It just so happened that down the road was a decommissioned dry dock that had been out of use since the 1980s– this water-filled hole would be the site for its new building. There was only one problem: because UNESCO the building had to be completely underground. “They wanted to have a spectacular, attractive museum, but UNESCO dictated a building that was completely invisible,” says Bjarke Ingels, head of BIG, the architecture firm that worked on the project.
As you can imagine, this presented a few problems. First, the floor plan for the museum called for 1.5 times more space than the dock’s square footage allowed, which meant the architects had to figure out a way to cram a sprawling museum into a tiny area. More difficult yet was the fact that the building had to be completely hidden. “We weren’t allowed to stick as much as a foot out of the ground because they didn’t want us to interrupt the view of the castle,” Ingels says.
So how do you build a museum that’s both visually striking and compliant with UNESCO’s strict rules? The easy solution would’ve been to simply cap the dry dock and create a fully underground museum. That, of course, would have severely limited the natural lighting, and the little bit that did make it through would be from skylights–which, according to Danish work code requiring natural sunlight to come from vertical windows, meant the museum staff would need to be housed in a completely different building altogether. “We tried for so long to stuff that poor dock with the museum’s program,” he says.
The design solutions they were coming up with didn’t feel like solutions at all. Instead, they felt like they were dooming a historical landmark to a dark, claustrophobic fate. “We were trying to accommodate this rather impossible brief,” Ingels recalls, “And at some point in the process we got this idea of solving the problem by simply turning the museum inside out.”
This eureka moment lead the design team to create a system of three bridges that act as gallery space and a pathway through the entire museum. It also meant that the structure filled the requirement of being fully underground while simultaneously retaining the dock’s structural integrity and remaining completely open. “The dock is rather majestic,” he says. “By filling it, we would have completely eradicated its heritage. This way we could preserve the dock as a visible part of the museum.”
The three bridges all have different functions, but the main zigzagging path leads visitors towards the entrance. From there, visitors will walk around the main exhibition spaces museum in a loop that follows the natural shape of the dock. All of the main exhibition spaces were actually built into the the perimeter of the dock, sort of acting like a sandwich filling between the old and new walls of the dock. This, says Ingels, prevented the original dock walls from completely collapsing from the pressure of the soil and water pushing against it.
The exhibition loop, roughly 600 feet long, gradually descends, almost imperceptibly, from the entrance around to exhibition spaces and down to a cafe, that sits nearly at the ground level of the dock. This slight slope was not just to provide visitors with an intuitive path through the museum, but also to mimic the actual motion of what it’s like to be on the water. “Because every surface is sloping gently one way or another, you almost get this bouncy feeling of being on a ship,” Ingels explains.
The structure of the building relied on some creative workarounds. For instance, the zigzag bridge you see has an incredibly thin floor so that there would be room underneath for people to walk on the dock floor. A beam was unable to carry the heft of this lengthy bridge (around 100 feet), so only half of the floor is supported by a metal beam, while the other half is supported by an anchor chain that connects the floor to the ceiling. “So in a way the floor you’re walking on is hanging from the ceiling above you,” he explains. This allowed them to shave off 4 or 5 feet.
One of the biggest goals of the building is to respect the heritage of the shipping industry and the dock while still providing visitors with a modern experience. Ingels says that by actually building in architectural elements using shipping materials and methods, he hopes to have achieved that goal. “All of the maritime elements are not theatrical; they’re actually real hardworking technical solutions to real problems,” he says. “You have some of the amazing engineering feats of shipping used to create shipping.”