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More connective pieces of infrastructure than simple stand-alone buildings, the designs of Danish firm Cobe typically interweave architecture, landscape architecture, urbanism and much more. Dan Stubbergaard, who founded Cobe in 2006, describes what his firm does a little more expressively: creating “urban living rooms.” Having successfully realized that concept in its home city of Copenhagen, Cobe is now practicing what it preaches elsewhere in Europe and as far afield as Canada, where it’s currently working on two major residential projects in Toronto: Block 8 in the city’s emerging West Don Lands neighbourhood and The James at Scrivener Square in the tony midtown Summerhill area.

According to Stubbergaard, both Toronto projects reflect Cobe’s vision of urban structures as places where people of all stripes can intersect and interact without self-consciousness. Between November and January, Azure conducted a series of conversations with the architect about his distinctive oeuvre, which is subject of an exhibition, “Our Urban Living Room,” at Berlin’s Aedas Architecture Forum. Among other things, he discussed the intricacies of welfare urbanism, why even luxury residences should be connected to a city’s fabric, and why Cobe from Copenhagen, as the studio calls itself, has its intellectual roots in the Netherlands.

You credit your tenure with the Rotterdam-based studio MVRDV for your belief that design can improve people’s experience of the city. Why is that?

Dan Stubber-gaard

Were it not for going to Holland, I would not have understood that architecture is first and foremost about society — about questioning how we want to live together and about creating better social interactions and greater overall livability in response.

Looking at your own body of work, what problem of city life has Cobe been most dedicated to solving?


You could say that a city is a complex organism socially, culturally, economically and also architecturally. At Cobe, we try to understand these many urban systems; one thrust of our work is to improve the quality of life through hybrid building typologies that add value to a community or neighbourhood.

One of Cobe’s earliest projects was the transformation of Copenhagen’s Nørreport Station from a disorganized transit hub into a pedestrian- and bicyclist-centric plaza through which the whole city flows more easily. Typically, young studios pursue smaller-scale, more purely architectural commissions when they’re starting out. What prompted you to compete for that project?


I had a strong interest in infrastructure, a belief that you could really treat it as more than a conduit to improve the livability and accessibility of a whole city. In the case of Nørreport Station, this largest and busiest hub in Copenhagen was so badly organized that it was a fantastic opportunity to show the power of architecture to improve quality of life.

Architecture is first and foremost about society — about questioning how we want to live together and about creating better social interactions and greater overall livability in response.
Wedgeshaped Tingbjerg Library and Culture House by the Copenhagen practice Cobe looks wide or ultra-thin depending on the angle. It serves as an important gathering spot for its distressed suburban neighbourhood.

Was it during or after Nørreport Station that you began thinking of public spaces as extensions of private living rooms?


I think it was during, because we were simultaneously working on Israels Plads [a previously car-oriented Copenhagen square reimagined by Cobe as “a vibrant, diverse plaza” used for sport and leisure “by all kinds of people”]. You can say that both were a hybrid of urbanism, social interaction, architecture and landscape architecture. We learned about the converging of elements by doing those two projects, and we’re still learning from those urban interventions. Since then, we have developed a business model in which the large scale implements the small scale. The ethics of urban planning, building and landscape are really embedded in each other. That’s not something that was thought out as a big mission, but it’s one we gradually adopted.

What results do you aim to achieve through your urban living concept?


Copenhagen has transformed completely from the city I grew up in. People are moving here every month, there’s a need for housing and the city has become a marketplace. How, then, do you make a city that embraces not just the rich consumer and the investor class but takes in and absorbs everyone? That’s what we try to work out.

A showcase of Cobe’s greatest urbanism hits, the exhibition “Our Urban Living Room” was mounted in 2017 and recently opened in an updated version at the Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin.

You believe that the urban living room is emblematic of the Scandinavian welfare state. How so?


Creating environments where the police officer and the nurse can still afford to live in the city might be the greatest challenge in the welfare urbanism agenda. How do we maintain social inclusion in cities — and a welfare society in general — as they come under pressure from immigration or unfair wealth distribution? If architecture is good, it will have the capacity to create inclusive spaces.

Welfare urbanism informs Cobe’s buildings, not just its outdoor spaces.


Yes. If we do a commission like Tingbjerg Library and Culture House [located in the marginalized north- west Copenhagen suburb of Tingbjerg], it needs to be a place where the homeless, for example, feel welcome to read a book for six hours. If we do very expensive housing like The Silo [also in Copenhagen, in the trendy waterfront Nordhavn neighbourhood], then we encourage our clients to have public facilities on site, such as that building’s ground-floor exhibition gallery and penthouse restaurant, which are open to everybody.

If architecture is good, it will have the capacity to create inclusive spaces.
One of Cobe’s most acclaimed projects, The Silo on Copenhagen’s waterfront saw a 17-storey former grain silo (left) reclad and transformed into a luxury residential building (right), with the top and ground floors accessible to the public.
It won, among other prizes, the 2018 AZ Award for Best Multi-Unit Residence.

Your vision must require more stakeholder engagement than a traditional design process.


In general, people are skeptical of a new thing, and citizens actually have more knowledge than the architect does about a specific place. I am focused on creating a platform of trust and understanding before undertaking a good contextual design.

The ground plane at Nørreport Station undulates downward to accommodate bicycle parking and, from some perspectives, the Tingbjerg Library and Culture House appears to emerge wedge-like from the earth. Cobe has folded the ground plane even more emphatically in projects like Karen Blixens Plads. How does artificial topography support the urban living room concept?


We are focused on how you as an urban human being experience the city. And you can say that that experience happens through your feet — where the body meets the surface of the built environment. We often try to connect the ground level with our architecture to invite new flows, movements and interactions between people. Topography creates a direct connection between the human body and architecture.

Karen Blixens Plads, on the University of Copenhagen’s South Campus, is the kind of hybrid public space championed by Cobe founder Dan Stubbergaard. Part park and part square, it features artificial hills and valleys, connective walkways and 2,000 parking spots for bikes.

Prismatic projections are also a recurring trait of Cobe buildings. Your very first project for the Taastrup Theatre featured a nubby second skin, the exterior of the Ragnarok museum was inspired by metal-studded leather and The Silo’s self-shading balconies are a continuation of that geometry. Why does this motif resonate with you?


It is one of our aesthetic tools. I hate at buildings in many ways, and we have some techniques to create texture, depth and re ections of light so that facades appear more dynamic.

You have said that Cobe has ridden partly on the coattails of Copenhagen’s turnaround as a city. How are you making the most of that success?


It’s fantastic to be part of the early stages of a project, when we can discuss fundamental ambitions and best uses of money with the client. Also, we are vetting potential clients for their beliefs about the environment, which I didn’t do nearly as dogmatically when the rm was starting out. We have to make sure we’re leaving the planet significantly better than how we found it.

“We have to make sure we’re leaving the planet significantly better than how we found it.”
Located in southern Germany, Adidas Halftime is a 15,500-square-metre conference and employee centre serving both public and internal functions. Its huge rhomboid roof covers the building like an enormous carpet, bringing staff and visitors together in a single structure.

Success has also spelled international commissions. What convinced you to design Adidas Halftime, a massive conference and employee centre, at the company’s headquarters in Germany?


For me personally and for the whole office, working in different places with different cultures means creating a broader platform for livable cities. We often say yes to commissions if there are shared ambitions to overcome environmental challenges, impact a local community or create new solutions. For the Halftime building, we helped a global company stitch a big organization together. The building is a democratic, open one where everybody interacts in a new way. Achieving that was an ongoing discussion, and that’s what we can contribute as Scandinavian architects.

In Toronto, what was the attraction of The James at Scrivener Square commission? Or the West Don Lands project?


These are good examples of complex sites in a major North American city, and of our attempts to understand a community’s worries about density and historical sensitivity.

Do you modify your approach to placemaking when working in a different context like Germany or Toronto?


That’s exactly what makes it interesting intellectually. It is very different to work in Germany or Canada, and that really sharpens what you do, what you decide, how you communicate and how you create a platform for collaboration. Reacting to different contexts keeps us more alive, gives us more creative fuel for what we do. It keeps us developing in exciting ways.

What is your vision of the future, both for Cobe and for urbanistic architecture as a discipline?


The main advantage of cities is that they bring people together, generating economic growth, knowledge and culture. Early in its history, city planning was about increasing capacity and efficiencies, rather than creating cities for people. Now that we are becoming good at livability, there is a chance that cities are becoming too well orchestrated. Tourism is exploding in Amsterdam, for example, to the point that you can hardly go there anymore. One of the ways that we can remedy this, I think, is by focusing our design efforts on and around nature — giving nature a way to exist and thrive in cities that is independent of economic cycles or of human lifespans.

“The Interviews” is a series of Q&As that celebrates Azure’s 35 years as a leading forum for architecture and design. We tapped the minds of 10 leading industry players, from Renzo Piano to Frida Escobedo, for their insights on the state of design today — and where it’ll take us tomorrow. Follow all things Azure anniversary on social media by using the hashtag #Azure35

Dan Stubbergaard Crafts More Than Just Buildings

In Copenhagen, the Cobe founder has a track record of fashioning beautifully integrated architecture that redefines its surroundings.

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