Towards transformation

The conceptual model of demolition and rebuilding is being replaced by continuous transformation. Clear-cut projects with an end in sight become processes of adaptation. The Danish concept of transformation now arrives in Finland. The Carlsberg area and Den Hvide Kødby in Copenhagen show the direction.

In the Nordic theory and practice of the built environment a great paradigm shift is taking place. Until recently, the environment has been perceived as a series of consecutive projects which lead to a more or less completed environment. Having aged, these environments are then either renovated or replaced by something new. Buildings perceived as monuments have been protected and restored. Such operational and conceptual models, based on clear-cut projects and an end in sight, are now being replaced by a new viewpoint that aims at identifying and managing the continuous change of the environment.

The viewpoint regarding the historical city changes

Behind the changes are numerous factors, among others achieving the sustainable utilisation of natural resources that comes with ecological thinking. The continuous demolition and rebuilding process that lies at the heart of modernism has been questioned. The new objective taking shape is the adaption of buildings to continuously new situations through gradual and continuous changes. The method of demolishing the old and building new in its place will, of course, continue in the future, however no longer by default but rather as a last resort when changes and adaption to new use have become impossible.

This great change in viewpoint, which steers the development of the built environment, is taking place largely unnoticed by Finnish architects. I believe this change remains invisible because it has not led to any considerable change in the form language of architecture, or even repair techniques.

The traditional rough division between new construction and restoration is changing, becoming much more nuanced. The tasks of architects will in the future increasingly be set between these two extremes. These include different design tasks for sustainable building and renovation, generating ideas for new material solutions and structural techniques as well as comprehensive management of change. A field of different degrees of change is created between alteration and preservation.

The Finnish debate takes its own path

The change of urban environments, between restoration and new construction, is in need of new conceptual tools. A significant site requiring protection will in the future only be a special case in the development of old environments. The management of the built environment becomes increasingly more complex. The problem is rapidly coming to a head. In Finland the built environment has to a large extent been constructed during a brief period since the 1960s. Early building complexes comprised of prefabricated construction are worryingly aging, both technically and functionally. The need for repair and alteration is unprecedented.

A particularly confusing concept in Finland is renovation. The Finnish term ‘korjausrakentaminen’, literally “repair-building”, comes across as positive: something is lacking and requires repair. Renovation increasingly means, however, the remodelling and alteration of the suburbs, thus ultimately it is not a question of simply repair. An old building built from prefabricated elements is seen only as a problem, building material without any value, which can freely be demolished, hacked into and altered. What seems to speak for renovation is economic and ecological factors, not the value of the building itself.

The Danish transformation

In the Danish architectural debate this new situation was known already for some years. A theoretical framework has been created in order to manage the problem. The concept of transformation first emerged at the Århus School of Architecture, based on the thinking of Professor Johannes Exner. The basic idea behind transformation is that traditional restorations are needed for a very small part of the building stock, whereas the major part of the built environment requires a different degree of change, albeit continuous. The attitude towards the existing, common building stock is becoming more positive. An increasingly large part of the buildings will be preserved, albeit changed in some way.

In recent Nordic debate, the concept of “alteration” has emerged parallel to transformation. With the principle of alteration, measures to ensure the usability of old buildings are even more nuanced than in transformation. Behind both trends is the aim to replace the maintenance of the built environment based on individual heavy repairs with actions that utilise and alter the built environment in a more subtle way. Transformation brings the concepts and methods of architectural theory into harmony with each other and responds to current needs. The concepts of building conservation, restoration and “repair-building” have come about due to the needs of different historical situations. They no longer suffice for managing a more complex and changed situation.

With transformation the environments are approached in a positive way. All the characteristics that are usable and preservable must be recognised. The changes are, when possible, aimed at parts with less value. When the focus changes from projects to a continuous process, the reading, interpretation and conclusions drawn from them are of particular importance. In addition to established investigations, strategic maintenance plans are required which aim at the balanced management of changes.

In transformation something is aimed for in a sustainable way, which cannot be done through the present system of new construction or renovation. In regard to space, more roomy solutions are created as well as new interesting temporal layers. A transformed building enhances the identity of the location more strongly than a new building. The feeling of continuity is strong. By transforming old buildings, abandoned plots and empty spaces awaiting demolition are avoided. Likewise, areas with one-sided functions – which came about as a result of the remodelling of larger areas – are avoided.

Transformation, when successful, leads to more mixed totalities when the buildings gradually change, taking on increasingly new uses. It is not a question of individual measures but rather of more extensive changes in the mindset of the management of the built environment. In transformation the built environment is adapted to serve the changing functional and cultural needs.

Not all of the building stock worth preserving can be restored. A new use must be found for buildings so that their conservation would be meaningful. It requires change, transformation. Awareness of the large carbon footprint of building construction increases the pressures to preserve buildings that are losing their original use. In Denmark the segmented operation in the fields of building and restoration has gradually been replaced with a new type of operation, which has been established under the umbrella-like concept of transformation. The novelty of transformation lies specifically in its comprehensive nature, where restoration and demolition have equal value as measures in managing the changes in the urban environment.

Two examples from Copenhagen

New impetuses are being created in the renewal of Copenhagen. The ongoing processes of change in two former industrial areas west of the city centre illustrate the significance of transformation in practice. The former Carlsberg brewery is being developed into a new city district of mixed functions and the former meat-packing area, Den Hvide Kødby, is being adapted for new use. The characteristics of transformation are clearly evident in these two projects.

The objective in both areas is a continuously changing, yet nevertheless controlled, totality. In both cases, clear but flexible principles have been settled for concerning the whole area. The starting point is a functionally mixed urban structure which attracts people 24/7. This requires large streams of people, which are pursued by adding versatile functions. What affects the pleasantness of the areas is supporting the identities of the areas based on the cultural history, temporal layers, architectural quality, and ecological imagery, as well as the balance between interest, arbitrariness and order, all.

In the Carlsberg and Den Hvide Kødby areas, transformation is understood as a long-term continuous process rather than a one-off construction. Of central importance is fitting together the different functions and finding the most suitable function for each available space, while finding a balance for the whole area. In both areas the overall responsibility for the management of the transformation has been given to a private architects office, despite the fact that the meat-packing area is owned by the city.


Carlsberg’s production moved from the old brewery area – which had gradually built up during the previous hundred years – away from the logistically difficult city centre. The closed-off industrial heritage environment was opened up to the inhabitants of the city. A compact new city district was to be developed from the area through an international architectural competition. The competition, the results of which were announced in 2007, was won by the small Danish office Entasis. Their proposal is based on the deft interpretation of, and considerate change to, the prestigious built environment. The industrial buildings, with their heavy appearance, are complemented with considerably extensive infill building.

The character of the infill building is based on the Carlsberg building tradition and recognising and applying its architectural characteristics. There is a particular emphasis on avoiding the monotonous characteristics and excessive spaciousness of suburban construction. Due to the large volume of infill building, the character of the Carlsberg area in the cityscape will change considerably, but the industrial environment created over a long period establishes the basic architectural tone.

The head of the office, architect Christian Cold, says he leaves the academic discussion about transformation to others, and that he himself participates in the debate through his designs. The work of Entasis in Carlsberg demonstrates a profound and personal understanding of the potential of transformation. The area is being changed by employing old and trusted characteristics from the Copenhagen city centre, which are combined with the existing fabric. Even though the objective is to create street spaces and courtyards with outbuildings, any feeling of datedness is avoided in the architecture.

The aim with the new construction is to achieve the typical feeling of material and heaviness of the area through the fresh expression of our own time. The old rational industrial buildings often have playful and surprising upper parts. The same unexpectedness of the attic floors is also aimed for in the new construction. The unit size of infill building is kept small. Instead of an overall plan, projects by tens of architects are realised. The temporal depth and layeredness create the pleasantness that is lacking in other new areas, and thus bring additional commercial value.

In order to ensure the success of the transformation of the Calsberg area, Entasis have prepared an extensive manual to provide a guideline for the different agents and architects. The manual is based on the careful interpretation of the premises of the location. Instead of a precise and binding plan, strategic objectives have been created, the implementation steerage of which Entasis have committed themselves to for as much as a few decades. Their main task is to supervise the creation of the totality in the spirit of the general plan and manual, and to negotiate with the numerous different design teams.

Den Hvide Kødby

The meat-packing quarters of Copenhagen were built on a quick schedule in 1931-34, following the designs of architect Poul Holsøe. Meat and fish processing still continue there, but a considerable part of the properties has been vacated for new use. The objective is to create a place where meat processing meets culinarism and operations of the creative industries. The cool temperatures required by the meat processing and, on the other hand, the appropriate temperature for office work, have led to unreasonable energy consumptions. The solution to the problem is the key to the future of the entire area. By categorical U-value regulations, the details and proportions typical for functionalism, which in many places in the area have been preserved, would be lost. In transformation the parameters for changes to each building are sought in the initial analysis.

In spaces which have preserved their authenticity, functions are sought that can adapt to lower temperatures. The building stock is looked at as a whole, instead of looking at individual buildings. The most economic way to reduce the carbon footprint of the whole area is not to treat all building parts in the same way, but rather to target the measures as sensibly as possible from the point of view of the totality. Architectural-historically sensible measures can thus be taken into consideration.

The totality that has been indicated for listed building protection is so large that its preservation requires changes. Adapting an unusually and exceptionally complete functionalist industrial area is a textbook example of the usability of the concept of transformation. Keeping even a significant site unchanged is often no longer possible. One must develop new ways of thinking and methods to manage transformation. Erik Møller’s office approaches the subject analytically. They have held lecture series on the theme together with the Danish Architects’ Association. The project architect for the Den Hvide Kødbyn, Morten Ørsager, tells that in addition to the office’s own plans for the area, their task is the management of the long-term change process and they act as a cooperative body between different agents and architects.

In projects dealing with change in complex areas, there are typically several parties involved, from civil servants of the state and municipality to the residents, institutions, organisations and commercial enterprises. The projects are long-term, continuous processes, during the course of which the environment changes in accordance with the requirements of each situation. The management of the change becomes the most important steerage factor for the quality of the environment. When one approaches individual restoration tasks from a radically altered angle, even small changes take on a new meaning.

Näköislehti: Site Logic