How do you hide a building? It sounds like a rhetorical question, but it was the very real dilemma confronting the architects charged with building a new Maritime Museum of Denmark a few years ago. The museum, you see, is located a few hundred yards away from Kronborg Castle — which serves as the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet and is protected by law.
To avoid disturbing the historical site with an 7618sqm museum, Bjarke Ingels Group devised another plan: Build it underground. Helsingor, the municipality where Kronborg and the museum are located, is situated between the Baltic and North Sea — so it’s long been a center for shipping and more importantly, ship-building.
Nearby the castle, an abandoned drydock — where ships were constructed for decades — offered the perfect site for a building that needed to remain incognito.
Construction began in 2008, with the excavation of hundreds of tons of soil surrounding the decommissioned dry dock. Because the architects wanted to preserve the dock itself as a courtyard, they built around it — reinforcing the 60-year-old concrete wall with new supports and series of galleries and exhibition spaces.
Finally, three pedestrian bridges punctured the drydock itself — creating connections between the ground level and the subterranean museum.
This isn’t the first rehabbed drydock in existence — for example, there’s a playground built on a former dock along NYC’s East River — but it may be the first to use a drydock as part of a new building while preserving it.
It doesn’t hurt that it also brings plenty of light and air down into the otherwise windowless exhibition spaces. The finished museum, which opened to the public earlier this month, is an incredibly interesting use of negative space — an “urban abyss,” as Ingels describes it.
As unlikely as it seems, it’s a deft solution to a whole host of design problems: From preserving the castle, to showing off a historic dry dock, to lighting an underground space and creating a public park.
To quote Lord Polonius (sorry): Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.