New exhibition celebrates iconic Danish holiday home

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A new exhibition at the Utzon Center in Aalborg, ‘Holiday Home’, chronicles the past, present and future of the iconic Danish sommerhus. The exhibition opens with a look at the beginnings of Scandinavian second home culture centuries ago, when escaping the city during the summer months was the preserve of the wealthy and of the privileged. Gradually, however, the Danish approach to the benefits of second homes became more democratized in the first half of the 20th century, with the introduction of compulsory holidays and the rise of prefabricated kits which put the dream of the house of Danish holidays within the reach of huge sections of the population.

This seemingly immutable cultural advantage is now at the heart of important debates about sustainable architecture, inclusivity and creativity.

‘Sommerhus’ (Holiday Home) at the Utzon Centre, Aalborg. Photography: Laura Stamer

It is a comprehensive spectacle, dating back to the 18th century origins of the association between rural retreats and health and well-being. Key examples of the genre are represented by new photographs, from Anton Rosen’s 1917 holiday home in Vejby Strand, the so-called “Structured School Cottage”, to Arne Jacobsen’s modernist holiday home in Sejerø Bay. Although Rosen’s structure was neo-classical in form, it was a temple of simplicity, not grandeur. It became known nationwide for its artistic owners and visitors and helped cement the connection between the summer house and creativity.

Arne Jacobsen’s summer house, 1937. Photography: Kira Ursem

Jacobsen would use his own home, “Knarken”, as a place for structural and material experimentation, much as Vilhelm Wohlert did with his annex to Danish physicist Niels Bohr’s vacation home in Tibirke Lunde, completed in 1958.

This box-like structure can be completely open to the elements during the summer.

The annex of Nils Bohr’s summer house by Vilhelm Wolert. Thomas Loof Photography

More recent examples include architect Claus Bonderup’s own seaside house, completed in 1975. Half-buried in sand, it was a place of experimental design and living.

As the catalog notes: “Inside, the house was built with white walls, floors and furniture and, as Claus Bonderup never does things by halves, he dressed in white, drank only white wine and drove a white car.

Claus Bonderup’s summer house, 1975. Photography: Keld Ejsing Duun

The other important facet of summer house culture was a new respect for minimalism, not only in form, but also in impact.

The latter is of increasing importance at a time of rapidly diminishing natural resources, and the show addresses this fundamental paradox – how can secondary ownership reconcile these harsh realities?

‘Sommerhus’ at the Utzon Centre, Aalborg. Photography: Per Bille

In 1977, author Klaus Rifbjerg commissioned a writer’s hut in Skagen from local architect Alfred Hansen. This simple black wooden house is one of the models of the now favored reductionist approach, stimulated by endless Instagram accounts and vain dreams.

The exhibition features other more contemporary examples of modest modern buildings, including works by Pihlmann Architects, Kim Lenschow, Karen Kjærgaard, Mette Lange Arkitekter and OS Arkitekter. The ‘tiny house’ movement has undoubtedly reshaped the ambitious nature of Danish holiday ownership, through clever design and new construction methods.

Klein A45, by Bjarke Ingels and Søren Rose, installed in the courtyard of the Utzon Center. Photography: Laura Stamer

The Utzon Center was Jørn Utzon’s last design, completed after his death in 2008 by his son Kim. The exhibition spans the generous gallery spaces and courtyards and the scale of the building has enabled the curators to include two life-size models in the exhibition.

Outside in the main courtyard is ‘Klein A45’, a 30m² prefab created by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and interior designer Søren Rose. The pyramid-shaped structure, which coincidentally matches the elaborate skylights of Utzon’s building, won the 2019 American Institute of Architecture Small Space Project award. Visitors also have the option of booking an overnight stay on the A45.

Interior Klein A45, by Bjarke Ingels and Søren Rose, installed in the courtyard of the Utzon Centre. Photography: Laura Stamer

Interior Klein A45, by Bjarke Ingels and Søren Rose, installed in the courtyard of the Utzon Centre. Photography: Laura Stamer

The gallery is home to another vacation home concept from Ingels, the Zelt Cabin, a cross between a cabin and a tent. The two small houses were built by the company Klein de Rose, which seeks to transform structures designed by highly qualified architects into holiday retreats for all.

Ultimately, this lofty goal is also at the center of this exhibition, which attempts to show how a new generation of designers are tackling inequality, large-scale development, and the use of land and materials. The relationship between architecture and landscape has always been strained, but design diversity and innovation must be combined with a light touch and a small footprint.

Zelt Cabin, by Bjarke Ingels and Søren Rose. Photography: Laura Stamer

On the evidence of this exhibit, the Danish holiday home will never lose its strong visual appeal – it is a first-rate architectural daydream.

As the conservatives conclude, if we strive to “live small, dream big,” then these two worlds can continue to coexist. §

‘Sommerhus’ at the Utzon Centre, Aalborg. Photography: Laura Stamer

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