Using Architecture to Benefit Society

Reed Kroloff and Kai-Ewe Bergmann

Reed Kroloff and Kai-Ewe Bergmann

When Kai-Uwe Bergmann learned to speak Danish, the first word he was taught wasn’t “hej” (hello) or “farvel” (goodbye). It wasn’t smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches, which are quite popular in Copenhagen).

The word Bergmann learned first was “samfund” (society).

Bergmann, a partner in Bjarke Ingels Group—also known as B.I.G.—was the featured speaker last night at “Architecture Is Art. . . Is Architecture Art?” a joint presentation of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

Left to right: Reed Kroloff  and Kai-Uwe Bergmann

Left to right: Reed Kroloff and Kai-Uwe Bergmann

During a lively discussion, Bergmann addressed that weighty question. He spoke candidly about the role of an architect in building a community before an audience of 170. The conversation was facilitated by Reed Kroloff, director of the prestigious Birmingham, Michigan-based Cranbrook Academy.

One of the B.I.G. projects Bergmann described was a fascinating case study in development of Superkilen, a public park. The client was the city of Copenhagen and there was a societal problem that needed to be addressed.

“A part of Copenhagen that grew from the 1880’s to the 1990’s was connected by rail, which was running all through the town,” Bergmann said. “When cars started showing up, they ripped out all the rail, so here’s one of these former rail corridors, and they invited all sorts of social problems.”

People used that blighted area to shoot up or get into trouble. It became a shady part of town. City leaders determined they wanted to fix the problem, so they held a competition in 2007 to build a public park. B.I.G. won the bid, and it took a unique approach.

“There are about 60 different nationalities in Copenhagen, so rather than try and force cultures to adapt, we asked them to offer ideas and suggestions to what they’d like to see,” Bergmann said. “We asked newspapers and radio stations and social media to get ideas from people on how to develop the park. Sure enough, we got about 1,000 different suggestions.”

Superkilen

Superkilen

They filtered those down to a manageable number, and working with a landscape architect, B.I.G. developed 108 different mini-areas of the park, each of which is identifiable by one of the many immigrant cultures that call Copenhagen home. A bench recommended by Mexicans allowed people to face one another. A separate bench recommended by Belgians did the opposite—let people sit without having to look one another in the eye. All ideas met specific cultural customs. For expat Americans, there’s a giant donut sculpture rising high above the pavement. (Memo to Glazed and Infused: open your next branch in Denmark?)

Which gets back to the importance of thinking about society and using architecture to help cure some of society’s ills.

“Everything in Denmark and Sweden and Norway is always said in relationship to how things affect the greater good,” Bergmann noted. “So we always start projects thinking about how they can add to the quality of life.”

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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