Photo: Frederik Lyng

BIG has been widely applauded for its design of this affordable social housing complex in Copenhagen’s run-down Nordvest district.

The Danish architectural firm BIG is behind some of the most spectacular and prestigious projects in the world. With Dortheavej, the world-renowned architects undertook to create affordable, low-income housing in an unfashionable district of Copenhagen, in the midst of punk culture, a mosque and small industry.

The budget was a far cry from the impressive sums the firm usually works with. There is nothing special about the address. And as social housing, the apartment building is never likely to be a prestigious project – at least not in the classic sense. All the more reason to pay it a visit.

The building is relatively simple to decode. Boxes of prefabricated modules stacked on top of each other to create one long, undulating facade. Floor to ceiling windows ensure plenty of light in every apartment, resulting in a bright and welcoming building in an otherwise relatively dreary area. With a little indiscretion, you can actually see through the building to the other side.

Every other module is set back like a stack of blocks. On the building’s facade, the advantage is obvious. It creates variation and depth, while the wood around the windows creates a distinctive pattern that brings the surfaces to life.

The middle of the building has been pushed back on the property, making room for a small plaza at the front. A couple of modules at street level have been dropped, so the plaza could be expanded and shared with the surrounding city. Today, you see runners, cyclists and pedestrians moving through the building’s openings, creating a sense of life, which you don’t get with the city’s classic apartment blocks.

Not one excess square meter

It sounds simple. But making all the pieces fall into place is an extremely complex process. The requirements for social housing in Denmark are very strict, and just one square meter too much can mean losing the funding that keeps the rent down. So the modules have been carefully stacked and re-stacked. This is BIG at their best. And the extra effort is visible in the end result.

Today, Dortheavej houses 22 different types of extraordinarily spacious dwellings – in some places the ceiling height is an impressive 3.5 meters. You have to see one of Copenhagen’s fine old luxury apartments to appreciate how delightful that is.

One way costs have been kept down is by creating value in what already exists. The balcony railings are made from materials normally used to fence off construction sites, and the ceilings in the apartments are raw concrete. It may sound shoddy and cheap, but the effect is quite the opposite.

And the residents also experience it as anything but; using words like “vibrant” and ”authentic” to describe the design. The critics, too, are unreservedly positive. For instance in Danish daily Politiken, Karsten Ifversen wrote upon the completion of construction: “BIG and Lejerbo (a major social housing association) have managed to create the kind of quality housing usually reserved for the highest end of the residential market – well done!”

It is not unusual for BIG to take on projects that seek to address the rising housing prices in big cities. Recently, they created Urban Rigger for students, and VM Husene and 8-Tallet in Ørestad were also built on the premise that you don’t have to belong to the highest income segment to live in a fantastic home.

However, this is the firm’s first social housing project. And it just may be the start of a new era in which social housing projects once again are valued as highly by the general public as they always have been by architects, where many of the biggest names in Danish architectural history have tried their hand at creating good housing for ordinary people, whoever they are.

The Danish Association of Architects awarded Dortheavej their own prize, The Little Arne, in 2018.