By Alma Kadragic

(ABU DHABI, UAE) — Buildings that end up in the Guinness Book of Records are standard in the UAE. They come in all shapes and sizes from the world’s tallest tower, Emaar’s Burj Khalifa in Dubai, to the world’s roundest office building, Aldar’s circular HQ in Abu Dhabi, and “iconic” is the default description for every major new project.

That’s why when I find out about a new building that doesn’t claim to be the first of anything and doesn’t call itself iconic, I am surprised, but then the building in question isn’t in this country. It’s in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, and comes from the company called BIG or Bjarke Ingels Group who describe themselves as “architects, designers, and thinkers operating within the fields of architecture, urbanism, research, and development.”

The building is 8 House, 61,000 square meters, 10 stories, in what looks at first glance like a contemporary up market residential building, attractive but perhaps not distinctive, certainly not iconic. However, it is unlike any residential structure in the UAE and most other places. BIG has managed the design so that people living on the top floor can ride their bicycles on paved paths all the way up to their apartment. This is made possible by a bowtie shaped structure with grass and gardens along the paths letting the outside come as close as possible to the inside.

It is the third apartment project for the BIG team in the Orestad neighborhood on the outskirts of Copenhagen. Commissioned by St. Frederikslund Holding and Per Hopfner in 2006, 8 House is Denmark’s largest private development with 476 housing units including apartments, town houses, and penthouses and 10,000 square meters of retail and office space. It was built at a cost of $129 million.

“We have now completed three remarkable buildings in Orestad, the VM Houses, The Mountain, and finally the 8 House – which is the sole result of a good and constructive collaboration with talented young architects who had a good understanding for the economical aspects,” said Per Hopfner, CEO, Hopfner Partners.

What makes 8 House special is that the ingredients of an urban neighborhood are stacked in horizontal layers connected by a continuous walkway up to the 10th floor. That creates a three-dimensional urban neighborhood where suburban life merges with the energy of a big city, where business and housing co-exist. What makes it unique for someone accustomed to construction in the UAE is the care for the individual resident’s quality of life.

At ground level 8 House has two interior courtyards divided by the center of the bowtie or cross where a  passage nine meters wide connects the park on one side to the canal on the other. Water and grass make up the environment of the structure.

“The apartments are placed at the top while the commercial program unfolds at the base of the building. As a result, the different horizontal layers have achieved a quality of their own: the apartments benefit from the view, sunlight and fresh air, while the office leases merge with life on the street,” explained Thomas Christoffersen, Partner in Charge, 8 House, BIG.

Two sloping green roofs 1,700 square meters in area  are strategically placed to reduce the urban heat island effect as well as provide the visual identity of the project and tie it back to the adjacent farmlands. As Bjarke Ingels, Founding Partner of BIG, said, “8 House is a three-dimensional neighborhood rather than an architectural object. An alley of 150 row houses stretches through the entire block and twists all the way from street level to the top and down again. Where social life, the spontaneous encounter and neighbor interaction traditionally is restricted to the ground level, the 8 House allows it to expand all the way to the top.”

The architects tried to give 8 House the feel of intimacy of an Italian hill town by creating differences in height that give a sense of community with small gardens and pathways. Views towards the Copenhagen Canal and the open spaces of the Kalvebod Faelled reserve provide the residents of 8 House a dynamic physical location as well as pleasure.

The success of the completed building is no accident. “8 House is our second realized example of architectural alchemy – the idea that by mixing traditional ingredients, retail, row­ houses and apartments in untraditional ways – you create added value if not gold,” said Ingels. “The mix allows the individual activities to find their way to the most ideal location within the common framework – the retail facing street, the offices towards northern light and the residences with sun and views to the open spaces. 8 House is a perimeter block that morphs into a knot, twisting and turning to maximize the life quality of its many inhabitants.”

BIG is a multinational company with offices in Copenhagen and New York City.  It is currently involved in a number of projects throughout Europe, Asia, and North America led by six Design Partners, including Bjarke Ingels, Andreas Klok Pedersen, Finn Norkjaer, Thomas Christoffersen, Jakob Lange, David Zahle and two Management Associate Partners, Sheela Maini Sogaard and Kai-Uwe Bergmann. The Design Partners have collaborated with Bjarke Ingels since the founding of BIG in 2005.

In its company literature BIG states, “architecture emerges out of a careful analysis of how contemporary life constantly evolves and changes, not least due to the influence of multicultural exchange, global economic flows and communication technologies that together require new ways of architectural and urban organization. In all our actions we try to move the focus from the little details to the BIG picture.”

If I were still living in the US or Europe, I would not have been nearly as impressed by 8 House as I am now after five years in the UAE and having seen a great deal of attention paid to the creation of buildings that make a difference. However, the focus here is not on what the building does for the individual. The focus always seems to be on the corporate, the organizational, the governmental, an entirely different way of looking at the big picture.