City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Many of you will have enjoyed the work of the Bjarke Ingels Group aka BIG, and their indefatigable leader, Bjarke Ingels. On a recent trip to Melbourne, for the International Design Festival, Ingels was interviewed on Triple R’s The Architects recently and was a breath of fresh Danish air.

I’ve enjoyed their work, from afar at least, for a while and one project in particular grabbed me, given my interest in densification and urbanism. Their plan for a largely residential development in Holbæk – the Holbæk Kasba – in Denmark’s Sjælland region, is fascinating (see also Archidose on the Holbæk Kasba). Their proposal started with equal size plots and boxy units of equal height – and then twisted them to create tightly interlocking relationships, focusing on the spaces and views in-between.





“How do you combine the harbour areas on the big scale with intimacy with intimacy and sensory experiences on the human scale? We propose to construct a dense and low kasba of dwellings that have been twisted and turned thus creating a labyrinth of small open spaces and hiding spaces for life, play and socialising between the houses. The kasba is placed on an artificial sloping hill that raises the built-up area for parking underneath and providing each residence its own view of the water and life on the harbour.” [BIG]



All above images via

The relationship between the units is so dense that it reminds me of the core design principle behind the Beijing National Aquatics Centre (aka ‘Water Cube’), developed by the team of Arup, CCDI and PTW. Arup’s Tristram Carfrae has discussed how the design of Water Cube – see discussion here – was inspired by the way soap bubble structures efficiently sub-divide a space. This structural principle is known as a Weaire-Phelan structure, which emerged as a solution to the problem set by Lord Kelvin in 1887: how space could be partitioned into cells of equal volume with the least area of surface between them.



BIG’s ‘kasba’ looks to almost have similar characteristics, although looser, as if the valency has varied a little between its atomic units, the Water Cube’s bubbles had floated apart slightly. They’re still locked together through an invisible force – here, a desire to engender interaction rather than isolation, yet still enabling the views required of such developments. The bubbles form a new kind of urban grid, though not Muller-Brockmann at all. This is a new kind of subdivision, sharing some elements of the older, organic urban form (the nod to kasbah; or with the Water Cube, the allusion to biological structure) but with an underlying design strategy that is programmatic. It would be even more interesting to take the code-led aesthetic – seen in Water Cube, but also the Olympics opening ceremony – to produce tightly integrated but infinitely variable generative urban form.


These tactics for density, albeit deployed in relatively open contexts here, are interesting given the need to introduce denser elements into many of our Western cities. Japanese urban architecture generally provides a rich sourcebook of how to build creatively in tight urban contexts. For example, the Seijo townhouses by Kazuyo Sejima;



Or Atelier Tekuto’s Project 1000:


Or the 63.02° by Schemata Architecture Office (see also):



Monaco House, which I checked out in Melbourne recently, indicates a local example of creative infill. It folds a 3-storey embassy and bar into a fairly small plot in a laneway off Little Collins Street (Ridgway Place).



Though a fairly basic box at the back, and presumably through much of the interior, the front crumples and folds as if mirroring the flag fluttering above. It catches the light beautifully, not least on the purple translucent balcony, and reflects the trees and tall commercial buildings surrounding. A clever little fold at the bottom-left corner wittily enables a tiny patch of ‘grass’.




View larger map of context of Monaco House

Designed by local practice McBride Charles Ryan, it was the deserving recipient of a Premier’s Design Award for Victoria recently, where the judges said:

"This design is the result of a comprehensive understanding of the
spatial unfolding of the city of Melbourne crystallised in a small
building that contributes a big moment in this city’s fabric. The
building demonstrates a high level of architectural resolution. It
realises a potential of widely-held views about the spatial character
of the city of Melbourne – laneways and grid – by means of an unerring
exploration of complex mathematics and contemporary digital

It’s the kind of daring project that only the creative loam of Melbourne’s architecture scene can facilitate in Australia at the moment. Yet it’s exactly the kind of project that Sydney needs to get its head around, as the opportunity here lies exploring in the numerous plots in Sydney’s inner urban cores, rather than expanding to its edges. Recent proposals to reactivate latent laneways and small bars legislation will help here, but so will a little more experimentation with density.

[More Monaco House photos are on Flickr, and these examples of density and related discussions are filed under ‘density’ in my ‘noted elsewhere’ links at Delicious, as well as here.]


7 responses to “Journal: Density, via the Weaire-Phelan structure, the Holbæk Kasba and the Monaco House”

  1. lauren Avatar

    that interview with bjarke ingels was fantastic and in fact i’ve now got his ‘yes is more’ quote stuck up on my noticeboard at work. and on a childish level, i love the fact that he swore like it was going out of fashion – not enough swearing in architecture i reckon.
    and how great is Monaco House! Easily my favourite building in melbourne. Interestingly, there’s now something missing from the MCR gem – the little bit of humour that was rocking the place when it was first built, as seen here:


  2. Jarrett Avatar

    This is interesting. In the system of interlocking hexagons forming the proposed kasba, I’m reminded at once of Canberra’s CBD, where a street network of concentric hexagons produces a maddening navigational problem; it’s one of the most disorienting CBDs anywhere. But of course many people want this labyrinthine quality in their residential environments, so I can see how this would be a good fit for a purely residential setting. It also seems to quote some classic premodern forms, such as the Chinese hutongs or the random lattices of alley-wide streets that form the old city of Delhi and other cities of similar vintage.
    In general, I suspect that the insights you describe here, stripped of their architectural marketing/theory, are really rediscoveries of a pre-industrial understanding of civic space.
    On the larger issue of density, I tend to view the Sydney Victorian terrace as an exceptionally good form, providing each of us with a livable space and that often-crucial private patch of grass or courtyard. To me they are one of the best things about Sydney, and I’ve insisted on living in them despite the obvious hassles of old houses in general. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that form; Sydney seems to be one of the few cities that have large areas developed this way.
    Cheers, Jarrett


  3. ludditerobot Avatar

    Fascinating pics, analysis, and post in general. Thanks …


  4. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks all. And Jarrett, agreed totally regarding the pre-industrial urban form. I’ve written two essays recently to that end, pointing to the hutongs of Beijing, Tokyo before The Fire, and particularly Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella. As you say, they might generate a wayfinding problem – though not insurmountable at all – but are good for residential.
    As to Sydney, I agree that the Sydney Victorian terrace is pretty great model (I live in one too), and allows a lot of variety in simple form. I still think we need some Barcelona-style 6-8 storey blocks (as in the Eixample, with courtyard for shared space and services/amenities/retail activating street front ground floor) in that inner ring around the CBD though. Barcelona’s density is around 200 people per hectare, with all the benefits that accrue from that, whilst Sydney at its absolute densest is about 40 people per hectare.
    So I’d vary it from towers in various downtowns (poly-nodal city) surrounded by swathes of 6-8 storey apartment blocks (though built smartly for families and older people as well as single occupancy/young couples) and then out to terraces in the outer rings after that.
    In this sense, the odd but interesting last chapter of Elizabeth Farrelly’s ‘Blubberland’ has it about right.


  5. tensilefabricstructures Avatar

    I think I saw tensile fabric structures in one of the photos. I like that a lot.


  6. chelsea parker Avatar
    chelsea parker

    I’m so interested in the “Water Cube” from the Olympics- I wonder if the “Nest” has any connection with the holes and the hexagons. (I just saw the model for it at the V&A, I think it’s traveling to the Cincinnati Art Museum next, so I can’t look at it again.) Although not providing the same kind of density there is still a sense of the tension in it’s construction.


  7. Ruggero Gabbrielli Avatar

    You can find a 3D model of the Weaire-Phelan structure, together many other structures, at this page.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: