Helle Søholt

Photo: Joakim Züger

Architecture at its best can help solve crises: Interview with Helle Søholt

By Maj Schubert
July 10, 2024

What role should architecture play in our society? And does an architecture policy even matter to ordinary people like us? Meet Helle Søholt, CEO of Gehl Architects and spokes person of the expert group currently working on input for a new national architecture policy.

Why do we need a national architecture policy? Why is it important at all?

»It is important because a national policy contains ambitions for what architecture and both the planned and already built environment can contribute to in Denmark. This is crucial because all municipalities should have local architecture policies that align with the national policy. Municipalities handle local architectural planning, and with such a significant responsibility, there should be guidelines and a vision at the national level addressing the fundamental challenges that need to be tackled locally.«

Isn’t the work in the municipalities more impactful than the national architecture policy then?

»You could say that. The national architecture policy is meant to guide or inspire. Therefore, it will be the local policies that are decisive in how it is interpreted in each municipality. I believe that everything related to architecture is interconnected, from local to regional and national planning. But it is true that the real impact will occur in the municipalities.«

So, can we disregard a national architecture policy? Can it potentially have no effect?

»Earlier national policies have not been used enough. Our work in the expert group aims to anchor the new policy much more than before and give municipal politicians the courage to address discussions that may be difficult to handle solely at the local level. We need to rethink reality because we are currently facing a paradigm shift where we need to use the planet’s resources differently and plan architecture and the built environment with space for all living species.

That is why we have tried to be debate-seeking in the expert group. The ambition is to push certain agendas and start a process both nationally and locally. For example, we are trying to illustrate some concrete future scenarios for architecture with the project Attractive Living Frameworks for the Future – to avoid ending up with a document that just sits in a drawer.«

Helle Søholt

Helle Søholt (b. 1972) is the CEO and co-founder of Gehl Architects, which she started with Jan Gehl in 2000. The architecture firm has won many awards for its architecture, which focuses on people, good urban spaces, and quality of life. Helle Søholt is also the chairperson of BLOXHUB and the spokesperson for the expert group for Denmark’s National Architecture Policy.

What is a national architecture policy?

Maybe you think of statutes or Karnov’s Law Collection when you hear the word “policy.” But a national architecture policy is not actual legislation that directly dictates what you can or cannot do when developing architecture. So, you won’t be imprisoned or fined if you build something different from what is stated in a national architecture policy.

The purpose, instead, is to formulate ambitions that guide architecture and can unify and develop across city boundaries. A national architecture policy thus contains common goals for the future “built environment”—everything that constitutes architecture.

The first architecture policy from 2007 focused on growth, sales, and globalization. The next one from 2014 had a touch of sustainability and focused on quality of life for humans. How do the two differ from your upcoming recommendations for a potential policy?

»I also think the first policy from the 2000s had a growth focus. It was about “selling Danish architecture” and attracting international architects. That mindset reflected the 90s and 00s. The Danish architecture industry had been closed off for many years, but at the same time, architecture and design are a Danish business and cultural strength, so there was a focus on opening the industry to the outside world. In those decades, we saw more international architects coming to Denmark and Danish architects going abroad.

The 2014 architecture policy was heavily inspired by Jan Gehl’s ideas. We at Gehl were not involved in developing that policy, but the understanding of the human scale was prominent. In 2014, there was a need to return to the softer side of architecture, the human aspect. Buildings that blend gently into the landscape and create intimacy in the urban spaces around us. However, a valid criticism of the 2014 policy was that it did not think far enough ahead and lacked a climate perspective.

Our current mandate in the expert group is to place architecture more in the context of the crises we are part of right now. We have just emerged from the COVID period and are facing a healthcare crisis with insufficient staff. There is an omnipresent climate crisis. We have an energy crisis, a security crisis, and increasing societal polarization. People feel alienated and are not necessarily involved in communities. Our democracy is also in a form of crisis. We have a sea of crises to address.«

What can architecture do about all that?

»We believe that architecture, at its best, can help solve these crises. Architecture helps us shape everything around us, and all these crises have a spatial dimension and affect specific places in the country – hospitals, daycare centers, housing, streets, and cities, to name a few examples. With architecture, we can also work to reduce CO2 consumption in construction by using different materials and thinking circularly in the future. Engage people locally so they can contribute to democratic processes. Build environments that feel inclusive for all people of different beliefs, sexual orientations, cultures, physical disabilities, and more.«

Reading the first two policies, it seems like architecture policy reflects the times. But everything is hectic and changing today. How do you ensure that your work does not become outdated quickly?

»I don’t think there’s one thing that ensures this. Our recommendations will be based on values, methods, data, and examples. This is something we hope will make it long-lasting. The working title has been to shift from putting humans at the center to putting all living things at the center. Those are the values that should form the foundation, and it’s especially this shift that makes it long-lasting.

It’s also important that we actively consider where we think we are headed. Where will we be in 2035? We’ve used the projects from Attractive Living Frameworks for the Future to not only look at what we can do now but also what happens if we go to some extremes further into the future. And when we asked relevant stakeholders to submit proposals in the open idea competitions that our work will also be based on, we didn’t ask, “What is the future suburb?” Because if we said that, we would assume there would still be suburbs in the future. We don’t know if there will be. Instead, we asked, “What is the suburb of the future?” Because it might be something new.«

It might seem a bit radical, like a future without the suburbs that so many people live in.

»Yes. It is.«

Honestly, will this happen? We need to live smaller, build with biogenic materials, and reinvent city centers. But that requires people doing just that. Is it realistic or just utopian?

»It requires a cultural shift, and yes, it is radical when we need to make changes in the way we’ve done things for more than 50 years. That’s how it is every time there’s a significant shift in society.

But the reality is that much of what is being built today does not necessarily enable different behavior. Many of the homes being built are in places where public transportation is not easily accessible. So, you can only live there if you have one or two cars. Changing that way of life requires a great deal of courage. Both privately and politically. It requires changes in daily life.

But we are in a situation where the planet is burning. The built environment accounts for up to 40 percent of our total CO2 consumption. We need to reconsider how we plan and use areas and for what purposes. It can’t be anything but fundamental. Can we succeed? We can only succeed if we create future scenarios that are attractive and desirable places to live.

The concept of “the good life” needs to be rethought. Part of this, I believe, is using less technology when we build. We’ve built large concrete buildings, but we need to return to something more natural. With natural shade. A natural, pleasant microclimate between buildings and natural indoor climates. Natural building materials and something that can easily be disassembled and reused, so we don’t have to demolish so much.«

Going back to nature and using less technology contrasts with our society. For example, in relation to the economic model with incentives to use cheap materials and build quickly. If an ambitious architecture policy is to be effective, doesn’t it require a different approach to this?

»It certainly requires us to develop a market that demands the innovative solutions we are proposing. We need to experiment and try out new things, not just with construction, but also with the market forces necessary to demand new things. This includes everything from materials to building methods, functions, and ways of living. Therefore, we are working on our upcoming recommendations in a systemic way because many things are interconnected.

An example of experimenting, being brave, and scaling is senior co-housing communities. It had come to a complete standstill in Denmark. No one was building them or saw the need for them. Then Realdania conducted an analysis showing a growing need because more and more elderly people are lonely. Today, it has become a small flourishing submarket in Denmark, with several developers entering the market and starting to scale and build more senior co-housing communities. We want to see more of these types of experiments.«

We live in a time where we are told that everything is extremely important and urgent. It feels like the world is constantly on the verge of collapse. Is a national architecture policy more important today than before, or is it just the way we talk about everything?

»I think it’s always been important, but you’re right, there’s an urgency about everything. A national architecture policy is important today because we cannot achieve many of society’s ambitions without considering the physical aspect. Therefore, architecture is a crucial piece. Whether we want better schools or welfare institutions, vibrant city centers, solve our transport challenges, or support urbanization – or the opposite. Everything has a physical output that affects everything else. We are not always aware of this. I believe we must realize that we cannot solve crises without including the physical and spatial aspects, which is architecture. Therefore, it’s crucial to address an architecture policy, work actively with it, and make it part of the daily political, administrative, and professional work and conversations we have.«

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