Dorte Madrup: a pragmatic approach to architecture

Tim Harrup

For the latest edition of ‘Lunch with an Architect’ this week, Forum Press & Communications invited Danish architect Dorte Madrup to explain her vision of how architecture interacts with the existing environment. Before her presentation, however, Forum’s directors Nathalie Zalcman and Kathleen Iweins pointed out that this month of March is an important one for Belgian architecture: the ‘Brussels Architecture Prize’ is now open for project submissions small and large, and Belgian projects are in the finals of the Mipim Awards.

Dorte Madrup began by saying that the overriding philosophy of her bureau is ‘Context is King’ and she explained this as meaning that when you build something you are influencing the entire environment which surrounds it. It is therefore necessary to take factors such as history, geography and climate into account from the conception stage. She also emphasized the fact that architecture needs to take not only the artistic element into account, but also the scientific element – what will work in a particular setting and what will not.

To demonstrate this, she pointed out that wood will not be possible in all circumstances, and that concrete, undeniably a ‘sinner’ in environmental terms, nevertheless has to be used in some contexts because of its ability to resist the elements. To mitigate this, her bureau uses upcycled concrete where possible and when concrete is necessary. It is important to avoid being ‘sentimental’ in the choice of materials. Sustainability, she stated, is not a feeling or a state of mind, but an understanding of what the science is telling us.

Dorte Madrup used several examples of her bureau’s work in the arctic to explain what she meant. For example, there the strong winds and freezing temperature dictate that ‘survival’ is the first criterion. She said that a wind tunnel was used (with flour to represent snow) to see how a building in the arctic could avoid being trapped in huge snowdrifts – aerodynamics in other words. In Denmark too, she said, wind-protected buildings are very important.

On the subject of re-using materials or buildings, Dorte Madrup said that old industrial buildings are very much a role model for transformation in to new uses due to their high ceilings and vast open spaces, which create many possibilities. She also explained that a Swedish client has a reserve of materials rescued from obsolete buildings (doors, flooring...) and that they insist on as much of this as possible being incorporated into a new project. And this is not just a ‘junk yard’ of bits, but a catalogued warehouse. A project her bureau won in Copenhagen for Maersk Shipping presented a different situation in terms of re-use. Much of the old existing building was contaminated in one way or another, and so only certain parts were re-usable. Again, therefore, a pragmatic approach is required.

Returning to the subject of context and history, a project in Berlin presented a complicated challenge. The Anhalter Bahnhof had been the largest railway station in northern Europe and rightly famous, but was later used by Hitler to as the starting point to send people to the concentration camps. The project was to create the ‘Exile Museum’. The solution for this was to try and embrace all of this history, to include the old and the new, by creating a brand new building behind, but not physically attached to, the remaining fragment of the old station

A fascinating presentation which allied the philosophical to the pragmatic, the reality to the desirable, and which earned Dorte Madrup a particularly long round of applause from the audience of real estate professionals.