We had a talk with founding partner and creative director of 3XN, Kim Herforth Nielsen, who started the Danish architectural practice with two fellow architects almost 30 years ago.
DANISH™: Why did you become an architect?
Kim Herforth Nielsen: That’s a good question. Actually, I originally wanted to be a pilot, but my vision was not good enough. After high school, I travelled around New Zealand, where I met some people who were about to start studying architecture. They showed me some architectural works by Roger Walker, among others, and that got me interested in architecture. Then, when I got home to Denmark, I applied to join the Aarhus School of Architecture.
DANISH™: How did 3XN get established?
KHN: 3XN is derived from Nielsen, Nielsen & Nielsen. We were three Nielsens who started the company in 1986. Just before then, I worked at the Danish architect practice C.F. Møller, but I knew both Lars Frank Nielsen and Hans Peter Svendler Nielsen from the architect school in Aarhus. We were part of a study group in our spare time that used to go on study trips to experience architecture.
I got invited to an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where 30 young architects were invited to design their own proposals for a villa. Lars, Hans Peter and I made something we called “The Danish House”. Afterwards, we made a proposal for a place called “Blangstedgård”, which we won. We quit our full-time jobs during the preparation of the proposal for Blangstedgård, and it was at that point that Nielsen, Nielsen & Nielsen was born.
DANISH™: What has changed since you started 3XN and today?
KHN: Many things have changed! In the mid-eighties, there was a reaction against modernism – a kind of post-modernism. Architecture in general was criticised for being too simplistic and unimaginative. We also reacted against it. And actually, I feel I remained true to my original philosophy, which was inspired by a book called Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi. The challenge with the modernistic way of thinking was actually the “less-is-more” dogma.
In this way, by always thinking less is more, you also remove a lot of the challenges that have to be answered. Our way of thinking is that we want to make things simpler – that’s okay. But at the same time we want the challenges to be solved. We want to tell stories through our buildings; we want to say what is inside the house.
We had a milestone experience when we designed Ørestads Gymnasium in Copenhagen 12 years ago. The project showed us that you can design a building in such a way that it makes people meet and interact. And also showed us how you can make a learning environment.
Since then, this has been a key parameter in our designs: what do we want to happen in the building? How do we want people to interact in the building? How can we encourage or facilitate people meeting? We do not see architecture as a game of solitaire that has to be solved alone, we see it as something more complex – actually, really complex.
DANISH™: What are the younger architects good at today?
KHN: The young architects go abroad to a much larger extent today than we did 30 years ago. That is a really good thing. In this way, Danish architecture has been developed and influenced by other styles, in particular by Dutch architecture. Behind Dutch architecture there is a pragmatic way of thinking, and it is the same mindset that architectural practices like COBE and BIG have evolved from.
The young architect firms here in Denmark have a lot of young architects that have been abroad and have brought their inspiration back home to Denmark. That is a major positive. In general, you can say that our profession has become more international – 40% of our employees are foreigners. And I believe that this is a general trend among most architectural practices.
DANISH™: You recently won the competition to build the Quay Quarter Tower in Sydney – how did you get that assignment?
KHN: Well, this is a big thing since no Danish architect has actually had the opportunity to build a bigger building in Sydney since Jørn Utzon and his world-renowned Opera House. Our proposal solves a lot of challenges and looks good at the same time. We have also turned the building, so that more floors now have better views. At the same time, we have designed the building from the inside out.
However, the new Quay Quarter Tower is not just a beautiful dress around a structural skeleton. We have designed a lot of atriums and have stacked the building elements on top of each other. In high-rises you can benefit from a nice view, but in traditional high-rises you do not usually have the nearness with the street level. We have tried to solve this challenge by placing the atriums high above the ground level, so you have the quality of nearness, making you feel as if you were in a one or two-storey building. And then we have designed a hidden homage by dividing the building into these different building elements, each referring to the many roof shells of the Opera House.
DANISH™: What is it like to have created such a successful company as 3XN?
KHN: It really is a passion for me and I did not have a plan to make such a big company. It is something that has evolved down the road, always with architecture as the driving force. If anybody had asked me 30 years ago if we would make it this far, I would have said that they were crazy. But today I am glad that it came out this way. This is my life, you know.