Why Has Scandinavia's Biggest Development Project Abandoned its Master Plan?

The signature piece of Copenhagen's enormous Ørestad experiment, by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, is no more.

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Henry Grabar

In the '90s, Copenhagen began one of Europe's most ambitious urban design projects. A new finger of development, three miles long and only 2,000 feet wide, would point south from the city across the island of Amager. With Amager's Øresund Bridge -- Northern Europe's first and only road to Sweden -- under construction, Copenhagen and Malmo had the potential to form an international metropolitan area. Along a metro line, bisected by the highway to Sweden, and 15 minutes from Denmark’s biggest international airport, the latest piece of development, Ørestad, would be the crossroads of Scandinavia.

At that time, Ørestad was nothing but grass, scrub, and highway. The breakneck pace of construction in the time since has earned it the nickname Copenhagen's Dubai. By the time it's completed, a hundred thousand people are expected to live, work or study there.

But ten years into Ørestad's life, planners have quietly discarded its signature project, the 2006 master plan for a downtown designed by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind. Why?

 In the first decade of this century, Ørestad gained a metro line, the biggest conference center in Scandinavia, and Denmark’s largest hotel, largest mall, and largest apartment complex. Many of the new buildings are quite beautiful: see Lundgaard and Tranberg’s Tietencollegiet dormitory (right), BIG’s VM House, or 3XN’s Ørestad College. Jean Nouvel contributed a design for a concert hall, and Daniel Libeskind put together the master plan for downtown Ørestad City.

hen the financial crisis happened, and development stopped. Of the area's three sections, Ørestad North was most nearly completed, and its proximity to Copenhagen helped integrate the area into the city. In Ørestad South, the country’s largest apartment building (BIG House) rose in the middle of a field, a cow pasture to the south (intentional) and a grassy savannah to the north (unintentional) separating it from the rest of the project.

Ørestad City is between the two. A number of residential buildings had been constructed before the crisis, but those who bought apartments before the crash found that their investments were now worth a fraction of what they had paid for them. Not only had the housing bubble popped — real estate prices are down 15 percent since 2007 — but with new construction stalled, the neighborhood’s promised amenities did not come, further decreasing value. There was no retail, no restaurants and no nightlife. Residents bought their daily bread in the mall. Construction on Ørestad Downtown, Libeskind’s mini-city and the keystone of the project, had not begun. Things haven’t changed much in four years: there are supposed to be 20,000 people living in Ørestad; there are currently 7,445.

As Denmark’s growth forecast this year drops to 1 percent, planners maintain faith in the concept. But not the plan: yesterday, the Danish newspaper Berlingske revealed that the coalition developing Ørestad – By and Havn, the Copenhagen port authority, and development corporation NCC – had quietly replaced Daniel Libeskind’s 2006 plan for Ørestad Downtown with a smaller-scale plan by COBE architects. If the first plan, designed by a world-famous architect, represented the ambitions of Ørestad, the second represents the reality.

Libeskind’s internationally recognized brand would have defined the project. His “downtown," inspired by a medieval city, was composed of a jumble of narrow streets designed to create a sense of urbanity and keep pedestrians free from the area's blistering winds. Two 20-story towers would have served as beacons for the development, mirroring taller buildings elsewhere in Ørestad City. It was to be nearly car-free.

The new project is not really a departure from those principles, though it does lose the towers and make some concessions to vehicle traffic. It is not an architectural concession, either – COBE has done great buildings around the capital. But it is a very different plan in terms of development.

The Libeskind project had centralized amenities that required that the downtown be built all at once, an influx of money, jobs and construction to rejuvenate the area. The COBE project (below) is more flexible. Buildings and streets will be added as funding becomes available, meaning that some construction could start as soon as next year. Planners think the market is ready for more retail space (though office space is 9 to 11 percent vacant in Copenhagen right now).

Courtesy By og Havn/COBE.

So the dream is alive again – it’s just different. The downtown will rise piecemeal. The first clients could move in 2015, and the last, well, who knows? It’s open-ended and a little uncertain in a way that Ørestad was not supposed to be.

Downtown Ørestad won’t be built by Daniel Libeskind, and it won't be built in a day. But at least it will be built. For a neighborhood whose biggest attraction is a shopping mall, any development is good news.

All photos: Henry Grabar.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.