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Remodelled to house Denmarks National Maritime Museum, a former

dry dock squares up empathetically to the demands of the modern
visitor attraction

Like some titanic and fugitive submarine packed to its torpedo tubes with contraband
art, the new Danish National Maritime Museum is buried full fathom five or some 10
metres below ground. It is set between the town centre of Helsingr in north-west
Zealand and the fairy-tale Kronburg Castle. Guarding the resund strait as it passes
between here and Helsingborg, a 20-minute ferry ride away on the Swedish coast, the
extravagantly decorated Renaissance castle has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site
since 2000. Strict planning and heritage laws protecting views of Kronburg, known
across the Seven Seas as the home of Hamlet, William Shakespeares tragic Prince of
Denmark, have forced the museum not just underground, but underwater, too.

All that surfaces is a clear glass balustrade designed to stop passers-by from falling into
the former dry dock where the museum lurks today out of sight yet if not, as we will see,
out of mind. What is very much out of sight and out of mind today is the very reason this
dry Helsingr dock and the submersible museum exist. This exposed stretch of urban
waterfront was, until a quarter of a century ago, Helsingr Vrft, the shipyard where
Jrn Utzons father, an engineer, worked and that dominated the towns economy, its
life and culture for a century from its opening in 1882. At its peak, in the 1950s, some
3,600 local people were employed here from a population of about 40,000: Helsingr
made ships.

By chance, I witnessed the launch of what must have been one of the very last of these
on a trip to the Copenhagen Furniture Fair in 1983. This was Al-Zahraa, a 3,860-ton
ship described to me by a group of engineers watching the event as a Ro-Ro ferry. In
fact, Al-Zahraa was an Iraqi line ship built to carry military equipment for its dictator
Saddam Husseins armed forces. Soon after Al-Zahraa had sailed for Basra, her
destined home port, Helsingr Vrft closed up shop. It was a huge blow to the town.
Slowly and steadily, however, the town has reinvented itself as a cultural force.

The old shipyard is now home to the ambitious Culture Yard located in 19th-century
maritime warehouses cloaked in faceted glass by AART architects of Aarhus. The
castle whose first architect was the Italian-trained Hans Hendrik van Paesschen, who
went on to design the first Royal Exchange in London for Sir Thomas Gresham in the
1560s was newly renovated, yet it lost the national maritime museum that had, for
many years, graced its high-ceilinged rooms. Although, this was a special and relaxed
museum with models of historic ships in tall timber cases, just 50,000 people came this
way each year, not enough to satisfy Helsingrs new-found appetite for cultural tourism
now that it had abandoned full-scale ships.
Site plan of the former shipyard

And, so you gradually descend the giant ramp down into that dry dock in the long,
phantasmagorical shadow of Kronburg. While the museum was under construction, a
forlorn and rusting Al-Zahraa, which had been impounded in Bremerhaven since 1990
as UN sanctions against Saddams Iraqi regime hardened, was towed to Lithuania
where she was cut up.

As if in recompense, Bjarke Ingels Group (or BIG, formed in Copenhagen in 2005) and
their Amsterdam-based exhibition architects, Kossmann.dejong there are lots of bold
yellow graphics here, always a sign that a Dutch firm has been doing the rounds have
done their less-than-level best to imbue the museum with the sensations of a ship at
sea. Ramps and sloping floors, combined with eccentrically angled display cases and
sea-sickness-inducing video projections on walls that refuse to keep still, are some of
the architectural and design games employed here to keep visitors rolling in the aisles.

BIGs museum has been designed to attract a big audience in need of rollicking
entertainment. And, so, despite its being dug underground and underwater, the new
maritime museum is a sensational thing. In fact, its subterranean location only makes it
all the more entertaining. The big double-height glazed ramps that zigzag through the
exposed 1950s concrete dock lead down, in playful fashion, through temporary
exhibitions, auditoriums and a caf to a squeeze of awkwardly shaped black-box
galleries crammed with hands-on displays, and those Captain Pugwash walls, and
recorded sounds of the sea - into the sides of the dock.
The all-shantying approach can at times be overpowering

Here are models and paintings, uniforms, sextants and figureheads and lots of digital
games: you can even tattoo a virtual sailor. Somewhere in all the darkness, noise and
projections you can find out about life on board a 17th-century Danish ship sailing to the
colonies, about how between 1429 and 1857 up to two-thirds of the states income was
derived from a toll paid by every ship making its way up resund to the Baltic Sea, and
how food is containerised and transported absurd distances to supermarkets today in
an improvident attempt to satiate our desire for ever more and ever cheaper calories.

The sheer noise of the architecture and exhibition fit-out combined seem designed as if
to make up for the historic loss of the animated life of the decommissioned shipyard.
The dock the museum sits in, and is a part of, appears to have been preserved as an
exhibit of itself a kind of void measuring an impressive 150 by 25 by 8 metres and
symbolising, perhaps, the loss of shipbuilding in Helsingr. Even then, the preserved
dock is something of a conceit, as its walls have been rebuilt, and large windows cut
into them to light museum offices and other spaces ostensibly secreted behind all that
Diagram showing the programmatic transformation of spaces

The strength of the museums design lies, I suppose, in the ways in which BIG have
made the maximum, if not necessarily optimum, use of space given the very specific
and demanding planning restrictions placed on the site. And being BIG, the architects
have upended these legal limitations to advantage, making what is certainly
a sensational space. And, yet, wandering through these whizzy, dizzying spaces, I felt
an increasing sense of nostalgia for the old maritime museum housed, as if on a happily
becalmed sea, in the nearby castle.

This feeling took me in my minds eye to two Scandinavian maritime museums where
the ships themselves and a true sense of the sea have always been more important
than putting on entertainment for architectural neophiliacs while playing to the popular
gallery to raise visitor numbers to the maximum. One is the calm, quietly inventive
Viking Boat Museum at Roskilde, also in Zealand, designed by Erik Christian Srensen,
which was opened in 1969 to display a small fleet of longboats that had been
deliberately sunk in Roskilde fjord in around 1070 to protect this settlement against
Floor plans - click to expand

Here, Srensens layered, gently day-lit and restrained concrete boathouse not only
allows visitors to understand the nature and construction of the skeletal ships on
display, but it also serves as a base for fascinating work including the reconstruction of
Viking boats on which visitors can sail. The sea here is happily real. Meanwhile, little
prepares first-time visitors to the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdy, Oslo, for the dream-
like sight of the Oseberg ship, an astonishingly well-preserved Viking long boat crafted
in oak and dating from about AD820.

Its structure can only fascinate any architect worth his or her timbers, while the quality of
its decoration would have sent William Morris into literary overdrive. And, yet, this boat
and its siblings here at Bygdy are berthed in a modest, purpose-built museum
designed by Arnstein Arneberg in the guise of what appears to be a chapel crossed
with a boatshed. Here, as at Roskilde, the architect has taken a step backwards to allow
the Viking boats to reap their full glory. At Helsingr, the architecture dominates even
though it does its BIG thing below ground.
The new architecture has a bravura quality that matches the heroic scale of the original structure -
click to expand

Perhaps, though, BIG and the Danish Maritime Museum have done the right thing in
shaping their unexpectedly sensational building. I called up Trip Advisor, that gloriously
comic log written by some of the worlds most determined malcontents, to find this
written recently by a visitor to Bygdy:While the Viking ships on display are unique
objects, paying 90 krone for entry is simply not worth it. As interesting as the idea of a
Viking ship is, seeing three displayed in separate alcoves with a brief description of
where they were found doesnt make for very inspiring viewing.

The museum is regrettably too small, with little else on display, and not interesting
enough to warrant the price. I thought the Oseberg ship was one of the most moving
and beautiful objects I have ever seen, and it was more than enough to make
a pilgrimage to Arnebergs modest museum to experience this one exquisite exhibit.
But, the Danish Maritime Museum knows that the vast majority of visitors today want a
very BIG bang for their krone. The more objects, the greater variety of effervescent,
blinking, bleeping entertainment, and the more fun ramps to climb up and down the
Section BB - cick to expand

Curiously, though, one of the most celebrated of all Danish buildings not built in recent
decades, is Jrn Utzons 1963 design for the Silkeborg art gallery in Jutland. This was
to have housed a collection of contemporary European art donated to the town by the
painter Asger Jorn. The galleries were to have been buried through three underground
storeys with only a small sculptural clerestory visible to passers-by. A ramp would have
wound its serpentine way down into the galleries, their plan and form shaped by equally
complex geometries Utzon found in nature.

Silkeborg had been the headquarters of the Gestapo after the German invasion
of Denmark in 1940; the Nazi secret police dug underground bunkers into the beautiful
forest landscape. Asger Jorn, a communist resistance fighter sought, I cant help
feeling, to reverse the idea of these bunkers, to shape with Utzon a world of art and the
imagination in the depths of the cool, welcoming earth.

The museum was to have been quiet, discreet and soulful. When in 1964 he was
offered a Guggenheim Award, with a generous cash prize attached, Asger Jorn wired

The title of BIG architects 400-page comic-style book publicising the practices work is
Yes is More. The strange thing about the new Danish Maritime Museum is that at first
glance it appears to be about less a national cultural building sunk into a raw concrete
void yet, once you take that first step down the ramp into the all-shantying world below
deck, less becomes more and more, ever bigger and ever further removed from the
calm beauty of maritime museums elsewhere in Scandinavia. Yet who could say that
the Vikings themselves were a quiet, well-behaved and unambitious lot as they set sail
to run amok in the world, big time?
The dock is preserved as an exhibit in itself, although its walls have been rebuilt and openings cut
into it to illuminate new subterranean spaces


Architect: Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG)

Photography: Luca Santiago, Rasmus Hjortshj, Thijs Wolzak


Related files
BIG maritime museum by luca santiago
BIG Maritime Museum Long section zoom
BIG maritime museum floor plan

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