Australian architecture practice Terroir collaborated with Danish firm Kim Utzon Architecture on the design of this bold extension to the World Maritime University in Malmö, Sweden, which “wraps and folds” around the existing 1910 building.
Tornhuset is an extension to the World Maritime University, housed since 1983 in a harbour administration building from 1910 in Malmö, southern Sweden. It was the subject of a three-stage competition won by the Australian/Danish team of Terroir and Kim Utzon Architecture in 2011. Finished four years later, it is now one of the most interesting and provoking interventions in the city, standing at the boundary of the old urban centre and the harbour, which has been heavily developed and gentrified during the last decade.
Conceptually intended to mirror the 2,000-square-metre original L-shaped plan of the existing building by Swedish architect Harald Boklund, Tornhuset adds another 3,000 square metres – comprising administration spaces, teaching rooms, a lecture hall and a canteen – while creating a covered atrium between the two volumes. The project offers three facades unobstructed to the city and harbour, with plenty of space to be perceived from afar. It sounds straightforward. It is not.
The extension demonstrates with force a “hinge” between the orthogonal city grid and the slightly rotated axis at the harbour. Inspired by this twist and the old building’s “roofscape,” according to the architects, the project stands, fully owning the facade towards the harbour, while only slightly grinning behind the old building when approached from the city centre. And when I wrote “owning the facade,” I was “Swedishly” restraining myself. It explodes with a much-needed bravado in an all too quiet and conforming city.
A series of large triangular facades alternates between transparency and opacity, clad in standing-seam aluminium runs and colour- matching the roof tiles of the older building. Perhaps announcing the introvert intention of the design, the extension turns and folds onto itself, purposefully avoiding views to the failed postmodern neighbour, but surgically offering views of the old town and canals from the inside.
And “extension” might be an insufficient term to explain how the new intervention relates to the existing building. It “wraps and folds” more than “extends,” balancing what might otherwise have been a messy clash. When approached from the harbour, rendering the old building invisible, it unapologetically stands its own ground with powerful formal expression, but when the hybrid – the forced existence of the two buildings – is perceived and experienced, the result is most interesting and almost Jean-Jacques Lequeu-esque.
The main entrance might have been invisible if it were not strategically situated between the two structures, caught between two centuries. It is in the in-betweens that this project brings out its magic. Past the main entrance and into the atrium, the spaces are understood at a glance. The dark grey concrete floor glides down into the open and inviting lecture hall. Beaming with natural light, the new staircase provides shifting views between the harbour and the interior atrium. Cantilevered balconies project out into the rather intimate atrium at each level, give access to teaching rooms and zigzag in a crevasse-like manner, barely tamed by the warm wood veneer cladding. The old building facade, playful a century ago, cannot decide whether to frown or smile at its new partner. The tension is palpable and enjoyable. The Zenithal light calms the waters between the two architectural generations.
This explicit contrast is managed with knife-edge precision. There is a constant tension between detail and whole, which becomes a recurring visual play. Up close, detailing often overwhelms and the spatial “triangular faceting” brought in from the exterior might seem chaotic, even disturbing at times, only to be replaced by clarity and spatial balance the minute you step back and experience the overall composition. This thrilling switch of experiences becomes a constant partner as you meander through the building.
It does not stop here. The contrast is not only spatial; it is also temporal. The circular navigation around the atrium and through the two buildings allows for an architectural experience akin to travelling in time, wandering among 1900s details and decorated masonry, copper cornices and roof tiles you can stroke (how often can you walk and stroke century-old roof tiles and details?) and then arriving back to a present of Scandinavian “modern” with a bite. The constant navigation between new and old, detail and whole, also reveals a myriad of moments and potential uses of open space, many of them surely serendipitous. Working or studying here must be bliss; then again, that might be the architect in me. Are the students sitting on the balconies in the atrium aware of this wonderful madness? Hard to know, but staff and students seem to enjoy this tiny marvel.
The building might seem a whirlwind, but the overall sensation is, strangely enough, one of calm. There is no doubt that the heavy brick facade of the old structure subdues the playfulness and warmth of the new intervention. The closed-off spaces of teaching rooms and offices are kept in neutral white, which is gratifying, since the angular facades are so powerful that anything else would have created a visual storm.
But if you really need a moment for quiet reflection, aim for the canteen at the top. Only sheltered by the glazed atrium cover, this mostly open-plan level cantilevers and presents the visitor with the intricacies and convoluted geometries of a roofscape from 1910s architecture, the apparent inspiration for the folding facades.
For a moment, I feel I am drinking my espresso while levitating over a century-old rooftop with Malmö as a backdrop, until the opening in the old roof reveals the library, framing the quiet theatre of reading. Without the open and finely designed cantilevered “terraces” edged with balustrade-long benches, Tornhuset would have lost half of its qualities, from both a social and an architectural perspective.
It is no surprise that this work has received a series of prestigious awards and I only wish it were a building open to the public, but this is no-one’s fault. At the very least, Malmö has a unique reference to inform future extensions and educational buildings and to encourage the potential of design teams who dare.