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Few Danish businessmen have left as profound a mark on their country as Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller. Between 1965 and 2003 he ran the nation’s biggest conglomerate: AP Moller-Maersk. The shipping venture that his father founded with a single vessel in 1904 is today the biggest container-shipping company in the world, known simply as Maersk Group; it has a fleet of more than 600 vessels and about 90,000 employees worldwide. (Just try passing a logistics hub without spying stacks of light-blue containers bearing the firm’s seven-pointed star on the side.) Much of that growth is down to his 38 years of leadership, first as CEO, then as chairman.

Mr Møller – as he is still reverently known inside the company – died in 2012 and is remembered with such fondness that each employee seems to have a favourite anecdote: the way he waltzed up six flights of stairs to his office each morning, even in his nineties, leaving the lift for female members of staff in a show of chivalry; or the occasion he retraced his steps after a meeting to shake the hand of a junior colleague who he had unintentionally neglected.

Møller was both the avuncular head of the company and a titan of the industry, guiding it through four decades of momentous change. During his reign, Maersk transformed from a company predominantly engaged in shipping into a conglomerate involved in everything from supermarkets to oil and gas. But Møller also left an impression on Copenhagen and its waterfront when, in the 1970s, he commissioned architect Ole Hagen to design the company’s new headquarters on Esplanaden, the street marking the northern border of the Frederiksstaden district.

“Ole Hagen is only semi-famous in the history of Danish architecture,” says Anders Brix, professor of architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. “He’s not someone we often refer to when teaching students about the country’s best architecture.” Unlike his contemporaries Arne Jacobsen and Jørn Utzon, Hagen’s fame has dimmed, but in the 1960s and 70s he was one of Denmark’s top architects. He was also Møller’s preferred architect (the industrialist would later ask him to design his private residence too).

Approaching the headquarters on Esplanaden, Maersk’s home since 1979, what’s most striking is how the building appears to deviate from its surroundings. Copenhagen’s historic architecture demonstrates the city’s close connection to the sea; many of the structures along the harbour are old wharves and shipyards, now converted into food markets and office spaces. The most common materials are bricks and ceramic tiles; high pitched roofs are the norm.

By contrast, Maersk’s building is a gleaming flat-topped monolith of white-marble shingle, blue-tinted windows and stainless steel. It is a typical example of a strain of modernism known as the International Style, which was already well established by the 1970s and that borrowed its smart design cues from mid-century Chicago and New York.

The design is a reflection of the affinity that Møller had with the US. His mother was American, born in Kentucky, and during the Second World War a young Møller moved to New York, where he lived for several years. It was during this time that he befriended Thomas Watson Jr, the future CEO of IBM (in 1970, despite running Maersk from Copenhagen, Møller became the first non-American member of IBM’s board). “He had a very close relationship with America from the beginning,” says Henning Morgen, group historian at Maersk. “Some of the inspiration for the Esplanaden building absolutely comes from there.”

Although the American influence on Maersk’s headquarters is apparent, closer inspection of the building reveals details that also connect it to Copenhagen’s vernacular architecture. “When you look at the façade, the rhythm, the sizes and proportions of the windows are clearly derived from the warehouses that surround Copenhagen harbour,” says Professor Brix. At the same time, the fact that the windows are all set back from the façade in uniform rectangular indents – making it resemble a container ship – gives the exterior a certain depth and heaviness. “This mass somehow also speaks to the great mass of the big warehouse buildings.”

Bo Boje Larsen, an architect formerly of Henning Larsen Architects who designed the 2005 extension of the Esplanaden building, agrees that there is more to the 1970s exterior than meets the eye. It’s broken up into two blocks of differing heights, he notes, which “breaks the scale down to Danish proportions”. In its own way it is “very Danish”.

It’s clear that Møller played a key role in deciding on the final look and feel of the headquarters. “He was in on every major decision,” says Morgen. “Mr Møller was the most hands-on client I have ever worked with,” adds Larsen, looking up at the façade of the extension he designed, now the worldwide base of Maersk Oil. “I reported directly to him and he wanted to know about every detail and the reasons behind every decision.”

Sitting in his office in the original Hagen-designed building, with a life-size portrait of Møller on the wall opposite him, Lars-Erik Brenoe, formerly Møller’s personal assistant and now the company’s executive vice-president, recalls a bizarre tale.

When Møller decided to fund the construction of Copenhagen’s Royal Opera House in 2000, Henning Larsen was commissioned to design the structure. Yet even with such a revered name running the design, Møller was eager to be involved. Brenoe remembers one time he and the chairman travelled to the island of Fyn to inspect the façade of Toyota’s regional office there, which employed a material that Henning Larsen had suggested for the opera house. “Mr Møller asked me to bring some water, knowing that in Denmark the wall would be wet roughly 100 days a year and it might look different,” says Brenoe. “People were looking on as Mr Møller, the biggest businessman in Denmark, watched his assistant pour water onto Toyota’s office. Then we drove away without telling anyone,” he adds, laughing.

Bo Larsen puts this attention to detail down in part to Maersk’s corporate structure. “I’ve worked on many office buildings with many ceos,” he says. “Owners are always different to ceos because instead of looking five or 10 years ahead, they look 50 years ahead. The roof on this building is made of stainless steel, for instance; it’s far more expensive than the alternatives but Mr Møller wanted it because it would last for 70 years.”

Møller’s preference for practicality is also evident inside Esplanaden. There are some artful adornments: a bust of AP Møller, Maersk’s father, in the untouched wood-panelled lobby; a circular rug by Danish textile artist Kim Naver at the base of a spiral staircase; and dozens of model Maersk ships in display cases throughout the building. The focus, however, is undoubtedly on creating an efficient workspace.

The spot that had served as Maersk’s headquarters up until 1979, a heritage building in Copenhagen’s main central square of Kongens Nytorv, had frustrated Møller because of the lack of flexibility it afforded. The interior here is therefore highly modular; interior walls can be moved around to make shared office spaces bigger and create smaller meeting rooms. “If there is one key word in my mind it’s ‘flexibility’,” says Brenoe. “We can actually make entire floors open plan if we want to.”

The interior of the 2005 extension takes that core principle of flexibility and brings it up to date. From 2010, global workplace optimisation manager Karina Tjur Gunsten worked with Copenhagen firm PLH Architects to redesign the spaces in an effort to encourage collaboration within Maersk Oil.

She created informal lounge areas furnished with Montis chairs, Little Friend side tables by Fritz Hansen and painted steel planters full of greenery. “The most radical part of it was the reallocation of space,” says Gunsten of the concept. “We used to have a lot of owned space: private offices and restricted meeting rooms. We started with an overall 80:20 division between owned and shared space; the goal is to be closer to 60:40.”

The design of the extension’s exterior also shows how times have moved on. By the time Bo Larsen came to draw up his plans, architecture that more clearly referenced the city was called for. His façade acts as a sensitive bridge between the 1970s Hagen-designed building on the waterfront and the heritage townhouses on Amaliegade, the street that runs south from Esplanaden. By inserting air vents into the exterior at street level and raising the ground-floor windows, for instance, he complemented the older buildings across the street, which feature low windows for letting light into basement apartments.

Aside from simply increasing the amount of office space available, the 2005 extension also allowed Maersk to reorientate itself towards the city. The walkway added by Bo Larsen connecting the two buildings is a fully glazed colonnade, meaning passers-by can see right through onto the lawn of the central courtyard. The northwestern corner of the extension is designed, moreover, to subtly mirror the 18th-century plan of the city that was drawn up by architect Nicolai Eigtved.

All in all the extension took what was a closed building – “a modern conception of a fortress”, as Professor Brix describes it – and turned it into a more open structure with stronger links to the city.

It is the subtlety of the Esplanaden headquarters that speaks volumes, though. In an age when technology giants are busy battling one another to create fanciful campuses in the desert, Maersk’s base is a quiet and pragmatic building that has aged well and taken to a grafted-on extension. It also reflects the company it houses which, although it may be turning over more than €35bn a year, operates largely out of the limelight in sectors that are the unseen lifeblood of global commerce. These aspects of the company – its inherent modesty but also its aloofness – can be found writ large in the building.

“In a way, it’s very ‘Maerskian’,” says Brix. “You don’t notice it much; it just sits there without giving too much away at first glance. But when you look more closely, you realise it’s made with delicateness and refinement.”

Maersk in numbers

5 main companies in the group: Maersk Line (shipping), Maersk Oil, Maersk Drilling, APM Shipping Services and APM Terminals
89,000 group employees
630 ships in Maersk Line fleet (283 owned vessels and 347 time chartered)
€35.8bn in group revenue
About 130 countries with Maersk representation

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