Tegnestuen Vandkunsten (Established 1970)
The tenth Alvar Aalto Medal was awarded to the Danish architectural firm Tegnestuen Vandkunsten in 2009. This was the first time that the Alvar Aalto Medal was awarded to a team of architects instead of an individual. According to the medal jury, Vandkunsten’s work extends and refines Alvar Aalto’s ideological heritage.
The Copenhagen firm has focused on residential architecture and housing developments for nearly 50 years. The practice was established in 1970 by three young architects who had been part of the same competition team: Jens Thomas Arnfred, Michael Sten Johnsen and Svend Algren. As a group, they won every design competition for residential areas in Denmark between 1971 and 1978. Over the decades, Vandkunsten has won more than 60 first prizes in design competitions in Denmark and beyond. Many of its realised projects in Denmark and Sweden have also won awards.
Over the years, there have been many changes in firm’s staff: in 1973 architect Steffen Kragh became the fourth partner, in 2000 long-time employees Jan Albrechtsen and Ole Halfdan Andersen became partners, followed in 2008 by Flemming Ibsen, Søren Nielsen, Pernille Schyum Poulsen and Thomas Nybo Rasmussen. That same year, founders Algren and Johnsen stepped down as partners, followed in 2015 by Arnfred, Kragh and Halfdan. Co-founder Johnsen still works at the firm, which has about 70 employees.
At the time that the Aalto Medal was awarded, Vandkunsten was led by founding partners as well as employees who later became partners: Jens Thomas Arnfred (born 1947), who has been a guest professor at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, Canada and a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden and at Denmark’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts; architect Steffen Kragh (b. 1947), who has been director since 1991; Ole Halfdan Andersen (b. 1946), who began working at the office in 1979 and is responsible for details and visualisation; architect Jan Albrechtsen (b. 1953), who has been there since 1982; architect Flemming Ibsen (b. 1959), who started in 1987; architect Søren Nielsen (b. 1960), who has an MBA and worked in the office 1990-2000 and then returned as a partner in 2008; Pernille Schyum Poulsen (b. 1962) who has worked in the office since 1990 and is responsible for urban planning projects; and Thomas Nybo Rasmussen (b. 1961), an architect and landscape architect who has worked at Vandkunsten in 1992-95 and 1996-98 and again since 1999. He is in charge of the office’s landscape architecture department as well as the digital development of the office.
Vandkunsten creates socially, aesthetically and ecologically sustainable architecture. People and communities are always at the centre of its design, while dialogue among stakeholders in each project is an essential part of the process. For Vandkunsten, the social basis of architecture is also a source of beauty and does not rule out control over aesthetically perfected and innovative spaces, forms and materials.
Vandkunsten’s main design principles were crystallized in the office’s early works, the best known being Tinggården (1978), a creative new residential district near Køge.
Spatial solutions derived from the environment that promoted social coherence; the minimisation of construction costs through the use of advanced technology and simple materials; and the relaxed yet modern expression of the Danish traditions were widely emulated in the 1980s.
Dianas Have in Hørsholm, Denmark and Hestra Parkstad in Borås, Sweden (both 1992), are role models of the 1990’s row house districts, in which narrow ‘fingers’ of buildings extend out into the surrounding landscape, paving the way for new types of sympathetically-designed dwellings.
The elegant details of the interiors and exterior and innovative material solutions enhance the daily lives of people in an exemplary manner.
Worth a special mention is the conversion of Copenhagen’s Torpedo Boat Shipyard (1953/2003) into a block of flats at the turn of the millennium. In this project, the challenging starting point inspired the designers to create a unique residential environment. In other works from the 2000s, such as the Teglværkshaven (2003) and Ørestaden (2008) blocks in Copenhagen, Vandkunsten has also succeeded in introducing earthbound social, spatial and functional elements to multi-storey residential construction. 2Vandkunsten’s works are characterized by the insightful use of the landscape composition.
Good examples of this are Det Blå Hjørne in Copenhagen’s Christanshavn (1989), which defies orthodox rules of environmental adaptation, and their winning entry to the city’s Kløvermarken zoning competition (2008), in which the varying border areas of a central park are boldly complemented with new housing and block typologies.
Today Vandkunsten continues to be successful in design competitions, innovative residential buildings, renovation projects as well as in landscape and urban design in the Scandinavian and northern European markets.