If urbanism were a fast moving train or Ørestad, the hybrid city suburb

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On my last day in Copenhagen (and the first couple days back from holiday for most employed Danish designers) I have the opportunity to catch Serban Cornea, Partner and architect of up and coming Mutopia.  We talk about the firm’s user focused design approach, their philosophies regarding new urbanization, and the specific work they are doing in Ørestad, Denmark and abroad.  They are a firm thinking outside the box of traditional architecture and they have goals that address people as the primary users of design.

We chat about the economic climate of the world for a while and then Serban summarizes, “The accelerated train of urban development has stopped.  And if it is moving, it’s moving very, very slowly.”

Meeting Mutopia is instrumental for my understanding of the new city of Ørestad  and completely relevant for seeing it through the lens of public space.  Not only has Mutopia designed and built one of the major open space components of the master plan, they’ve devised a strategy for how it functions/changes over time.    They’ve worked with the public throughout the design process (usually via a software package they are developing with computer engineers), and, currently, they are working on expanding those capabilities.
Overall, the city is a plug-in piece.  It sits on the edge of Copenhagen in a 4x1km linear stretch.  It is a link to the airport and to neighboring Sweden.  First and foremost, it was built to finance the construction of the Copenhagen Metro.  A byproduct is the fact that it will provide more housing for the city.  It is a unique piece of property because of its location and density.  Walking around on the ground feels like being in a suburb, but the metro takes me into the center of Copenhagen in 5-10 minutes.  In that sense, it’s unlike any suburb I’ve grown up in.  Ørestad is a very green, park-like setting in which buildings are spaced out and the quality of air is very high.  This is one thing absent in the center of Copenhagen, or in many older, existing cities in general.  It seems like a real incentive to build new cities.  In this specific case, you get the best of both worlds.

“We need to create new possibilities for public space to emerge as a space of collective creativity, to promote public space as an intense, rich and plural collective space.” – From Changing Metropolis, Serban Cornea, 2007

“The park is more of a strategy than a project, for an urban condition that was completely unknown,” Serban explains.  Generally new open space in Europe is representational.  It is a green piece of land that falls between buildings and doesn’t get used.  These areas tend to create distance rather than unification.  Mutopia’s plan considered multiple publics (they compiled a list of resident types from the developers of each surrounding project) and set out to create a variety of “islands” or semi-private spaces in which residents could begin establishing different levels of ownership.  The diameters of the islands vary to accommodate, or absorb, different functions and to shelter people from the wind.  The plan is designed for the addition of new islands over time.  I was able to see Serban explain the project over a scaled-model in the office, ride the elevated metro past for a bird’s eye view, and finally, walk the park myself, hang out in an island, and observe residents rearranging and occupying different pieces of their semi-private spaces.  Testing this space all week has been fascinating.  I’m not sure if the designers realize how much use the park sees.  Serban did mention that the residents are taking care of the spaces.

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Parks in Copenhagen are typically walled or fenced-in.  Barrier-free experiments are happening in Ørestad.

Mutopia promotes the need to rethink old typologies.  “I’m critical of the kind of density that is a product of its own modernity.”  New developments and new cities call for increased densities.  Using the same old building types (ie. courtyard housing blocks) with increased densities does not work.  The result is a taller building, a courtyard in permanent shadow, and “neighbors that stare into each other’s eyes in a context/country where people are interested in privacy.”  New typologies are needed for larger densities.  This was the premise for the firm’s proposal for a new residential building that literally tilts or twists an existing condition in order to reinvent the typology.  As of now, the project is on hold.   It’s the same story for larger chunks of Ørestad’s central and southern phases.  The issue of a paused urbanization leaves a lot of questions about this new city’s success, but I’m convinced the public and residential components of this project, if given the green light, would breathe a new life into the entire plug-in phenomenon.

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Mutopia is working on several additional projects, including a vertical Hutong high-rise project in Beijing.  I’d love to see Mutopia on the next lecture series at the CED.  The ball is rolling….

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