Jamiee Williams: “Copenhagen is a village disguised as a city.”

Jamiee Williams: “Copenhagen is a village disguised as a city.”

In the throes of applying for her Danish citizenship, Welsh-born architect Jamiee Williams can’t imagine living anywhere but Copenhagen. She was initially drawn to this green utopia to learn about its pioneering work in sustainable design. Roles at innovative organisations such as CHART Art Fair, The Urban Village Project and IKEA’s SPACE10 further streamlined Jamiee’s focus on making a better world for both people and planet. In 2021, Jamiee is working to carve her own path, starting with the creation of collective venture studio, Fragile, and she firmly believes there is no better place to seed an idea than Copenhagen. We chat to Jamiee about the welcoming network of innovators and the abounding green inspiration in the Danish capital.

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On discovering Denmark as a leader in sustainability 

During my first year of architecture school in Bristol, we had lectures titled ‘Learning Lessons from Denmark’ where I began to discover the country’s approach to architecture and planning. Copenhagen has always been at the forefront of sustainable development. Denmark is comprised of hundreds of islands and the country already gets 57% of its electricity from wind power. 

On Copenhagen, the green city 

Copenhagen is set to be the first carbon neutral capital by 2025. There’s a lot of awareness around sustainability and working with the planet, not against it. You can walk everywhere (it takes an hour to walk from one side of the city to the other) and there’s a real prioritisation of public space. I love that you can see the elephants in the zoo from the neighboring public park and the theme park is right in the middle of the city, you can hear people screaming down the street! For me, this represents the city’s open attitude.

On being welcomed into a culture of sharing 

I’ve never found Danish people to be reserved. When I moved here, I already had some friends and I was quickly invited into their network. I always say Copenhagen is a village disguised as a city. It is really interconnected and quite easy to build bridges into different disciplines — the perfect place for cross collaboration. It’s the same with the cooperative model of living; people share the courtyard space and everyone is responsible for its upkeep. It’s a great way to meet your neighbors and get a sense of community. 

Above: A slice of history — the Church of Holmen is the oldest piece of Renaissance architecture in Copenhagen. Middle and below: As the architect and artistic manager of Chart Art Fair, Jamiee Williams oversaw the development of Bjarke Ingels Group SKUM installation in 2016 and the main pavilion in 2017. Images courtesy Jamiee Williams.

On nurturing a curiosity in structure from a young age 

I grew up in Wales surrounded by nature and mountains. There wasn’t much to do other than build shelters and dens. From a very young age I was interested in architecture and creating a form of habitation. 

On spending formative years in Milan 

In my third year of university I studied in Milan. I was 20 and it felt like I was evolving and changing along with the city, it was definitely going through a similar transformation in preparation for hosting the 2015 World Expo. It was a very experimental time with an underground scene of designers, artists, and musicians. I found it easy to go off the beaten track and find all these amazing subcultures. I lived in Isola which, at the time, was a little cut off from the city so it was seen as a haven for those seeking a bit more of an alternative to the fashion districts. There were a lot of pop–up exhibitions, street art and student takeovers in abandoned places. It was truly culture at its best. Nowadays the area still holds its bohemian charm but feels like it has caught up with the rest of the city with an influx of restaurants, bars and vintage shops. I also loved the citywide concept of aperitivo hour where everyone — and I mean everyone — went for all-you-can-eat-and-drink after work. That tradition is going strong! 

Copenhagen is set to be the first carbon neutral capital by 2025. There’s a lot of awareness around sustainability and working with the planet, not against it.

On returning to Japan again and again 

I spent a lot of time in Japan but my most memorable trip was for a research project exploring the art islands in the Seto Inland Sea. In the late 80s these old industrial islands were completely rundown and really polluted before a total makeover. It all started with a billionaire businessmen who shared a vision to clean up the islands and make them a place of culture and education. Together with his friend, world-renowned architect Tadao Ando, they turned their vision into reality with the construction of architectural masterpieces built in harmony with the surrounding nature. Abandoned houses were also transformed, supporting the local community and allowing it to thrive once again. What’s great is that the older community still lives there — the average age is 70! 

Above: ‘The Ideal City’, a book devoted to designing a better urban environment for humanity, created during Jamiee’s time at SPACE10 (photographer Anne-Sophie Rosenvinge). Below: Jamiee talking to SPACE10’s urban research at the 2019 Zündfunk Netzkongress in Munich (image courtesy Jamiee Williams).

On exploring new places through an architectural lens  

I was taught that the best way to understand and connect to a city was to get lost in it. So when travelling, I quite often have a destination in mind but no set way to get there. It allows me to stumble into local neighborhoods and immerse myself into the real life of those who reside there. You can learn a lot about a place by noticing the systems that support it; the public transport, the hierarchies of person vs bike vs car, or built area vs public space, and so on. I try to notice small details; how the waste is collected or how long it takes to walk to a convenience store.

I was taught that the best way to understand and connect to a city was to get lost in it.

On building a Danish summerhouse 

I really subscribe to the way of life here and I never see myself leaving. There’s a great work/life balance. I also love the summerhouse culture; a lot of Danes own a second home. It’s often a simple wooden structure located in a forest or by the beach. People tend to vacate the city in the summer and spend months living the simple life. I’m currently designing my own summerhouse with Lenschow Pihlmann architects and I can’t wait to have our own little forest escape. 

On seeing water as the heart of the city 

There are four lakes in Copenhagen and the development of the harbor has been the biggest change that I’ve witnessed during my time here. Now there are so many museums and libraries and the entirety of the waterfront is open to swimming and socialising. It’s wonderful how popular it’s become. 

SPACE10 is the Copenhagen–based innovation lab by IKEA, that’s dedicated to researching and designing solutions to problems that affect both people and planet. Images courtesy Jamiee Williams.

On watching the collaborative food scene explode  

Denmark’s reputation as a leading gastronomic destination has grown out of a culture of cooperation. It’s all about building partnerships to create something new instead of competing against one another. There’s a big trend at the moment for plant-based restaurants. My favourite is called Baka d’ Busk. They’ve taken the vegetable from the role of sidekick to the lead actor. The food is fun and full of flavor and each course is matched with natural wine. It’s a great local hangout spot. 

Denmark’s reputation as a leading gastronomic destination has grown out of a culture of cooperation. It’s all about building partnerships to create something new instead of competing against one another.

On defining the districts 

Each district of the city has its own personality. The old centre is where you’ll find the museums, historical buildings and many tourist attractions like the famous canal tours. In Vesterbro, where I live, there’s the Meatpacking District, which is full of bars, restaurants, and innovation labs, such as SPACE10 where I worked for almost four years. This area is known for its experimentation, such as fermentation labs and niche coffee spots. The green boulevard is really the spine of Vesterbro, where everyone gathers in the summer for festivals, before spilling out into cafés and wine bars. There’s also the Carlsberg brewery, of course, and now more big industrial buildings are being turned into cultural centers. Frederiksberg is the neighboring district, which is more sophisticated, family focused, and filled with grand villas. Then there’s Refshaleøen where I love to go cycling in the summer. It’s an artificial island with a rich industrial heritage that’s slowly being transformed into a vibrant new neighborhood. You can find the world’s best restaurant, Noma, a short bike ride away from local cafés and bars with their very own swim spots and saunas, such as La Banchina and Lille Bakery.

On inspiring builds in Copenhagen

The waterfront holds a lot of architectural gems, including The Royal Danish Playhouse by Lundgaard & Tranberg who are some of my favorite architects. The new home for the Danish Architecture Center is in the BLOX building by OMA and is also along the water, as well as the Olafur Eliasson Cirkelbroen (circle bridge). The neighborhood of Ørestad holds some experimental housing architecture including 8 House by Bjarke Ingels Group and Tietgenkollegiet (Tietgen Residence Hall) by Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects. For those looking to head out of the city, EFFEKT have just made an amazing forest tower for Camp Adventure. Nordhavn is also undergoing a huge transformation and one of my favorite buildings there is the Park ‘n’ Play by JAJA, as well as the transformation of an old grain silo by Cobe Architects.

JAJA Architects’ Park ‘n’ Play building in the rapidly developing Nordhavn district is one of Jamiee’s favorite builds, and one that cleverly combines the utility of a parking garage with an elevated public playground and gym. Photos by Rasmus Hjortshøj, Coast Studio. 

On your predictions in urban design 

I believe we’re going to start really prioritising nature and biodiversity in our cities — that could mean keeping bees, nurturing urban farms or just incorporating more green space. Everything will become more localised, such as where our food originates from or where our energy is generated. Our neighborhoods will feel more like villages where a community is connected and supported. We’ll also see more opportunities for community space with shared responsibility and ownership. 

At the end of the day, I’m trying to make my time on earth mean something. I want to give back to the planet.

On the future of construction

I truly believe the future of building lies in engineered wood. Sustainably managed mass timber sequesters carbon, supports a healthier planet and has proven health benefits for its inhabitants. It’s a flexible and easy material to work with, meaning we can reduce our waste and create buildings that can adapt to our needs over time. 

On launching a company to fight the climate crisis 

In late 2021 I’m co-launching Fragile, a collective venture studio. There are a lot of innovation labs that create visions and concepts to inspire change but there’s a gap between these ideas and action. Our purpose is to bridge this gap and nudge our society towards more sustainable futures. Fragile will prioritise a collaborative approach, involving those with the aspiration, know-how, network and resources to come together and accelerate change. At the end of the day, I’m trying to make my time on earth mean something. I want to give back to the planet.

One-hour drive south of Copenhagen is the Camp Adventure climbing park, where EFFEKT architects have designed a 45-meter-high forest tower overlooking the Danish countryside. Images courtesy Camp Adventure. 

On mastering a language for citizenship 

I always joke that Danes speak better English than I do. In my professional life, language was never a problem but as my personal life becomes more integrated into Danish culture, of course it becomes more important. The prospect of having kids and joining a family where the older generations are more hesitant to let go of their language means I need to improve. I’m currently learning high school level Danish to get my citizenship. It’s tough! 

On a window or an aisle seat

Window. As an architect, seeing the city from a plan view is just amazing.

On Copenhagen in one word

Samfundssind. This Danish word loosely translates as ‘community spirit’ or ‘social mindedness’. Danish people really have trust in society and believe in the social good, and this word sums that up.

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Nuggets in this interview

food and drink

La Banchina, Copenhagen

“You can find the world's best restaurant, Noma, a short bike ride away from local cafés and bars with their very own swim spots and saunas, such as La Banchina.”

–Jamiee Williams

food and drink

Osteria16, Copenhagen

“Right now I love Italian fusion, and the natural wine scene is crazy.”

–Jamiee Williams

inspiration

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

“Like a whole other world as you walk in.”

–Jamiee Williams

inspiration

Camp Adventure, Rønnede

“For those looking to head out of the city, EFFEKT have just made an amazing forest tower for Camp Adventure.”

–Jamiee Williams

inspiration

Park ‘n’ Play, Copenhagen

"Nordhavn is also undergoing a huge transformation and one of my favorite buildings there is the Park ‘n’ Play by JAJA."

–Jamiee Williams

inspiration

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk

“45 minutes outside the city, but one of the best museums in the world.”

–Jamiee Williams

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