Utzon Center Aalborg, Denmark

Aalborg harbour front has been blessed with a little miracle of a building.

Troldtekt Utzon Centre
Photo: Thomas Mølvig, architect

The shiny roofs stand out from a distance. A landscape of expansive curved surfaces and regular pyramids that play with the light, captivating in their simple elegance. As you move around the building, it feels as if the individual roofs are continually changing shape in a carefully rehearsed choreography. The roof surfaces are perpetually changing throughout the day, and once evening falls the metallic formations remain with their shades of blue and grey and black.

The distinctly geometric architecture conveys a sense of authority and harmony, carefully balanced with the surrounding townscape. Depending on where you are standing, the building appears as an independent sculpture or as an integral part of the city. From the water, the building is a distinct landmark on the extensive waterfront; from the city a bastion which opens up towards the water and the views beyond.

Simple yet magnificent architecture

An inner courtyard provides shelter from the wind, and is reminiscent of a hot Mediterranean patio. The interiors are not subservient to the exterior, and the building offers spatial experiences far superior to what is normally seen in today’s Denmark. The three high-ceilinged main rooms – the auditorium, the library and the Spidsgatter hall (a Spidsgatter is a double-ended boat) – are all impressive thanks to their spatial lightness and soaring quality. It is magnificent architecture with simple means, and it should be experienced first-hand.

The master is back in more than one sense of the word. Jørn Utzon has concluded his long career with a building which carries his name, and which puts the city where he grew up on the architectural map. The project was designed in collaboration with his son Kim Utzon, and has all the hallmarks of a fruitful collaboration between two generations who take the same inspiring approach to architecture.

International meeting point

The Utzon Center came into being on the initiative of the architect Adrian Carter, who has worked with the project for almost eight years. Today, Adrian Carter is Director of the Utzon Center while also teaching at the Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology at Aalborg University. The main purpose of the centre has been to serve as an international meeting place for students and researchers wanting to contribute to increasing awareness of Scandinavian architecture, design and artistic traditions. It has been modelled on, for example, the Alvar Aalto Foundation, Museum and Archives in Finland.

The client is the Utzon Foundation, and the project was set up jointly with the Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology at Aalborg University. The building is open to the public and its construction was financed through both public and private funds with the Obel Family Foundation and Nordjyllands Udviklingsfond via the EU’s Objective 2 programme as the biggest contributors, each donating approx. DKK 20 million. Moreover, the foundation has been supported by Nykredits Fond and Boligfonden Kuben. The total budget for the project was approx. DKK 87 million.

LEGO the starting point

Jørn Utzon produced drawings for the complex together with his son Kim, but the detailed design was handled by the firm with the architect Lise Juel Grønbjerg MAA as the project architect. Kim Utzon says: “This is actually the first time for many years – not since the Kalkbrænderihavnen project in Copenhagen and the initial sketches for Skagen Odde Naturcenter in Skagen - that my father and I have worked together. When we were given the assignment here in Aalborg, it was with some trepidation that we approached the task of designing the buildings. However, expectations have been surpassed throughout the entire process. We met at my father’s studio in Hellebæk, and started out by using LEGO bricks. Ideas emerged, and we discussed the whole concept based on a number of programmatic talks we had had with Adrian Carter.”

“My father thought a lot about the teaching that will take place at the centre - what and how – especially as it would be named after him! It all starts with knowing one’s trade and a belief in what you are doing, a lesson my father learned from my grandfather who worked at the shipyard Aalborg Skibsværft, where everyone contributed their respective expertise to construct fantastically complex shapes which were then launched to sail the seven seas. Therefore the Spidsgatter hall is a key element in the story about my father and what he learned from the shipyard and as a sea scout when he was growing up in Aalborg. There is no question that it has meant a lot to his life-long interest in and need to study and experience the great outdoors. The adjoining workshops are also an important element as my father is one of the most hands-on architects I know. He always insists that designs are tested in model format – preferably 01:01.”

Park at the harbour

The Utzon Center is situated with views across the water in the park which makes up part of the new Aalborg harbour front. From a landscape architectural point of view, the intention has been to emphasise the park and create an intimate campus in a green setting. Three high multi-storey buildings with accommodation for 70 students – also designed by Kim Utzon – will be constructed during the year and become part of the overall design.

The centre itself consists of single volumes grouped around an inner courtyard. The auditorium building is sited most prominently and nearest to the water, and serves as the main building. The Spidsgatter hall also overlooks the waterfront promenade, and when the harbour front is completed, the main entrance will be situated between these two buildings. The asymmetrical boat hall is where one of Aage Utzon’s double-ended ‘spidsgatter’ sailing boats is exhibited. The room is lit by light flooding in through tall vertical window sections, and the westerly light which is funnelled in through the vaulted roof. The asymmetry means there can be a workshop on one side and a poster exhibition on the other.

The exhibition building and the workshop hall are designed with simple, pyramid-shaped light inlets that funnel light in from the east. The exhibition building is split into two areas which can be varied in size: one for permanent exhibitions and one for changing exhibitions. The workshop hall is an extension of the Spidsgatter hall. The floors in both areas are laid with Siberian larch end-grain tiles.

Contemplative auditorium

The auditorium is on the first floor, conceived as a contemplative or meditative room with the water as a backdrop. A skylight in the vaulted ceiling catches the warm south light, making the room ‘breathe’ with the passing clouds. The façades along the water feature bay windows with 180-degree views of the quay. The bays are framed by columns, with the glass sections mounted on the exterior surface, creating a sense of being outside. The library and the administration building are found at one end, oriented towards the park and the city.

“These anonymous and sculptural clusters are grouped around an inner courtyard which has been planted with a single tree and where there is the peace and quiet to sit and listen to a wise man’s experiences – the original method of teaching,” as Kim Utzon puts it. A glass walkway encircles the courtyard, along which it is possible to move between all the centre’s various functions.

Outstanding acoustics

Troldtekt ceiling panels have been installed extensively throughout the 2,800 sq m centre. Straight-edged light Troldtekt acoustic panels have been used – cut to the usual ‘Utzon dimensions’, i.e. the standard width of the cement-bonded wood wool panels has been reduced to 40 cm. A total of approx. 900 sq m of Troldtekt acoustic panels have been installed by the company SAKI Interfinish.

Commenting on the acoustic considerations, the architect Lise Juel Grønbjerg MAA says: “Originally, the idea was for all the ceilings to be clad in the same material, Kerto 50 x 50 mm wood strips with underlying acoustic insulation. However, because of budgetary restrictions, Jørn, Kim and I agreed that it was quite alright to differentiate the walkway, café and offices from the three main rooms – the Spidsgatter hall, the auditorium and the library – by using Troldtekt panels instead. As we have often used Troldtekt panels in previous projects, we are well aware of the advantages offered by the product, and I personally think that the raw appearance of the building is effectively set off by the Troldtekt in ultra-fine, natural.”

“During the planning, a vital parameter was that Troldtekt could deliver panels with dimensions to match the building module and spanning the full width of the walkway around the courtyard. Moreover, Jørn Utzon wanted to conclude the ceiling cladding with solid wood strips between the panels. This decision was absolutely crucial for the character of the room, as it emphasised the modular design of the building and thereby its rhythm and nature. Acoustically, cement-bonded wood wool has a sound-dampening effect, so supplementary acoustics regulation (50 mm stone wool insulation) was required only in the café area.”

Varied experience

“The acoustic experience therefore varies between rooms, depending on the particular function of each room. For example, it is perfect that the walkway has slightly harder acoustics, as it reinforces the sense of activity in the building. On walking into one of the three main rooms however, the greater acoustic regulation heightens the sense of calm and concentration. In the Spidsgatter hall, the auditorium and the library we have not used Kerto, rather white-pigmented strips at 25 mm intervals, behind which lies the acoustic insulation.”

“The day before the inauguration, I had the pleasure of holding a lecture in the auditorium, which seemed very intimate yet at the same time impressive. There was no problem at all in speaking either with or without a microphone. After the actual opening ceremony, lunch was served in the Spidsgatter hall, which is primarily intended as a workshop and has a concrete floor. The other guests commented on the fine acoustics, as you could easily hear what was being said. All the rooms stand out because of their distinctive architecture and because, together with the acoustics and the special way in which they catch the light, they are suitable for a wide variety of purposes,” says Lise Juel Grønbjerg, who can justifiably feel proud of the final result. Architecture of this standard has not been seen in Aalborg since Aalto and Baruël together designed the KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art almost 40 years ago.