style or one master architect, allowing room for everyone to develop. The company embodies all the traits of Scandinavian architecture in a welcoming way. That makes it different from firms where we have to follow the leader.

The town Hall of Eysturkommuna in the Faroe Islands. Photo by Nic Lehoux

The green-roofed town Hall of Eysturkommuna in the Faroe Islands. Photo by Nic Lehoux

"We try to develop architecture that is specific to a place and time. Our work is contemporary and based on research – we never start the design process without intensive research of the site, context, people and other factors that can make it unique. Scandinavian architecture is people-oriented, with generous spaces and careful use of natural light. It is designed for the well-being of people and to facilitate social interaction. In urban contexts, our buildings interact with the city in positive ways as good citizens. A strong sense of purpose is carried through all our projects. That is why we do few shopping malls."

The recently completed Hangzhou Yuhan Opera House on East Lake. Photo: Philippe Ruault

The recently completed Hangzhou Yuhan Opera House on East Lake. Photo: Philippe Ruault

After working on China projects from Denmark, HLA won a commission to design the Hangzhou Yuhang Opera. The year was 2014 and it was the perfect opportunity for Tang and Godefroy to set up an office in Hong Kong. "Elva is from here," Godefroy explains. "We previously lived in Shenzhen and Foshan, but we feel more at home in Hong Kong. It is a special place. And Asia's scale of development attracted me – in Europe, cities are built already. Transforming Asian cities: we cannot do this anywhere else."

Rendering for the impending multi-purpose Shaw Auditorium for HKUST.

Rendering for the impending multi-purpose Shaw Auditorium for HKUST.

"It is easy to find talented architects in Hong Kong to work with us," adds Tang, noting the city's studio has now grown to 18 people with local hires and architects relocated from Denmark. "If we were to be based in China, we'd still need to choose a market: Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen. Hong Kong made sense. It puts us in a position to better observe what's happening in Asia."

"It is easy to find talented architects in Hong Kong to work with us," adds Tang, noting the city's studio has now grown to 18 people with local hires and architects relocated from Denmark. "If we were to be based in China, we'd still need to choose a market: Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen. Hong Kong made sense. It puts us in a position to better observe what's happening in Asia."

The new French International School campus in Tseung Kwan O, which opened at the end of 2018. Photo Philippe Ruault

The new French International School campus in Tseung Kwan O, which opened at the end of 2018. Photo: Philippe Ruault

Opened earlier this year, Hangzhou Yuhang Opera follows the completion of French International School's Tseung Kwan O campus, which has a personal connection to the couple as their 12-year-old son Camille attends a branch of the school. The 19,600sqm (210,000sqf) project houses 1,100 primary and secondary school students, and the facade's primary-hued brise-soleil (heat-deflection) removes the need for window treatment while flooding spaces with natural light. Traditionally enclosed classrooms at the primary level are instead grouped through open planned villas with a shared group activity space called the agora. The shared open area allows classes from both French and international learning streams to collaborate as desired. "We lifted the ground level to open up the space for community gatherings when the playground is not in use," adds Godefroy.

Scandinavian architecture is people-oriented, with generous spaces and careful use of natural light. It is designed for the well-being of people and to facilitate social interaction.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of HLA's establishment; its recent honour as laureate for the 2019 European Architecture Prize is the icing on its birthday cake (see page 14). Among the projects mentioned by the chairman in a congratulatory letter, three from the Hong Kong office – French International School, Icone Tower in Manila and Shenzhen Bay master-plan – were named as exemplary projects. "We are celebrating with a gala talk on November 28 in Hong Kong, on the topic of culture and the city," notes Tang. "It will be part of Business of Design Week. In December, we will launch a monograph of our firm's work." Hand in hand with its buildings, HLA's initiatives demonstrate how it plans to forge a living room for local communities to communicate – the Nordic way.


THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED AS "BUILDING COMMUNITIES”, A FEATURE ARTICLE FROM THE OCTOBER ISSUE OF PERSPECTIVE MAGAZINE.

TO CONTINUE READING, SUBSCRIBE TO GET YOUR COPY OF PERSPECTIVE

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