An Architect for the City
Aarhus has benefited from a long line of City Architects who have guided the architectural ambitions of the city. In 2019, the Kommune will celebrate 100 years of this role. Stephen Willacy is the current holder of this post, having moved to Denmark from the UK in the early 1980s. Stephen has worked across both London and Aarhus, as a partner at Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects as well as teaching and researching as an associate professor at the Aarhus School of Architecture for almost two decades. The exact role and positioning of the City Architect within the Aarhus Kommune has shifted over time, presenting both challenges and opportunities for cross-departmental influence:
SW: My predecessors have been in very different roles at different times. Formerly they were planning officers or the building control officer – they used to be part of those departments. But now I am on my own working as a consultant to the planning and building control departments. I also work with all the departments and the town Mayor, and I work closely with the magistrate for technical and environmental services. When there are competitions I judge and advise. I am a chief advisor to the councillors, about architectural and urban topics. They don’t have to agree with me…[but then] they make an unwise decision!
I try to get in very early to advise on the process itself as well as the planning document. It is a multidisciplinary role. I’m called a free bird – they tend to find me quite irritating! I had a meeting with the planning department yesterday and they were like – what is his actual role? How come he can just come in here and do that? It is challenging. You can get involved in too many things. I try and prioritise.
Since I have been in this role I have been a bit of bridge builder between the council and these groups. I was like a bull in a china shop when I first started. Because I didn’t have the political expertise to pull it off, I found it really difficult. Now it’s been five years and I think I’ve became good at what I do. I am outspoken, I get the word out into the newspapers, I try to frame things properly.
I found that planning departments are very bad at criticising themselves. That’s the good thing about being an architecture student: the crits. It’s something I’ve now instated with the planning department. We organise sessions and people bring boards of the projects they are working on, and ideas for discussions. I want to lift the level of competence through these discussions.
Re-THINKing harbour spaces
As with other previous ECoC cities like Liverpool and Marseilles, post-industrial dockland spaces and maritime heritage are important narrative and spatial references for the ECoC programme. While these spaces are in some ways the manifestation of the programme’s ‘RE-THINK’ theme, masterplans and development schemes have been in the works since the late 1990s.
One of these schemes is Bassin 7, a harbour-side site currently in the delivery phase of a development plan by Gehl Architects and BIG. Working to a long-standing pre-existing masterplan for the entire harbour area presented challenges to the appointed teams developing plans for the individual basin sites as they tried to strike a balance between the original ambitions of the masterplan and site-specific requirements. Reflecting on the process of developing the plan for the Bassin 7 site, Camilla van Deurs, Gehl’s lead on the project, processes of public space and block re-scaling were crucial:
CvD:There were heated discussions, mainly because the existing masterplan, which was developed in the 1980’s, was a very formal plan where the overall idea was to have some very strong new lines in the city - to keep these open view portals between the water and the city, but also to have a series of very large and over proportioned (in our opinion) public spaces within the plan. So when we began questioning that - that was highly controversial. The development plan had over the years kept to this masterplan without questioning if it was right. But in the meantime, there were a lot of other city developments along the harbour and within the city that actually blocked some of these views that the plan aimed to maintain – so it became kind of pointless.
The original masterplan was also aiming design at a much larger scale. Some of these public spaces that were supposed to be local intimate squares were designed to be the same size as the cathedral square in Aarhus. There was a complete lack of dimensions which make a nice local space. We did a lot of scale comparisons across the city, questioning what actually works, what are the nice places – understanding the scale and complexity of the urban fabric. In terms of the public spaces we looked at the nice streets that work, and literally took the same dimensions and putting them onto the plan.
Stephen Willacy, the city architect, had some very loud conversations. His team had worked rigorously to the original plan, so that was quite a shift for the team. Looking at the comparisons, a lot of model work, and discussing it openly really made a difference. There was great support from the mayor’s team and at directorate level for trying something new. At some point, as the masterplan is rolling out, you have to stop and evaluate: is this working? And if not, let’s change it. The process was a bit painful but hopefully will be right in the long-run.
In the end I know Stephen is very happy with the project – but for his team it was a big turnaround.
Aarhus’s South Harbour presents another key site for the city’s ongoing redevelopment programme. The site, currently home to a mix of industrial, creative, and logistics operations, is in much earlier stages compared to sites like Bassin 7, and the process of re-imagining the site has become increasingly collaborative. Stephen Willacy is in the process of working with an advisory board, community groups and others in the Kommune’s planning department to consider the future of the site:
SW: There are a group of artists and buildings here. I am very interested in maintaining that DNA but I would also like to see new development also - a mix. I want to develop the characteristics, and the sense of place. I am looking at models for first 5 years where we can have relaxed rent levels to encourage particular uses– start up firms etc.
We have made an advisory board. Its called Re-THINK activism, so it is very much thinking about the framework to encourage engagement from the citizens in the planning of the area. We have quite a lot of homeless and drunk people within the [South Harbour] area – I am keen for them to be integrated into the planning process so they are not marginalized. They tend to get pushed around because of gentrification. We are giving the advisory board 5 million kroner, which they can use over the next 5 years. We also have the Friends of the Coal Bridge group - I have been involved with that from the start, there is a competition for the design of that coming up. It is going to be an important development that connects up to the railway district.
As Camilla details, Gehl’s experience of the competition and procurement process in Aarhus has been one driven by collective vision-setting rather than detailed design proposals:
CvD: Aarhus municipality has been experimenting for the past couple of years with different kinds of competition formats, because in city development the format of the competition or the selection process is highly defining of the outcome. In this circumstance for the area around Bassin 7, the format was to invite developers in to bid for the process, and they had to formulate a vision about the project, a team mission statement. Instead of a usual architecture competition where you actually have to design a project, they had to provide a mission statement describing how they would collaborate with the municipality and within the team. Based on that you won the project. So it was more about the process.
How they organized it was brilliant. As an architecture practice - and this sounds silly – but we actually got paid to do the work , even for the competitions – it was really, really respectful. We got the time and we were paid to do it. At the same time it wasn’t a one-way process - we didn’t sit and do the work behind closed doors, but we had all of these meetings involving everyone and incorporating their ideas. So after this nine-month process was over, everyone was aligned and everyone could just continue working. Usually when you do a competition you just do it, you have no idea what the judges actually think. Then there are a couple of months where you are iterating the project and incorporate everything. In that sense it was a very smooth process.
The ‘Aarhus model’ of citizen participation
The city’s more recent processes of engaging with residents, community groups and businesses have been promoted as both bottom-up and democratic – what’s come to be known as the ‘Aarhus model’. A new piece of the city, driven by bringing public life to city’s extensive waterfront, is being delivered by numerous design teams and developers, all of whom are engaged in different modes and methods of citizen participation. As these projects develop, a more sustained level of citizen engagement is becoming more engrained in how the Kommune and the City Architect expects its partners to deliver projects:
SW: There are a lot of things happening in terms of community engagement and trying to integrate them into planning. We’ve had international masterplan competitions for the southern harbour, central harbour, and then the northern harbour. We have been working on these masterplans since the 90’s – we have been adjusting it as we’ve been going along. We had public engagement meetings early in that process, then when we develop each site and have planning process through which we send plans into the public arena for consultation and discussion.
The next phase we are looking at is going to have a whole series of public consultations. Since I started modernistic thinking about planning has changed, so it has now become more aligned with the community – I think this has been happening for longer in the UK. This has become more evident here and another extension to local democracy – more public engagement and commitment. This is not always easy –the people who come on the usual suspects. I have started splitting meetings into different sectors – one for the business community, one for the local area, the professional community, the council departments – and try to invite them to get involved.
We work with different types of developers. There are those that I call the ‘younger generation’ - it makes business sense for them to do [engagement] and they are keen to get on board because they see the advantage that it will make their processes easier. Rather than being reactive, they are proactive. Because we insist upon it as a council, developers are compliant (after a while). Their attitude is: we have to do it so we may as well do it properly.
Given the nature of the many of the city’s harbour sites – often empty of existing residents and sometimes void of associated stakeholders at all – the city has been experimenting with how to build-in the feedback of multi-faceted communities for sites which are not yet home to residents or businesses.
SW: Up until now, there’s been very little feedback as no one is living there. As projects are being built and people are moving in there has been more interest – they become serious partners, especially if they don’t like it! It’s very encouraging.
We are now looking at ‘surrogate communities’ – we are inviting different bodies from all over the city by letter or email and encourage them to get on board. It’s like being a surrogate mother – they become a surrogate community for a new development. We are trying to get age, gender and ethnicity to be represented and engaged. It is a commitment – but if we take them seriously they will want to do it.
As Aarhus’s Capital of Culture programme reaches its crescendo this summer, residents and visitors will be greeted not only by a riot of art, dance and festivity, but also by a city visibly in-progress. Through recent masterplanning and new approaches to citizen engagement, Aarhus has put itself in the spotlight as a city looking beyond its ‘second tier’ status to embrace a more international perspective. Simultaneously, the city is holding onto a strong sense of local identity and know-how to guide where and how the city grows:
CvD: It’s an interesting dynamic because they want to promote themselves and open up, they are more open to experimentation – but at the same time, it’s very, very small and local. It is more agile than capital cities [in trying new things], but ideally there’s always someone from Aarhus behind it!Read Less