Interview: David Zahle

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Interviewed by: Renata Margaretić Urlić,  Split Talks 2010.

The National Maritime Museum, the Psychiatric Hospital in Helsingør, along with the Wings Residences in Copenhagen, are three current projects which DAVID ZAHLE is heading for BIG, i.e. the Bjarke Ingels group, as a partner and chief executive designer of numerous award-winning projects of the world-renowned studio. Among other things, he influenced the “invisibility” concept of the Danish Maritime Museum in Helsingør (“Hamlet’s Castle), whose exhibition premises were organized around the outer walls of the evacuated dock where only floating little linkage bridges were set. David Zahle, who was completely swept away with the city-palace that is Split, presented us with, in addition to his ample experience in housing projects, several recent projects of the studio, which was established by Bjarke Ingels under the initials of his own personage. We talked to Zahle about completely different approaches and projects which they are applying and working on in their office, from the housing complex “Mountain” to the incredible “Zira Island” in Azerbaijan, but we firstly took this opportunity to receive a few compliments for Diocletian’s unique structure.

Q: Are you enraptured by the city-palace because of the usual reasons which for the most part everyone is fascinated with, such as the coexistence of various historic layers, traces of the past and the continued usage of the palace from the Roman period until today?

A: Yes, those are indeed completely sufficient reasons for being swept away, but I’m firstly fascinated with the way of the historical heritage utilization which completely differs from the way we utilize ours in Denmark. Here in Split everything is vibrant and light and entirely blends in with the history you’ve inherited. It’s entirely opposite in Denmark, a palpable tendency towards idealizing everything old, deeming it fantastic, and on the other hand a fear of all things new. In Split history is all around us, the whole time, so you have to adapt to it, work with it if you want to produce something contemporary. Of course, there are pros and cons, but to me, it all seems very inspiring.

Q: Precisely because of that different approach to historical monuments in Denmark your National Maritime Museum project is particularly interesting. How did you manage to find a solution to, that is, positively resolve two contrary requests for construction, bearing in mind the location next to the Kronborg “Hamlet’s Castle” in an area under UNESCO’s protection and the investor’s desire to develop their own architectural icon?

A: The Maritime Museum is located on a UNESCO protected site visited by over 700 00 tourists annually. It is the largest tourist attraction in Denmark thanks to the Kronborg Castle. When the Maritime Museum had to move out of the castle and find another place to develop its own structure, its management got scared that it would become invisible to the visitors, i.e., that nobody will want to come and visit it, while they wanted to not only keep it but increase the number of visitors to boot. That’s why they imagined the construction of something spectacular! However, they didn’t plan on moving away from the harbor and their old address, which is when things started getting complicated. In the 500-meter radius of the Kronborg Castle any and all new developments are forbidden, even a centimeter above the ground, so as not to screen that cultural monument from view. Thus, two conditions were supposed to be reconciled: the desire for an interesting structure which at the same time won’t “protrude” above the ground was possible to achieve solely inside the harbor’s old dock which is situated below ground level. In lieu of completely “filling up” the old one with museum paraphernalia and thus hiding or sinking it with new contents, we proposed to leave it untouched and situate the museum along its edges. That way the dock could become a new urban plateau or an illuminated yard in the middle, thus bringing out light into the center of the museum. At the same time the most important part of the museum’s exhibit becomes visible, as it’s framed by the museum’s contents.

Q: Can we dub this museum with the term “invisible architecture” considering the other, more iconic projects created in your office?

A: That project had its specific focus and guiding idea, although we actually do design highly “visible”, i.e. spectacular projects. It can thus be said that “invisibility” was the main concept of this particular project, that is, the creation of an “invisible” icon. But you can also say that one of the most important architectural discussions on developing new museums is actually dependent on what wants to be built: that which we call white boxes, symbolic buildings which serve as art frames or does one want to create something spectacular along the lines of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This museum of ours should be able to bridge that gap between these two diametrically opposite approaches: to create a relatively expressive exterior, but also a symbolic, albeit expressive interior.

Q: Can you explain how BIG treats the relationship between the private and public within the general development of modern living in Denmark on the example of your residential building “Mountain”?

A: The majority of housing projects which we realized in Denmark are focused precisely on the relationship between the private and public. From the first projects where we completely glassed the facades, so people live like they’re in a store window. That’s actually a very interesting example which points to the ambivalence regarding this particular topic. People who live there aren’t under the impression that people from the street are looking in, on the contrary, they’re the ones who have an overview of the whole world. Actually, as a human being you always have the ability to experience the world from your own perspective, and not think about how people view you!

It seems to me that the project “Mountain” is unique regarding residential development in Denmark, especially within the context of the private and public relationship. The house is actually “sandwiched” between public spaces on both sides. On one side there’s a parking lot as a public place where anyone can park their car, and on the other side urban houses with yards whose residents, if they want to go outside on their terrace, can achieve visual contact with their neighbors. However, although it’s very important for us to open up as many places for the experience of the public, the thing we always aim to accomplish is to enclose private spaces as much as is possible. We take particular care of that in all of our projects, working on new lines of coverage, especially bedrooms as the most private areas.

Q: And last but not least, something totally different considering the fact that the Zira Island project was a particular surprise at your presentation, especially from the perspective of our discussions on tourist developments. I’m interested to know what is the geographical and historical, even the economic context of this particular venture?

A: That is an exceptionally interesting project in the tourist domain, and it’s important to us as we designed it from the very foundations of reprogramming the whole Island. Zira is located near Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, and is still virtually a desert as it’s been used as an army fort for defense purposes. Our approach towards changes on the island into a new urban landscape is based, by all means, on the investor’s idea and they were thrilled with our mountain houses, which we want to develop in our lowland Denmark. They were afraid that the urbanization of the island would come down to the usual arrangement of blocks and skyscrapers, what would ruin the view of the beautiful bay from the capital. That’s why they commissioned us to create the urban development in the shape of a mountain, which we took to heart and did exactly that, interpreting the seven most famous mountains in Azerbaijan.

Each of them consist of either high and low rises or emerge together from the higher structures. You are of course free to say that Azerbaijan doesn’t have any ties to tourism, either historically or geographically, as is the case with all other “oil” countries. However, within the course of the last twenty years the major oil world powers attempted to bridge that gap so as to make up for their lack of other industries. Thus, in addition to the oil industry, other branches such as tourism have been quick in starting to develop.

Renata Margaretić Urlić