The Twist and Copenhill by BIG

‘It feels like some giant has left a mega artefact across the river,’ says Bjarke Ingels, observing The Twist, a new 1,000 sq m art museum designed by his firm BIG in southern Norway, one hour outside Oslo. Not only does this building span a river, it does so in a spectacular twist. A tall, square-ended volume on one side is rotated through 90 degrees as it crosses the water and becomes a shorter, more rectangular form on the other side. This massive contortion gives the building a sculptural quality that puts it right at home in its setting.

The Twist is part of Kistefos, a museum and sculpture park founded by investor and art collector Christen Sveaas in 1996. This waterside site is particularly special to Sveaas; his grandfather founded a wood-pulp mill here in the late 19th century and he inherited his first shares in the land when he was just 10 years old. Although family feuding led Sveaas to at one point sell his stake, he bought a majority share in 1993 and, on the advice of the government, set about transforming the old mill — now the last of its kind in Norway — to become a cultural landmark, a living museum still powered by the nearby waterfall.

Sveaas felt like this wasn’t enough, though. ‘Not many will come and see just an old factory,’ he explains. ‘We have to produce something new and exciting every season.’ He believed that art offered the answer. Sveaas’ first move was to turn the scenic woodland into a setting for sculptures by the likes of Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson and Tony Cragg. After that he started planning a gallery. He initially commissioned a design from a Norwegian firm but, unsatisfied with the result, took the advice of a colleague and invited Ingels to come up with an alternative.

As the Danish architect explained at the launch of the new project, he felt that any new building erected alongside the old mill would be stuck in a ‘pissing match’ with the heritage architecture, yet there were few other spaces large enough to fit a museum. His idea was to make a new space over the river, which would also make it possible for visitors to walk in a circle around the sculpture park. ‘Making buildings as bridges is a recurring fantasy,’ says Ingels. ‘In this case it makes so much sense.’

The concept of the defining twist came from the idea that, to rationalise the different situations on opposite sides of the water, a bold singular gesture was needed. The taller volume relates to the mountain slope, while the flatter form is in conversation with the forest. ‘For architects, not least rational level-headed Danish architects, it’s very difficult to make yourself do something that is not super rational,’ Ingels explains. ‘We’ve found a meaningful way to do something that defies the conventional, orthogonal and rational.’

The effect is just as striking inside, creating a void in the shape of a knot. At this point, where the distinction between walls, floors and ceilings becomes blurred, the interior is divided into two galleries: a triple-height, artificially lit space in the spirit of a traditional white cube, and a room with a more intimate scale, inviting the woodland landscape in through its large window walls.

Looking around, it is here that the building’s biggest trick is laid bare. Despite the undulating form, there is not a single curved surface anywhere in the design. Each surface is in fact made up of slender, rectilinear components. On the exterior, standard-size aluminium panels with a natural matt grey finish are organised in a gradual rotation around the steel diagrid frame. Internally, surfaces comprise neatly organised rows of white-painted wooden lamellae, which also help to conceal the intricacies of the building’s complex engineering. There are expansion joints — a necessity in bridge-building — hidden in some of the gaps, allowing the structure to naturally move by as much as 10cm. Gallerystandard lighting and air conditioning are also carefully integrated into the folds. The craftsmanship of these surfaces is celebrated at the corners, where the edges of the lamellae create an effect that looks a little like a zip.

Ingels names Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who famously designed the Sydney Opera House, as an inspiration for the design. ‘Utzon was obsessed with the idea that you could create any imaginable form out of mass-produced elements,’ he says. ‘In The Twist, there is this kind of Utzonian commitment to trying to find the simplest way of generating something of great complexity. I love the fact that when you walk through, you see curves everywhere, but there is not a single curve in the whole building. It’s all straight lines but just gently adjusted.’

A staircase off to one side of the exhibition galleries leads down to a surprising pièce de résistance. Part of Sveaas’ brief was for The Twist to have the best bathrooms in Norway. In his mind, the measure of architecture’s success is in whether the intention remains in even the most private of spaces. Ingels clearly took him seriously. As you descend, you are faced with a wall of glazing that offers a unique view of the building’s underbelly. On the opposite side of the glass, a chrome figure — a new piece by Elmgreen and Dragset, titled Point of View Part 2 — stares back at you. Meanwhile, the toilets themselves are located beneath a translucent staircase that doubles as a seating area and each cubicle contains a provocative artwork by American artist Tony Oursler. Norway’s best or not, toilets don’t get much more memorable than this.

The sweeping interior curves created by the twist are in fact created by neatly organised rows of straight wooden lamellae. Image credit: Laurian Ghinitoiu.

The Twist is not the first building BIG has designed with a twisted form. The studio has also developed several contorted towers, including the soon-to-complete Vancouver House skyscraper in Canada. However, the difference of applying the transformation to a horizontal structure is marked.

In structural terms, it posed an incredible challenge to the engineers, AKT and Max Fordham; the load of the entire 60m free span is taken on just two bearings. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it has a big impact on the functionality of the interior. While a twisted tower still contains multiple floors, here there is really just one — and it’s not particularly flexible. It raises the question of how effective The Twist can be as a gallery — a space that by its nature needs to accommodate frequent and drastic change.

The tell-tale signs are there in the opening exhibition, Hodgkin and Creed — Inside Out. The show brings together the work of the late British painter, Howard Hodgkin, and the younger and more abstract British artist, Martin Creed. Creed’s wall paintings stretch from floor to ceiling on one wall, and performance artists can be found running up and down the sloping floor. Yet upon entering the building — a grand sequence that involves walking across a bridge and through a towering doorway — the first thing that catches the eye is not any of the artworks, it’s the view through the twisted interior towards the windows at the rear.

Furthermore, a few paintings hang on the sloping wall surfaces, so you almost have to look down on them. This is likely because, for a gallery with 798 sq m of exhibition area, there’s not a whole lot of accessible wall space. Curator Guy Robertson mentions he considered introducing screens so these works could be displayed upright. ‘It just didn’t feel right,’ he says. ‘It felt like we weren’t being honest to the space.’ Neither Sveaas, who owns many of the Hodgkin pieces in the show, nor Creed, objected (officially).

The sloping walls make for an unusual viewing experience of the artworks. Image credit: Benjamin Ward.

Although Ingels says the building is ‘mesmerisingly close to our original vision’, he reveals one series of changes that perhaps could have made the difference. With the first design drawn up just before the 2008 financial crisis, the project inevitably spent a few years in limbo. The scheme was brought back from the dead once the construction industry in Norway started booming again, but concessions had to be made.

Credit to the strength of the concept, the twist was never seriously called into question. But the internal layout, as originally planned, was much simplified. Originally there were to be three mezzanines in the taller section of the building, which would have created a lot more hanging room and potentially created a much richer series of spaces. It seems like Ingels is well aware of this too, as he suggests that another level could still be added in the future. ‘It could be that, in 10 years, the appetite arrives. Then there will be something navigating that slope,’ he says.

It will be interesting to see how other curators, without the burden of designing the opening show, will shape the interior of The Twist. While it may be one of the more daring pieces of architecture that Norway has seen in recent years, time will tell whether it can be as functional as it is sculptural.


Nine years ago, when Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) won the competition to design Copenhagen’s first clean waste-toenergy (WtE) power station, with its cute, mountain-shaped proposal, topped with an all-weather ski slope, the charismatic Dane’s evangelical zeal for architecture as fun — buildings as playful, nature-inspired additions to the urban landscape — seemed irresistible. It also tapped into the prevailing zeitgeist, which was all about reanimating the urban ecology. Given the tumultuous politics and fragile state of the world today, those concepts could smack of self-indulgence or whimsy; not for nothing has BIG’s work sometimes been dubbed ‘eco-flash’. But there is nothing flimsy or whimsical about the effort it took to make this ski slope happen.

While the power station structure was built by 2016, as scheduled, it has taken a further three years to get the entire scheme completed. It’s no wonder that Ingels himself seems genuinely euphoric as he leads the assorted press gathered for its launch in October — wearing a fetching, Where’s Wally-esque striped beanie — across the green, slippery summit of the ‘mountain’.

Thanks to Denmark’s winter climate, Copenhill will offer a few months of real snow, but for the rest of the year, skiers will be skidding over a dense, rubbery matting of green plastic mesh, padded out with grass. The tiny green nodules on top of the mesh help to make a nice, crisp, granular swooshing sound as two demonstration skiers take off for the inaugural run. Those of us in ordinary footwear comment on how slimy and precarious the matting feels. Ingels quips: ‘To make it slippy enough, we had to apply a ton of lube to it… The people in the mailroom must have wondered why the Danes needed so much of it.’

It’s fine to crack jokes now, but the parties who helped to make this unlikely project happen — those assembled for the press launch — admit that it was nearly shelved on several occasions. It’s no small thing to make a power plant fit to host thousands of visitors daily. The building contains furnaces which reach 1000 degrees, the resulting steam pouring out through tall towers where live chemistry is happening, along with turbines converting 440,000 tonnes of waste per year into enough clean energy to deliver electricity and district heating for 150,000 homes.

A huge part of the challenge was ensuring the structure was safe to be walked on. That guarantee of safety became embedded in the design of this DKK 4bn (£461.3m) project. Which means that the man in charge of the the Amager Resource Center (as the power plant itself is called), director Jacob Hartvig Simonsen, can honestly say: ‘We have built the WtE plant with the best environmental performance in the whole world, the highest energy efficiency and this is now the safest WtE power plant in the world. It has to be, because it has guests on the roof.’

Safety is one issue; feasibility was another entirely. Patrik Gustavsson, director of the Amager Bakke Foundation, was brought on board to raise funds and actually make the scheme happen. ‘When we started out on this project it was this beautiful idea that everyone could buy into, but nobody knew how it could be done,’ he says. ‘We had so many issues to resolve, like the artificial surface — how fun is it to ski on this when Danes are used to skiing on snow? The business case really had to be honed.’ There was no way, for example, that the Amager Resource Center, a non-profit organisation, was going to divert valuable resources from the company’s income into a play space. Simonsen states: ‘We can’t use the money citizens paid for their heating bill… to have skiing on the roof.’

Gustavsson had to set up an entirely separate foundation, to fund and manage the project. He managed to raise just over €10m (£8.6m).‘That’s the whole park, including the ski surface and everything,’ says Ingels. ‘It’s a tiny fraction — not even 2% of the entire cost of the entire facility.’ The next question was who would operate it. Denmark has no mountains, so there were no local operators. Luckily, Danish sports management company Lokale Og Anlaegsfonden stepped in, with additional technical and operational support provided by seasoned ski company Salomon.

Ingels pays tribute to the team effort: ‘There were a lot of reasons to say no. So this kind of courage and commitment to say let’s really make this happen is huge. What this project does is it opens a door for others to walk through. To make the environment win, the progressive solutions should not just be the right choice but always the most desirable choice.’

So what is so desirable about this seemingly crazy idea? Obviously, we had to go up on the mountain to find out. Trooping out of the attractive 600 sq m apres ski and sports equipment bar at its base, we pass bulldozers and landscaping staff still frantically trying to finish the park’s planting. Part of Copenhill’s unique appeal, we’re told, is the idea of creating a large area of mountainous parkland in the middle of an industrial site, albeit one whose outer fringes of factories are already being converted into housing.

It has to be pointed out that the mountain shape wasn’t pure whimsy. The internal volumes of the 41,000 sq m are determined by the precise positioning and logistics of the machinery inside, in height order, creating an efficient, sloping rooftop to support the required 9,000 sq m of ski terrain.

Getting to the top is a question of skiers climbing on board a rather surreal button lift (its yellow seating discs look quite bizarre surrounded by so much steam and infrastructure), or those on foot ascending the glass elevator, which gives stunning views inside the plant. You can also walk up or down the 490m landscaped hiking and running trail, designed by Danish landscape architect practice SLA, which has planted the rooftop in a way that addresses the challenging microclimate of an 85m-high park, with a biodiverse landscape designed to absorb heat, remove air particulates and reduce stormwater runoff.

The ski terrain is organised to appeal to both expert and beginner skiers. From the top, there is an expert, ‘black’ run the same length as an Olympic halfpipe. There is a freestyle park and there will also be a timed slalom course. The gentler lower slopes are designed for beginners and kids.

I ask Ingels if he had to pick a favourite mountain or ski terrain for modelling this new mountain. He says: ‘No, actually we worked with some ski resort planners from Colorado. But a lot of the typography is a by-product of what you have underneath. A mountain has tectonic or seismic activity, which dictates the shape. We haven’t got thermal activity but we have eruptions (from vents) on the side, and they eventually will be more integrated with this landscaping that goes around them, to look more like rock formations.’ At the top of the slope, there is a broad shoulder, hosting the bar and promenade for taking in the panorama. From the centre, the slope descends steeply for skiers, but to the left, there is the aforementioned walking or running path, made of contoured concrete, stepped in places, and clearly not suitable for the unfit. To the right is the button lift mechanism.

As we gaze down the slope, puffs of white steam drift across from the lower stacks, creating natural moments of ‘whiteout’. The air is fresh, and only occasionally are you aware (at the top) of blasts of warm air, smelling faintly metallic. There is a truly breathtaking view across the industrial waterfront of Amager, containing so much energy-production infrastructure, which Ingels points out: ‘You have a biomass boiler being constructed in front of you, gas silos behind you, a line of wind turbines further out to sea.’

Descending along the concrete walking path, Ingels concedes it is probably his biggest project to date. ‘In terms of scale, it’s definitely up there. I think in terms of the impact it’s had on the skyline of Copenhagen, for sure. In terms of the impact it’s already had and will have on the selfunderstanding of Copenhagen, it is quite powerful. I think a project like this does inspire a certain confidence in a city.’

We stop to admire the skiers as they swoosh effortlessly past us again, taking in the sweep of ski slope, attractively mottled, heathery planting, the other worldly backdrop of power plants. Midway down, the mountainous terrain banks to the left, and the vertical cliff of the power station looms overhead, a continuous facade of 1.2m-tall and 3.3m-wide aluminium panels, stacked like gigantic bricks overlapping with each other. In between, windows allow daylight to reach deep inside the facility, while larger openings on the southwest facade illuminate workstations on the administrative floors. To the rear of the building, against the longest vertical facade, an 85m climbing wall is being installed — the tallest artificial climbing wall in the world.

‘It’s actually been quite a fun two weeks,’ says Ingels. ‘A fortnight ago we opened a museum building in Norway [The Twist at Kistefos, see page 150] which spans like a bridge over a river in a sculpture park, and in a way it turns a cultural building into a little piece of infrastructure, that takes you from one side of the river to the other. Here we take a piece of infrastructure, a public utility and turn it into a park. And right between these two touchpoints, we broke ground on the headquarters and bottling plant for San Pellegrino, which is basically a factory for mineral water by a river in the Alps, and it has a major component which is visiting and learning about the whole 30-year journey the water goes through… looking at the initiation and preservation of that source.’ All hybrid formats, he says, offer the potential for innovation and evolution, however unlikely the component parts may at first seem.

‘You can’t practise as an architect without being an optimist about everything,’ he concludes. ‘The fundamental proposition about Copenhill is its sustainability and it is better for the life of the people of Copenhagen.’ And with that parting shot, he heads off to get a pair of skis to try out his new toy.

This feature was originally published in