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Aarhus, Denmark: The right side of the tracks

A long way from the glitzy developments underway in central Aarhus, Denmark, is the sight a of Tetris-esque collection of stacked containers in an abandoned freight station. It’s become a magnet for creatives but the area is under threat.

9 Sep 2016

Located on the edge of the city centre of Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, is an area that many could be forgiven for taking a wide berth around. It’s formed from a set of barn-like former train depots, shacks, sheds and converted shipping containers that are precariously piled on top of one another, appearing as stable as a Jenga tower.

But it’s far from an abandoned wasteland; the area, known as the Institut for X, hosts what are arguably the most exciting community of startups and creatives in Denmark. And as can be guessed from its chaotic look, its story is one of accident.

Birth of the ‘Institut for X’ 

Seeing an opportunity to turn Aarhus’s former freight station into a space for public art, a group of young creatives known as Bureau Detours gained access to the disused depots back in 2009 for a temporary series of installations and concerts. Then they never left. The extended project was funded by wild drum and bass parties and renting out soundsystems to the local student population.

Electricity was gained through illegally tapping power points left over from the space’s former life as a train depot (the tracks and a set of unused trains remain).

Gradually more creatives moved onto the space, taking up various corners of the barns. They subsequently built their own spaces from wood, metal and whatever other materials they could get their hands on. Today, Institut for X has become an unlikely success story for the city, housing 75 enterprises among its motley collection of constructions. Residents include digital startups, craft workshops, recording studios, architects, beekeepers, a one-bedroom hotel and a new nightclub, while the Aarhus beach volleyball team and a viking battle re-enactment society complete the picture.

‘It wasn’t intentional, it just happened,’ says Christian Juul Wendell, Bureau Detours’ project manager, on Institut for X’s growth. ‘This area has a history of untamed people – it has been renowned for addicts and homelessness and now houses architects and designers.’
Christian Wendell, Bureau Detours

Wendell, one of two managers of the space now funds and maintains the non-profit operation through collecting rent from the residents. As a sign of it growing up, electricity meters have been installed in every space by the local power company.

Incredibly, it’s now being talked about as an unlikely example of how to manage urban spaces and harness innovation; curious architects and companies exploring regeneration schemes from around the world are investigating Institut for X. Wendell is now a consult, charging companies including Airbus and Renault and city planners from places like Copenhagen and Berlin for tours and his views.

Fire in their eyes

To keep the project’s creativity fizzing, Wendell has a unique way of sorting through applicants. ‘We do it on motivation; we’re looking for tenants with fire in their eyes,’ he says. ‘You don’t necessarily need a clear vision or project, we’re looking more for motivation and passion.’

The rent scale (between £12 to £130 per square metre) mean that regardless of size or ambition, startups and individuals have a chance of gaining access to the site. ‘We have schemes to differentiate between “hobby-in-the-basement” and established startups,’ says Wendell. ‘We like projects that display a bit of ego and are accepting of people who don’t fit in. This is a space to get started and have room.’

With its name stemming from the diversity of its tenants (‘incomers add the so-called ‘X’ to the project,’ says Wendell), Institut for X has proved far more than just a kooky community of outsiders, with a range of businesses graduating onto bigger things.

Success story

‘Being surrounded by entrepreneurs was lucrative,’ says Jonas Højgaard, founder of design firm Nordic Tales. ‘Institut for X provided a natural advisory board on product development and I feel we avoided making the mistakes of many small companies that fail to evaluate decisions by discussing with more than just a few people.’

A poster boy for Institut for X’s potential, Nordic Tales started as a masters project, found a spiritual and practical home in Institut for X for a number of years before moving on to a prime site in the heart of the city’s central Latin Quarter and is now a business with a multi-million krone turnover. ‘Institut for X is a creative bubble, which is perfect for testing out new ideas,’ Højgaard says on Nordic Tales’ growth. ‘But moving out definitely meant that we were considered an actual company and not just a startup.’

Institut for X

From renegades to recognition

Perhaps the key reason that Institut for X has been allowed to flourish has been the permissiveness of the Aarhus authorities to date. For the first six years there was no written contract. ‘A few people in the department were willing to meet and agree to do this properly,’ says Wendell. ‘The verbal agreements went along the lines of being given the keys, promising to do it properly and agreeing to leave when they needed the land back.’

Comparisons are often made with Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania – the autonomous ‘hippie’ district with a reputation for lawlessness and a constant tang of weed in the air – but Wendell says that drugs aren’t supported at Institut for X. Parties were a way to finance the platform in the early days and although they still play a part, people now have businesses that fund it, too.

Clearly an agreement with plenty of faith on both sides, Wendell claims civil servants use the project as a testing lab for topics such as active citizenship and sustainability, with government employees – including the mayor of Aarhus – heading over for a coffee, a walk and a talk to immerse themselves in the project.

Which makes it all the stranger that it might be coming to an end.

End of an era?

Institut for X

Despite many architecture students using the project’s facilities, developing new business models and being hired by Aarhus’s big firms – which often recruit from and collaborate with Institut for X – the project now finds itself at the heart of a controversial land battle. The Aarhus School of Architecture is currently in consultation over plans to bulldoze the site to make way for a sleek new school that will increase its size and enhance its global appeal.

It was always known that the land would be returned to the authorities when they wanted it back, but the loss of this key creative hub is sure to come at some cost and the lack of consultation worries Wendell. ‘Everybody says they’re interested in keeping Institut for X and its “creative DNA” but in the plans they never mention the project by name and haven’t engaged with any cultural mapping,’ he says. ‘Before creating a really bad story by strangling this platform, maybe it’d be a good idea to look into what people are using the platform for.’

With change on the horizon, Wendell’s mission is not to preserve Institut for X but to allow it to leave the best creative footprint on the city. ‘The bigger agenda is finding a strategy for managing creative spaces,’ he says. ‘We’re in a golden age in Aarhus as we’ve been allowed to use empty spaces. ‘But like Venice you’re not always aware that you’re in a golden age. We’re trying to work out how to extend this current golden age.’

Lasting legacy

This summer its fate should be known, with many predicting the end of an era, meaning the various residents of Institut for X will have to relocate. ‘If it splits up it won’t be the same,’ says Wendell, pointing to the project’s sum-of-all-parts appeal. ‘There are misconceptions about what the project is: the vikings, the honey bees? Or the designers, the architects and it as a whole?’

Ahead of the city’s capital of culture crown arriving next year, the fate of the Institut for X remains in limbo but it has already proven itself as a workable template for transforming our cities’ raw urban spaces.

This story features in Courier June/July 2016.