FOR AND BY THE PEOPLE - BIG ARCHITECTS, TOPOTEK1 & SUPERFLEX - SUPERKILEN
When Superkilen opened in center Copenhagen in 2012, the multi-colored and -cultured park with the mindset of a perverted Global Exhibition was above all meant to reflect and celebrate the ethnic diversity of its primary users, the local population.
A giant octopus from Japan, Armenian picnic tables, palm trees from China, sewage drains from Israel, swings from Iraq, litter bins from England, work-out machines as seen LA's Venice beach, manhole covers from Gdansk and Paris, an Islamic-tiled fountain from Morocco, and signs from throughout the world advertising everything from donuts to a Chinese beauty parlor – those were but a few of the ingredients with which the park was built, and that had to make it serve and celebrate the diversity of the mediate vicinity, which is home to more than 60 nationalities.
Commissioned and coordinated by the City of Copenhagen in a partnership with Realdania foundation, a private association in Denmark which supports philanthropic projects in the realms of architecture and planning, the Superkilen public park was part of a larger urban improvement plan. Superkilen is situated in the Nørrebro area just north of Copenhagen's city center, one of the most ethnically diverse and socially troubled neighborhoods in the Danish capital. The 13.4 million euro project had the objective to upgrade and revitalize the neighborhood and to inspire other districts and cities, while forging a global identity capable of unifying the city’s urban fabric. The concept of the large-scale project was developed by the artist collective Superflex, in collaboration with architectural firms Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Topotek1, as a result of an invited competition.
Considering its creators it did not really come as a surprise that Superkilen is not your everyday city park. Superflex became internationally acclaimed for art projects like Free Beer, an open source beer recipe, and Flooded McDonald’s, which questioned corporate responsibility for climate change by flooding a perfect replica of a McDonald’s restaurant. BIG made its name with equally imaginative architectural projects that explore sustainable material use and social interaction design, such as the much awarded VM Bjerget, Mountain Building, a mountain-shaped, luxury apartment building in Amager. Finally,, Topotek1 is a German landscape architecture firm that has specialized in the design of public urban areas. Its homebase is Berlin, Europe’s largest social lab.
Stretching some 750 meters (2,460 ft) along either side of a public cycle track and covering a total area of some 30,000 square meters (320,000 sq ft), the park unfolds along three themed color-coded segments – a Red square, Black Market, and Green Park, each semi-autonomous environments with their own programmatic and atmospheric agenda, and offering distinctive functions. A bike path runs through the park, connecting each of the individual areas.
Painted bright red, orange and pink, The Red Square extends from the base of a nearby sports hall and focuses on recreation and modern urban living. It is strewn with bright magenta and orange polygons that frame all manner of recreation and exercise activities - café, music, sports, as well as playground infrastructure.
The Black Market at the center is a more classic square where locals and visitors are met by a large Moroccan fountain or game of chess, palm trees from China and barbecue grills. It also features a rolling landscape emblazoned with a mesh of white lines that wind around the set pieces.
Finally The Green Park, literally an entirely green space that caps off the park, has rolling hills, trees and plants suitable for picnics, sports and walking the dog. More importantly, it also serves as the main backdrop for the surrealist collection of more than 100 objects from the 60 plus cultures that make the uniqueness of Superkilen,
“We curated a park for the people by the people,” says Bjarke Ingels, founding partner of BIG, “Rather than a public outreach process towards the lowest common denominator or a politically correct post rationalization of preconceived ideas navigated around any potential public resistance – we proposed public participation as the driving force of the design leading towards the maximum freedom of expression.” Instead of plastering the urban area with distinctly Danish design, which one might have expected, considering its worldwide reputation and the strategic importance of this central location, the designers decided to draw on the different cultures in the neighborhood, to create a display of what Nanna Gyldholm Møller, BIG’s project leader describes as “comprising the best that each of the 60 different cultures and countries have to offer when it comes to urban furniture.”
In public meetings or by means of 'suggestions box' people from the area were polled and asked to nominate specific city objects such as benches, bins, trees, playgrounds, manhole covers and signage that could be sourced from their countries of origin, or that had left a lasting impression while traveling. Superflex even organized five groups of locals to travel back to their native lands, Palestine, Spain, Thailand, Texas and Jamaica, to selected and acquire various mementos, both large and small, for inclusion in the theme park. The all too obvious character of these mementos, from an Iron bull, to a heap of soil, made one wonder if this travel agency really had to be set up. Yes, said Superflex: 'Our mission was to find the big picture in the extreme detail of a personal memory or story, which on the surface might appear insignificant, but once hunted down and enlarged became super big – such as a glass of Palestinian soil in a living room in Nørrebro serving as a memory of a lost land, enlarged to a small mountain of Palestinian soil in the park, or a distant Mediterranean flirt in the seventies symbolized by a great iron bull, hunted down and raised on a hill in the park.'
In all, 108 plants and objects were integrated throughout the park, from more than 50 different countries, either produced in a 1:1 copy or bought and transported to the site - from the Chinese palm trees to a giant black Japanese octopus, to an Islamic-tiled fountain from Morocco, swings from Iraq and benches from Brazil. Each cultural object is accompanied by a metal plate which indicates what it is and its origins, illustrating and celebrating an ethnic diversity that also found its complement in the wide range of tree and vegetation that was implanted, red maples next to Japanese cherry trees, larix, and Lebanese cedar trees.
A similar diversity characterized the reactions, varying from ‘genius’ to ‘open-air horror cabinet’. Numerous were those that criticized the project, because of the un-Danish character of its concept, and questions as: ‘How does a collection of random objects from different countries all dropped in one space give proper representation to their respective culture?’. The bike lane that runs through Superkilen had to be blocked off when it rained, since the paint was too slippery to cycle on. Many of the imported structures had to be dismantled, because they were deemed unsafe. Etcetera.
Yet others argued that these children diseases were easily outweighed by the strength of a concept that radically broke away from the mono-cultural Denmark the world used to know, or the irony of its 21st century comment on an old and obsolete World Exhibition concept. “While the romantic gardens of the 19th century attempted to give the visitors an exotic experience of the world that was still big and hard to travel around – allowing people to witness a Chinese pagoda or a Greek temple – the Super Park provides the opposite,“ says Martin-Rein Cano from Topotek1, “Rather than perpetuating a perception of Denmark as a mono-ethnic people, the Super Park portrays a true sample of the cultural diversity of contemporary Copenhagen.” In 2016, Superkilen received the prestigious Aga Khan award for architecture. (mb)