The architectural studio CEBRA planned a modern housing estate in a historic neighbourhood in Aarhus, Denmark. Red, grey and brown brick gives the façades of the new residential buildings a sense of the past.
A conversation with architect Mikkel Frost about architectural contexts and how to deal with what has grown.
Ten townhouses with 136 flats on a total of 11,800 square metres in the heart of Aarhus, Denmark: How did you approach a project of this scale?
Mikkel Frost: The site is very close to our office and my home so we got to know it very, very well over the years. The fact that I have known the area my entire life was a big advantage. In addition, I used the project for my students in Münster to come up with proposals on their own. We analysed the site profoundly and got a deep understanding of it.
„Scandinavian architecture has been through a period of very loud and iconic buildings and I think that is changing now.” - Mikkel Frost, architect
What do you emphasize when planning residential areas?
As architects, we work with contexts from the climate to the culture to the surroundings. For this project, we sampled all architectural elements of the area we could. We studied window details, materials and elements like staircases and then tried to transfer all our findings in our design so it fits right into the neighbourhood. The result is an echo of its surroundings even though you can definitely tell that it’s a modern building. This is what people like about it.
What would you say was the inspiration? What was the inspiration for the design?
Part of the brief was to introduce a number of houses, so we designed our project around a street. The neighbourhood is called “Island Street Quarter” and every street is named after a different Danish island. This was the inspiration. We called the street Æbeløgade, “Apple Island Street”, after Æbelø, “Apple Island”.
Were there any special challenges and if so, how were they overcome?
Yes, there were quite some obstacles and challenges. Planning in a historic area needed a lot of preparation. Due to the limited space on the site we had to place some of the materials in the neighbouring botanical garden. Further, we had to plan a super narrow street corresponding to the other historical streets in this neighbourhood. A hundred years ago when the area was created, the infrastructure was different. Planning a narrow street for modern needs was a challenge. Another one was integrating the parking facilities underground. We wanted to preserve the big trees during the construction work, which is not so common in Denmark. Most of the workers don’t know how to take care of existing trees. It was quite a challenge to make them aware of the need to preserve the trees.
Why did you choose to use brick? What are the advantages of this material?
The decision came once more with the context. The new houses needed to fit right into the neighbourhood, which is historically all brick. In Denmark almost everything is built from brick. Apart from that it’s of course a very durable material with a very nice patina. Clay bricks look better and better as they get older. In terms of the handling and weathering there is one huge advantage of bricks: It is red all the way through, so you don’t see if something breaks off.
What is the story behind the colour concept?
95 % of the historic houses in the neighbourhood were originally made of red brick. Since they were built a hundred years ago, they have been sold many times and every new owner could have changed the house’s appearance. Maybe they wanted to paint it blue or black. The traditional method would be to build entirely red houses and just wait for people to paint it themselves. But we wanted to fit into the history by creating houses in different colours. A challenging task in this context was to find matching colours for the brick and the roofs. We wanted a uniform look, but we could not make everything bespoke and special, as there was not enough money. In the end we chose Egernsund Wienerberger bricks in the colours red, brown and grey on the façade, combined with the roofs in the same three colours. For some further detail on the façade, we used the same colours for the plaster areas between the bricks and above the ground. That makes it kind of special.
How do you make new buildings fit into historic quarters and not compete with them visually?
That is a matter of balance and of taking care. Of course, you don’t want the project to become anonymous, but on the other hand you don’t want it to become too loud and dominate the neighbourhood. It’s very much like salting your food: You have to find the right balance. There’s no recipe for it, it’s a matter of the right feeling for it.
The project was awarded a prize by the municipality of Aarhus …
Yes, in 2021 it won the local architectural award “Stadsarkitekternes Særpris” – the “Urban Architects’ Special Prize”. The project was also awarded the MIPIM award. That’s why we are showing a lot of people around these days.
What is your personal highlight of the project?
My favourite view is to look at it from across the botanical garden. That’s the only way to see the full façade from a distance. We knew from the beginning that this was the most important angle and I think we really succeeded in composing that beautifully. For me personally, one of the learnings from this project was that you can make something that is very special from very, very little. With small changes you can make something spectacular and respectful at the same time. Scandinavian architecture has been through a period of very loud and iconic buildings and I think that is changing now. It’s very interesting to see that you can create an iconic building that still fits seamlessly into the surrounding.