BIG HQ: Bastion in Raw Concrete

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© Rasmus Hjortshøj

Bjarke Ingels Group is known for making headlines with its architecture, and BIG HQ is no exception. The story of the architectural firm’s headquarters in Copenhagen latest urban addition, Nordhavn is also a story about taste, concrete, sustainability – and who gets to decide what is being built.

In Nordhavn, at the very tip of Sundmolen, stands BIG HQ in raw concrete and glass. Large windows and solid concrete walls rest staggered atop each other, evoking associations of brutalism in a contemporary version. Bjarke Ingels Group has its headquarters here. The building is the first project where the architectural firm itself has been responsible for everything from landscape design down to each door handle.

The building spans seven floors – each with direct access to a terrace, interconnected with the terrace above and below. The continuous terraces are adorned with green plants, winding stepwise from the quay up the building to a rooftop garden with trees, plank paths, and solar panels.

Does Concrete Rhyme with Climate?

At first glance, the green outdoor space still starkly contrasts with a building in raw concrete – one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in construction. Therefore, it was important for BIG to use a newly developed, less climate-impacting concrete cement, which only came onto the market at the start of construction. The construction also became an experiment, where new methods had to be tried in the use of concrete.
Additionally, this new type of concrete emits up to 25 percent less CO2 compared to the conventional kind. Studies also indicate that untreated concrete over time absorbs about 30 percent of the CO2 emitted during cement production.

Moreover, the headquarters is primarily heated and cooled by geothermal energy, a renewable and stable energy source, extracted through tubes cast in the foundation’s concrete pillars.

Half Floors and Open Spaces

The interior of the building features huge windows and half floors set staggered from one another, creating open plans all the way up. The floors are connected by black steel stairs, moving in an asymmetrical zigzag pattern between the various levels, all balanced on massive granite and marble columns at the building’s center. Throughout the building, surfaces and walls are untreated. And even though the solid concrete walls appear heavy and raw, there’s a sense of space, lightness, and ease.

Who Decides When Building?

The initial steps in the construction were anything but easy for Bjarke Ingels and the internationally recognized studio. Contrary to expectations, the plans for the building were rejected by the municipality. There were calls for a more sustainable construction. And it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, the decision-makers thought. Conservative politician Jakob Næsager went as far as to call the headquarters ‘historically ugly.’

The waves between architects and local politicians ran high. After extensive debate, BIG conveyed the building’s climate considerations more effectively, including plans for a public beach park. At the same time, new visualizations of the building were produced for the local politicians, who eventually approved the project.

This sparked another debate. How much can architects “embellish” such visualizations? The first attempt had shown BIG HQ in a simple depiction on a light background. In the second attempt, the visualization was delivered with good weather, birds, playing children, and lush trees. In reality, a more realistic picture, but can these visualizations become too optimistic compared to the final result? The building stands there now, undoubtedly. The weather is probably still a bit unpredictable.

Near BIG HQ

From Sundmolen, where BIG HQ is located, you can see, among other things, the Tip of Nordø, a silo-shaped office building with a shimmering facade full of asymmetrical windows. The Orientkaj metro station is not far away, and with its raw concrete, it shares a similar aesthetic to BIG HQ. In the nearby Århusgade quarter, you can also find striking buildings like The Silo and Konditaget Lüders.