Denmark’s new Architecture Policy

“Architecture is for people”. This is how the new Danish Architecture Policy begins. The Danish government sees architecture as defining the country at home and internationally. It is about competitiveness, moving towards sustainability and social cohesion. The new policy depicts architecture as contributing to “the development of the welfare state”, and says that local authorities have a key role to play. “The municipalities set the overall goals and visions for an area’s physical development and implement the realization of the visions in a dialogue with the public and with market players.”

Aalborg, Denmark

Aalborg, Denmark

Starting early

One of the notable features of the policy is the commitment from central government to support learning about architecture from  an early age. “Children should experience architecture as a creative way of working.” This is part of bringing the community into the school and the school into the community. To this end, the Ministry of Education is putting learning materials about architecture on its portal. This will support the teaching in primary school that seeks to make children aware of the social and aesthetic significance of architecture.

Primary schools will also deliver a two-hour course and practical workshop on sustainable cities. Educational materials are also being prepared for secondary schools. Urban Spaces 3 is an international conference for children and young people this September, linked to Aarhus being European City of Culture 2017. There is also a construction industry summer school for built environment students.

Local government

The policy urges local authorities to adopt their own architecture policies and to integrate them into planning policy. Buildings need to address their context, but equally buildings, spaces, streets and landscapes are the building blocks of places. A local architecture policy is also seen as contributing to tourism and marketing for a municipality.

The contribution of cultural heritage is addressed. In particular there is the hope that rural areas that are losing population might promote conservation through their local architecture policies, and so strengthen identity and attractiveness. More generally the policy calls for culture and history to be built into the early stages of planning work and so become drivers for local development.

To move practices in these directions the Ministry of Culture is to work with professional bodies and other ministries to provide guidance to municipalities. There will also be a demonstration catalogue showing how local architecture policies can contribute to Denmark’s green transition.

Renovation and rebuilding

Unlike architecture policies in some countries, this one recognises that renovation and rebuilding make up the majority of construction projects. The document says “Transformations of old industrial sites are expected to constitute a major part of future architecture projects. It is important that the renovations are carried out with an eye for user needs, including the need for accessibility, cultural heritage conservation values, potentials for architectural boosts, and energy improvements.” To this end the government promises to develop practice advice.

A certification system for sustainable buildings has been established. The focal point is the Danish Green Building Council DK-GBC, which introduces a German-developed certification scheme that has been customised to the Danish context.

The document also includes a general exhortation to take a whole life-cycle perspective when deciding whether to demolish or renovate buildings. Flexibility in construction is also admired, as it increases the potential for recycling. Adaptation of buildings and spaces to help address climate change also gets a mention.

We are promised a new strategy for sustainable urban planning from the Ministry of the Environment during 2104. The Danish government is also producing a “comprehensive strategy for energy renovation of the existing building stock.” There will also be a new policy from the Ministry of Climate, Energy and Buildings.

Procurement

Bureaucratic and financially driven procurement procedures are a serious concern for architects. The architecture policy says that the Danish government 2013 “Strategy for smart public procurement” includes “a principle saying that public purchasers must always consider making functional requirements for the assignment.” This is intended to allow the tenderer to look beyond the financial aspects of competing bids and take account of the quality of the solution. “The strategy also implies that the public sector must consider the total cost of the purchase to ensure low total economic costs in the utility period.” Simplifications to tendering and procurement procedures are promised.

Strengths and weaknesses

None can doubt the high regard in which Danish architecture and urban design is held internationally. Will this policy help to reproduce that reputation? My reading is that the policy is actually rather marginal to what happens on the ground.

Fundamentally, the problem is that here, as in many other countries, architecture is part of the remit of the Ministry for Culture, a ministry that is unlikely to carry the same weight as the Energy ministry or the Environment ministry, let alone those concerned with the economy. While there are helpful references in the architecture policy to initiatives in other ministries, there must be a question mark about how much sway the architecture policy will have. Equally it means that crucial concerns with sustainability are given less emphasis than matters more central to the remit of the Ministry of Culture.

At times well-meaning observations can seem naïve. For example, there is the hope that “By having a debate and a political process on the local architecture before the implementation of concrete projects, the debate will be about goals and content rather than about the appearance of specific projects.” In reality, opponents of development are likely to fight on all fronts. Similarly, the faith invested in the capacity of architecture to impact on rural depopulation or urban social exclusion looks exaggerated.

The strengths of the policy are the strong messages about creating local architecture polices and integrating them into planning policies. The messages about conservation and renovation and the importance of historic buildings and environments are welcome, and an antidote to narrower views of architecture as designs for new construction. Also it is refreshing to see direct links being made to innovation, research and education, and – as you would expect – there are lots of beguiling photos.