Speaking Her Voice: Dorte Mandrup on Choices, Priorities, and Optimism

Speaking Her Voice: Dorte Mandrup on Choices, Priorities, and Optimism

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By Julia Gamolina, cover portrait by Espen Grønli

Dorte Mandrup graduated from the Aarhus School of Architecture, Denmark in 1991. She founded her Copenhagen based studio in 1999 where she continues to be Creative Director. Originating from a background in sculpture and ceramics, her approach to architecture has always been ‘hands on’. Shape and form constitute the company ethos - to create spaces which are aesthetically pleasing, contextually relevant, and invite people to engage.

As a humanist with a distinct nonconformist outlook, Dorte Mandrup is well known for her commitment to the development of the architectural practice and her frequent participation in public debates. Alongside her appointed role as Chair of the Mies van der Rohe Award 2019, Dorte is Vice Chairman of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, member of the Historic Buildings Council in Denmark, Adjunct Professor at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and holds frequent visiting professorships abroad, this year at Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Dorte talks about starting her practice and speaking her voice, advising young architects to work hard, learn a lot, and maintain the momentum.

JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?

DM: My grandfather and my great-grandfather were both architects. My father though didn’t think I should be an architect [laughs] - I was mainly interested in art, so I pursued that first by coming to college in the States to study ceramics and sculpture. Then I came back to Denmark and started medical school [laughs], but then realized that maybe I should try architecture after all.

What did you learn in architecture school?

I was lucky to have a very open minded professor, who encouraged us to go after our interests. As long as we took our work very seriously, we could focus on anything. I learned that you can be interested in anything, and as long as you’re serious about it and work really hard, something great will come out of it.  

The other lesson was that you can’t not think your way through architecture; you have to work, produce, and get inspired by the process. You’ll just get frustrated if you try to think your way through.

How did your background in sculpture and ceramics influence what you’re doing now?

I still work in a very hands-on way; I like to have materials in my hands and I like to detail. I’m also very inspired by and love art, so whenever I can watch a film, or go see a photography exhibit, I do - I probably spend more time going to concerts than reading architecture books [laughs].

One of your first positions out of architecture school was at Henning Larsen. What was that time like and what did you learn?

I worked at Henning Larson with some of my best friends from architecture school, so the studio culture continued. Henning Larson was extremely open, so he would let people work, produce, and propose, and then would catalyze his designs into the team. His way of running the studio - letting people work, and then being inspired by what happens and what they produce - was important.

When did you first go off on your own?

I first started a studio together with a colleague of mine from Henning Larsen - a perfect match because he was great at detailing and all that that I was not too good at. Also at that time in Europe, starting a studio was easier because you could get into competitions without having much of a record or portfolio of work. We were lucky to get into these competitions and won quite a few of them.

We had an office together for about three years and then we parted because we had different goals. It’s one thing to win a competition though and another to get the proposal built - only one of our winning entries got built, which meant the finances in the office were not super great. He wanted to take on projects that would support the practice financially, and I wanted to focus on other types of work.

Is that when you started the practice you have today?

Yes, I started with just me and one other person. I was lucky to get a project that got the firm going, and I was also teaching to support myself. For many years, we were only four or five people, and steadily grew to what we are today.

Dorte’s neon logo in her office.

Dorte’s neon logo in her office.

With having a practice, there is obviously the design component, but also PR, marketing, business development, operations, accounting, and so much moree. How have you found your way to manage all of that?

I was never a very good business woman - many of the assignments were done out of love instead of out of business [laughs] - so I hire people to do the things I’m not good at. I recently hired our CEO - he’s a lawyer - and that helped a lot. That’s the advice I would give to anyone starting their own office - don’t start it with someone doing the same thing as you or that’s interested in the same things that you’re interested in; try to find someone who can do other things so that you complement each other.

What are the changes you’ve seen in the practice since having brought on this CEO?

He took all the business away from my table, and I’m able to concentrate on design. When you’re alone, you need to focus on the designs, but also on the development of people, and the development of business. He’s been really great at developing all of these sides from an operations standpoint and also making the contracts that can enable you to earn money on one project that you can spend on another one.

When owning a practice, there is obviously more flexibility since you are your own boss, but more responsibility since you are carrying all the weight of the firm. Can you speak to this a little?

You really are responsible all the time - when you’re on holiday and something happens, you’re the one to call. The great advantage is that when you’re your own boss, you can make your own choices. That could be making choices in the architecture but also choices for the business that you find right. Even if something isn’t generally “sensible” to do, you can still do it.

Can you give some examples of the choices you’ve made?

Making choices for projects that are not necessarily very prosperous financially has been of great satisfaction for me. The way we work is quite time-consuming - architecture is time-consuming, but we also take the luxury of testing a lot of things; it’s not and it’s never a linear process, and we research a lot. It’s costly and takes away from the bottom line, but that’s my choice and I’m happy to make it.

Where do you feel like you’re in your career today?

We are at a really interesting point as a practice. It takes a long time to build one up, and to fight all the fights that you need to fight, but there’s generosity around us, meaning that you can make better choices, you have the chance to say no to projects that you don’t want to do, and I feel very optimistic.

The studio during the day.

The studio during the day.

Tell me about your teaching.

I started teaching right out of school, in Copenhagen, and I was a junior teacher for a while. It was great fun - at that time, I did not yet have children and spent all my time either at the office or at school. Then I haven’t been teaching regularly for while; I’ll do workshops from time to time, but right now I’m not teaching too much.

How does motherhood play into all this?

Architecture takes a lot of time and I’ve been a single mom since she was 7, so motherhood has meant being in the office, cooking, playing, all that, and at nighttime, working again. I’ve had to do a lot of prioritizing - I probably didn’t get a lot of sleep for many years [laughs], and maybe I didn’t see my friends enough, but you really do need to make priorities. She’s in architecture school now.

What have been the biggest challenges in your career?

There have been two difficult times - one was in 2008 when the financial crisis was really difficult in Europe and in Denmark especially, and I had to lay off half of the office. There was no way out of it; we just had to close down very quickly, and then, try to maintain and restore what was left.

I had a crisis a few years ago, thinking, “Maybe it’s not worth it to work all the time.” I decided that something had to change, and I consulted a lot of my friends who were in business, and got the advice to hire a CEO.

What have been some of the biggest highlights?

One of the best moments was when we completed our first two houses - we were recognized with the Danish Wood Award. In this industry, when someone recognizes what you do, it’s quite amazing.

What has been your general approach to your career?

To me, it’s very important to keep my integrity. When no one is controlling me, I can speak my voice. I’ve never been conscious of strategic career moves, never thought, “Oh, this will be good for my career,” but if there was any time where I noticed that I could not speak my voice, I always went in the other direction.

What advice would you give to those wanting to start their own practice?

Wait a few years before launching, and get into a practice where you can learn first. Running a business is so much responsibility, especially financially, and there is so much technical knowledge that you need and that you don’t have when you get out of school, so get out there and learn as much as you can first.

Then when you do start a business, either find someone with whom you work really well because it’s a great to have a partner to discuss things with, or find somebody that is able to do the things that you are not able to do; hire people that are experts instead of trying to do it all yourself.

Finally, what advice do you have for young architects in general?

 You need to work a lot and build momentum. Keep up the long hours because if you break it off, you will never get that flow that’s the most satisfactory part of designing, that you have when you’ve been working for a long time and suddenly you have a break through.

Also, have fun! Really have fun, don’t be so conscious - people aren’t really evaluating you now as students. You might think you’re a bad student, and people may say you have no talent, but that can change. And if you do have a lot of talent, you need to keep working because it doesn’t just stay there - you need to maintain it.

Dorte with her colleagues.

Dorte with her colleagues.

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