Who can forget 2008? As founder and creative director of 3XN Architects of Copenhagen, Kim Herforth Nielsen recalls the onset of the Great Recession with a shudder. Four-fifths of his firm’s work was located in Denmark, “and then everything stopped one day. A client called to stop work, and then an hour later another called, and an hour later another. It was horrifying.” Vowing to never place themselves in such a vulnerable position again, Nielsen and his partners at the time – Jan Ammundsen, Bo Boje Larsen and Kasper Guldager Jensen – decided to diversify by pursuing foreign commissions.
As with other ambitious studios, their efforts initially led to the Middle East and Asia. But something didn’t quite jell. Working in China required a partner’s full-time commitment, if merely to chase down payments. “We wanted to use our energy to create architecture, and not deal with money issues,” Nielsen says, “so we chose markets where the culture is not so different from ours.” 3XN began cultivating prospects in North America and Australia, and today its staff of 120 is working on more foreign projects than domestic ones, with five concurrently underway in Toronto alone. “We’re a little bit like a fish in water,” he says of Canada. “There is an inherent understanding of how to do business.”
After the 2008 crash, 3XN moved into foreign markets as a matter of economic practicality.
Yes, we’re a small country with about 5.5 million people, so you have to go abroad to get jobs.
Yet, by shifting into North America and Australia, your strategy turned more philosophical. How did that happen?
It has to do with what we like to do. If you do what you’re good at, then you get even better at it, and the work becomes more exciting. We could have grown to 300 or 400 people if we took on lots of ordinary projects, but there has to be a challenge. We started the firm in 1986, and at a certain stage, we decided there could not be A projects and B projects; there could only be A projects. We even had to stop speaking in A and B terms.
New business development is not just about money; it’s about creating a legacy. In China, you see some amazing buildings get made, but you also see things that you can’t recognize from the original design. That happens in India, too. You can have a good client, but when the local firm takes over, it can destroy the concept.
When the recession subsided, why didn’t you go back to working domestically?
Even though Denmark is booming now, pension-fund companies have too much power dictating what kind of buildings they want, and it is difficult to do something interesting. Our focus is on projects that will make a difference and are catalysts for human activity. Our UN City project in Copenhagen, for instance, has this significant staircase in the main atrium, and it’s like a metaphor for the web of countries that come together in that building. There are people walking up and down it all the time. That staircase is a connector, literally. Of course, the world is complex and whatever connector you make has to function properly for its community, but generally speaking, connectivity and openness between functions is really important to us.
It seems that culture of connectivity is now centred in Toronto and Sydney, where you’ve got a number of projects underway.
I was in Sydney last week for a conference about city gentrification and how high-rises should be developed. The high-rise we are working on there is the Quay Quarter Tower, and it’s more like a vertical city. We’ve included a podium into the design, to create energy at street level. Those kinds of features give something back to the city, not just to those who will be working in the tower. The conference actually referred to the project as a new model.
In many ways, we’ve found working in Sydney to be easier than working in, say, France. You have to survive 22-hour flights, but other than that Australians are easy to communicate with. The same goes for Canada and its cultural attitude. These are two places where we have a clear understanding of what’s happening. The topics they are interested in are the same as what interests us: livability, sustainability, and how a building can benefit society. The U.S. is slightly different. There it’s more about numbers. It’s still about creating something for a community, but we have to argue for value in a different way. We have to put it to a measure. Projects in Canada and Australia are about numbers too, but you don’t have to argue quite as much.
How does sustainability figure into this cultural alignment? Your firm is highly regarded in this area, particularly for continuing research into well-being and the built environment.
Clients are talking about sustainability more than ever. At that Sydney conference, they mentioned the “Copenhagen Way.” It’s a way of looking at sustainability from a holistic perspective. In other words, it’s not just about energy reduction or plant habitat; it’s a combination of what a building does for people, and how people feel inside and outside buildings. Everything has to be taken into consideration. Honestly, I am not talking about it much here because it’s so integrated into all our work. Sustainability may not be much of a mainstream topic in the U.S. right now, but that will change.
Can you speak more about the Copenhagen Way? Do prospective clients have preconceptions of a Danish firm? I’m wondering about this because Denmark is often ranked as the happiest country on the planet, so are your clients expecting a happy building, too?
There is some truth to what you’re saying. The humanistic way we think here, and the emphasis on dialogue, it’s just part of my genes and the office’s genes. There are some negative aspects of this, too. The term janteloven refers to the idea that no one should be better than anyone else. That’s something we struggle with. Some people do perform better than others, and I think that should be celebrated. But, overall, it’s mostly about sharing and listening. In Denmark, we’re not brought up to have a big ego, and that benefits us when we are working in other countries.
How do you break through the janteloven so that 3XN is not perceived as interchangeable with another Danish architecture firm?
We have our own way of doing things. We have done some very expressive buildings, like The Blue Planet, northern Europe’s largest aquarium, here in Copenhagen. We have a fan base because of those kinds of projects. Making a statement may not be particularly Danish, but the architectural profession is not about doing things that nobody raises a finger to.
How do you differentiate 3XN from other Danish studios? I’m thinking of offices like Dorte Mandrup and Bjarke Ingels Group.
We have a good community here generally; we’re very open and helpful to each other. When Bjarke Ingels opened his office, his CEO turned to our CEO a lot for mentorship, and we shared our business knowledge with them. Now that we are moving into the U.S., I have been talking with Bjarke about how to do things in that market. So it works both ways. There is also the outside influences that effect change. Fifteen or 20 years ago, hardly any foreign architects were working in Copenhagen. There were a lot of competitions, but there was a sort of formula about what was right and what was wrong. Then architects like Jean Nouvel started building here, and that shook things up. It’s good for a local community to have someone come from away, because they play up something else. Of course, having a few architects in one city who are doing things abroad in a world-class way – that inspires everyone.
You have five projects in Toronto. How do you avoid repetition?
We don’t have one signature. A project has to make sense in context. For Church and Wellesley [a newly announced proposal for a 43-storey residential tower], the building will stand in a neighbourhood that already has an existing community and environmental conditions informing it. You have to make something that is particular to that very urban context. Whereas the two condo projects we are working on along the Toronto waterfront – Aquabella and the Waves at Bayside – are on virgin ground. You don’t have a community to deal with; you don’t have neighbours who have lived there for decades. The considerations are completely different.
Toronto has actually been a learning curve. It’s a diverse, fast-growing city. When everybody is part of a minority, that makes for a different kind of discussion; one that respects many interests. When we were invited to vie for the Church and Wellesley project, we conducted public meetings without making any sketches. It was really exciting. At some meetings, people just nag. But that didn’t happen. In this neighbourhood, which is historically gay, people came with insights and took part in discussions. The meetings really gave us a lot of design ammunition. The client then told us to come in with one or two options, but we came back with seven, because we took the public’s input so seriously. At the last meeting we had three options. We ended up combining two of them into one, and that is what we’re designing now.
So, we learned something in Toronto, and it really gave something back to us. The whole
point of architecture, of being human really, is to improve yourself all the time. You have
to make the effort, and intersecting with different cultures is part of that.