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Heaven Sent

Copenhagen, Denmark

Morten Emil Engel of MEE Studio brings a corner of a deconsecrated Copenhagen chapel back to life as a cafe and retail space

Copenhagen’s Nikolaj Kunsthal (St Nicholas’ Church) has a history dating back to the 13th century; originally built close to the city’s harbour and named for the patron saint of seafarers, it stopped functioning as a church in the early 19th century following a fire, and since the early 1980s has been one of the city’s most interesting contemporary exhibition spaces. Its rich history and vibrant cultural programming didn’t quite match up to its facilities, however – which is why it has recently upgraded its cafe and shop, to a design by architect Morten Emil Engel of MEE Studio.

This area of the building was originally part of the main church, but was later separated off to create a foyer area; however, the historic fabric of the walls, ceilings and beautiful large windows remains. “It had not been taken very well care of in recent decades, so to restore it to its former glory and add my own mark has been very satisfying,” says Engel. “The client placed a great deal of trust in me, and gave me free rein to design everything bespoke to the project, which is what makes it unique.”

Large arched openings that had been previously bricked up have been opened up, restoring the rooms’ flow and sense of scale, while the old acrylic-based paint has been replaced by a creamy lime-based paint. Inspired by the materials and colours already present in the church, the architect has created a space that has an ecclesiastical calm about it; the untreated copper-backed splashback in the service area is a nod to the church’s copper roof (and like the roof, it will patinate with age); while the burgundy ceiling matches a colour that already ran through the building, and Engel has complemented this with upholstery in the same colour by Raf Simons for Kvadrat. The dark ceiling also has the effect of creating a more cosy atmosphere under the high ceilings, which feels more conducive to a sociable space. The adjacent shop has much higher ceilings, with soaring windows that create an atmosphere of grandeur as well as gifting the room with some incredible daylight.

The oak furniture has also been inspired by ecclesiastical furniture and its simple functionality.I wanted the furniture to have a heaviness to it, and to reference classic church benches. At the same time, I am inspired by the minimalist works of Donald Judd, which influenced the design of the benches, bringing autonomy and clarity to the furniture pieces,” says Engel.

The cruciform-shaped table bases are “a subtle reference to ecclesiastical symbols without being explicit,” he continues, adding that the furniture needed to have a heaviness and robustness about it, not only to withstand the wear and tear of a busy cultural venue but to match up to the weightiness of the original architecture, where the walls are 1.5 metres thick in places. MEE Studio worked with Antwerp’s PSLab to devise the lighting, which is made from cast-iron to provide a further contemporary take on the church’s original materials.

Given Nikolaj Kunsthal’s long history, it’s no surprise that there were a few challenges along the way. New water pipes had to be installed to meet the café’s needs – but asbestos was discovered under the floor when it was opened up to install them, which was expensive and time-consuming to remove. These trials are forgotten now, though; the new space honours the past, but aims to be timeless, too. “It has regained a calmness that was missing before,” says Engels.