The Master of Light

Henning Larsen

By Kim Flyvbjerg

Few have made such a mark on the Copenhagen cityscape as internationally acclaimed Danish architect Henning Larsen. A gargantuan opera house of his design is currently rising above the waters of Copenhagen Harbour.


He is often to be seen on Copenhagen high streets as he makes his way to his office from his modest 19th century apartment with a prime view of the Royal Gardens, Kongens Have. His hands folded behind his back, his eyes wincing in the sunlight as he contemplates architectural issues of the day. Always casually dressed, often wearing khaki and matching T-shirts. With his crew cut crown of white hair, he resembles Picasso the elder. He is 79, but no way is Henning Larsen on the road to retirement. Things are seriously on the up! One of Denmark’s all-time most acclaimed architects also happens to be one of the most proficient – now that he has reached almost 80. Just as a master chef in a restaurant would approve every plate that leaves his kitchen, Henning Larsen is, in principle, involved in each project that passes his office.



He was born as the younger of two sons into a poor family in a small village in western Jutland. His father was a parish clerk and his mother a nurse, so nothing in his childhood ever pointed to a career as an architect. Yet his mother influenced him greatly and encouraged him to draw and paint and gave him an appetite for knowledge. He developed an interest in carpentry making toys for the children of the village and building ship models. The family moved to Zealand, but with his pretty average grades his application to enter the Royal Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture in Copenhagen was snubbed. Instead he found work as a carpenter, and following vocational training he finally entered the Academy. He became a staunch advocator of practical know-how throughout his 35 years as professor of architecture.


Henning Larsen flunked his graduation three times, yet he started to get noticed. He was awarded a much sought-after scholarship to travel to London where lectures by Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others, opened his eyes to the world. In fact, his itchy feet became a bone of contention when Henning Larsen was granted a traineeship at the studios of prodigies of Danish architecture and furniture design. In the course of just 10 hectic months, he and the later so acclaimed designer Verner Panton helped design Arne Jacobsen’s chair classic, The Ant. It came as a great surprise to Jacobsen, who primarily sought international inspiration from magazines, when Henning Larsen decided to quit his job the very instant he was awarded a scholarship for the US. Henning Larsen never came to regret it. In the US, he met such icons as Walter Gropius, Louis Kahn and the designer couple Ray and Charles Eames. Inspired he returned home to Denmark, but success was slow in the making.


Larsen vs. Utzon

In the mid-1950s, Henning Larsen opened a joint studio with two other architects. In 1959 he went solo. Two years later, his efforts were finally rewarded. In the heyday of pre-cast concrete construction, Henning Larsen’s huge suspended floors with car park below and auditoriums above were the perfect answer to design competition requirements for the Stockholm University. He was awarded the tender right under the noses of prominent architects, but he soon realised there was little to celebrate. He learnt the tricks of the trade the hard way. The Swedes had no intention of letting the tender go to an unheard of Danish architect, and as a result of absurd political wrangling the project was modified and the final tender was awarded to a Swede. Henning Larsen considered legal action, but there was another slap in the face in store. For a short while he had worked at the studio of the celebrated Danish architect Jørn Utzon. He was now accused by Utzon of copying the idea for the Stockholm University from him. Utzon himself was probably under pressure from the woes of the Sydney Opera House, but for Henning Larsen this discredit on top of losing the tender was almost unbearable. It took him years to recover, he later said.


The two architects are, in many ways, opposites. The tall, aristocratic Jørn Utzon – an undeniable genius with a delicate soul forever overshadowed by his own masterpiece – the Sydney Opera House – and the holder of a traumatic record in stranded design visions. An estimated 95% of his organic, poetic, and deeply original designs have never left the drawing board. And then Henning Larsen, the savvy fighter who with equal determination and pragmatism not only takes on the world but also seeks compromise whenever compatible with his artistic integrity – an approach that has earned him numerous commissions worldwide. For success finally did come.

Larsen’s wonders

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Trondheim University, Norway. Malmö Public Library, Sweden. The Nairobi headquarters of ‘The Nation’. The Schwäbisch Hall Museum of Art, Germany. And naturally, numerous buildings in Denmark where Henning Larsen’s architecture can take you from cradle to grave. You can be baptised in Enghøj Church by Randers and cremated in a chapel by Roskilde. In the meanwhile you can live in the Dalgas Have estate in Frederiksberg, attend the Klostermark elementary school by Roskilde, graduate from the Copenhagen Business School in Frederiksberg, work at the headquarters of Danish companies, such as Neurosearch, Mærsk and Nordea, and spend your leisure time at cultural institutions like NaturBornholm and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh is, however, his most famous design – and also the one he speaks of most fondly. Unlike Denmark, which Larsen complains is too bureaucratic and plagued by busybodies, in Riyadh he experienced a supervising minister who showed great professional respect – and who was pretty much beyond listening to others anyway. In his Riyadh design, Henning Larsen succeeded in creating a heavenly marriage between Islamic and Scandinavian architecture, which are not so far removed as one might think, at least not when a master such as Henning Larsen shows the way. Larsen’s philosophical approach draws in inspiration from architectural icons such as Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp, the strict geometric pattern of Islamic palaces, the ethereal lightness of Alhambra, and the white-washed vaulted ceilings of Danish village churches. A record team for Larsen of 125 architects at his studio in Copenhagen worked 24-hour shifts to finally complete the project in 1984, after four years of intense work.


Since then, Denmark has benefited greatly from Henning Larsen. Where Jørn Utzon was only ever granted one commission – Bagsværd Church – by the Danish state before retiring, Henning Larsen has been blessed with a flurry of state and private commissions that have made their mark on Copenhagen. With his new waterfront opera house opposite the Royal Palace he not only treads in the footsteps of Utzon, he adds another fourteen storeys to his professional legacy. The opera house, under the auspices of the Royal Danish Theatre, is a gift to the Danish people from Mærsk-McKinney Møller, owner of MAERSK Group, and just one of the many commissions Henning Larsen has completed for the shipping tycoon who has already turned 90. With the architect reaching 80, it just ain’t over till the fat lady sings! The opera house will be completed in October 2004.