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A new design flair warms Nordic hearts Add to ...

With a Vancouver-like horizon of building cranes and streets crowded by dump trucks, the Danish capital is in the throes of a building boom it cannot quite understand, much less tame.

Though the city is smaller than ours, Copenhagen's largely redundant port, former shipbuilding havens and surplus naval dockyards are larger, and every one of them seems swamped by a development wave that is only a few years old.

The Danish dockside building boom has two key differences from our own: no building is taller than 10 storeys and developers must construct a 50-50 balance of housing and workspaces at every major project. Copenhagen's planners - low-key experts who, by the way, know Vancouver's city-building in extraordinary detail - are resolved not to turn their town into a lightless and viewless resort for retirees and hot money investors.

Copenhagen is changing with a rapidity seldom seen in Europe. A grey Nordic diffidence has been replaced by aggressive play-making, just as Aquavit has been replaced with imported Scotch and tequila. Stable, statist predictability is falling before roller coasters of speculation. For example, condos are overbuilt, but a new mania for harbour-side offices is heating up. This is all because the ancient seat of Danish kings is emerging as the port city for global businesses that locate here to serve all of Scandinavia.

In parallel with the new urbanism along the waterfront, Copenhagen's architecture is shifting, too. Danish cultural autonomy that occasionally verges on xenophobia had kept foreign architects from building in the central city for more than 250 years. But since 2001, a wave of commissions has gone to imported "starchitects." Now on the books is a national broadcast corporation theatre by Parisian Jean Nouvel, a slick gallery extension by Iraq-born Londoner Zaha Hadid, and, soon, a controversial new Danish architecture centre by Rem Koolhaas, Rotterdammer to the core.

Public buildings may have gone international, but housing remains the preserve of Danish designers for a lot of good reasons, principally because they have always had a flair for domestic design that balances coziness with the boldly contemporary.

Thanks to Arne Jacobsen, Danish Modern is one of the strongest design brands around, and his houses, chairs and office tower helped shape it. Fine new housing can be seen in Copenhagen, with the north boasting condos looking as if chiselled from a block of marble by a mathematically inspired sculptor. Down south lies a drum-like student residence complex finished in copper sheeting and banded wooden panels.

Cozy, however, is the last word that would be used to describe the work of Denmark's own rising architectural star, 32-year-old wunderkind Bjarke Ingels, and his design firms PLOT and BIG. After a brief apprenticeship at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rem Koolhaas's Rotterdam firm, Mr. Ingels designed the VM condo development in the new suburb of Orestad at age 27, when most Canadian designers-to-be are just starting architecture school.

The Orestad complex is called VM for the simplest of reasons - one of the side-by-side buildings looks like an "M" in plan, the other like a "V." VM minds its dwelling-place Ps and Qs, with a variety of unit types, many with sharply defined triangular balconies.

The profits from sales of public lands to private developers at Orestad (Vancouver politicians please take note) entirely paid for the light-filled, stone-decked, spotless metro station that now serves it.

The aggressively shaped VM sold out in three weeks to young Copenhagen residents hungry for something different. These structures are being followed by a third building from the same developer, a kind of green-deck-topped mountain that strongly recalls Arthur Erickson's Evergreen building on Pender Street. The invention and bold sense of play in the BIG studio is attracting offers from cities and developers all around Scandinavia.

Mr. Ingels gave a talk in Vancouver's Lighting Resource Centre's public lecture series a year ago. Many of the key players in our city's housing design scene were there, and those who were not baffled by the scale and wonder of his work sagely declared that his was a boom-time flash career - or some quirk of computer image-making - and certainly no alternative to our own concrete condo towers sprouting out of townhouses. To be sure, I saw tacky elements during my VM tour - the Astroturf in the covered plaza reveals an ignorance of microclimates, and the already aging wooden door frames are joined by other evidence of detail in decline. But Mr. Ingels' technical finesse will increase with his portfolio of finished buildings. His spirit of optimism and invention is sorely needed in Vancouver, where it sometimes seems we reward our oldest, dullest and most predictable designers with guaranteed approvals.

Think BIG for a change, Vancouver.

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