Brickwork plays a starring role in articulating the exterior and interior spaces of Lundgaard & Tranberg’s Royal Danish Playhouse in Copenhagen
Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Playhouse cantilevers out over the city’s inner harbour, after which the Danish capital was named. This new theatre, which opened in 2008, is composed of four primary elements; an oak promenade, a cantilevered all-glazed floor of offices and actors’ accommodation; the brick auditoriums and a copper-clad fly tower.
The theatre, designed by Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter following an international competition in 2002, is sited on one of Copenhagen’s most important points of conjuncture, the meeting of the historic 18th century city quarter of Frederiksstaden, the inner harbour and the sea. All of the materials selected needed to be able to tolerate a harsh maritime climate, and the hard-fired bricks can even sustain immersion in seawater.
The playhouse is approached by generous oak-floor promenades that reach out into Copenhagen’s harbour, sheltered by the overhanging glazed floor of offices and actors’ accommodation. This surface flows into the theatre’s triple-height foyer, which has spectacular views across the harbour and out to sea.
Lundgaard & Tranberg’s design demonstrates a generosity of spirit, forming flowing urban spaces; and a confidence in the deployment of materials. The plan is generated by a co-ordinating geometric order, and the facades take on a sense of layering, responding to the surface of the water in the harbour and the historic significance of the site, which is the termination of Sankt Annæ Plads. The copper of the fly tower is coursed and layered as a large-scale reprise of the brickwork.
It is brick that lies at the heart of this theatre, enclosing the three stages. The Main Theatre seats an audience of 650, the Port Theatre 250 and Studio Theatre 100. The masonry is a highly insulated cavity wall, fair-faced inside and out, comprising long hand-made bricks — both the oak flooring and the brickwork glide seamlessly into the interior of the foyer and the brickwork forms the dramatic cliff-like interior of the main auditorium.
Lene Tranberg describes the “cragged character of the individual bricks as the fountainhead of the theatre’s intense, raw energy”.
The brickwork was also inspired by the harbour’s industrial warehouses, which still form a significant part of the theatre’s context. As in the warehouses, windows are set deep within the brickwork on the inner face of the wall, emphasising the mass of the construction. These details are mimetic of Sigurd Lewerentz’s brickwork for St Mark’s Church in Björkhagen, Sweden.
The Royal Playhouse is a beautiful modern theatre that encompasses immutable qualities of architecture fitting for a place of public assembly.
A new approach to traditional brickwork
Fired clay bricks are one of humankind’s oldest construction materials, having been invented about 8,000 years ago in what is now Iraq.
Denmark has its own tradition of brickwork, which the Royal Playhouse has followed. A typical brick in Denmark is 228 x 108 x 54mm, compared to the British standard size of 215 x 102 x 65mm. Thus standard Danish bricks form three courses in 200mm and 15 courses in 1m.
For the playhouse, Lundgaard & Trandberg sought an even longer brick that linked into ancient tectonic traditions, but the immediate inspiration came from the long bricks developed by architect Peter Zumthor in collaboration with Petersen Tegl for the Kolumba Art Museum in Köln, which opened in 2007.
Lundgaard & Tranberg considered the brick for the Kolumba Art Museum too uniform in terms of texture and colour for the theatre. The practice wanted an even slimmer brick with a greater colour variation and a more rustic character.
Test walls were developed by Petersen Tegl from Denmark and Wienerberger from Austria, with the architect eventually selecting Petersen Tegl, a family-run brickmaker founded in 1791, because its brickwork fulfilled both the architect’s technical requirements and its aesthetic aspirations.
All the bricks are approximately 35mm high with four courses in 200mm. The bricks forming the facades are 530mm long and 350mm long used in combination, while the Ventricle is constructed from bricks that are 410mm and 230mm long. Most bricks are 110mm wide — however, to emphasise the expression of heavy massive walls, bricks in openings are 140mm or 170mm wide.
As some of the theatre’s outward corners are not perpendicular, special bricks were developed for the corners. The brick industry refers to such bricks as special specials.
The brick developed for the Royal Playhouse project is named K57, and is now part of Petersen Tegl’s Kolumba range of long thin bricks. Tony Fretton’s Fuglsang Kunstmuseum was also built using Kolumba bricks.
To achieve its rich red brown colour, Petersen Tegl bought English clay from Baggeridge Bricks. The bricks are hand-made in individual wooden moulds at Petersen Tegl’s brickworks in Broager, Jutland.
The clay bricks were fired in a gas-heated top hat kiln at about 1,050°C. To increase the variation in colour of the bricks the atmosphere of the kiln is controlled but the temperature is allowed to vary by about ±10°C.
The thin, almost Roman, brick has a tendency to curve, which enables the clay to be read, since their thinness causes variability like a memory of the clay’s softness before it was fired. Lundgaard & Trandberg actively sought this tectonic richness in the brickwork, researching the possibilities in dialogue with brick makers and via test panels.
The Ventricle: The Main Stage
The Royal Danish Playhouse’s main theatre is called the Ventricle — the heart of this theatre. The architect worked closely with the theatre to create an intimate relationship between audience and actors.
The plan form is curved and the section steeply raked to generate ideal sight lines and physical proximity, a “machine for theatre”, except this space was conceived as a grotto scooped out of the masonry that enclosed the stages.
This space has been designed to achieve a one-second reverberation time — the ideal for spoken theatre. The architect collaborated with acoustic engineer Gade & Mortensen, and the reverberation time was tested on a 1:5 model. This model comprised half the space up to the lowest balcony.
The cliff-like brickwork that steps in and out in section is key to achieving this reverberation time, in combination with the red velvet seats and the audience. The walls are ragged and robust yet meticulously set out by the architect.
Lundgaard & Tranberg developed a special bond for the Ventricle’s brickwork, with every other course in the same plane — described as the neutral plane. Courses between are either recessed or protrude by 30mm.
The brickwork enclosing this space was drawn at 1:10 and the courses coded. Key junctions are reminiscent of the void below the font in St Peter’s Church in Klippan, Sweden, by Sigurd Lewerentz.
The brick is evident as components, uncut and articulated. Just like Lewerentz’s church, only whole bricks were used in the Ventricle’s construction.
Architect: Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter, Client: The Royal Theatre, Engineer: COWI, Main ContractorE. Pihl & Søn A/SAcoustic engineer: Gade & Mortensen Akustik, Theatre installation: Ramböll AB Sverige, Lighting designer: Jesper Kongshaug, Graphic design: Aggebo & Henriksen, Brick manufacturer: Petersen Tegl
Michael Stacey is professor of architecture at the University of Nottingham and director of Michael Stacey Architects.