A winning formula

31 July 2006 (Last Updated July 31st, 2006 18:30)

It was no surprise that Henning Larsens Tegnestue emerged as the Overall Winner at the LEAF Awards. The company has recently finished first in a string of design competitions. Damian Arnold speaks to project leader Jacob Kurek about the firm's winning ways and its current raft of projects, stretching from Reykjavik to Riyadh.

A winning formula

Danish architecture firm Henning Larsens Tegnestue (HLT) acquires most of its commissions by winning design competitions, and with many exciting new projects on the horizon for 2006 and beyond the firm is clearly no stranger to that winning feeling.

"Eight out of ten projects we do are competitions and we really spend a lot of time preparing for them," says Jacob Kurek, a project leader at HLT.

"To win competitions you need to understand how the site links up to the city, the local environment, the infrastructure and so on. Then it's about people – who's going to live there and how they will interact with the new building. So we do a lot of research."

WORLDWIDE SUCCESS

With its strong track record, the 55-year-old, 115-strong Copenhagen-based practice can end up working anywhere in the world.

It is currently involved in schemes all over Europe and the Middle East as well as award-winning projects closer to home, such as the IT University in Copenhagen, which was named Best New Building and Overall Winner at the 2005 LEAF Awards.

One of their latest competition entries is on the verge of winning the practice one of its most high-profile jobs ever. From 400 entrants HLT has reached the final shortlist of two for the design of the European Patent Office at The Hague.

Kurek says the 90,000m² cellular offices would be a 'dream job' for the practice, but it must first overcome Zaha Hadid in a final showdown before the winner is chosen in late 2006.

SCANDINAVIAN DESIGN CONCEPTS

At least HLT can take some comfort from the fact that it has already beaten off competition from Hadid and Jean Nouvell in the final shortlist to design the Reykjavik Concert and Congress Centre.

"Our designs embody a simple, methodical approach that values function over flashy gestures."

The practice came up with a winning design based on a 3D façade of metal and glass that reflects daylight during the day and projects the animated interior outwards at night.

The 3D double skin façade was devised in collaboration with the artist Olafur Eliasson, who had previously worked with HLT on the Copenhagen Opera House project.

"We've done some systems and mock ups, and it is working really well," says Kurek "We are really looking forward to doing it."

Another northern European cultural project designed by HLT that is starting to take shape on-site is a 1,200-seat concert hall in Uppsala, Sweden.

This city of half a million people near Stockholm is famous for being the home of the best musicians in Sweden, and an open competition was held in 2002 to design a concert venue worthy of their talents.

The HLT design concept that impressed the judges was a ground floor area with cafés and restaurants opening onto a new public square. The concert hall itself will be on the third floor of the building, so the lounge area outside the auditorium will have a beautiful, panoramic view of the historic city.

Critics might say that the two buildings lack 'wow factor', but they embody a simple, methodical approach that values function over flashy gestures. "For me, good architecture is when the building fits into the site and when you see that the people using the building are smiling," says Kurek.

UK FOCUS

In the UK the practice has enjoyed great success by adapting its approach to the design competition system. "In the UK it's more about the interview than the submission," says Kurek. "It's quite hardcore because you have to get the key messages across in 15 minutes and communicate two months' work."

"Architects used to have the view that designing with sustainability in mind meant you ended up with an ugly building."

The downside is that if you don't win the job, the rewards of just being shortlisted in the UK are generally fairly meagre compared with the rest of the continent. "You get much less for the same level of detail," says Kurek. "But I think we prefer to have these interviews."

HLT already has a firm foothold in the UK, having designed the Arts Faculty building at Plymouth University, and its next major UK project is now reaching a critical stage.

KENNET VALLEY PARK

The practice is preparing a 15-year masterplan for 7,500 homes spread over 340 hectares along a linear site near the Berkshire city of Reading, which runs parallel to the M4 motorway.

Much of the land where the houses will be is currently occupied by a gravel pit, but it runs along the River Kennet and the River Thames and includes several lakes. Indeed, more than 60% of the surface area is water.

Kurek says the Kennet Valley Park concept – which will soon be open to public consultation, three years after the practice won a design competition to masterplan the site – is a residential waterworld, with polluting infrastructure such as roads set back further inland.

"The aim is to create different areas that will have a different identity but all relate to water," he says. "For example, we will create a sandy beach with a promenade and clean the water up so that people can swim."

The practice is entering into detailed design this autumn, after a long struggle to gain converts to the Scandinavian model of lakeside communities with infrastructure tucked away. "We have struggled to [convince] people we could create this new world – even the client had difficulty," adds Kurek.

LOOKING EAST

By contrast, in the Middle East, where HLT has ten potential projects in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the practice is entering a realm where architectural ambition flourishes. The firm is looking at masterplanning several major urban developments as well as business parks, educational and commercial buildings in the region.

"To win competitions you need to understand how the site links up to the local infrastructure."

"Things are really changing out there now," says Kurek. HLT is building on a local reputation first established in 1984, when it designed the highly acclaimed Foreign Ministry building for the Saudi Government. "There is increasing emphasis on quality buildings, rather than building the tallest or the fastest."

"They have changed their attitude to price. We would not have had a chance to work there before because we would have been too expensive."

He is also noticing a desire among clients there for greener buildings: "Awareness of environment and sustainability is becoming more important, especially in the Middle East, where it hasn't really started yet at all."

Designing green buildings has also lost a certain stigma in architectural circles, he says. "There was a view among architects a few years ago that designing with sustainability in mind meant you ended up with an ugly building, but that has changed now."