Nuuk Survey: Arctic Urbanism

Nuuk Survey: Arctic Urbanism in Greenland

From the air a visitor flying over Nuuk could not miss the long residential structures composed in orderly rows looking much like over-sized army barracks. Blok P is the largest one stretching east-to-west in a 209-meter span and rising just 5 stories high. Containing 135 apartments and 50 residential dwellings, this is how residents have lived for 40 years. According to Wikipedia, Blok P houses 1% of Greenland’s total population.
Blok P’s factory-like profile leaves an impression that the Danish designers and developers who organized Nuuk’s urban planning and housing had nothing little more than contempt for Greenlanders in favor of expediency and economic efficiency. The building and similar smaller building structures were initially part of a social housing program designed to provide apartments for residents working in the local commercial fishing industry in a centralized setting while as many as 100 smaller coastal Greenlander villages were shut down to populate Nuuk. (Greenlandic Architecture,
The building looms across the skyline like a vast horizontal wall to protect its inhabitants from the brisk Arctic wind and snow. And while it is home to many residents, Blok P and the other alphabetic blocks have become something of eyesore. These buildings have collectively branded Nuuk’s urban identity for many years. It’s been part of Nuuk’s inherited Danish effort for urban planning to develop the town as a strategic sea port and military outpost. Fortunately for local dwellers that is about to change as contemporary Greenlander, Norwegian and international architects in collaboration with Nuuk’s city planners and residents envision a new urban transformation. One larger revitalization effort for the city center calls for the removal of Blok P and offering as the newer alternative a series of residential dwellings inspired by Greenland’s landscape and earlier Danish colonial designs.
An example includes architect firm Fantastic Norway’s Houses for Families residential design. The architectural concept smartly avoids any institutional style in favor of a small village cluster model that is redolent of Greenland’s Danish colonial phase of residential construction. Fantastic Norway updates that approach with wood finishes and new sustainable and technological standards including solar panels and water heating. The House for Families project is designed for disadvantaged women and children and provides them with both independence and community.
This project is part of a large-scale phase of urban development and renewal for Nuuk’s city center and planned demolition of Blok P and Blok A – L in Tuujuk. “Their days are numbered, their time is over,” writes the architects in the comprehensive master plan proposal Nunarsuup qeqqani – Nuup qeqqani // In the middle of the world – in the middle of Nuuk awarded Best Nordic urban plan at last year’s Norwegian architecture festival – Arkitekturmässan, in Gothenburg. The project cohesively looks forward towards Nuuk’s future urban planning and sustainable development as the city’s population increases.
Architects Dahl & Uhre who submitted this project proposal in April 2011 focuses on Nuuk’s urban center where Blok P and adjacent residential housing blocks currently stand. The project envisions new contemporary housing more fitting with a human-scaled approach to architecture and urban development in place of the existing model. The project also involves associate architect teams including the London-based 42 / architects, Fantastic Norway / Håkon & Haffner, and TNT Nuuk to model new housing and residential buildings addressing needs for the community such as social and park spaces, landscaping, retail and a sustainable design.
Dahl & Uhre’s documentation outlines the structure towards project development and how restructuring Nuuk’s urban core with the removal of Blok P and other existing housing stock will not only impact residents who have lived there and have fostered a strong community but to imagine what’s next. In practice their plan seeks to elicit comment from those living in Blok P and the Tuujuk residential community to determine the needs to forge a newer Arctic urban model. Its scope raises some interesting questions regarding who is the city for and what functions does a city serve. Nuuk’s post-war contemporary development is now at a new stage to evolve its urban plan with a strategic, cohesive approach that also involves its inhabitants. It also doesn’t hurt to retire a dated building design – one that burdens Nuuk’s civic image and social space – in favor of an aesthetic design tailored towards the values of the people living there.
Their urban plan does not merely address the problem of Blok P and Tuujuk’s Blok A-L which contains 156 apartments. These structures will be demolished over a period of years. Resettlement is needed for the residents who live here in existing housing in suburban areas and parts of downtown while construction begins for the new building projects as part of the greater urban plan. In the process, an emerging surge in economic activity and job creation is expected from the new construction.
Dahl & Uhre’s grand urban vision for Nuuk’s future and, by extension, its pivotal position in a globalized Arctic context is buoyed by significant existing and newly planned civic projects. Katuaq, the Nuuk Cutlural Center has emerged as one of the more enduring recent architectural icons for the city. Inspired by the northern lights, icebergs and the play of light and snow, this gentle wave-sided building in Nuuk’s business and retail core clearly departs from the warehouse rigidity of the Blok P’s profile with a distinctive organic contour. Designed by architects Schmidt Hammer & Lassen of Århus, Denmark, Katuaq opened in February 1997 as Greenland’s central cultural venue. Katuaq’s web site describes the meaning of Katuaq as “a musical instrument that can begin to play at any moment. During the day it’s full of dreams – at night it acts like a magnetic field, drawing people into the light.”
Schmidt Hammer & Lassen Architects have also designed a proposal for a school in Qinngorput in Nuuk for the Greenland Home Rule Government. Although the design is less fluid in profile, the architects draw inspiration from the location’s angular mountain ridge setting overlooking the sea. The school’s concept also contains an open plaza, and in the evening the building functions as an arts and community center.
Art and culture is also the primary focus for a new venue planned for contemporary art and Greenland’s vibrant art history. The Greenland National Gallery for Art takes the shape of a concrete circle straddling Nuuk’s rocky coastline integrating land and sea. It’s a bold design as a spherical white oval appearing beached like an iceberg on the shore against a backdrop of one of the older apartment block structures facing the sea. The award-winning design, recognized in a competition last year, is by the Danish firm BIG, Bjarke Ingels Group, in partnership with TNT Nuuk, Ramboll Nuuk and Arkitekti. As part of the social poltical dialogue about Greenlandic identity, BIG sees the Greenland National Gallery for Art as “a symbolic tool in the continuous contribution for political independency” and to “become a symbol of the current independent Greenlandic artistic and architectural expresssion.”
With a plan and several projects under way, Nuuk’s recent past looks to be a springboard for brighter things ahead. Stay tuned.
Image credits: 01: Katuaq, the Nuuk Cultural Center, Photo: Adam Mørk, courtesy The Arctic Council,; 02: House of Families, Fantastic Norway / Håkon & Haffner, image courtesy Fantastic Norway / Håkon & Haffner,; 03: Mixed Use Development – street view sky darker, Apartments, retail and community spaces as part of sustainable masterplan, Collaboration with regional Associates. 42 / Architects, image courtesy; 04: Greenland National Gallery of Art, image courtesy BIG, Bjarke Ingels Group,; 05:  Karen Thastum, Tura Ya Moya, Julia Pars and USK students, Nipi & Qaamasoq saga, Block 6, as part of the NIPI & QAAMASOQ Saga/MY SAGA light installation at Katuaq Nuuk Cultural Center and Blocks 6 and 7, Photo Kim Christensen, November 2011. Image courtesy; 06: Architectural concept for a school in Qinngorput, Schmidt Hammer & Lassen Architects, image courtesy; 07: Cover art from Nunarsuup qeqqani – Nuup qeqqani // In the middle of the world – in the middle of Nuuk, a comprehensive Master Plan proposal for parts of the City Centre of the Capital Nuuk, Dahl & Uhre Architects, image courtesy Dahl & Uhre Architects, Dialogue Architecture Landscape Urbanism,

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