Henning Larsen's Greatest Building Was Also His Greatest Failure

The architect, who died last month, spent the last years of his career carefully disowning the Copenhagen Opera House.

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Flickr/Poom

In design-mad Denmark, the architect Henning Larsen, who died last month at 87, was a household name.

Over a career that spanned seven decades, he received over a dozen architecture awards and earned a reputation as a "master of light." The national website of Denmark has anointed him one of the country’s seven great architects. The grand public buildings he designed with namesake firm Henning Larsen Architects redefined cityscapes from Riyadh to Reykjavik.

Nowhere is Larsen's power to change a city's skyline on better display than in Copenhagen, where his Opera House dominates the waterfront, the undisputed icon of the harbor’s transformation from a naval-industrial base to a cultural center. At half a million square feet and 14 stories, it is one of the city’s largest buildings.

But though this was the homecoming of a favorite son, in a city where modern architecture sits comfortably beside 17th century barracks, it is easily the most controversial building in Copenhagen.

Locals have likened it to a fly, a spaceship, or the grill of a '55 Pontiac. They say its position across from the Amalienborg Palace – the equivalent of building on the axis of the White House – is hubristic. They accuse its cantilevered awning of being a rip-off of Jean Nouvel's conference center in Lucerne.

The Danish newspaper Politiken called it "the biggest disaster of his professional career."

It was Henning Larsen’s signature achievement, and, he later wrote, “my greatest failure.” He thought it looked like a toaster.

James Cridland/Flickr

Larsen began his career under the tutelage of two giants of Danish modernism: Arne Jacobsen, who designed the egg chair, and Jørn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House.

The link to Utzon is important. Larsen worked for Utzon the year after the older architect won the commission in Sydney. The Sydney Opera House was a nightmarish seventeen-year project plagued by structural complications and political intervention, but after its completion in 1973, it quickly became one of the world’s most famous buildings. Utzon’s billowing roof gave Sydney—and even Australia—an architectural identity, and the building’s cultural significance is mentioned in the same breath as that of Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower. Utzon’s building is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Spanish industrial city of Bilbao took note. The city council gambled millions on a modern art museum designed by Frank Gehry, and it won big. Gehry’s museum put Bilbao on the map, spurring hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from tourism and investment. Such was Bilbao’s newfound global caché that it — and Gehry’s gilded monument — enjoyed a cameo in the James Bond film du jour, 1999's The World Is Not Enough.

City councils of the world asked themselves: could it work here? Writing in The Atlantic, Witold Rybczynski called this surging interest in architectural one-offs the "Bilbao effect," after the global reputation that Gehry’s "titanium artichoke" brought to the fading Basque city. Starchitects like Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava were hired to spend billions to help cities become the next Bilbao.

Henning Larsen’s international celebrity never reached the firmament of starchitecture, though his firm did design a stunning, skyline-shaping concert hall in Reykjavik, which opened in 2011. But having trained with Utzon (and later fought with him), Larsen surely had Sydney in mind when he was hired to design Copenhagen’s new waterfront concert hall in 2000.

The Copenhagen Opera House seen from the courtyard of the Amalienborg Palace, on the west side of the harbor. Photo by David Huang/Flickr

It was an unusual project. The building's enormous cost (most estimates put it well over $500 million) would be paid entirely by the shipping scion Arnold Maersk McKinney Møller, the wealthiest man in Denmark. Møller's gift was conditional: he would only fund the new Opera House if it sat on his newly purchased piece of land on the east bank of the harbor, directly opposite the residence of the Danish royal family. Even at that early stage, those unusual requirements made the project mildly controversial, but the Danish government did not want to turn down so generous a gift.

As the design process began, with Henning Larsen nominally in charge, it became apparent that Møller had other expectations as well. Larsen, then in his late 70s, and Møller, in his late 80s, clashed famously over the metal striation of the façade. Møller won that argument: his favored steel ribbons gave rise to the "Pontiac grill" comparison. It was later revealed that the men had argued over nearly every aesthetic choice on the building.

Shortly before the building opened, in 2004, Larsen remarked that it constituted a "failed compromise," provoking a firestorm that reached the international press. He later backtracked, calling the Opera House “a wonderful piece of architecture.”

Rob Deutscher/Flickr.

But in his 2009 book, You Should Say Thank You: A Historical Document about the Opera (the title alludes to Møller’s sense of his own magnanimity in bestowing the Opera House on the Danes), Larsen spilled the beans on an architectural clash of wills worthy of The Fountainhead.

Tired of Møller trying to play the architect – the shipping magnet went so far as to dictate the height of the toilets – Larsen revealed that he had tried to quit the project, only to be held back by Møller’s threat to ruin him with a lawsuit.

The jacket of You Should Say Thank You frames the book as Larsen “regaining his integrity” as Denmark’s greatest architect. Critics were not convinced, suggesting the architect may have been slightly more responsible for the design choices than he claimed. Larsen and Møller had worked together before. Shouldn’t the architect have anticipated the donor’s behavior?

Regardless, one feels for Larsen. He had envisioned the opera as his crowning achievement, his chance to do for the Copenhagen harbor what Utzon had done for Sydney. It was a half-a-billion-dollar chance to give the Danish capital an architectural symbol the world would recognize. The result was instead a monument to the collision of big money and big architecture. 

As the standard of the Copenhagen waterfront, it remains a disappointment. As a place to see a concert, however, it is reportedly quite nice.

Flickr/Tanvach.

Top image: Flickr user Poom!

About the Author

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