Architectural Details: CEBRA’s Subterranean Skamlingsbanken Visitor Centre

Nestled in an undulating hilly landscape, this subterranean Danish design honors a long history of civil gathering and reveres the rich local ecosystem.

Chiara Testoni Chiara Testoni

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From both a cultural and natural point of view, the Skamlingsbanken Hills area holds an important place in Danish history. Naturally sheltered from the winds, many civil gatherings and festivals have been held in the area over the years, including debates on the issues of democracy and women’s suffrage helping to build the country’s democratic soul. Located on the highest point of South Jutland, this undulating landscape of hills and hollows was also historically used for grazing. The landscape created during the last ice age is home to a rich and varied ecosystem which constitutes a precious natural resource unique in Europe.

Now, the architects from the Danish firm CEBRA add a new layer to this ongoing history. Beyond its specific function as a center for visitors, their design was inspired by the desire to discover the genius loci — or, the spirit of the place. The Skamlingsbanken Visitor Centre draws on this local history while looking to the future by enacting a strong social commitment to environmental sustainability.

Photo by Adam Mørk

The building, designed to blend into its surroundings, is literally covered by the green hill and is only visible through the two circular cuts in the ground which indicate the presence of an artificial structure. An open-air, semi-underground plaza invites and distributes the spaces inside, which contain reception, educational and exhibition areas and a cafeteria.

Continuous glass façades create visual continuity between the interior and exterior, which blend into an intimate, reciprocal relationship of perception and use.

Courtesy of CEBRA

Photo by Adam Mørk

Inside, the choice of plain, rough materials such as wood, stone, clay plaster and an earthy palette evokes a deep connection with the land and nature; all of this amounts to an authentic and welcoming atmosphere. The intimate and introverted exhibition space opens up to the landscape with a spectacular panoramic view towards the Little Belt Strait.

The building is just the beginning of a larger narrative that aims to educate and raise awareness about eco-sustainability, climate change and the urgent need for a safe and secure habitat for nature, animals and people.

Photo by Adam Mørk

The centre is in fact an access “portal” from which paths wind through both the building and the territory, with the aim of accompanying the visitor through immersive experiences to enjoy the charm of the landscape and acquire a deeper awareness of the values of democracy, mutual respect and freedom evoked here.

The spirit of the place is recreated in the building’s ability to transform itself into a dynamic “arena.” That is to say that, in addition to the permanent exhibition on the glacial landscape and the political history of Skamlingsbanken, the building also has the capacity to host informative and educational events, initiatives and debates that continue the consultative and participatory activities rooted in the history of the place itself.

Photo by Adam Mørk

During the construction process, scrupulous attention was paid to reducing the ecological footprint generated by the man-made structure. The new visitor centre was built in a protected area and the landscape and its biological values were indispensable reference points in the design. In close cooperation with the clients, foundations, landowners and the Danish Society for Nature Conservation, the project team managed to extend the protected area around the visitor centre nearly fourfold: from 86 to 316 acres (or, 35 to 128 hectares).

In the area, inhabited by rare native species, it was also crucial to protect the flora and fauna during the construction process. In cooperation with biologists from the municipality of Kolding, a special grass mixture based on local species was developed and spread on and around the building, which provides optimal conditions for the growth of local grasses. Together with the reuse of natural peat from the construction site, this mixture nurtures the regeneration of nature and biodiversity.

Photo by Adam Mørk

According to the poet Eugenio Montale, the only possibility of salvation from the withering that often affects the individual and society is to pass through a “gap”, a physical and mental limit beyond which one enters a new dimension of awareness. This seems to be the case with this intense and exciting subterranean architecture that acts as a “portal” to a spiritual or intellectual journey.

The glass walls of CEBRA’s Skamlingsbanken Visitor Centre reveal an invisible boundary that leads into the heart of Mother Earth, as if to signify that this is where each of us comes from and where will return. Crossing this barrier serves as a reminder as to why we must protect the universal balance of which we are an integral part.

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