Jan Christiansen was Copenhagen’s stadsarkitekt during the boom years of 2001-10, following the traumas of the 1990s when the city was declared bankrupt. His reminiscences, another of those too-big-to-handle style books where form beats function, were published in 2015 by Strandberg (300 odd pages, yours for ~£35; blurb | interview in Berlingske | Politiken review), with the support of Realdania and Dreyers Fond (I mention this because it seems to be the main economic model for Danish non-fiction). There’s lots of tasteful pics and a limited five page index, but no maps or owt. And, as ever, a tighter editor might have made for a more accessible product.
Jan was the functionary to Jens Kramer Mikkelsen’s overborgmester until 2004, when the latter resigned to become chief executive of Ørestadsselskabet (now By & Havn). Mikkelsen was replaced as mayor by billige boliger queen Ritt Bjerregaard (until 2009). Going down a level, Jan served under two sub-mayors with responsibility for things urban, Søren Pind (V) and Klaus Bondam (R; from 2006).
The library has obliged.
The noughties saw an explosion of building and architecture in Copenhagen, a third modern gennembrud following the opening up of the city ramparts in the 1870s and the burst of funkis activity in the 1930s. Under Jan’s watch it was all about urban renewal, housebuilding and kulturhuse, plus the beginning of the process of transformation for the city’s former harbour and industrial areas, in particular Ørestad, Nordhavn and Sluseholmen.
This period also saw byens rum (public space), enter the picture, centred round the experience economy and the idea of a more recreational lifestyle, but by the end of Jan’s period of tenure tighter funds meant that a number of prestige projects were put on hold. Some, such as Koncerthuset, Operaen and Skuespilhuset, have come to fruition, while others have yet to see the light of day, and still others have been downscaled to suit the revised concept of the ‘storby’ we have today.
Jan reflects on the question as to whether he, and in particular the city’s politicians, were carried away by economic optimism generated by the boligboble (housing boom), in the process forgetting the solid and refined values of traditional Danish architecture. Were they too impressed by ideas and concepts, out of scale and even insensitive in the Danish context? Or were they successful in translating international ideas into that context?
Copenhagen’s egenart: scale
At the tail end of the 1990s the council sold off some pockets of land to developers at a knock down price, resulting in some projects commonly judged failures – Kalvebod Brygge and Fields usually get mentions in this connection. These projects were seen as going against Copenhagen’s egenart (let’s call it ‘essence’) which, often, comes down to scale.
It’s being small/er which is seen as CPH’s key quality – the historic buildings in the centre are one storey lower even than nearby Malmö (which might help explain why the latter has for me an immediate urban feel compared with CPH). Complementing the small scale is the flatness, oh the flatness, meaning no horizon and no layers.
Light and wind are also claimed to play key roles – the low sun for six months of the year means that buildings are designed to let the sun in, and the famous housing karréer developed as a way of shutting out the constant west wind. (Hmm…Edinburgh is on the same latitude as CPH and is known as the Windy City, but somehow it lacks the enervating qualities found on the other side of the North Sea.) Copenhagen – making a virtue of the small and sustainable, rather than the more appealing (and perhaps diverse) resilient.
Buildings in Copenhagen have up to now, with a few exceptions, been kept deliberately low rise, in order to protect the city’s historic skyline of slender towers. In 2007 its politicians rejected Norman Foster’s proposed ‘luxury’ skyscraper at Tivoli as not Danish enough, leading Spanish architect Joan Busquets to comment that cities develop themselves over time and that skyscrapers are a sign of a dynamic modern city – resting on the laurels of the icons of the past is not enough.
Where skyscrapers did get an early seal of approval was in Ørestad City, in particular around the station. Nine were originally on the table, and a further 11 were pencilled for Amager East, with its views over the Øresund. Today a new højhuspolitik has opened the door for further clusters in the developing areas of the city, with the recognition that skyscrapers can help develop an identity, as well as create a critical mass of consumers for new facilities. Carlsberg’s højhuse are being placed in strategic points, with the highest a ‘point de vue’ from Søndermarken and other strategic points. New (supposedly) tall and slim towers of high architectural quality are being talked up as creating connections between the medieval city of towers, Denmark’s Golden Age, the industrial architecture of the recent past and the modern city.
All of which brings us to tæthed (density), seen as the essential for creating city life. Density levels in a parcelhusområde are 20-30%, in central CPH it’s 120-200%, but under the new tæt-høj model in parts of Ørestad, with tower blocks of 8-12 storeys, it’s up to 350% (where there are lots of tower blocks it can rise to up to 500%; at Teglgårdsstræde in inner CPH it’s up to 600%). Jan claims you can get away with increasing density without affecting quality of life when other essentials (shops, culture, transport, parks, byliv) are close at hand.
Finally, homes in CPH are small – the average size per person in Denmark as a whole is 60m2, while in CPH it’s 32m2.
There then follows a run-through of key projects masterminded by Jan, some familiar, some less so. Many are included in the Copenhagen X Gallery, another of Jan’s legacies. There’s lots on the minutiae of communal politics, plus ample room for Wikipedia fact listing.
Here are some titbits I picked up:
- HC Andersens Boulevard – until 1954 known as Vester Boulevard, with a parkstrøg and haveanlæg; today a busy thoroughfare
- the metro – seen as the solution to the traffic issues caused by CPH scale, so much so that a new area was built to finance it (although to save money the stretch along the Øresund to the airport was built over ground, or rather half buried behind screens)
- the harbour, aka Den Blå Plan – what to do? it couldn’t just be a big park; issue re houseboats, seen as messy and making the harbour inaccessible, hence limited mainly to Sluseholmen; claimed these days as a success, in particular the improvements in water quality, but still lacks decent connections and a proper sense of its cultural heritage
- Operaen on Dokøen – brickbats aplenty for not being bymæssig, and does rather loom seen from Amalienborg, but more unique than Skuespilhuset; maybe it’s just not CPH scale
Most interesting was the concept of Metropolzonen, a now unlikely sounding project coined in 2006 to transform the area around Rådhuspladsen, Tivoli and the central station (see Magasinet KBH’s map) into a bigger, higher and noisier byens foyer. Attention seems to have shifted away from this area of hotels, offices, restaurants and Tivoli, and it’s all the better for it. You can still wander round untroubled by much in yer face small scale CPHery, although there’s no denying it can feel rather empty – hordes of tourists dragging suitcases does not equal buzz. It remains to be seen what the opening of Axel Towers will bring, a project which has been on the go since 2012, but generally Denmark doesn’t scale up well, it lacks a bigger picture.
Hvad så, København?
So, what next? In the last couple of years there has been a particular stress on nature and landscape in the city, with projects to create cycle paths, rainwater solutions, pocket parks…but at the same time a lot of construction activity aimed at housing the estimated 1000 people moving to the city per month – although those figures are beginning to come under some scrutiny. Gentrification has entered the Danish vocabulary, and there has been a certain amount of muttering about the number of historical buildings being pulled down in Carlsberg.
The city is increasingly being pulled in two directions, and it will be interesting to see how long the current ‘happy CPH’ discourse can hold. Few dissenting voices are to be heard, but the point has recently been made in CityMetric:
The “cities are great but they could be nicer” band dominate everything…we are all being mocked when the case studies to forge 21st century urban policy are very modestly populated 15th century Italian towns like Pienza.
For more on Denmark’s special sense of scale, see Mastodonternes fremmarch, a recent article in Jyllands Posten, bemoaning the new architecture in Aarhus, and new find Nordic Design Review on scale and proportion, with showcasing inter alia Grundtvigs Kirke and Israels Plads.