A united future
The multi-award winning architectural practice 3XN Architects believes that architecture shapes our behaviour. Accordingly, the Danish firm is dedicated to creating a cohesive fusion of design, function, and context in contemporary buildings to enrich people’s lives and inspire them to live, learn, and work together.

Founded in Aarhus, Denmark, in 1986 by Kim Herforth Nielsen, Lars Frank Nielsen and Hans Peter Svendler Nielsen, hence the name, 3XN Architects has evolved in to a world-class architectural practice with an ever-growing portfolio of prodigious creations. 

Today the practice is led by Principal Architect Kim Herforth Nielsen in partnership with Audon Opdal,  Jan Ammundsen, Jeanette Hansen and Stig Vesterager Gothelf and it is headquartered in Copenhagen with offices in Stockholm, Sydney and New York. 

The firm’s Scandinavian roots are deeply set and reflected in the humanistic values that inform each and every new project it takes on.

3XN’s international breakthrough came in the late 90s with the Danish Embassy in Berlin and the Muziekgebouw Concert Hall in Amsterdam, and now the company has world-class museums, sporting stadiums, cutting-edge sustainable office towers, modern hospitals, royal arenas, Copenhagen’s whirlpool-shaped Blue Planet aquarium and iconic buildings for the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations on its resume. 

Architect MAA, Head of Design, and Senior Partner Audun Opdal, talks to Nick Rice about current projects and the human values at the core of the firm.

It’s a monumental challenge to embody human values in steel, glass, wood, and concrete — where do you usually begin and does 3XN have a signature style?

— We don’t have a formal signature style but we have an approach that we use on all our projects. I think our starting point would always be that, whatever we do will affect human beings. And therefore, we say that architecture shapes behaviour in the sense that everything we do will have some kind of effect on the use of the building and the surroundings. And that will always inform our starting point. It’s important for us to acknowledge that every single project we get is different. It actually means that, if it’s located on the left or the right side of the road, or which country it’s in, or if it’s a dense area or if it’s open nature… all of these things would matter. So therefore, I wouldn’t say that we have a signature style, but I’d say that our approach and acknowledgement of what architecture means is always the same.

Does 3XN pay heed to fashion and trends in architecture?

—I’d say that you’re always influenced by the time you’re in. But what we’ve really tried to do is make our buildings relevant to not only now, but also the future. If we make buildings that can’t be changed, we’ll probably fail. And so that’s another important thing actually, using the uncertainty of the future as a design parameter… in the sense that you need to build in some kind of adaptability into your projects.

From building conception to final conclusion, does the journey twist and turn or do your projects run smoothly as pre-planned?

—I would say every project is different but I do think we have a very good track record of essentially keeping a very close connection from the first initial images of the concept to the final building. So, we’ll think about, you know, regulations, flexibility, efficiency, and stability, and all the things that essentially will inform the building during the construction process. If you take those things seriously all the way from the beginning, you have a pretty good foundation and good connectivity between the final product and the initial sketches. 

How would you describe the current climate in architecture, have we moved past the clamouring for “starchitects” and the next Bilbao? 

— It depends where you are in the world but I do think there are certain buildings that need to do more. There are different purposes to different buildings. We are maybe in an age where we think much more about the uses, at least from our end… much more about the actual qualities of the human beings that are in those buildings. I think that’s kind of on top of the agenda. So, in that sense, you could say that even though it can be an iconic building, the starting point would always come from within. And I’d say that that is a tendency, at least for Scandinavian architects. And I think that’s why not only artists, but also many architecture firms from Scandinavia have been so successful, it’s because we begin on different starting points than some of our other colleagues around the world.

How important are environmental, social, and sustainability issues in your buildings?

—I think that’s important in all our projects and we have a dedicated innovation unit called GXN, which stands for green, and they are helping out, but also have independent research projects into circularity and behaviour. They have, I think, four PhDs studying behaviour, architecture, the greenery and architecture, and so, yes, that’s very important to us. For example, one of our buildings in Sydney, which is a tower we’re doing, we’re re-using the entire structure of the old tower. It’s a transformation project and we’re essentially building around the existing structure, re-using ninety-eight per cent of the structural walls of the existing buildings, so obviously, there’s a huge sustainability gain in that. And it also points to the future of what I think buildings should do — we need buildings that can actually handle transformations.

Is COVID going to have any notable impact on architecture?

— It’s definitely influenced our current project… I mean, working on a big ­project in London and one of the things we’re working on is creating a very diverse office building, in the sense that it’s a high, tall building, and what we’re really trying to challenge is the amount of repetition in it. We really want to create spaces for social uses based on interaction and diverse and different ways of working. And if there’s one thing covid has taught us, and actually put the development on steroids, is that the need for social interaction is actually really invaluable for a workplace.

You know, we can do our work from our computer at home, but that we cannot do is interact with each other and share knowledge in the way that we feel is most beneficial, and that is being together. So, I think that is definitely something that will affect it. I think another thing is obviously density in buildings. Density is one of the biggest values, you know, how many people can you put on the floor plate? I think that will probably change. What’s the value of the floor plate in itself? I think that will change to — what’s the quality that I can bring to my workforce? Or… my workers on this floor plate, what does this building offer them? I think it’s going to shift. So, it’s affecting us already. I think that part of the effect has already happened, it just got fast-tracked.

”And it also points to the future of what I think buildings should do — we need buildings that can actually handle transformations.”

What was the house that you grew up in like?

—I grew up in a row house. I grew up in Norway and I was brought up in a row house. It was a very dense neighbourhood and one of the things that I think for me, is interesting, growing up like that, is that you see the benefits of actually living close together with all the other families. And I think that is something that’s important to me. Me on a personal level but also… how can we actually, you know, create projects that benefit from all the others around. So, I kind of grew up in a very social environment in that sense. Not an architectural masterpiece but I think the concept in itself was a masterpiece because I got a lot of different input from lots of different people growing up because of the way the architecture essentially facilitated that. 

So, community was always at the heart of your upbringing?

—I would say so, but you know, I’m not a special person in that sense. There’s a lot of communities that are like that in Scandinavia, you know, large communities of row houses or townhouses, with essentially the idea of having a very small garden, but your actual garden is kind of the playground that you share with all the other people that live there, the green areas that you share with your neighbours. And that is how I live today as well, in Copenhagen. I live in a townhouse, I have a very limited private terrace but then we share the green areas around with the other townhouses. In that sense, it’s also more sustainable. You’re getting more use of the square metres that you have. 

When and how did you gravitate ­towards architecture?

— I studied political science for two and half years at the University of Oslo and I think I learned a lot from that but I also learned that I had it in me to be more hands on with things… and architecture was one of the things that really caught my mind in terms of actually being able to create something. 

The ByArena in Bergen.
The International Olympic Committee’s new headquarters, Lausanne.
T3 Bayside in Toronto.