Aarhus New School of Architecture


Young Architects win a Restricted Competition

High-Profile Competitors


“Today the majority of design competitions are exclusively based on prequalification, which means that only established companies that have participated in numerous building projects qualify. The competition format that was chosen for this project challenged this, and the result shows that it was entirely successful.”
- Norwegian Architect Reiulf Ramstad, who together with Architect Jens Thomas Arnfred, acted as design professionals in both the Open Design Stage and the subsequent Restricted Design Competition with three from the open stage competing.



©Vargo Nielsen & Palle/Adept


After surmounting two formidable obstacles, an open international competition with over 260 entries and a second stage limited to four other finalists—two of which were high-profile invitees*—the young Copenhagen firm of Vargo, Nielsen & Palle was declared the winner of the Aarhus School of Architecture Competition. As is often the case when a competitor from a small firm advances to a final stage, the winner teamed up with ADEPT, which had placed in the top six as an honorable mention in the open stage and Rolvung & Brøndsted Arkitekter, Tri-consult and Steensen Varming.


The Design Challenge

The site for the competition was an abandoned railyard near the Aarhus city center. As is true of a typical railroad location, the site in its entirety is linear, with a slight bulge in the center. And it is in this central location of the site, perpendicular to the tracks, that the new school of architecture is to be built.


As the first new school of architecture to be built in Denmark, the Aarhus school is to focus equally on practice as well as the visual theory. The competition brief is clear in its statement of the client’s aims:

“It’s about imagining a completely novel way of organizing a school of architecture, about providing the optimal physical framework for learning in an environment characterized by openness, community and knowledge sharing—in a physical space of high architectural quality.”

Other priorities are the use of light, where during the winter months is at a premium, and sustainability.


For a building of this magnitude, especially in a small country where architects are held in such high regard, the building budget can only be described as modest. A total of $42M, of which $25M is for building construction, pales in comparison to the sums provided for recent new architecture school buildings elsewhere (The recent Kent State School of Architecture cost $42M). This had to be in the back of the minds of the jurors as they examined the 260 entries in the open competition. In the end, there was an open admission that money was a factor:


Competition Site in an abandoned railyard



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Interview: James Mary O’Connor FAIA (Winter 2017)

Playing the China Card: The MRY Example



Chun Sen Bi An Housing, Chongqing (competition 2004; completion 2010)


COMPETITIONS: Moore Ruble Yudell (MRY) has had a reputation as an international player since the 1980s. How did you manage to become involved in China?


James O’Connor: We were first invited to take part in a (developer) competition in Beijing in 2002, the Beijing Century Center. We won, but the project was never built. The client was not that serious, and we never got paid. After that, we said that we would never enter another competition in China. But, what turned out to be a real clientele kept after us to participate in one of their projects. After turning them down several times, we finally relented. That was a competition for the Tianjin Xin-he New Town Master Plan and Housing in Tianjin—which we did win.



Chun Sen Bi An perspectives (above)

Chun Sen Bi An Housing Master Plan


COMPETITIONS: Once you have become established in China, it would seem that you almost can pick and choose between competitions and projects.


O’Connor: Right before the time of the Olympics, there were few foreign firms working there so we were interviewing clients as opposed to clients interviewing us. And every time we would go out, we would be involved with another project, or another competition. It all started in kind of a shaky way; but that’s kind of how it evolved.


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Competitions as Stepping Stones for Young Architects Example: Weiss Manfredi


Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island Campus Photo: ©Iwan Baan


In the early 1990s, Weiss Manfredi emerged as one of the most interesting young architecture firms in the U.S. How did this happen? Winning two important competitions in 1990/91—the Women’s Military Memorial in Washington, DC, and the Olympia Fields Mitchell Park competition in a Chicago suburb—served to propel this relatively unknown pair into the national limelight. From then on, the firm began to receive invitations to participate in invited competitions, winning several high-profile competitions, which included the highly acclaimed Seattle Art Museum Olympia Sculpture Park and the more recent Kent State Center for Architecture and Environmental Design competitions.


What marked their rise was not simply their expertise in developing landscape plans to fit a specific site, or detail in retrofitting or realizing significant buildings, but recognizing that architecture does not cease to exist at the front door. As a result of their success in those early competitions, the firm has received a number of commissions, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Nanotechnology Institute and Cornell Tech’s recently completed “Bridge,” at their Roosevelt Island Campus. Not known for their high-rises, the firm seemed to strike just the right chord on this project. As a major piece of the Roosevelt Island campus ensemble, this building can hold its own with any of its neighbors—a tribute to the firm’s versatility.


Would all of this have been possible without those winning competition efforts? It’s clear that those experiences smoothed the path to career advancement…as both a learning experience and raising the firm’s profile.



Exterior and interior views Photos: Iwan Baan


See Weiss Manfredi interview: