Brick by brick - Issue 171 - Magazine | Monocle
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For four days in March the world’s top property specialists will descend on Cannes for Le marché international des professionnels de l’immobilier, or Mipim, the sector’s leading trade fair. To accompany the annual event, monocle has conducted its own temperature check of the industry, with lessons for both multinationals and family-run firms. We begin our survey with a profile of an organisation using “catalytic philanthropy” to boost quality of life in Denmark. –– L

best for charitable development
Realdania

Copenhagen, Denmark

When outsiders attempt to analyse the remarkable quality of life that Denmark is known for, one often-overlooked factor is the role played by philanthropic foundations, a field in which the Danes could reasonably claim to lead the world. These fonde, whether family-owned or set up by companies, donate or invest more than dkk20bn (€2.9bn) a year to causes and projects at home and abroad. The foundation of Danish multi­national pharmaceutical company Novo Nordiskis the world’s largest charitable fund, while Maersk’s, Carlsberg’s and Lego’s funds are similarly gargantuan. But in terms of contributions to the built environment, Realdania is the global leader.

“We don’t talk about ‘investments’,” ceo Jesper Nygård tells monocle. “Our ‘return’ is to make a better society. It is very important that we support issues that cannot be solved just by government or local authorities, or the private sector, or civil society alone.”

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Blox in Copenhagen’s Inner Harbour

Realdania has supported 4,750 building projects since it was established more than 20 years ago, ranging from community centres to museums, cultural hubs, parks, bridges and major urban transformation projects. “We are the enzyme that combines public and private sectors,” says Nygård. “Politicians are under increasing pressure to spend less tax money and the private sector has to have more focus on making a shorter-term return. Our role is to take risks and look longer term, even a generation ahead.”

Realdania’s roots go back to the first credit unions of the 18th century but in 2000 it divested of its banking and mortgage activities to focus on charitable development work. Today it describes itself as a “self-endowed philanthropic association” with a total equity of dkk25bn (€3.35bn). On average, it spends dkk1bn (€134m) of returns from its investments on philanthropic projects in the built environment across the country every year. Some of those projects will themselves bring revenue or a complete return on investment but most are purely philanthropic.

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Blox exterior
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Blocks inside Blox

If you can think of a recent urban landmark in Denmark, the chances are that Realdania funded it, whether it’s Olafur Eliasson’s “Your Rainbow Panorama” on the roof of Aarhus’s Aros art museum, Norman Foster’s elephant house at Copenhagen Zoo or the capital’s innovative urban park, Superkilen, by Bjarke Ingels Group. Among its boldest projects is Blox, a stack of blocks dominating Copenhagen’s Inner Harbour.

“Blox was created to be not only a home for the Danish Architecture Center [dac] but also a place that would welcome all those who were in the business of architecture, design, engineering and development,” says dac’s ceo, Kent Martinussen, who was involved in the project from the very start with architect Rem Koolhaas of Dutch studio oma. “The Danish parliament was not ready to invest money in a new building but Realdania saw this as a way for it to engage with the public on issues such as sustainability, urbanisation and what architecture can do to shape society. And because it is a philanthropic association that will, in effect, be here forever, it can allow itself to think 50 years ahead when it comes to making an investment.”

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Exhibition at the Danish Architecture Center
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Model development

Realdania is also behind the transformation of the centre of Odense, Denmark’s third city, matching the local authority’s budget of dkk255m (€34m) in a decade-long project completed in 2021. Where once Odense’s medieval city centre was rudely bisected by a four-lane highway, now a tram glides through a green pedestrian zone with new housing and shops, and the stunning new Kengo Kuma-designed Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

“It’s a great example of how architecture can improve quality of life,” Realdania’s director of philanthropy, Nina Kovsted Helk, tells monocle from Los Angeles, where she is consulting with US foundations. “At the beginning in Odense, people were criticising the project at public meetings because they didn’t want years of construction to take over their streets. Now the locals love it. As the mayor has said, ‘People used to come to Odense to see how not to design a city. Now they come to learn how to.’” Ironically, given the mayor’s enthusiasm, one of the lessons that Helk took from Odense’s transformation was to keep politicians away from the details. “It was important that those decisions were taken by experts – the architects, anthropologists and engineers. The politicians were strategically bold enough to let us do that.”

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Realdania’s director of philanthropy, Nina Kovsted Helk

On a smaller scale is Demokrati Garage, a new event and project space in Copenhagen’s Nordvest neighbourhood, in which Realdania was a partner. “We think of ourselves as like a clubhouse for democracy, engaging this neighbourhood, which is very diverse and young,” project partner Johan Galster tells monocle. “Realdania made sure that we found a balance, creating something not just for political nerds but for the whole community. I think that we inspired it in terms of  how to engage with the grass roots. The old top-down way is dead.”

Anyone who owns property in Denmark can join Realdania for free and have a say in how the fund is run. Currently, about 185,000 Danes have joined. “We love it when we drop a stone in the water and see the rings spread,” says Nygård. “We call it ‘catalytic philanthropy’. That’s why we feel obliged to share our knowledge globally. In Denmark, we demonstrate that together, with our knowledge and experience, we can improve the quality of life for everyone through bricks, stones and construction.”

Monocle comment
When you can think about the long term and consider what will happen in 50 years’ time, you will focus on quality, commitment to place, raising the bar, aware that the next generation will judge the wisdom of your decisions.

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Realdania’s CEO, Jesper Nygård
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Don’t look down

Market analysis: Paris

French blues

“Having a pied-à-terre in Paris is considered a trophy asset for a collector of properties,” says Susie Hollands, ceo of bespoke real-estate agency Vingt. The concentration of international business and effective transport links with the rest of Europe has long made the French capital an appealing place to settle, especially for those with an active interest in the Parisian food, art and fashion scenes. “It’s never really been about the return on investment.”

Today, the city is in flux. “Paris has been a different city since the pandemic,” says Hollands. An exodus of young Parisians, tired of the endless influx of tourists, means the French capital is experiencing a higher level of foreign investment than ever. “There isn’t one nationality dominating the market,” she adds. “Paris has always attracted high numbers of Americans but we’re seeing a resurgence of Middle Eastern and Singaporean buyers.”

After enjoying a period of buoyancy thanks to low interest rates and a sharp increase in buying, Paris’s property market began to plummet in 2022. In December property prices hit a low point, valued at about €11,000 per square metre – a figure that looks set to fall below €10,000 in 2024. Interest rates have quadrupled in 18 months, plus a tightening of criteria for bank loans has prompted Parisians to hold off from buying. “The process for getting a mortgage in France is difficult because they have a very different attitude to debt compared with the US and UK,” says Hollands. “It’s very hard to get on Paris’s property ladder.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. With the 2024 Olympic Games on the horizon, it’s likely that new housing stock will become available as homeowners who are holding out until the event start to sell. One neighbourhood, the northeastern department of Seine-Saint-Denis, has seen an increase of 18 per cent in its property prices year on year. Though the industrial suburb has always been something of a sporting hotspot (it’s where the Stade de France sits), the construction of the Aquatics Centre and Athletes’ Village here will give the commune – and the suburbs in general – an increasingly desirable quality of life, broadening real estate investment appeal in the wider Île‑de-France region. 

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