City architect: Copenhagen heading towards circular quality

Copenhagen has been designated World Capital of Architecture for 2023 by UNESCO. It is only the second city in the world to hold the title. But what does the Danish capital actually look like – now and in future? Read the interview with Camilla van Deurs, Copenhagen City Architect. She points, among other things, to lasting quality as being key to the city’s architectural development.

In January 2023, Copenhagen was named World Capital of Architecture by UNESCO, which was celebrated with an opening event on 17 January. The attendees included HRH Crown Prince Frederik, patron of the Year of Architecture, who gave a speech.

This is only the second time that a city has been named World Capital of Architecture by UNESCO. It happens when a city is chosen as host city for the International Union of Architects (UIA) World Congress.

This year, the congress is about sustainable architecture, and is taking place on 2-6 July 2023 at various locations in Copenhagen. It is the world’s largest event of its kind with up to 10,000 participants from the industry, and featuring speakers such as EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, top architect Bjarke Ingels and former EU Commissioner Connie Hedegaard from Denmark, but also internationally renowned architects and researchers.

Celebrating both contemporary and future architecture

The first UNESCO Capital of Architecture was Rio de Janeiro in 2020, but COVID-19 put a stopper to the festivities, and all the events took place exclusively online.

“We’re lucky that we can get out to learn more and explore the city on our own. And we can do so together with the residents of Copenhagen, Danes in general and the tourists – both private individuals and construction industry professionals. I hope that we’ll be able to show off the city and celebrate its historic palaces as well as examples of public housing and the 1970s primary and lower secondary schools,” says Camilla van Deurs, City Architect with the City of Copenhagen.

Capital of Architecture 2023 is a collaboration between Wonderful Copenhagen, the Danish Association of Architects, the City of Copenhagen, the Bevica Foundation and about 120 other partners.

“There will be a full calendar of events, tours and talks, which each in their own way explore how we will live in the future. Among other things, a number of pavilions dotted along the harbour front will focus on building with a reduced carbon footprint,” says Camilla van Deurs.

Even though Copenhagen is officially Capital of Architecture for three years until 2025, the City of Copenhagen has decided to celebrate it exclusively in 2023 and concentrate the events here. More than 300 events are organised in the course of the year.

In 2026, the baton will pass to Barcelona.

Copenhagen as a laboratory

Camilla van Deurs highlights the opportunities the designation offers for attracting leading figures in architecture to Copenhagen in connection with the world congress:

“We want to be seen as a laboratory by other countries and the rest of Denmark by making our city available for a dialogue with the industry. We hope to receive concrete recommendations on how we should build green in future – also in light of Copenhagen’s ambitions to become a climate-neutral city. Hopefully, this experience will also benefit the rest of Denmark.”

She adds that the work is also connected to Copenhagen’s Soul of the City campaign from 2022. Here, all Copenhageners could nominate buildings which they felt should be preserved – not necessarily because they represent great architecture, but because they perform an important role in relation to the city’s history and the everyday lives of the people who use them.

More quality and recycling

Camilla van Deurs explains that there is generally a growing interest in the architecture industry for designing high-quality buildings that will stand the test of time. And a feeling that prestige buildings are no longer all about aesthetics, as they are now being expected to meet higher quality requirements. For example, flat roofs are not particularly suited to the Danish climate, even though they have become very widespread.

“The building industry is like a large ship which takes time to change course. It will be another ten years before what we’re discussing now will actually be built. The buildings which are shooting up at the moment are therefore not necessarily representative of the green ideas we have about buildings today. We’ve been through a period where we’ve built a lot, and construction will continue. But in fact, new construction accounts for only 5 per cent of all building work in Copenhagen, as we’re now increasingly rebuilding, transforming and reusing materials,” says the city architect.

But it comes at a price:

“When you rebuild and reuse materials, buildings take on a different architectural look, and people must be prepared for the changing aesthetics. Will we accept, for example, a building with several different kinds of doors?” she asks, and goes on:

“There are many beautiful and sensuous experiences in circular building materials. The architectural firms GxN, Lendager and Vandkunsten have produced some outstanding examples, but we also need to realise that circular construction often changes the appearance of buildings,” says Camilla van Deurs.

Frameworks for people’s lives

To the question of what makes Copenhagen’s architecture unique, and what Camilla van Deurs hopes architecture visitors will take away with them from the Danish capital:

“We’re a small big city, and for many years we’ve been focusing on improving people’s quality of life with lots of bicycle paths and childcare institutions with ample daylight, just to name a couple of things. The result is softer and richer urban spaces compared to the countries we usually compare ourselves to, where they have only started to adopt this approach within the past 5-10 years.”

“However, this doesn’t mean that we can rest on our laurels. There’s still a lot we can do, such as introducing more biodiversity, car-free zones and electric cars. Therefore, hosting the UIA World Congress as Capital of Architecture is also a great opportunity to learn from our visitors.”

Read more about Capital of Architecture 2023 and see the programme

Learn about the UIA World Congress and buy tickets here