Kengo Kuma’s Hans Christian Andersen Museum Is Its Own Fairy Tale

In Odense, the Japanese architect dreams up a museum dedicated to the Danish author’s life and work in a “complete artistic setting.” After a soft launch in June, the long-awaited museum has finally opened to the public.

H.C. Andersen’s House in Odense, Denmark. All photography by Rasmus Hjortshøj

Hans Christian Andersen, the prolific author of beloved fairy tales Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, and The Little Mermaid, reigns as the Danish city of Odense’s most famous resident. His legacy will become further enshrined there thanks to an ambitious new museum, called H.C. Andersen’s House and billed as one of the largest in Denmark, in which visitors can fully immerse themselves in his life and work through a fantastical setting that forgoes the biographic for the experiential. 

The new museum is tucked behind the author’s birthplace, a quaint yellow corner house that has played host to the H.C. Andersen House museum since 1908. The Japanese architect Kengo Kuma was enlisted for the expansion, notably beating out a number of Scandinavian firms such as Bjarke Ingels Group and Snøhetta. Kuma built a timber-framed entrance that mimics Odense’s historic gabled houses and the “puzzlement, imagination, and magical adventure” of Andersen’s fairy tales.

That gateway leads to the museum proper—a series of cylindrical pavilions built using natural timber, flooded with natural light, and topped with green roofs and meandering pathways that create an instant landmark. Despite the architectural ingenuity, most of the museum’s experience unfolds underground, not unlike Andersen’s The Tinderbox, in which a tree reveals a magical subterranean world. The scheme, Kuma explains, “resembles Andersen’s method, where a small world suddenly expands into a bigger universe.”

In this universe, visitors immerse themselves within a “complete artistic experience” of sound, light, and visuals designed by London-based Event Communications. Instead of providing rote biographical information, the exhibitions forge visceral, all-encompassing experiences that blend Andersen’s life with his most beloved tales. One such work beckons visitors inside a sunken bowl covered in water-topped glass that recreates The Little Mermaid’s underwater setting. More than a dozen artists—Kim Fupz Aakeson, Henrique Olveira, and Lemony Snicket among them—were commissioned to create such works.

“We have to dive into the fairytales as the very first thing, because they’re what everyone knows,” says Torben Grøngaard Jeppesen, head of Odense City Museums, which operates H.C. Andersen’s House. “The idea is not to retell the stories, but rather to communicate their familiarity and inspire further reading of Andersen.” 

Further readings are often required to understand Andersen’s multitudes, so the approach feels fitting. “We have three and a half autobiographies by him and they’re not the same,” Henrik Lübker, the museum’s creative director, tells Fast Company. “At different points in life, he presented himself in different manners because he wanted people to see him in different ways. Authors often can’t be trusted—especially fairy tale authors because they’re making stuff up. So there’s no true version of Andersen.”

Much like his autobiographies, Andersen’s fairy tales also offer multiple, seemingly contradictory perspectives from his characters. The museum seeks to emulate this. In some exhibitions, visitors wear headphones that play dialogue from Andersen, voices of his characters, and sounds from personified objects within the gallery that alternate based on how visitors navigate the space thanks to state-of-the-art location sensing technology. According to Lübker, “the sounds and the architectural space become one.”

The same can be said about Kuma’s cylindrical pavilions and the lush gardens they’re nestled under. The Danish landscaping firm MASU Planning envisioned visitors experiencing “nature as perceived by H.C. Andersen—as a source of inspiration that sets the imagination free but at the same time is unpredictable and wild.” It’s not unlike the denouements Andersen’s tales often reach. They don’t “point toward a universal truth, but rather into the open—towards the peculiarity and multiplicity of the world,” Lübker says. “We maintain this ambiguity by using Andersen’s own artistic strategies as the starting point for how the garden, the house, and the exhibition have all been shaped.” Though the museum soft-opened earlier this summer, the gardens will fully open later in the fall and will serve as Odense’s newest public park. 

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