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For the past two decades Copenhagen’s 3XN has been climbing steadily to the top of the list of world-class architectural firms. It’s been invited to participate in several prestigious competitions, including designing the Mercedes Benz headquarters in Stuttgart; an aviation museum in Shanghai; and a new museum in Liverpool, England.

Azure readers might recall reading about Orestad College in our September 2008 issue: a radically new design for a high school in Copenhagen designed by 3XN. The school’s dominant feature is an interior drum surrounded by a spiral staircase that ascends three stories to a roof terrace. Though you’d think so much open communal space would attract the noisy chatter of students, the acoustical engineering of the building makes it remarkably quiet.

Founding principal Kim Herforth Nielsen spoke with Azure senior editor Catherine Osborne about what’s keeping the firm busy these days.

Your firm started out in 1986 as Nielsen, Nielsen & Nielsen. Then it became 3XNielsen, and then 3XN, is that right?

Yes, in fact, I’m the last remaining N.

How did you get started?

With an exhibition in Paris. We were invited in 1985 to participate in a show [entitled d´architecture est un jeu magnefique] at the Pompidou Center as one of 30 young architects. We basically started the office based on that exhibition. Afterward, we quit our jobs and entered a competition for a housing project in Denmark. We were quite brave, actually, now that I look back, to just throw ourselves into that competition, but we did, and we won. It was just the three of us—and in 1986 there was a recession, so getting a job was nearly impossible.

Lots has changed since then.

We’re working globally now. Last year we won every second competition we entered, and we do about 15 to 16 competitions a year. It’s been a great year for us. It was our best year ever. Everyone’s talking about crises these days. We’ve had no crises.

That’s impressive.

We’ve just been invited to a competition in China for a new aviation museum in Shanghai that’s 50,000 square metres. It’s a big one. We’ve also been invited to compete for the Mercedes headquarters in Stuttgart. We’re getting started on that one on Monday.

Tell me about some of the projects you’re working on now.

The Museum of Liverpool is one. It was a speedy process. The museum is on a waterfront promenade and the building takes on the form of a ship, because the area used to be a shipping yard. There are two main views from inside the building: one looks out to the water, which has been the life force for the city. The other looks to the city. There’s also a canal that goes underneath the building. My idea was to have a glass floor so you could see the canal from inside, but there was no money for it.

When will it be completed?

It’s nearly finished. The interior will be done next year. The museum has about 150,000 items in its collection that are all about Liverpool, from locomotives to the Beatles.

You’ve worked on a number of projects that are near water.

That’s true. We’re working on a mixed-use development in Aarhus that’s 75,000 square metres and near the water’s edge. The project includes a building that will be the tallest in Denmark (147 metres). It’s called the Lighthouse, and its ribbon-like structure was inspired by water. The context of the area is water, so the buildings express the forms of waves. We’re also working on an aquarium in Copenhagen called Blue Planet.

That’s very much about water.

Yes, I’ve got kids, so I’ve gone to a lot of aquariums, and it seems to me they never look like what it’s all about – water and fish. They look more like factories. Our idea for the aquarium was to get people underwater somehow. So we came up with this whirlpool idea for shaping the building. It took us four weeks to come up with the idea of a whirlpool and two weeks to create the design. It really quite easy to make a design, but first you have to come up with the right idea.

You’ve got a strong interest in nature and in particular biomimicry. Can you tell me more about that?

We like to think about new ways to be sustainable. For instance, if you make a high-rise you have to think about how to clean those windows. That’s not a sustainable thing; it’s a practical thing.

But if you combine these two issues, we can achieve something new.

If you look at leaves under a microscope, for instance, water cannot attach itself to the leaf. It drips off. So, if we use this as a model, we can make windows where the water doesn’t stick to the window. In effect, it becomes a self-cleaning window. It takes all the dirt with it.

We’ve done this on a building in Berlin. We wanted to make it a sustainable building and we wanted to figure out how to improve the environment and these particular windows can also help burn the smog in the area and clean the air.

The building’s windows clean the air?

Yes, they can clean the air in the area with the same effect as 500 trees.

That’s amazing. Will we be seeing any of your work in North America?

I hope so. I’ve been to Toronto three times in the last year. We’d love to build something on the waterfront.

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