Bridging generations - continuation of DNA, respect, and durability in mobility design

Modeller på tegnestuen2 topfoto
May 28, 2024

Interview with architects Poul Ove Jensen and Danijel Zorec. The fifth in a series of interviews with employees at Dissing+Weitling, who have special insight into a working method or building type.

  • Dissing+Weitling's mobility team’s solutions spring from a continuous stream of drawings, trials, and exchanges of ideas. Tentative concepts progress towards strong designs, calculations, and structures when seasoned architects work alongside younger colleagues, advancing together to find the optimal solution from numerous possibilities. It is a union of years of knowledge and youthful eagerness.

    How do these intergenerational partnerships function? What do the experienced and younger team members learn from one another, and how does this teamwork align with the design philosophy of Dissing+Weitling?

    Despite over 30+ years of bridge knowledge within the company, no solution can ever be "completely certain" for the architect. As young bridge architect Danijel Zorec from Dissing+Weitling says: "No one knows what the best solution is."

    You can use your experience, knowledge, imagination, mathematical, and creative skills, yet never be a hundred percent sure if together you have created the best bridge – or building, for that matter. As one of the world's most experienced bridge architects, Poul Ove Jensen puts it: “I cannot prove it. That is my problem. But I have a track record that suggests that I know what I am talking about.”

  • Poj
    Poul Ove Jensen at the top of the Great Belt Bridge.
  • United by bridge passion

    Architects Poul Ove Jensen and Danijel Zorec are both passionate bridge designers at Dissing+Weitling, with 55+ and 8+ years of experience, respectively.

    Poul Ove Jensen is internationally known for his work, designing some of the world’s most notable bridges like the iconic Great Belt Link, the Stonecutter Bridge in Hong Kong, the Samuel de Champlain Bridge in Montreal – just to mention a few. He has dedicated the last 30 years to developing significant bridge and tunnel projects, and his approach has resulted in numerous awards and accolades, including the International Fellowship awarded by the Council and Honours Committee of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Eckersberg Medal awarded by the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. He considers teamwork to be a cardinal point in bridge design.

    Poul Ove Jensen’s co-worker, architect Danijel Zorec, is as Poul Ove puts it: “not a typical young architect. Danijel already has a lot of experience designing bridges and he does not propose things that are not possible. He goes closer to the limit than I do, I think, but he knows a lot about bridges.”

    Besides being an architecture intern at Dissing+Weitling, Danijel gained knowledge in the field of bridge design when working with an engineering company in Slovenia, and architecture studios in Germany and Austria. He also increased skills within low energy buildings, lightweight membrane structures and timber structures.

    Since returning to Dissing+Weitling 3 years ago he has been involved in bridge projects in, among other places, Scandinavia, Australia, China and USA. This work alternates between great precision and creativity while simultaneously involving a more subtle learning of the firm's design philosophy and DNA.

  • Billede5
    A strong professional bond between two generations of bridge designers.
  • - Danijel, what do you learn from Poul Ove?

    Danijel Zorec (DZO): - We have managed to create a strong professional bond, with Poul Ove playing a big role in developing my technical knowledge. Bridge design is indeed an exceptional field, one that is typically not covered in the basic architectural curriculum in universities. Additionally, I am learning the importance of business and communication skills. It's also worth mentioning that I am learning the art of patience. Like many in my generation, I am used to everything moving quickly, but at Dissing+Weitling we strive to refine the design to perfection, which of course takes time.

    - “Patience,” that is an interesting word! That is what we consider part of the Dissing+Weitling brand – the awareness that even the smallest details can have consequences for the bigger picture …?

    DZO: - Yes, for example, specific project doesn’t end with creating renders or submitting competition proposals. Things can go very badly if you don’t pay attention to all the details and have the patience to be thorough and precise in communicating your design. This is especially true during the detailed design phase and when collaborating with engineers, clients, or contractors. I would say that we as architects often act as advocates between different disciplines, striving to maintain balance among them and keeping the overall design concept clear.

    - At this point, I must also highlight Poul Ove's keen attention to detail and sense of proportion, which are the essence of every successful architecture project. For example, he frequently emphasises the importance of drainage even in the conceptual phase, as many bridges have been spoiled due to neglecting such a functional element.

  • Billede6
    Fine-tuning the small elements to find the best solutions.
  • - Poul Ove, what else do you pass on to the younger colleagues, like Danijel?

    Poul Ove Jensen (POJ): - First: Respect for the work. And the fact that design must be doable. We are constantly fine-tuning the small elements to find the best solutions. It should also be economically reasonable of course. Bridges are built for the taxpayer’s money. Consideration of the environment is important too, and by that I also mean the visual environment. When you build a large bridge like the Great Belt Bridge, it is a huge thing! It is visible. And it will stand for 125 years. It is serious, it matters how it looks.

    POJ: - What I like about bridge design, is that bridges are so simple – it is really nothing but structure over a river, a gorge or a road that you can walk or drive over. But that also makes it tough because you very quickly get down to the bones in contrast to building design. That is also why bridge design is not for everybody – it is a much faster process, and that is why some people just cannot take the heat in the kitchen!

  • Storebælt 6
    The Dissing+Weitling DNA: Attention to detail, doability, simplicity, and environment.
  • - So, what do you learn from your young colleagues?

    POJ: -I enjoy working with young colleagues who insist that something can be done – even if it might not be possible and keep trying. In the office, we also have an international staff, that brings different perspectives to the work. That is very inspiring and a great advantage for the firm. The downside of having as much experience as I have is that you tend to repeat oneself or think that you have all the answers. It is important that we keep developing our design.

    POJ: -There is another important aspect of working across ages, which young people do not always understand: The fact, that Dissing+Weitling is a brand. That is why clients come to us - they expect a solution that can be recognized as Dissing+Weitling.

    - Can you describe that Dissing+Weitling design/brand?

    POJ: - It has to do with simplicity. It is also – which is of course very important – that we are known for proposing doable design. That is especially obvious in international competitions where proposals sometimes are very unrealistic, and unfortunately sometimes such proposals win, which means that the client face serious problems afterwards. At Dissing+Weitling we avoid such competitions. We have learned the lesson not to take part of such projects.

    - In general, in this business, you should not go for the 15 minutes of fame but strive for solutions that can be enjoyed also by future generations. I call it respect. Unfortunately, it is not unusual that people aim for a ‘fantastic bridge – or building’ which then become a joke in a few years. At Dissing+Weitling, we have a formal language that you can recognize. And that is important, that people accept and understand that.

    - Do you recognize this, Danijel, that Dissing+Weitling has a special brand?

    DZO: - Yes. This is why I joined Dissing+Weitling. I learned that our brand is about creating functional, sophisticated, and timeless design. It is not about design that shouts out to the world, but creating seamless solutions that can stand at a place for many decades. When finished, our designs ideally should appear as if they have been there already for a long time.

    - Do you try to pass on the Dissing+Weitling brand?

    POJ: - Yes, of course that is important! That we maintain our language, and at the same time keep developing it gradually. Our bridge design has seen development over the years. You can see that clearly if you look at the older projects in our portfolio.

  • 20046 4122 Viewshed Mast 3
    Kangaroo Point Green Bridge. Getting people closer to the riverside, enhancing connectedness and providing extra recreational spaces in Brisbane.
  • - What would you say is the biggest difference between bridge architecture then and today?

    POJ: - Before the Great Belt Bridge, much bad infrastructure was made. Also, in this country. I am not talking just about the architecture, but environmental considerations before and during the building process. For example, the blocking effect when you build something over the water.

    - Despite the Great Belt Bridge project being very unpopular back then, the A/S Storebæltsforbindelsen insisted that also the environment was important. As the project owner they did the necessary compensation. Dredging was done to compensate for the blocking and the alignment was carefully laid out and so forth. Today it is something you really must think about as bridge designers, but in fact we had already embarked on the environmental track then.

    - Back in the days of the Great Belt Bridge, the mayors in Korsør and Nyborg were afraid that life would disappear from the sea. But in fact, the opposite happened: The piers on the Great Belt Bridge are full of mussels and the seagrass is growing very well. That is the most important thing. Moreover, bridges today are widely used for regional nation branding. I mean, practically every prime minister would love to have a bridge carrying his or her name.

  • Storebælt credit jens astrup fdm
    The Great Belt Bridge. The bridge pillars and the stone reefs that protect the pillars from collisions are excellent habitats for blue mussels in particular. Photo: DFM, Jens Astrup.
  • - Danijel, do you agree? What development have you seen within bridge design during the last 8 years?

    DZO: - The sustainable approach is clearly getting stronger, but there is still a long way to go. Current regulations are for the most part set up for the building sector, and new materials and structural principles often bring risks and concerns about durability or a higher cost – at least in a short term.

    - Bridges are of course much more than just a connection from A to B – they are destinations in themselves and symbols of greatness, emblems of the sites and nations. In our recent projects in Australia and USA, we are incorporating indigenous elements and reflecting characteristics of specific places and communities by distinctive shaping of bridge elements, choice of materials etc.

  • Causeway cam 25 update
    Swan River Causeway Bridge. The design of the structural elements of the bridges derive inspiration from the stories of Fanny Balbuk and Yagan - two key figures associated with Heirisson Island.
  • And what about durability?

    POJ: - Many bridges built before the 1970s need to be replaced. After only 50 years of service, they cannot cope with modern traffic.

    - Today we are designing bridges to stand for 125 years. It is a well-known problem that we design bridges for the type of traffic that we know right now – or can foresee to the best of our abilities, but in fact nobody knows how people will be getting around in the future. More than likely it will not be by the type of cars that we have today. That is paradoxical; you design bridges with a longer and longer lifespan that will be more and more useless. So, in fact the only thing you could do is build-in flexibility. The Samuel De Champlain Bridge in Montreal has three separate traffic lanes with a gap between them – which is architecturally nice, but I wonder how they are going to use that bridge in 125 years?

    DZO: - The trend towards flexible adaptive bridges is significant. Especially the flexible aspect is important today since many existing bridges are being renovated with new mobility in mind. Also, quite often design is highly governed by safety risk during construction period and maintenance, not to mention the cost.

  • Samuel De Champlain Bridge The globe and mail
    Samuel de Champlain Bridge in Montreal designed to stand for 125 years.
  • - Danijel, what is your goal as a bridge architect?

    DZO: - I would say it is a job of extreme responsibility, doing bridges. I am trying to bring new ideas to the table. These days some clients have a lot of money, and their visions seem to have no limits sometimes – then, for me, it is important to continue to adhere to our design philosophy, remain realistic, and stay committed to creating beautiful, durable structures.

    - Is Poul Ove influencing you in that direction?

    DZO: - He encourages me to come up with new ideas and to keep evolving better structures or details. But I think it works both ways - we both inspire each other and refine our designs simultaneously.

    POJ: - I like working with Danijel very much. We have a private competition going on.

    DZO: - Sometimes we do not agree immediately but later we produce even better solutions or details through collaborative effort over the course of a few days or get new ideas over a weekend.

    POJ: - I always say that the best collaboration is when after a meeting you do not know who invented what. That also counts for different disciplines like engineering. That is often the case when we team up – we are not sure how we got there. That is the optimal collaboration.

    - Is it the best solution that wins in your ‘internal competition,’ or the solution that the most experienced person likes?

    DZO: - Nobody knows what the best solution is. We may submit a competition proposal that we are particularly proud of, however a competition jury or a client in general may think differently.

    POJ: - That is the ‘problem’ with architecture; the engineers do numbers. With architecture it is harder. You never know for sure if the users will love your solution and they can change their minds over time.

  • Sulafjorden
    One out of four solutions suggested for a suspension bridge crossing the Sula Fjord. Poul Ove and Danijel worked together on several proposals for the Norwegian landscape.
  • - Danijel, if you could give some advice to your younger self walking through the doors at Dissing+Weitling, what would you say, knowing what you know today?

    DZO: - It is a challenging job, but it comes with a reward. It might not be so visible right away, but it will be in five or ten years. I would say: Do not be afraid to come up with new ideas, ask questions and be critical, but also remember to respect the tradition of the firm. Don’t be surprised or overwhelmed by all the opportunities that will come your way.

    - Dissing+Weitling receives project offers that sometimes seem crazy, and for a short moment you think: Oh, My God, you could do this and this! But we must respect the site, the culture, and the people who live in the area. That is important. The feeling that you can do everything is fun and tempting, but it should never be like that. It is a very responsible job.

    -So, it is stick with the DNA and don’t get caried away?

    DZO: - Yes, you must stay professional. Of course I am passioned about bridge design, but I should not be too passionate about one specific project or get too attached to one style or type of design or even to my own ideas. We are all part of big interdisciplinary teams working together.

    POJ: - Another important thing you learn the hard way: You have to accept realities! Almost every time, the cheapest bridge will be built. If you have a client interested in the bridge’s appearance, then he might be willing to only put two percent into the appearance. Those two percent can be the difference between a good bridge and a bad bridge. It is this small percentage you must work with. It's about being good at it and making a virtue out of necessity.

    More interview with Dissing+Weitling specialists (Danish).