Rules, regulations, encumbrances and restrictive covenants. Those are just a few of the obstacles architects such as Rønnow Architects run into when restoring or renewing historic architecture.
“Our main purpose is always to keep the credibility of a building and its story intact and we strive to maintain a very humble approach when changing, modifying or rebuilding historic sites. Reconciling conservation and the applicable rules, as well as new requirements and needs, demands a very perceptive procedure and can sometimes be quite a challenge.”
These words come from Inge-Lise Kragh – one of the three owners of Rønnow Architects – who works on the restoration and rebuilding of listed buildings and architecture worthy of preservation.
Some of Rønnow Architects’ latest projects are the Observatory of Brorfelde and The Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen.
Even though the two projects are very different from one another in their architecture and their expression, the methodology Rønnow Architects used to approach each project was quite similar:
“For us it’s very much about a holistic perspective and thoroughly investigating the buildings – finding out what the essential storyline of the place is. Every building reflects an architectural concept and a development, and its significant and narrative elements are valuable for the understanding of the structure and often of vital importance for its long-term viability. With insight, knowledge and empathy we identify values and assess the overall concept from case to case.”
Observatory of Brorfelde
Outside of the capital of Denmark – south of Holbæk, to be more precise – you’ll find the Observatory of Brorfelde. The Observatory was built from 1953 to 64 by the architect Kaj Gottlieb and has now reopened with the function of educating school pupils and holding public events related to science and physics. Not only are the buildings listed, but also the landscape, as well as something rather unusual – the darkness of the sky! One of the characteristics in the design of the Observatory was the use of colours – in surfaces, furniture, windows and wooden frames.
“Here, we have been very careful to ensure that the future colour scheme is based on the original intention of the design. Not necessarily an exact reproduction of the colours in each room, but ensuring that the colours would respect the original idea of the architect – his use of zoning and hierarchy,” Camilla Løntoft Nybye explains. She is one of the other owners of Rønnow Architects and has been involved in this specific project:
“Being at Brorfelde today is like walking around in your own time zone: a 50s time zone. For us it has been very important to maintain this atmosphere. We might change things, we might improve things, but we never want to interfere with that. This goes for the repair, remodelling and maintenance of the existing buildings, and also for the necessary new additions to the buildings we have made.”
Her partner, Inge-Lise Kragh, adds:
“At Rønnow Architects, we are conscious of creating a close dialogue between the existing and the newer parts. A building’s identity includes the past, present and future. When adding something new, we believe in a contemporary expression that reflects a respectful and harmonic interrelation with the existing surroundings. We don’t want our work to be loud and provoking; we want it to move people and be convincing.”
The Royal Danish Theatre
When opening Pandora’s Box by restoring a highly treasured Danish building, you have to navigate with incredible caution. As Rønnow Architects have been involved in several projects with The Royal Danish Theatre, they have been very aware of this fact:
“You will of course have to deal with a lot of stakeholders when embarking on a restoration project of a building which is a part of our Danish national culture, but actually this is also a privilege, as you get to work with something that a lot of people actually care about,” tells Inge-Lise Kragh and continues:
“What is so rare about The Royal Danish Theatre is that nearly every single surface of the building is valuable. This requires full confidence and trust in the skilled craftsmen we work with. In all of our projects we strive to uphold craftsmanship, which is disappearing these days.”
One of the processes she refers to is when an entire patterned parquet floor had to be removed piece by piece in order to restore and implement fireproof isolation underneath. Afterwards, the floor is put back, only exchanging damaged parts – but every single piece has to be placed exactly where it was.
“When touching these unique valuable surfaces, the work has to be done meticulously, with prior surveys and investigation of historical archives, materials, techniques etc. and by using samples before carrying out the actual work. This was the case when restoring the painted surfaces of the exterior loggia and the grand ceiling in the theatre hall. Both contain decorative paintings of high artistic quality. The main focus of the work has been to retain as much of the original material as possible, but also to recreate – with all its history, wornness and patina – the magnificence of the artwork as it was designed to look in 1874,” states Camilla Løntoft Nybye.
One might argue that restoring and rebuilding, when looked at from a financial and sustainability point of view, is more expensive and complicated than just constructing a new building from scratch. At Rønnow Architects they respond to this by saying:
“Historic buildings are part of defining where we come from and who we are as a culture and a nation – it’s our responsibility to pass an adequate part of this heritage on to future generations. The maintenance of the buildings should always be driven by a holistic sustainable concept, involving environmental, economic and social values. It is a fact that often renovation or rehabilitation of existing buildings can be done for less or for the same amount of money and usually it is also less CO2–demanding compared to demolition and new construction. You might say that the longer a building has existed, the more sustainable it is,” finishes Inge-Lise Kragh.