Heritage in danger: the Viking Ship Hall

Vikingeskibshallen (The Viking Ship Hall) is a masterwork of modern Danish architecture. It is a unique structure that creatively integrates museum, setting and archaeology in a way that transcends historic definitions. The Viking Ship Hall was built in 1967-68 and was the first late modern building to be listed for protection in Denmark in 1998.

Following dramatic floods in 2013 and a subsequent escalation of structural decay issues, the Viking Ship Hall became the subject of unusual political and public debate. It was used to prompt a significant change in the Danish heritage law that weakens the protection of listed modern buildings.

Viking ship museum
The Viking Ship Museum 2018. Interior photo: Elise Stoklund

This museum dedicated to naval archaeology celebrates an important chapter in Viking history: the intentional sinking of five Viking ships, built in different countries including Norway and Ireland, to block the sea access to Denmark’s former capital, the town of Roskilde. These five ships were discovered in 1957, and their exhibition motivated the construction of the museum. The construction to expand the museum in the 1990s uncovered nine more large vessels from the same period, which were incorporated into the museum’s collection, cementing the institution’s importance.

The building is the result of a competition held in 1963. The winner was Erik Christian Sørensen, with a proposal that ties in the naval artefacts with the landscape: the structure sits directly on the water, while a huge picture window frames the fjord. Thus, the ships inside are related both to the sea and to the sky, and their profiles, as seen from the water, seem to float in the fjord.

The Viking Ship Hall ca. 1970, before the ships were in place and the hall was still functioning as a workspace as well as an exhibition hall. photo: Keld Helmer-Petersen ©

Undoubtedly, the most remarkable aspect of the architectural design is the care with which the imposing structure of exposed concrete is adapted to the needs of the ships, while also clearly expressing its structural principles through the superposition of beams and joists. The architect’s sketches reveal the delicate development of the design, in which the structure determines the building’s appearance while adapting, with the support of a conscientious exhibition design, to the shape and position of the ships. The drawings also show how the visitor routes help interpret the value of the ships, putting them into relation with the landscape. “V”- shaped skylights bring light into the building from overhead, enhancing the overall ambiente.

The building is under threat to be demolished.

For this reason, one of the InnovaConcrete project objectives is to promote Awareness about the relevance of the 20th Century Cultural Heritage.

A preliminary analysis of citizen awareness about tangible 20th Century Cultural Heritage clearly reveals that buildings and sites built during the first half of the 20th Century (1890-1945) under the Modern Movement, currently enjoy a certain degree of recognition.

However, newer buildings, particularly those with concrete as a primary finish material, suffer neglect and on-going decay. Some iconic buildings are alarmingly under threat of demolition. A representative example of such buildings is the east-European architecture from the socialism period (read more about Architecture in Socialism Period). These buildings are often in urban environments and include bridges, residential and commercial buildings and train stations. For this reason, they are too often treated as insignificant public use structures and not recognized as important Cultural Heritage

By Jose Antonio - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36025392

The ICOMOS International Alert

On 30th August 2018, the Danish Minister of Culture, Mette Bock, against the advice of her own experts’ and the advice of the department of culture, decided to delist the building.

As a consequence, the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, which owns the building but not the ships, has sent a letter to the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Danish Parliament officially stating that the museum now intends to demolish the building and build a new one.

ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on 20th Century Heritage (ISC20C) and all Danish heritage organisations consider this an alarming and unnecessary loss of one of the most internationally significant modern buildings in Denmark.

ISC20C appeals for the preservation of the Viking Ship Hall, stressing that the structural issues and the climate conditions of the building site are not unique and can be addressed. The investment and the effort to preserve architectural masterpieces in concrete are widely supported and achieved in many places around the world.

ISC20C appeals for immediate action to preserve the Viking Ship Hall as an internationally outstanding architectural ensemble that has significant future large socio-economic potential.

The Viking Ship Museum 2018. Interior photo: Elise Stoklund

What do you think about this Danish masterpiece? Give us your comments!

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