Danish National Maritime Museum
By Jakob Harry Hybel
Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is usually not in the business of hiding things away. In fact, they tend to do just the opposite. So, the fact that they chose to bury the Danish Maritime Museum in Helsingør in the north of Denmark – the firm’s first realized museum building – at the bottom of a dry dock, is nothing if not surprising.
What’s even more surprising, though, the competition brief did not call for the museum to be underground at all. Actually, it specifically stated that the decrepit dry dock at the site, which had previously been used for large-scale shipbuilding, was to be covered and the new museum built on top.
BIG was the only of five competing teams that went directly against the brief by proposing to include the existing conditions in the design. BIG’s proposal was daring indeed, but also highly sensible. They made a compelling economic argument – it was quite simply much cheaper. But perhaps most importantly, the idea to place the museum under terrain addressed one of the key concerns in the brief, namely that the new museum should make no attempts to compete for attention with the World Heritage-listed Kronborg Castle next door.
BIG sold the jury on the exact opposite of what they had asked for, once again showing that bending the rules pays off, if they are bent the right way.
Approaching the museum, only a series of bollards and benches in white marble along the edge of the dock – spelling the museum’s name in morse code – indicates the presence of what is buried. Even the handrails surrounding the dock have been made transparent in an effort to make it appear as if everything of importance has been contained below ground.
There is a clear difference in materiality between the existing and the added, but the rough, weathered concrete of the existing dock coupled with the new sleek, polished materials produces a nicely balanced contrast.
Down in the Deep
You enter the museum via a series of ramps that zig-zag down to the museum’s main entrance. The ramps subdivide the huge dock space, giving it a more tangible scale while still allowing for it to maintain its dramatic, vast span.
Compared to the grand gesture of the museum’s exterior, the interior spaces, with their low-ceilinged, grey-painted rooms, seem relatively toned down. Here, the content of the exhibitions by Dutch exhibition architect Kossmann Dejong is allowed to be fully in focus. The fact that the plan has been skewed slightly in relation to the dock creates considerable variation in the dimensions of the various interior spaces.
Moving between the exhibition rooms of changing height and the sloping, glass-covered connection links across the dock – suspended underneath the entrance ramps – one experiences huge spatial diversity. However, standing at the bottom of the museum’s centerpiece, the dock, unquestionably constitutes the project’s finale. You sense the tactile contrasts between the old and the new, the constant tension created by intersecting lines, the expressive yet restrained staging of the dock and the history it represents.
This correlation of colliding forces makes BIG’s transformed dock space an intensely memorable experience.