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3XN’s remaining original founder Kim Herforth Nielsen Middelfart Savings Bank: trianglular shades create the impression of feathers or scales Sloping roofs are punctuated by 83 prism-like skylights Middelfart’s large ground-floor atrium. The building was commended at the World Architecture Festival The Blue Planet: A model of 3XN’s whirlpool-inspired aquarium A spiralling staircase at Orestad College in Sweden The Stadshuis (city hall) in Nieuwegein in the Netherlands 3XN’s headquarters – a listed warehouse converted by the practice
06 Dec 2010

3xn: Kim Herforth Nielsen

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onoffice discuss behavioural architecture, office design and corridors with 3XN founder Kim Herforth Nielsen at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona

“Too many architects design a building to make a statement of art for themselves. If you look at it from how you want people to act in these spaces then the building draws itself,” says Kim Herforth Nielsen, founder of Danish architecture practice 3XN. “It can be just as artistic, but it has a deeper meaning.” Vacuous bluster is clearly something Nielsen has little time for and it’s refreshing to meet an architect who remembers that buildings are for people.

3XN’s efforts to create meaningful buildings have been a constant since Nielsen – along with two other Nielsens, Lars Frank and Hans Peter Svendler – founded the practice in 1986.

Today, only Kim Herforth remains at a firm that is in robust health, with an 80-strong staff. From its converted warehouse HQ near the Øresund straits, 3XN has fleshed out award-winning designs for the likes of Saxo Bank, KPMG and Horten.

onoffice caught up with Nielsen at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona where 3XN’s latest effort, Middelfart Savings Bank, was commended in the best office category, narrowly losing out to Kelvan’s beautiful stone obelisk, Vali Asr.

“I had great hopes for this one. I thought it would win, but I guess the judges were not agreeing with that,” Nielsen explains, his impeccable English coloured by the occasional idiosyncrasy. “But I still think it is the best one.” 

This final aside sounds more like a statement of fact than an opinion, but the architect appears more perplexed than defiant. Dressed in the understated clobber universally adopted by the profession (slacks, shirt, jacket and indoor scarf), the Dane cuts a serious figure. But Nielsen has more reason than most to be happy.

His practice is enjoying a rich vein of form at the moment, with large-scale projects getting under way London, Sweden and India. For a practice with its share of corporate clients, there is something distinctly uncorporate about 3XN’s architecture. Or, perhaps their work shows what good corporate architecture can be. An attention to sustainability coupled with a desire to positively influence human behaviour set their buildings apart from the standard air-conditioned glass box. Thinking outside the glass box, to pinch a corporate cliché. And this considered approach has garnered international recognition, including an RIBA International medal in 2009 for Saxo Bank (onoffice, March 09).

“All architecture affects behaviour"

3XN’s two main ideas are encapsulated in the visually arresting Middelfart. Externally, 83 prism-like skylights adorn a gently sloping roof, shading the interior and creating an array of triangular sunspots inside. An interior study reveals more about the practice’s belief that architecture informs behaviour. Workspaces are spread over three open terraces linked by expansive staircases, creating a salubrious and flexible environment for the inhabitants.

“All architecture affects behaviour,” asserts Nielsen. “With offices and education buildings it is important that people meet each other and communicate. We can use staircases not only to go from one floor to the next, but as social elements where people can meet or sit.”

While staircases are important to Nielsen, corridors are not. The practice views them as the antithesis of good architecture. Pointless, boring, antisocial and above all a waste of space is Nielsen’s damning verdict.

No surprise to find open planned spaces rule supreme, not only in 3XN’s office buildings, but also in its education projects. The circular design and large central staircase of Orestad College, Sweden, is a good example, a format aped by UK practices during the BSF boom times. There is a strong link between the office and schools, according to Nielsen. Both have a need for shared knowledge and better communication but contrary to received wisdom, the corporations were at the vanguard rather than education sector.

“It started with corporations first, then the ideas came to schools, which were more radical and now those ideas have gone back to corporations. If you look at Middelfart it could definitely be used as a library or as a school. It could be many different things.”

“Sustainability isn’t just green roofs”

Adaptability is crucial to 3XN and ties in with their fondness for the long view. “Sustainability isn’t just green roofs,” chuckles Nielsen. But it’s not all about schools and offices. The practice is currently watching its whirlpool-inspired design for a landmark aquarium in Copenhagen take shape.

Resembling a cross between a futuristic space station and beach windmill, the building’s spectacular form proves 3XN can do showstoppers when the mood takes. But how an architect arrives at a design is less important than the final result and Nielsen is not a dogmatist from the pencil good, computer bad school.

“Would you say a guy who is no good with a pencil, but good with a computer is a bad architect? No way. There was a guy who was not good with a pencil and still a famous architect … James Stirling,” he laughs. “It’s more important to use your hands to build models.That way you get a feel for the building. After all it is a three-dimensional thing we are doing.”

But these skills must go hand in hand with an embracing of technology and research if architects are to survive and remain relevant, says Nielsen. A similar desire for self-preservation drove many practices to seek work in the developing world and 3XN is no exception.

The practice is working on two 50,000sq m towers in Mumbai that are designed to house an existing community with well-established social dynamics. It is sure to be a stern test of behavioural architecture and one that 3XN is relishing. Closer to home, is London going to see the practice’s take on the office block? Nothing is forthcoming at the moment, but Nielsen is emphatic about the prospect: “Yes, of course, definitely yes.” Watch this space.

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