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Published in The Plan (012) Dec 05/Jan 06, pp 117-123.

Zaha Hadid's new extension to the Ordrupgaard Museum in Copenhagen is her most feminine built form to date, an inviting, intimately scaled environment differentiated by its gradations, structurally glazed like a skin and embracing its natural environment, a 5 hectare park near Dyrehaven (The Royal Deer Park) in the affluent green suburb of Charlottenlund, 20 minutes' train journey from the centre of the city. It was here that in 1916 Wilhelm Hansen (an affluent self-made insurance director and state councillor) and his wife Henny engaged Danish architect Gotfred Tvede to build their private manor and three room picture gallery of French impressionist and Danish Golden Age art, originally planned as their summer residence. Ordrupgaard was a gift of a setting. After they decided to live there full time Tvede built the two storey, three wing building complex with its transitional winter garden room, for which Hadid's structure is a true decendent, welcoming the natural world of its leafy park into more public spaces.

Designed in a rural classicist style typical of the time, with rendered walls garnished by distinctive trelliswork redolent of American Colonial Style, the country house is typical of many built by the wealthy in the first decade of the 20th century. The park, laid out in English style with a French-inspired rose garden, is exceptionally located in an old protected forest. The whole complex was bequeathed to the Danish state after Henny's death in 1951. But the house lacked the proper space and climate to house and display such a high calibre collection to the public on a daily basis; moreover, its café, a meeting point for local devotees who regarded Ordrupgaard as 'their secret', was too remote. Deteriorating paintings badly needed new facilities and a temporary exhibition gallery, as well as a larger, integrated dining and public talks environment were essential if Ordrupgaard was to maximise its potential as a venue for international collaborations.

After the Louisiana Museum for Modern Art (one hour by train to the north of the Danish Riviera) opened in 1956, offering a gallery environment seeming at one with nature as well as in touch with changing museological thinking, Ordrupgaard became a distinct poor cousin. The lush Louisiana grounds, also centred on an old (1855) villa within an estate, has to this day lured its international audience with single-storey galleries with big picture windows. Embedded in a circle across a peaceful landscape that reaches down to touch the shoreline, these were designed and built by architects Jørgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert over a thirty year period from the 1960-1980s - virtually over half their life - new wing upon successive new wing.

By way of a fightback, Ordrupgaard's invited competition for a new extension launched in 2001, required a 1150sqm extension, the same size as, and harmonizing with the classic character of the existing buildings as well as intimately engaging with the park landscape. It seemed an experientially limiting option, then, to choose a totally subterranean gallery sequence, albeit visible through a glass roof flush with the grass, as MVRDV, one of the invited practice entrants, proposed. This was especially low key, as the land allocated to the east of the museum in the present orchard was more than adequate for a materially visceral statement complementing the exquisite yet humble ambience of the inhabited park.

Hadid's winning design, completed in September 2005, gives Denmark an exotic species, its first in-situ poured black lava concrete building. The country built cast concrete housing blocks in Copenhagen in the 1960s, but, in its shift to prefabrication, has lost the craftsmanship to work on site with such a bespoke design solution, as typically English as London's tailored clothing design (by Jean Muir, Oswald Boateng, for example). Ordrupgaard's serene topographical canvas, quite flat and dropping to the sea two metres away, demanded a landscape within a landscape - and rigorous construction management.

The small extension, 87 metres long and 25 metres wide (including the passage to the old building), relocates its entrance foyer, and is in keeping with her best, inevitably larger, landform buildings, yet an effective symbiosis with the existing manor and its gallery. Hadid's team, led by Mexican-Scottish architect Ken Bostock, who has also worked on the firm's design for the BMW plant in Leipzig, eschewed rooms in themselves in favour of interconnected territories of different scales and qualities that 'bleed' their activities onto one another through the seamless curvature of walls. The diagonally ranged space of the foyer with its double door loggia opens onto a ramped passage to the only self-contained space in the new extension, a 500sqm temporary gallery half-sunken into the landscape. The other side of the foyer leads to a diagonal matrix of five smaller and more hermetic exhibition rooms, one a particularly cave-like interior for the display of light-sensitive pastels, and three seamlessly continuing the Danish picture gallery sequence. These are wrapped in the thick tactile black lava wall - underlit at floor and ceiling level - of the second longer passage to a steel plate cantilever with south-facing dual use, conservatory-style café/restaurant and debate hall looking onto a bed of white flowers, clearly Zaha's favourite colour after black.

Here, the end of her design line 'erodes itself, as Bostock puts it, and finally melts into the landscape, appropriately enough for a place of respite. Even more than on the periphery of its corresponding ramp to the north, the glazed outer membrane, with its recessed hand rails, and vertical concrete elements on every glazed skin throughout the building kept as slim in form as possible, magnetically pulls in the surrounding landscape and the odd bird flying straight into the glass.

Under pressure now that the 'secret' is out, the Museum, has engaged the services of the young English chef at Copenhagen's Tivoli restaurant, Paul Cunningham, although not as yet shifting its opening hours to earlier than 11am. Unlike at Zaha's Wolfsburg's Phaeno Science Centre, ten times bigger, there was comparatively little space for formal play. The foyer, with its inclined video wall, tries to play with the little space it has (not quite enough). Bespoke strip lights (by Selex) and roof lights heighten atmosphere. The roof slab itself is not continuous but split into two to create spatial differentiation, with ceiling heights ranging from 3-2-4.1 metres high. The roof lights, a matter of negotiation with the state for an extra 5million kroner, were worth it. From the first, however, it was known that the moulding of the walls - two concrete shells with a layer of insulation between them - was a complicated process because no two walls were the same but had a unique geometry. The curators were initially sceptical that such mathematical exercises and variably surfaced walls could accommodate delicate French impressionist paintings; one even quit, but the spaces, particularly the multipurpose temporary exhibitions hall with its subtly tilted walls, proved its versatility. Chief curator Annette Rosenvold Hvidt says their angle actually improves the view.

The contractors were also nervous every time another wall was poured. Everything in such a process shifts; tolerances have to be followed. There was no basement for testing, as with Wolfsberg. There are a few small yet conspicuous faults, such as the lack of dividing plane between the foyer and the passage to the café, being attended to by the architects, that seem not to hinder the pleasure of the engorged public attending (only a very few have reported slight vertigo, and the security guard wondered whether the ramps are too long for people pushing wheelchairs, as exhilarating as the environment clearly is). Longer wooden gallery and foyer bench designs by Hadid are now in the making to accommodate more people; wooden oak floors would have made for better acoustics than concrete ones. But the grey/black lava concrete was the right material for the extension's total topological effect. Wooden cladding in a park would have deteriorated, metal, oxidised; stone, added the confusion of which one was most appropriate. The black lava moulded concrete goes fetchingly dark in the rain, and breathes out salt limescale.

In 2001, the Ordrupgaard judges took a risk; Hadid had completed her ski jump in Bergisel, Austria and the Vitra Fire Station at Weil am Rhein, but Wolfsberg was merely in the early stages of construction, her National Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome and Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati not yet realised. It was also the Hadid team's act of faith, with the nearest concrete plant 2-3 km away, consequently making the pouring take over a year to achieve perfectly done 'batches'. From further out in the park, beyond where visitors have made their own mud path on the edge of the grass, the extension is not fully visible from every side. The Hansens' old house, completely intact internally, may now play peek-a-boo behind it, but owes its future to its topological neighbour but hasn't dampened its spirit in the process.

all photos: Roland Halbe

© 2018 Lucy Bullivant