Wearing a dark pinstriped suit with a T-shirt and Adidas tennis shoes, architect David Zahle stands on the wooden terrace of the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and two young children in the Mountain Dwellings, the radical new apartment complex in Copenhagen by Bjarke Ingels Group (or BIG as they are more commonly known). Zahle points to the apartment building across the way, the VM Houses, also built by BIG, where a woman is vacuuming in her underwear behind a wall of glass on one of the upper stories. Grinning, Zahle, who works at BIG, then motions to the three-foot-wide planter box that blocks the view from here into the terrace belonging to his downstairs neighbor. “This,” he says, summing up one of the key differences between the socially experimental VM Houses next door, where he used to live, and the structurally experimental Mountain Dwellings, where he moved as soon as the building was completed, “is so I can’t see my neighbor’s wife naked.”
While the VM Houses, which were completed in 2005, played with ideas of openness, the Mountain Dwellings were designed to offer privacy to residents. “We thought the cool thing about a garden is it’s your garden, where you can suntan in your bikini bottom,” says Bjarke Ingels, the rising star of Danish architecture, who himself lives in the VM Houses. But privacy is one of few things that is conventional about the Mountain Dwellings. Completed in 2008, the building is the second of BIG’s three projects in Ørestad, a new neighborhood in Copenhagen where development is attracting many new inhabitants.
The Mountain Dwellings, for which Zahle did some drawings in early stages, was a response to a zoning problem: The lot, which runs along the Metro tracks, had to have 215,000 square feet of parking and 108,000 square feet of housing. The original city plans consisted of a residential tower dwarfed by a separate parking garage. “It was a problem,” says Zahle. “The apartments were going to have Metro noise on one side and the parking lot on the other. So when you wanted to go on your balcony at five o’clock to barbecue, there would be all the rush-hour dust and pollution from the cars.”
The solution? “We decided to use the cars to lift up the housing units,” says Zahle. “We call it ‘architectural alchemy’—combining elements to turn architectural lead into gold.”
The result does looks like a mountain—hence the building’s name and the inspiration for the mural of Mount Everest that adorns the 82-foot-high facade. In his Copenhagen office, the 34-year-old Ingels elaborates on the route taken to arrive at the unusual shape, concept, and facade of the eye-catching building. Describing his philosophy of “yes is more,” Ingels says he tried to come up with a solution that pleased everybody—and everything. “Instead of seeing cars as a problem that you need to hide below the ground,” says Ingels, “why not give them what they want?”
Cars, he argues, should be near the ground, sheltered, and kept away from direct sunlight. Housing, on the other hand, “wants” southern exposure, fresh air, and a view. “Gradually, when you mix cars and housing—if they could move themselves—they’d gravitate to this form, with the parking in the deep space in the north and the houses on top, facing south.”
Once the parking found its way to the building’s northern base, abutting the Metro tracks, the alchemy kicked in. The multilevel parking garage could in fact act as a kind of sloping podium for the housing units—80 in all—that step down the building’s southern face in a freestanding staircase formation made structurally feasible by the base of the parking lot. Because each floor of apartments stands alone, with no one directly above, each of the units is, technically speaking, a penthouse, with a large private terrace and suburbanesque garden space.
Not content to just build a regular parking lot behind the Himalayan facade, Ingels created a high-ceilinged, five-story, concrete-and-steel “car cathedral—to celebrate car culture.” Throughout, the French artist Victor Ash varnished the concrete walls with gray-on-gray murals of wild animals—a wolf, a moose—standing atop piles of wrecked automobiles. “I like [the murals] because they show that everything we do is part of the ecosystem,” says Ingels, who found Ash through a friend who owns an art gallery in Copenhagen’s meat-packing district. “They make the point that there’s no real distinction between us and nature. Cars are a man-made part of nature, like elephant dung is an elephant-made part of nature.”
Overhead, the underside of each level of apartments (what Ingels calls “the sixth facade”) is covered in brightly painted aluminum that moves, symbolically, from earth to sky: green, yellow, orange, dark orange, hot pink, purple, bright blue. “Buildings are never brightly colored,” says Ingels, explaining the thinking behind this stepladder rainbow, “but cars often are.”
As there’s no lobby, the building is always entered through the garage. Residents can drive up to their floor, then cross a suspended industrial metal-clad concrete gangplank to reach their hallway. If they arrive by foot or bicycle, they enter by walking up a set of metal stairs that climb from south to north over the parking lot or riding Denmark’s only funicular-style inclined elevator (imported from Switzerland, naturally).
“It’s an urban dystopia,” says Zahle, adding that he likes the way that the parking lot “emphasizes the brutality of mixing two such alien objects [parking and living] in one function.” The car cathedral, which Ingels sees as “pragmatically utopic,” is inescapable—and unquestionably cool. So cool, points out Zahle, that Copenhagen’s annual electronic-music festival, Distortion, was held in the garage just before he moved in.
A public staircase along the outside means anyone can “climb” the mountain, and a local mountain climbers’ association will soon install a climbing wall at the back of the building, near the peak.
Each level’s hallway is enclosed and encased in painted metal both on the interior and exterior, colored according to floor. Inside, these are intense spaces, the colors almost electric. Walking down the hallways feels like being inside a long, mood-enhancing tanning booth. Once through the front door of an apartment, however, the mood changes completely. Airy, open, light-filled apartments with walls of glass look out onto 970-square-foot terraces edged in artificial turf. White walls, oak floors, and wooden window panes exude a calm, Danish-modern vibe. “It’s a schizophrenic sensibility,” says Ingels. “The south is purely organic, and the north is strictly contemporary.”
Zahle says the apartments, whose service areas are in the back to dampen noise from the parking lot, are quiet. “It’s ten minutes from the city center,” says Zahle, “but you’re completely alone with the sky and with nature. It’s not really like an apartment, it’s more like a summer house on a hillside.”
Ingels’s belief in man-made objects as a part of nature has been brought to bear in the Mountain Dwellings themselves. Composed of the very same materials that form your average eyesore, the building transcends its components to evoke an alpine idyll. As urbanization continues apace, the ability of innovative design not only to mimic nature, but to manifest it, is no small accomplishment.
Writer Sally McGrane flew to Copenhagen from her home in Berlin to visit the Mountain Dwellings. She was particularly impressed by the Victor Ash murals in the garage of wolves and moose atop wreaked cars. What she found hard to believe, however, was that David Zahle, a resident and one of the architects who helped design the building, has never had any dreams about the "car cathedral" under his home.
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