Transformation of KB32: From the ugliest building in Copenhagen to award-winning architecture

In preference to demolition and new construction, Copenhagen buildings will to a greater extent be converted to function in the present and for many years to come. One example is KB32 at Kalvebod Brygge, masterminded by Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects. Read the interview with the architect about their approach to building transformations.

The former DSB good terminal, KB32, at Kalvebod Brygge in Copenhagen used to be known as one of the ugliest buildings in Copenhagen. However, this was before the colossal building from 1967 underwent a full-scale refurbishment, leaving virtually only the concrete structures, roof and ground floor intact.

Today, KB32 has been transformed into attractive office spaces with capacity for approximately a thousand employees, and both the Danish National Archives and Poul Schmith/Kammeradvokaten are now located in the previously much-maligned building.

KB32 won the office building of the year 2022 award and is in line for a possible building award from the City of Copenhagen.

Transformation demands more creativity

Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects designed KB32, with Simon Svensson, architect and partner, at the helm. In addition to KB3,2 they are also behind the recently completed refurbishment of Shell House, as well as the former National Aquarium Denmark in Charlottenlund, scheduled for conversion into a cultural centre.

“I think transformation is much more fun than designing completely new projects, because with new builds clients can get exactly what they want. But transforming buildings takes creativity to a whole new level. You have to get to know the building and figure out how to ‘dance’ with it in the process,” says Simon Svensson, partner and architect at Vilhelm Lauritsen. He continues:

“Although you inevitably have to make compromises, building transformations are among the most exciting projects to work with, where we raise the bar for what we as architects can do.”

What qualities should be preserved?

Simon Svensson explains that at the beginning of a process, it is important to review the building’s old drawings to understand the original intent behind it. For example, was it built to house a large restaurant that never materialised? Or has the entrance been moved in the meantime to get a more prestigious address, even though it doesn’t make sense from the point of view of navigating the building?

“It’s about getting to the essence and finding the building’s inherent qualities – even if you sometimes choose to go completely different ways with what you add. But then it can be done respectfully.

The starting point is, of course, very different from one building to another:

“No matter what, you need to have the foundation in place so that the building can then last and function for many decades to come. So it’s important to clarify the condition of the building. Is it enough to upgrade and add to what’s already there? Or is the building currently not capable of meeting the requirements as to function and materials?” Simon Svensson explains.

Fit to stand for 100 years

“When the client and architects embark on a building transformation, there are several important points to keep in mind,” Simon Svensson explains. “One is the context which the transformed building will be part of. Also, you have to consider whether the building is listed or whether there are other restrictions as regards the choice of materials.

“Some buildings have been standing for 50 years, and the materials that are added must be durable and stand up to usage. For example, if you put up drywall, scratches can appear and it may need to be painted many times over the course of 20 years. Therefore, it’s important to work from a durability perspective.”

Durability and common sense are essential parameters to navigate, as renovation also comes with a carbon footprint. But things haven’t always been this way.

“In Denmark, we have traditionally been driven by building durable buildings, but for a while now, and during a time when we have built a lot, the focus has sometimes been on finding fun solutions rather than the durable ones. However, fortunately, there is a renewed focus on the values that really matter: quality, good materials and craftsmanship. Things that can’t be automated,” says Simon Svensson.

KB32: From goods terminal to offices

When it comes to transformations, some buildings can be beautiful from the outside, so only the interior needs a facelift. Other times – as in the case of the old, 180-metre-long goods terminal – that would not suffice.

“From the point of view of both insulation and sound, the façade didn’t work and we would never have been able to create the right conditions inside. So we rebuilt that, and we worked to ensure that the building can be experienced both from a distance and close up. Had it not been located next to Kalvebod and a number of large-scale buildings, we would probably have done things differently,” Simon Svensson explains.

He explains that being able to walk around inside the existing building made it much easier for Kammeradvokaten and their employees to imagine what the project could become and what they would like, which is more difficult when building new.

“The ceiling height is the building’s pride and joy. It blends the contemporary with the industrial and robust. This is a building that comes with both patina and history.”

Black and white-painted Troldtekt acoustic panels were chosen for KB32’s ceilings, fitting in well with the raw styling, and also ensuring comfortable acoustics for the office environments and the conference room, where many people congregate.

Photo: Sjavit Maestro / Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects

Conversions rather than new builds

In Copenhagen alone, many construction projects are currently underway, including a number of projects involving some degree of transformation. Commenting on another project, Shell House, which Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects is also behind, Simon Svensson says:

“This was a gentler and more sensitive transformation due to the different scale of the building and its inherent qualities. That changes are not necessarily that obvious, but the building clearly needed updating to rid it of the original cell offices, archive shelving and cigar cabinets. So it was very much about doing minor tweaks on the inside.”

He cites the former National Aquarium Denmark as having undergone much the same process as KB32, as the project involved the complete repurposing of the building. However, the aquarium is a listed building, which adds a whole new layer of complexity to the transformation of the building into a cultural centre.

Read more about KB32 and see more photos.


Read our full feature about Copenhagen as Capital of Architecture.