“The Maestro of Light is Dead” was the headline in the national Danish newspaper Politikken on Saturday, June 22, the day after Henning Larsen died peacefully in his sleep. He was 87. In Scandinavia, Larsen was often called “The Light House of the Nordic Modern Field of Architecture.” He taught internationally at Yale in 1964 and at Princeton in 1965 before settling in Copenhagen. I remember when he became chair of the department 3D at the Royal Art Academy Architecture School in Copenhagen after teaching there for some years. The students would often call the department “the Institute of Marxism/Leninism,” or the “Red Department,” reflecting an ideology that was not necessarily Larsen’s cup of tea. He was a very warm and gentle man who carefully transformed a department that denied design having any role in the political engagement and correct transformation of our physical space into a department that exhibited dedication to design as the main driving engine for change. He was an artist that believed in the power of design but was also an intellectual that studied diligently the context and history of a place before he engaged in a project. The students of the department were allowed to experiment widely and quickly learned that there was a larger and more interesting world outside of Scandinavia in a time when architecture in Denmark had dug itself into a dormant, mind-numbing state. The department quickly became one of the most desired places at which to study in Copenhagen.
Larsen himself was a student of the Royal Art Academy School of Architecture in Copenhagen, where he graduated in 1952. Already at that time he was considered a more outgoing, experimental, and intellectually curious man that had studied at the AA in London and at MIT in Boston. His international education and extensive travel, however, did not reflect a privileged background that took the study of architecture as a form of “edu-tainment,” but was hard earned. He was a student that came from a rather humble background. His father worked as a country schoolteacher in Opsund near Ringkøbing.
After graduating, Hening Larsen worked a short while for Arne Jacobsen and started a small office in 1956 with Gehrdt Bornebusch and Jørgen Selchau. He split off three years after to open his own office, Henning Larsen’s Tegnestue, with one architecture student as his employee. His practice, now called Henning Larsen Architects, became increasingly global by the 1980s and is one of the largest architecture firms in Scandinavia, with office locations in Copenhagen, Oslo, Munich, Istanbul, and Riyadh. His office’s website shows today more than 170 designed and built projects. Of those, the most important ones are The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia, 1984), The Danish Embassy in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia, 1987), The Malmø Stadsbibliotek (Sweden, 1997), and in Denmark the Handelshøjskolen (1989), the Enghøj Church (1994), the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (1996), and the Copenhagen Opera (2004).
Just last year, Henning Larsen received the Peaemium Imperiale Prize, which is regarded as the Nobel Prize in the Arts. He was the first Dane ever to receive such an honor. This year the Reykjavik concert hall Harpa, designed by Henning Larsen Architects in collaboration with Batteriið Architects and Studio Olafur Eliasson, won The Mies van der Rohe Award 2013, one of the most prestigious architecture awards worldwide. When I sailed by that building last year, the Nordic midsummer light, the glow of the low sitting sun, and the reflections of the water were choreographed perfectly by the designed reflections of the building’s exterior, creating a dedicatedly urban effect. There and then I understood why Larsen was often referred to as a Magician of Light. When Henrik Sten Møller interviewed him for his 75th birthday, Larsen seemed to agree. “ Many people cannot master the nuances in their language to express the importance of light in their lives,” he said. “I always wanted to do something about this by celebrating light in my buildings.” In 1967, Larsen designed a delightful small chapel in Aarhus, where a small light gap created a simple, yet powerful effect. Larsen’s projects integrated the effects of light and shadow with the sculptural quality of space and are situated consciously within their historical, physical, and cultural context. He never succumbed to the branding effect of a personal style, but instead searched for the fundamental quality of each individual project.
Henning Larsen was always active in giving back to the architectural community. When he was younger and a new professor he started SKALA, the first gallery of architecture in Copenhagen that published an architectural magazine. He managed SKALA personally for many years and invited numerous international architects to exhibit and lecture and published extensive interviews with them. SKALA had an enormous impact on the architectural scene in Denmark. In 2001, he founded The Henning Larsen Foundation with his own private funds. The purpose of this foundation is to promote and disseminate Danish architecture in a broad sense. Each year on his birthday one or more grants are awarded. In 2008, Henning Larsen Architects joined the United Nations business network, Global Compact, which is a partnership between the UN and the international corporate world. Its objective is promoting the social commitment of businesses and a sustainable building practice.
Danish architecture has always been known for its extraordinary spaces filled with light and built with warm and natural materials, creating a unique and—for Danes—familiar Scandinavian effect. Henning Larsen was an international master of it.