Can more people speak the language of architecture?

Jen Masengarb suggests how to discuss new architecture and talks about environmental challenges and what can a city like Prague learn from Copenhagen.

By Hana Grohová

The headquarters of the Danish Architecture Center, BLOX building, was not well-loved when first opened. Photo: Hana Grohová

The ruling coalition at the Prague city council agreed to spend almost 190 million CZK (more than 7 million EUR) on bike lanes last week. One of the models they work with is the biking infrastructure in Copenhagen.

Jen Masengarb, senior project manager at the Danish Architecture Center, has lived in Copenhagen for more than two years. She has an outlook on architecture all around the world. According to her, any city could be a bicycle city, it is all about investments.

Ms Masengarb also thinks that for buildings to become a part of the community, you have to involve the public.

These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

You are from the United States and you previously worked in the Chicago Architecture Center, what surprised you about the Danish architecture?

What I see that drives many of the decisions about Danish architecture is the focus on humans, designing for people, and for the way we live, we use a city, we travel. It’s a very human scale of buildings and cities. There’s a real focus on livability and quality of everyday life.

“Israels Plads is shared by an elementary school, a high school, a nearby kindergarten, and the whole neighborhood,” Ms Masengarb described. Photo: Hana Grohová

How can you achieve that people feel good in the city through architecture?

Well, I think it has a lot to do with scale. What is the scale of the building and the spaces in the building? But between the buildings as well. Danish architect Jan Gehl is really one of the international leaders in thinking about the design of public spaces. And his argument is that it’s not only about this iconic building and that iconic building. What really makes our city are the spaces in between them. That’s the city that we use and experience.

Karen Blixen Plads is a multifunctional square in the south of Copenhagen where you can store bicycles in bubbles. It is also a space for the students of a nearby university. Photos: Hana Grohová

Could you give some examples of buildings here that really function well? Buildings that are incorporated into the surroundings?

I think that Copenhagen and Denmark overall has a very high level of quality in public buildings because of the investment in them. There are well-designed libraries, schools, kindergartens, city halls, and hospitals. A lot of those buildings are maybe not super famous, but they function well. There’s a public square called Israels Plads designed by Cobe Architects. Cobe also designed Frederiksvej Kindergarten where they have broken down the scale of the houses and the children have spaces just their size. Another great example is Tietgenkollegiet, I think it’s the most beautiful dormitory I have ever seen.

“Israels Plads is really open and during the day you can see all these different uses and age groups,” Ms Masengarb said. Photo: Hana Grohová

Fake old buildings?

What do you think is the best way to incorporate new architecture into the old building blocks? From what I’ve seen, I think Denmark can deal with this but Prague still struggles with it.

As an architectural historian, this is a fascinating question to me. Cities have been dealing with this same question for thousands of years, this is an on-going question. But I believe that architecture should reflect its time. That means I don’t think that we should try to build new buildings that look like fake old buildings. Of course, a city like Prague has a much older building stock than Copenhagen because a lot of the similar era architecture in Copenhagen has been destroyed by fire, whereas Prague still has a medieval center and also UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This also changes the conversation because you’re not going to update those buildings in the same way, they have protection. A lot of it has to do with the conversation happening in the city and if the people are part of it.

Do you think that the best way for people to understand and accept the new architecture is a conversation and discussion about it?

I do and I think that’s the real value of architecture centers like DAC (Danish Architecture Center), CAMP (Center for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning in Prague), or the Chicago Architecture Center and others. They are the platform for conversation, for bringing all those different voices together and saying let’s talk about this and help you understand the new architecture.

Involve the community

How can you achieve that citizens feel like architecture is part of the city and contributes to the city’s everyday life? So that they don’t perceive it just as a mass of concrete and glass but a “living organism”?

I would say it has a lot to do with the process before it was designed. Because people will feel more connected to it if they have been part of the process. If you want to make a building part of the community, you involve the community.

What is unique about the architecture in Copenhagen?

It was a point that I made earlier, where the quality of public buildings is so high. It applies to everyday buildings right like daycare centers, schools, and kindergartens, libraries, or city halls. I think I haven’t seen another city that has quite the same level of quality of public buildings. And then of course the other thing that makes Copenhagen unique is its biking culture.

The bicycle infrastructure in Copenhagen is one of the best in the world. According to Jen Masengarb, it is because of the combination of good terrain, climate, and no car company. Photo: Hana Grohová

Do you think any city could be a bicycle city?

Well, I think there are three main reasons that make it easier here. But of course, it’s always about investments. I think it helps that Copenhagen is so flat, also the climate here is pretty mild and the third reason is that Denmark is one of the few countries in Europe without a car company. That means there’s no big company pushing for car infrastructure.

Do you think every city can become more sustainable?

Sustainability is a scale. Every city can do more to be more sustainable. It can think about the systems of water management, green space, transportation systems, recycling. There are many different ways to think about that.

From what you know, do you any advice on how Prague could function better?

I will point back to CAMP. I think that having that place where conversations about urban and regional planning and architecture are happening is a huge step. It is involving more people and making the process more transparent. At the end of the day it’s about the question “can more people speak the language of architecture?”