Kay Fisker

Architect, Denmark
Kay Fisker was one of the early proponents of functionalism in Danish architecture.
Taking his point of departure from the early 20th-century Danish Neoclassicism so
prevalent in the 1910s and 1920s, he developed a type of functional building design
specific to the Danish language of materials. In this way, Fisker took his inspiration first
from functional theorist and practitioner Louis Sullivan and only later from his
contemporaries among the European architects, such as Mies van der Rohe, Walter
Gropius, and Le Corbusier. Fisker’s successful bridging of these two styles in his practice
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(with partner C.F.Møller from 1930 to 1941), along with his steadfast promotion of
functionalist ideals in his teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and
abroad and as a writer for architectural publications (including the Danish journal Arkitekten),
proves his place as one of the most influential figures in modern architecture in Denmark
is justified.
Fisker first melded regional expression with functionalist principles in a student
project, with Aage Rafn, for a small railroad station (1915) on the island of Bornholm. A
study in form, the end-gabled station, with little architectural detail other than patterning
of the brick exterior, set the stage for Fisker’s drawing on traditional Danish building
types for his simplified structures. Fisker was able to expand on his application of
functionalist principles to large-scale architecture beginning in the 1920s, specifically, on
new forms of housing called for after the world wars. It is for his work in this area that
Fisker is best known today.
The housing shortage in Denmark, particularly in Copenhagen, after World War I led
to substantial government funds allotted to large-scale housing projects. Fisker’s early
housing block Hornbækhus (1922) helped define a new type of structure meeting the
needs of modern Danes. The architect conceived of this rectangular apartment block,
which enclosed a large central garden, as a series of identical apartment modules, both
modern ideas at the time. This early solution, however, expressed functionalism through
the lingering vocabulary of Neoclassicism. The symmetrical brick exterior is broken only
by marching rows of uniform windows running across the entire facade of the building.
Fisker’s early publication with F.R.Yerbury, Modern Danish Arch itecture (1927), championed the neoclassical as
the most appropriate style of the day. It is this sense of regularity, of preoccupation with
massing and form, that remained the hallmark of Fisker’s architecture even after he
abandoned the neoclassical style in the 1930s.
The introduction of international functionalism, introduced through exhibitions in
Berlin and Stockholm in 1930, provided Denmark with a break from Neoclassicism. This
new practical vocabulary had a decisive effect on the direction of Fisker’s later apartment
houses and other structures. After some experimentation, Fisker applied a more attractive
and humanistic solution to the blocks of flats while still retaining their regional qualities.
His Vestersøhus housing project (1935, 1938) features brick facades broken up with
rectangular projecting balconies paired with windows, giving the structure a pleasing
proportion and appearance. This was no mean task with such an inherently long and
monotonous building type, although by this time the enclosed street block, seen in
Hornbækhus, had been abandoned. Fisker, in his 1948 article “The History of Domestic
Architecture in Denmark,” described this new functional aspect of balconies as helping to
“accentuate facades in the rhythm of the new architectural style, facades which…were to
give honest expression to the plan behind them” (Fisker, 1948). This break from
classicism also led to siting becoming a more important aspect of Danish modern
architecture, especially on the newly developed outskirts of Copenhagen. Vestersøhus, by
example, is picturesquely placed with its main facade facing a Copenhagen lake. In
addition, the state’s involvement with these residential estates meant that it exercised
aesthetic control, employing the same architects for later additions to ensure visual unity.
In the period following World War II, Fisker made significant contributions to the new
trend of terraced apartment houses of smaller separate units set about in a parklike area.
The grouping of several smaller housing blocks together throughout such massive estates
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became a typical way of breaking up the monotony of large-scale residential projects
while providing more light and a neighborhood feel. Buildings in these complex
developments related to the natural site and to one another in a way that the long housing
blocks could not. Fisker’s Voldparken estate (Husum, 1949–51) is a celebrated example
of this type of housing block evolution in which the previously mentioned solutions are
applied. Fisker again concentrated on overall form and massing, keeping in mind native
qualities. Each house, for example, is constructed of warm indigenous brick with a hip
roof. The long facades are again relieved through Fisker’s use of balconies that
ingeniously project from the building at an angle. Fisker also designed a school (1951–
57) at Voldparken.
Many of the qualities of Fisker’s large-scale housing projects were appropriate for his
most well known project. In 1931, Fisker, along with partner C.F.Møller and Povl
Stegmann, won the competition for the new Århus University campus (1932–68) in
Århus, Denmark. It was only the country’s second university, and the state broke with the
classical, formal situation of an urban campus in favor of a modern one. The setting was
undeveloped land marked by rolling hills, existing groves of trees, and glacial streams
that were dammed to create two small lakes. The university buildings were to be
informally nestled into this park setting while respecting the natural terrain. The
architects strove for uniformity in the architectural vocabulary of the structures, and this
program was adhered to in later additions (Stegmann left the project in 1937 and Fisker
in 1945, after which C.F.Møller was the sole architect). Fisker’s university buildings
again recall traditional Danish structures, with their cubist forms, pitched roofs of yellow
tiles, and unbroken yellow-brick exteriors, but on a much larger scale. Therefore, the
buildings, beginning with the strong, unornamented Institute for Chemistry, Physics, and
Anatomy (1932–33), although clearly expressing the new functionalism, still project the
monumental qualities typical of Fisker’s work.
The transition between Neoclassicism and Danish functionalism in Fisker’s
architecture can also be traced in his silver designs for A.Michelsen in the 1920s, whereas
his domestic and ship interiors display a more modern progressivism. This influence can
be seen in the work of his students, such as Jørn Utzon, who went on to international
fame.

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