Denmark Took a Mountain of Trash and Made a Ski Hill

On a cold, windy December day in Denmark, Amager Bakke might look, at least through severely fogged goggles, like any other ski slope. Near the top, helmeted skiers slalom down steep black-diamond runs, while at the bottom, headphone-wearing snowboarders hit jumps and rails. An instructor schools children in the art of the pizza wedge, while two friends giggle after one takes a tumble near the safety netting. At the nearby lodge, people enjoy glasses of après-ski glogg.

Wipe the goggles, and a whole other reality emerges. Amager Bakke, or CopenHill, as it’s been dubbed, is a 462,848-square-foot waste-to-energy plant—which just happens to have a ski slope on its roof—rising like a glittering aluminum iceberg from the flat plains of a semi-industrial section of Amager (pronounced, inexplicably, “am-ah”), an island that comprises part of the city of Copenhagen.

Standing at the 279-foot summit of what is now one of the city’s tallest structures presents a surreal spectacle: skiers whooshing down a vast carpet of green Neveplast, a synthetic “dry skiing” surface from Italy, amid a staggering panorama that’s dominated by the smokestacks of nearby biomass plants and, behind them, the gloomy, fog-shrouded expanse of the North Sea, dotted with massive wind turbines. Like the writer Don DeLillo’s “postmodern sunsets,” it’s at once inspiringly beautiful and vaguely apocalyptic.

Walking around the windswept peak, I run into Chemmy Alcott, a now retired English ski racer and four-time Olympian, who’s filming a segment for the BBC’s Ski Sundayand has just completed a run on silicone-coated skis (a required lubricant on CopenHill).

“It’s really quite epic,” she says. No stranger to artificial snow, she tells me that she finds the stubbier Neveplast faster than she’s used to. “It’s not boring,” she said of Amager Bakke, praising the “undulating terrain” and the strange experience of skiing through the vaporous plumes of steam being vented by the plant. “For a moment you lose awareness, and then you come out the other side,” she says. “It’s like when you skydive and go through a cloud.”

CopenHill, which, along with the plant below, is ownedby Amager Resource Center (ARC), offers more than skiing. You can simply hike to the summit on the marked trail for the best view in Copenhagen, stopping to admire the wild strawberries growing on landscaped sections to one side of the slope (where a fox was recently spied). You can also run that path up (there’s already a Strava segment). If you’ve any gas left, there are CrossFit bars at the top. “Last weekend we had a race with 450 people dressed as Santa Claus,” Cecilie Nielsen, CopenHill’s head of customer relations, tells me. “It was awesome.”

Come spring, one of the world’s tallest climbing walls, a twisting and weaving ascent, will open on a corner of the building, which will eventually be laced with green as the structure’s built-in aluminum window boxes begin to bloom. And, lest they forget why they are there, climbers, as they traverse along the holds, will get occasional views into the plant itself, where soaring apses support the huge and complex workings that turn Danish garbage into Danish heat and electricity.

That a cutting-edge waste-to-energy facility now also boasts the best skiing in Denmark—call it the powder plant—is thanks to native son Bjarke Ingels, one of the world’s best-known architects and an espouser of a way of thinking he’s called “sustainable hedonism,” a near oxymoronic philosophy that dares to ask the question: Can saving the world be fun?

Ingels seems to have a thing for roofs.

When I first met him in Copenhagen in 2006, we were standing atop a building he’d designed along with his former business partner, Julien De Smedt. Called the Maritime Youth House, it serves as a sailing club with a youth center. Lacking outdoor space, the architects fashioned the roof into a swooping, skateboard-park-like deck.

Strolling through the vast range of his subsequent work that was on view at the Danish Architecture Center this past fall, this seeming penchant for upward thinking was on abundant display—from residential projects like the Mountain in Copenhagen (a building that happens to look like a mountain) or Stockholm’s 79th and Park, whose roof is comprised of terraces, many planted with greenery, to the in-progress design for the new Oakland A’s stadium, which features a tree-lined linear park running along a curved covering that dips toward the ground. The projects of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) often look like dramatic staging grounds for some extreme sport or another (to take one example, the proposed Google campus in Sunnyvale, California), so it’s small wonder that Ingels—and some of his work—appeared in a film about parkour.

When I ask Ingels, as we sit in the Denali conference room inside the waste-to-energy plant beneath the ski slope, if any sort of line can be drawn between the small-scale Maritime Youth House and the huge CopenHill, he smiles. “In a very literal way, there is the idea of doing things you’re not supposed to do on the roof,” he says. “But more fundamentally, there’s this idea that if we’re going to do something, we might as well do it the most exciting way possible.” This is a man, after all, who once compared his architecture to a game of Twister, which only becomes fun—more “acrobatic and enjoyable”—as you start “pouring on more demands.”

From left: CopenHill’s tallest face; the waste-to-energy plant that's housed within the structure
From left: CopenHill’s tallest face; the waste-to-energy plant that’s housed within the structure (Photo: Tom Vanderbilt)

The idea of a hill loomed, by necessity, early in the project. The engineers, Ingels says, had dictated a basic envelope for the building, based on the machinery inside. “It was this kind of tiered series of blocks that got taller,” he says, like an ascending stereo-equalizer display. “The diagram was already mountainesque.”

Initially, BIG added “the simplest kind of sloping roof,” adorned with a rooftop park. But he felt they were “staying in the realm of cosmetics,” like “putting lipstick on a pig.” He wondered if they could do something more transformative. On a site visit, Ingels noticed the nearby Copenhagen Cable Park, which whizzes wakeboarders around the harbor via overhead wires. “It just became so clear: the skiers had already arrived, but only in the summer.”

That part of Copenhagen wasn’t hurting for open space, but what it lacked—what the entire country lacked—was an enticing ski hill. “You have to drive four hours to Isaberg, in Sweden,” he says. “And Isaberg is not a very large mountain. The main slope is only a 150-meter [492-foot] drop. So it dawned on us that we could actually do two-thirds of a real mountain ski slope.” It seemed far-fetched at first. They talked to a ski-resort operator. They talked to Team Denmark, an elite-sports organization. No one told them it couldn’t be done, if only because no one had done it. “We started getting an understanding that we couldn’t actually shoot the idea down.”

Not that it was easy. As Jesper Boye Anderson, a designer at BIG, had told me in the firm’s Brooklyn offices: “You don’t open the code books and then look how to do a ski slope on top of a waste-burning plant.”

In one unconventional twist, the building is designed so that, in the event of a fire or an explosion, the walls will give way before the roof, as a safety measure for the skiers up top. The company, too, had to get the topography right from the get-go. “Once you mount concrete slabs,” Andersen said, “you’re kind of locked on the geometry.” On top of those slabs, a layer of soil was attached, on which grass was planted to cushion skiers’ falls and help with drainage. On top of that went the Neveplast panels, and skiers’ blades trim the grass that pokes through.

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