Rethinking The Dormant Shell


The project seeks to investigate an existing dormant structure and the potentials that lie within, waiting to be activated. Like a seed remaining dormant until spring. The building should function as an organism of different lives coexisting within an infrastructure. With the location and history of Svanemølle Power Station it should be committed to give back to the city of Copenhagen.

From the thorough building and site analysis, the new Svanemølleværket features purposeful housing and exhibition spaces. Artisans, artists-in-residence and elements of co-housing contribute to the creative atmospheres, benefiting from and prolonging the power station’s industrial and productive legacy.


What prompted the project?

Copenhagen is a city of expansion, renewal and growth. Being the capitol of Denmark, the city generates most of the welfare state’s financial foundation. As one such city, its architecture reflects the current high living standards, and will in the future do this in a much larger scale.
Specifically, the Northern Harbour in Copenhagen is planned to be expanded so that in 2070, it can house 40.000 residents and, in addition, 40.000 employees in office buildings. To facilitate this expansion, the municipality of Copenhagen is planning to build an entirely new island, effectively emptying all gravel pits in Denmark.
As architects, we encourage the facilitation of expansion, and are optimistic of nature. However, the many years of planning and building concerns us, since no one knows the state of the existing buildings in 50 years’ time from now. Our approach to facilitate expansion of Copenhagen, in terms of residential buildings, is through rethinking a dormant building’s legacy, concept and potentials.
Our point of departure was Svanemølle Power Station, situated in-between three interesting, yet very different, areas of Copenhagen: the suburban Hellerup, the industrial Nordhavn and the typically Copenhagen-esque building block structures of Østerbro. The building was picked from sheer interest in vacant industrial buildings, but it also has high topicality since it is currently planned to be transformed to a museum.

What questions does the project raise and which does it answer?

Initially, the project aimed to raise the question of whether it is necessary to add land, another island, to a country already made up of numerous islands. The project would use one building as impetus for an investigation that might be able to answer the question in a general sense, and maybe even apply a new strategy towards rethinking transformation of existing structures.

As the project developed, and a rather large building was chosen as the point of departure, the project aimed to answer the question: “to what extent can the inherent potentials of the dormant structure of Svanemølle Power Station be utilized, when rethinking its concept?”
To us, the most sensitive part of rethinking the structure’s purposes, was how the new proposal would function as an impetus for a new identity, while still portraying its history and legacy through the preserved buildings parts and interior artifacts. As a result, we transformed the building into purposeful artisan co-housing with one large exhibition space and several smaller, less formal spaces to accommodate the in-house artists. The visible transformation, that is removal of building material, is based on informed decisions, where factors as sunlight, accessibility, materials and how it all relates to the building’s history were the main priorities. The new identity as a public exhibition space seeks to accommodate new exhibitions that in one way or another relate to the power station’s legacy. It is more important to tell the story of the power station, in addition to the given exhibition, than to simply use the industrial interior as a backdrop for a contemporary art exhibition.

How did you approach the site? What tools did you use in the analysis and documentation of the existing condition?

We were not granted access to the building itself, given the current competition for a selected few invited architects. We managed to get the technical drawings from the building’s proposal in the 1950’s as foundation for 3D-modelling and drawings. As a result, we adapted the analyses for the scope of a one semester thesis and analyzed the exterior building in its context.
Having a flair for parametrics, photogrammetry and GIS-software as tools, we used Grasshopper and point cloud manipulation in order to map out the building and Copenhagen. In photogrammetry, point clouds are created based on regular photographs, and therefore fit in well with point cloud-based maps. The difference in GIS-maps’ precise point clouds and the rather glitchy ones from photogrammetry were used as a creative impetus.
In other words, we let our tools interpret our findings and be open to new ideas. For instance, the drawing “Rethinking the Dormant Shell” features a broken mesh in the façade of the building. The photogrammetry software required more pictures than it was given, and as a result it opened the façade in the ground plane. We interpreted that as an invitation inside, like a curtain willingly unveiling.
A series of A2-drawings made up our context and site analysis. The drawings are constructions, or compositions, of several smaller individual findings. They were never really finished, but continuously reworked and elaborated on. Ultimately, we learned that Svanemølle Power Station currently is a hinge, connecting the previously mentioned three areas of Copenhagen. Therefore, the building as a hinge became a central aspect of the concept development.

How do you see the public and private spheres interacting?

In e.g. the boiler house (the tallest space), the private spheres are deliberately overlapping the public spheres. The residents are meant to be of a creative or artistic nature, embracing open workshops and exposure to the public. Their daily schedules might also be eccentric to traditional working hours, meaning that visitors have the chance of seeing artisans working, when visiting the building.

What informed the programmatic distribution that will be injected within the structure?

In accordance with the sensitivity of the building’s legacy, we based our transformation decisions on both the site analysis and building analysis. In other words, we asked the building “what do you want?”.
The dimensions of the spaces in the office wings fit well with dwellings with 5 meters in depth and various widths according to the given dwelling type. Therefore, the dwelling typologies were applied in this part of the building, with subsequent building mass removal to create enough sunlight and overall massing.
The turbine hall, the large volume in the center of the building, features interior brick cladding, arched beams creating the largest open space and enormous windows placed with great proportional care. In addition, older and non-functioning turbines and generators are preserved in this space, depicting the building’s history of a coal-fueled power plant. Therefore, this space was already an exhibition, while the proportions, machines, materials and in particular the vast space contributed to a grand atmosphere. Future exhibitions must therefore aim to enhance the already industrial traits of this space.
The boiler house features large columns in three different grid systems, enabling several different grids for different dwelling types. The material integrity, composed of sooty bricks and rough concrete, could be preserved. The structural integrity of the large columns could serve as foundation for a modular, wooden shelf-like system for dwellings. Given the space’s industrial past, the ground floor is opened as a large public workshop, ideal for boat repair shops and workshops for metal, wood, ceramic and textiles. The large gates serve as entrances for both people and objects, but preserving the original gates depicts the scale of the building and hence the building’s legacy.

What role will the architecture play in relation to the immediate context and the city of Copenhagen?

As part of the transformation, the larger building volumes are altered so that they descend towards the city. This enhances the existing overall massing and fits well with the programme of the building, with main entrances towards the city. Furthermore, the notion of a hinge includes – and meant – that the ground floor is almost entirely open to the public. In addition, the neighboring sailing club can now use the ground floor of the boiler house, which features a large workshop with entrances tall enough for ships to enter, even with fully set sails.

How do you envision the project developing through time?

This question is rooted in the initial thoughts of engaging Svanemølle Power Station, and more specifically which programme it should feature. Total flexibility could be ensured by transforming it into open offices and multi-functional spaces. However, the architectural precision, which we felt confident to engage, would not be present if doing so. The answer lies in the previously mentioned sensitivity of the building’s legacy, where simply preserving the most fundamental parts of the building serves as a monumental reminder of what was once there.
Referring to the project title “Rethinking the Dormant Shell”, our main premise was that we see the building as a shell, where the interior is what defines the building. The shell serves as the framework for whatever identity is put into it. The dwellings are added, built from wooden modules, and are therefore the most flexible, or interchangeable, parts of the transformation. On the other hand, the exhibition spaces are the conceptual center of the project, around which all other aspects orbit.

What informed the diverse images through which you seek to reveal you project? How do they speak of the concerts and ambitions of the architecture?

The notion of architectural representation is a buffet of rewarding, satisfying and challenging ways to graphically convey concepts in a compelling manner.
In the case with drawings, the architect actively chooses which parts the drawing should consist of. Information is added, knowledge is included, and “noise” is excluded in order to emphasize and frame a given message. In this project, we differ between process drawings as constructions, and final presentation material as representations. Depending on the purpose of the drawing, the expression is therefore either abstract or precise.
With renders, we’re able to capture atmospheres. Instead of perceiving spaces as made up from walls, floors and openings, we think in atmospheres. Be it homely, productive, authentic or welcoming, we use materials and proportions as the parameters to ensure the desired atmosphere. Particularly with lighting, a render is a compelling method of achieving realistic shadows and depth in an image. The photorealistic nature is immediately convincing that the given image is indeed plausible. Thus, in the case of an arrival render, an interior visualization with people or a composition with materials, the realistic nature sells the idea in a convincing manner.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

The drawing. All the way from free hand sketches, tracings, diagram sketches, construction and presentation drawings – the drawing proves its worth as the single most important medium to solve problems in a project.
First of all, the only information we could find was the original drawings – hand drawn – from the 1950’s. From them, we constructed digital plan drawings in scale, extruded those to 3D-volumes and ended up with what you see in the renders.
Secondly, for this project, the notion of a drawing is showcased through digital drawings, created as constructions. That is, developed over time where information is mostly added and altered, and objects are only removed if they blur the message of the given drawing. This was the way in which we sought to uncover aspects of the project we did not initially think of. Through photogrammetry, point clouds and parametric tools, we analyzed our own drawings and altered them, ultimately to analyze them once again. In other words, we detour around the obvious as to engage what remains hidden.