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Skin tight.

These new offices for a building contractor are a highly sensual yet functional interplay of craftsmanship and fine materials, reflecting a modern Danish sensibility.

E. Pihl & Son AS is a successful building contracting business, prosperous (and far-sighted) enough to commission its own headquarters from a very good firm of architects(1) as a three-dimensional advertisement for its skills. Pihl's intention was to 'produce an interplay of the whole, from the spaces to the details, combined with a high degree of utility, fine materials and good traditional craftsmanship'.(2) The result admirably fulfils the aim.

The site is in Lyngby, a low density suburb north of the old city centre. In the leafy surroundings, a three-storey modern office block could have been extremely intrusive, so the architects pulled the building back from the road-edge, made provision for a good deal of new greenery and broke down the mass into a form that did not loom over its neighbours. In essence, the plan is a pair of L-shaped single-banked office spaces joggled together to create a major space at the conflation of their internal angles.

The entrance from the road or car park to the south is a glass recession between the two Ls from which a long glazed slot in the roof draws you forward to the stairs and the triple-height space that is the formal and social hub of the place. But before going in, it is worth having a look round the outside first. From the start, the building seems intensely Danish. There are few other countries in which the quality of workmanship and materials would be such a cause for celebration, and none, I think, in which the tension of the skin would be so sensually explored. For most foreigners, Danish seventeenth- and eighteenth-century domestic buildings look rather strange, for their windows are virtually flush with the brick facades in which they are set. This may be a hangover from the tradition of timber-framed work, or it may be simply (as Danish architects now tell you) that there is a dislike of ledges on which water can rest and seep into the building. The tradition continued well into this century, and it is perhaps not too extravagant to suggest that it showed itself in a new guise in for instance the consummate mastery of the curtain wall by Jacobsen which he showed in the Royal Hotel and the Redovre Town Hall.

At Pihl & Son, the steel and glass walls are stretched as tightly as a glove over the interior spaces: and so is the skin of red brickwork. The smoothness of transition from glossiness to dark rough redness is extraordinary, allowing the architects to compose their elevations with almost the rectilinear freedom that Mondrian allowed himself in paint. The two elements (transparent and smooth; rough, red and opaque) are both extraordinary in themselves. The glass skin follows Jacobsen's example at the Royal Hotel of allowing openable windows in a curtain wall without their presence being obvious (when one thinks of the awful off-the-peg systems that offer opening windows in glass walls, it is clear that the architects have brooded over the matter with great finesse(3)). The brickwork is even more impressive. It is laid in fine Danish fashion with generous mortar bedding, but the stretcher bond(4) shows it to be plainly a skin. At last someone has had the courage to face up to this way of building and show it for what it is, and indeed give it a certain nobility, for the brick sheath is clearly manipulated in much the same ways as the metal and glass one and never tries to look seriously structural.

You come past the brick and glass walls to penetrate the interior through understated doors in a glazed bit of the facade that does not seem very different from the rest. As Jan Christiansen has remarked 'the entrance to the building can be difficult to find, as can be expected in a modernistic building'.(5) But, once you have worked out the puzzle and are inside, you are clearly in the presence of architectural sensibility of a major kind. Light from the slot in the roof directs you forwards to the stair which rises to the galleries that connect the largely open-plan offices across the void. All materials are handled with the greatest care and understanding. The path to the stair past the reception desk is in almost black Icelandic basalt, and the treads start in a sort of podium of the same material before changing to metal. The rest of the huge room is floored in the very best ash, the warm paleness of which was plainly chosen to contrast with the dark ice-coldness of the stone. The in-situ concrete columns have been gently washed with acid to bring out the nature of the aggregate. A large external pool to the south reflects shimmering light upwards against them and the ceiling.

Everything is very simple. But from time to time the architects burst into fits of constructional gymnastics that are extremely vigorous though not altogether in keeping with the calmness of the space flooded in light. The balustrade of the stair for instance is forged in an almost Deco angular frenzy as a three-dimensional structure, though the handrails are simple stainless-steel tubes which could have had much calmer supports. The roof slot is emphasised by similar graphite-painted muscular steel frames that hang down from it and are not quite clear in their purpose.

There is a feeling of a big office at work here, certainly at the height of its powers and working with the very greatest care, but one in which there is no one dominating intelligence. it sparks reflections about the difference between London's Royal Festival Hall (a truly great building in the history of twentieth-century architecture, but produced by a very large team at the old and brilliant London County Council) and any one of Aalto's marvellous auditoria. Many people in the design team of the Pihl building have had something to say, and the result is rich, but slightly blurred by the very profusion of creative activity.

A particular case is the staff canteen which as a separate and almost autonomous block clad in the dark Icelandic basalt crashes into the orderly brick, steel and glass Ls. It picks up a trend for doing wonky things with orthogonal plans that was popular in the US and Germany a decade ago. The room is excellent in itself, for it is tall and generous and picks up light from east, west and south (augmented by reflections from the pool). But was its orientation and angularity really necessary?

I'm sorry to carp about what is really a very fine building. The offices, mostly open plan, are linked across the great central volume by bridges and galleries. The individual spaces all have openable windows (which can be pushed out automatically by a sensor system that responds to external climate). Blinds modulate the amount of sunlight that you get on your desk. The spaces (though largely open plan) are not so big that you feel lost on a prairie. It must be a good and memorable place to work in - and its like can be found in very few other countries than Denmark. Christiansen has compared it (rightly) to Hertzberger's outstanding Centraal Beheer in Apeldoorn,(6) but the Dutch architect while being a brilliant social analyst and creator of one of the most inspiring ripostes to corporate conformity, did not carry passion through to sensuous and tectonic qualities. This building does.

1 KHR AS is one of Denmark's largest architectural firms and has for the most part been rather anonymous, but one of the driving partners has been that great designer Knud Holscher, who helped to set a standard of excellent work which can be seen here (though Holscher himself was not directly involved). KHR AS designed the Danish pavilion at the Seville Expo (AR June 1992, p50).

2 Christiansen, Jan, 'Det Moderne Snit, Administrationsbygning for E.H. Pihl & Son AS', in Arkitektur DK 8, 1994, p 459.

3 They are not alone in Denmark today: Nielsen Nielsen & Nielsen has undertaken a similar exercise in their handling of the skin of the Architects' House at Gammel Dok (p54).

4 I am not sure how clear this term is to overseas readers. Stretcher bond is one brick thick and so shows only the long dimension of the bricks (except of course at the corners). One of the curses of contemporary British architecture is that bad architects (and the Prince of Wales) do not realise that acres of pasted-on stretcher bond do not make the kind of solid brick buildings to which they aspire. For these they need proper old fashioned brickwork using both stretchers and headers (the short ends of the bricks which are seen in any structural brick wall).

5 Christiansen, Jan, ibid, p458.

6 Idem.
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Title Annotation:Copenhagen Culture; design of E. Pihl & Son As headquarters in Copenhagen
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
Previous Article:Sculptural street.
Next Article:Architect's house.

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