Despite changing times, the image of the simple Danish holiday home persists as a source of wellbeing and positive change for physical and mental health, but also as a template for a more reserved architectural approach and intelligent design – doing more with less. Historically, Nordic countries have never built exuberant or overly ambitious holiday homes – they have a more democratic take on them. Simple, ‘small living’ is favoured to reconnect with nature and spend undisturbed time with family and friends, allowing them to truly switch off and refocus.
A new exhibition, ‘Holiday Home,’ at the Utzon Center, tracks the history and future of this important archetype. “The idea rose from lockdown experiences we have all been through over the last couple of years,” says Line Nørskov Eriksen, the center’s director of exhibitions. “People in Denmark rediscovered their summerhouses and the younger generation discovered them in a new way. It’s sparking quite a lot of conversations with architects. On planning, on sustainability – because new plans are bigger, and people are using them all year round. It’s putting a massive focus on summerhouse culture.”
The Utzon Center opened in 2008 as a dedicated architecture exhibition space on Aalborg’s Limfjord waterfront. It was last building designed by the legendary Danish architect Jørn Utzon and was completed by his son Kim. It provides a rare space for architectural exhibitions and reflects a growing interest in the relationship between contemporary design and modern living. ‘Holiday Home’ not only charts the evolution and meaning of the holiday home over the centuries but makes bold suggestions about their future. In an era when the hunger for resources collides with a desire for bigger, better, and bolder structures, the curators ask whether architects could do more to temper our ambitions and relationship with nature, remembering the benefits of conscious consumption and valuing the simpler things in life.
The exhibition traces the origin of the ‘modern’ Danish holiday house back to the early twentieth century, when architectural training and professionals turned their attention to craft skills and vernacular forms. The Danish desire was for affordable, compact country homes that were perfectly in tune with the landscape. The show includes catalogues from two early competitions for a Danish holiday home, held by the Politiken newspaper in 1912 and 1916. Already, the idea of a ‘holiday house’ or ‘summerhouse’ was taking root, a more democratic and inclusive stance than the grander ‘country houses’ owned by the upper classes.
Detailed exhibits on key structures form the backbone of the exhibition, from pioneers like the functionalist architect Kay Fisker to the iconic holiday home designed by Anton Rosen at Vejby Strand in 1918. Arne Jacobsen’s own holiday house, ‘Knarken’, was one of the pioneering examples of Nordic Modernism. Built in 1937, it synthesised new materials like concrete together with the architect’s love of organic forms and geometric precision, to create architecture that was perfectly aligned with the spiritual freedom created by the rural retreat. This era also saw a huge emphasis on personal health, especially the benefits of indoor-outdoor living, fresh air, and exercise in the elements. Everything came together to define the architectural relationship with the holiday home.
“Danish holiday homes tend to be very future facing,” Line Eriksen explains, “Some of the materials and techniques that are developed in these structures are taken up elsewhere. The holiday house is not so much a playground, but a creative space for architects to push boundaries and test ideas.”
Another technical innovation that drove the evolution of the holiday home was prefabrication. Although off-the-shelf products further democratised second home ownership, it was at the expense of individuality and the unique relationship between structure and site. “All of the best holiday homes have a very intimate relationship with the landscape they grow from,” says Eriksen, “This is a unique quality that we still need to care for and nurture.”
One of the most striking aspects of the exhibition is the inclusion of two full-sized holiday houses. The first of these is the ‘Klein A45’, a collaboration between Bjarke Ingels Group and interior designer Søren Rose. This ultra-compact structure, made up of three prefabricated parts, measures just 30m². Developed in 2019, the ‘Klein A45’ won the American Institute of Architecture Small Space Projects award. For the exhibition, the ‘Klein A45’ has been be re-located to the center’s courtyard and is available to guests to spend the night in the space. Inside, it is specified throughout with VOLA taps, shower, as well as accessories, in natural brass finish.
The exhibition also places a timely and important focus on sustainability. Eriksen says that contemporary architects are especially interested in the lessons of designing for smaller scales, as well as the need for high quality construction and a light touch on the site. “Some of the newer projects from younger architectural offices point towards a future for the summerhouse,” she says, “We’ve included two phenomenal projects, designed in collaboration by the offices of Kim Lenschow and Søren Thirup Pihlmann. One, the holiday home in Rågeleje, is divided into four smaller volumes, and is designed for several branches of a family – it’s all about co-living. Then there’s Kim’s D17 project, which is tiny and spartan. It’s almost like an analogue toolbox that comes to life once people move in.”
The idea of a second home as an oasis in nature is still utopian, a precious commodity in a changing world. Ultimately, architects and designers must accommodate these desires while also responding to the pressing requirements of the modern age. Eriksen is hopeful. “Sustainability is second nature to the younger generation,” she says, “With more established offices it has become something of a visual style – if they use re-cycled materials, they become a part of the building’s architectural language. With young offices, sustainability is much more implicit and a lot more understated. It is the basis of how they work – it’s not something you can choose.”
‘Holiday Home’ traces the evolution of a national obsession while also pointing to a positive future. Connection with nature – be it forests, sand, water, or grassland – is an essential part of meaningful living, a bond that strengthens our humanity. Through diversity of design, a commitment to craft, sustainability, and innovation, the Danish summerhouse offers a template for future living. In the words of ‘Holiday Home’s curators, they are the ultimate example of “build small, dream big.”
18 March 2022 to 30 December 2022
Utzon Center, Slotspladsen 4, 9000 Aalborg, Denmark