The architecture of Fjordenhus begins with a radical premise: Growing a city does not require land. Designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and German architect Sebastian Behmann (who subsequently formalized the collaborative partnership into the Berlin practice Studio Other Spaces), the headquarters of Danish investment and holding company Kirk Kapital sits in the Vejle Harbor in Vejle, Denmark. The site was slated to be filled in as part of a city-led development of the harbor, but the designers wanted to site the office building in the water to create a compelling and immediate connection to the elements. Accessed via a footbridge and partially open to the public, the 97,000-square-foot, curving, castle-like project “has its anchor in the natural elements,” Behmann says. “Wind, waves, water—all of that is something you can experience in the building.”
To secure permission to build within the harbor, Kirk Kapital (whose founders are descendants of Lego creator Ole Kirk Christiansen) and the design team persuaded the local kommune (a government entity similar to a municipality) to change the area’s master plan for the harbor. “We just asked them not to do the landfill at that site, which would have been the responsibility of the kommune, so they saved a lot of money,” Behmann explains.
At its essence, Fjordenhus is a contemporary concrete structure, from its 80-foot-deep piles and foundation slab to its floor plates and curved columns. But upon approach what is likely most apparent to visitors is the project’s spectacular and extensive use of brick, in a kaleidoscope of glazed and unglazed hues, that clads the cylindrical volumes inside and out. Parabolic voids pierce the solid planes, forming walkways, light wells, and sightlines through a double-height first floor, which hosts site-specific art installations by Eliasson. The architecture also derives from formal influences: the cooling towers, storage silos, and industrial structures that once lined Denmark's harbors.
It was vital, Behmann says, “to make a building that is robust in its materiality and volume, and has a certain simplicity in the shapes that we use.” His team created one master 3D model in Grasshopper that served as the basis for all subsequent engineering. Despite the seeming complexity of the structure, the master model could be described in less than four pages of script.
Design software was also used to articulate Fjordenhus’ idiosyncratic and intentional patchwork of 800,000 fired bricks, laid in a variety of bond patterns and palettes. The stairwells use gray brick, whereas the building’s swooping, sculpted columns combine nearly 50 different hues, creating a pixelated tapestry full of unexpected moments—round bricks, square bricks, oversized roan-colored bricks—like glitches in code. These oddities, Behmann says, were an homage to surprises commonly found in historic masonry buildings. Here, however, each brick was digitally placed within the patchwork by the designers and later arranged in order of installation on pallets.
Most of Fjordenhus’ bricks measure 9 inches by 4.25 inches by 2.13 inches and were fabricated by the renowned brickmaker Petersen Tegl in Broager, Denmark, an hour south of Vejle. A custom perforated brick, integral to the building’s ventilation system, was manufactured by Neue Ziegelmanufaktur Glindow, outside Berlin.
Masons used custom-made wood templates to construct the parabolic arches. In an unorthodox move, the building’s double-curved windows and doors were installed prior to the masonry surrounds and walls. The marine environment and constant exposure to saltwater necessitated the use of a highly durable mortar. To create the effect of age and presence, Eliasson and Behmann worked with masons to ensure the brickwork was “a little off,” Behmann says, with tolerances upward of a few millimeters. This, the designers hope, will spur the colonization of the façade by mosses and other micro-ecologies, further establishing the project as a relic.
Since opening in 2018, Fjordenhus has become a punctuation mark at the end of the Vejle Harbor and a destination for travelers seeking views of the fjord or Eliasson's art. Within the first few months, Behmann says, the daily visitor count reached nearly 700—and closer to 1,500 on weekends. The interest validates Studio Other Spaces’ belief that the combination of art and architecture can create a valuable experience in and of itself.
“We [wondered], in the very beginning, what can we do to attract people to come out there, into the fjord?” Behmann says. “Do we have to make a restaurant? A café? What is the thing that draws their attention? At the end of the day, it is only the space. … The pure existence of space and light, and in this case, the wind and the water, can do something to everybody. And that’s kind of what Olafur’s design philosophy is: We need to reach out to everybody and not [just] to experts.”