Copenhagen Sand Festival's art director Martin Tulinius with the Rule of Thirds, the artists' favorite, in full glory.
Copenhagen – Long Read

Obsession with clean and democratic design

Photo by Matthew James Harrison

Copenhagen – Long Read Obsession with clean and democratic design

Hello Copenhagen, the Danish capital where dramatic, modern but people-friendly buildings are as much a feature as the famous Little Mermaid statue on the harborfront. Is this obsession with clean and democratic design a trend driven by a few big-name architects, or does it have its roots in something more unique to Denmark – its culture or the weather?

Christopher Beanland
Christopher Beanland Travel Writer

Pulse racing, I am soaked in sweat. I stop for a second, panting, and feel my heart thud against my chest. I woke up this morning and, after eating muesli and rye bread with cheese, decided to explore Copenhagen’s smorgasbord of buildings by going for a run. But, alas, this is an unseasonably warm day for such an endeavor. I press on through the ancient gates of Copenhagen Castle, over solid timber bridges, with the green water of a moat below me. Deep red baked brick turrets and battlements flash in and out of view as the sun sparkles in my eyes.

I pant onwards, dodging tourists and dogs on leads who are jealous that they cannot join me, past a temporary urban beach, past the headquarters of the shipping line Maersk, past ice cream stalls and cyclists. I am almost there. I have a date with a hot girl on a rock. And there she is – shining and seductive and probably bored by the endless people taking photos of her to upload for friends around the world.

The Little Mermaid is an icon of Copenhagen – but in recent years other icons have popped up here too. Copenhagen’s skyline is filled with new buildings of the most impossible shapes, the most pleasing shapes, the most mind-bending shapes. Some people come to the Danish capital to eat at renowned restaurants such as Radio and Noma, but I have come here to devour design instead. I want to understand what makes Copenhagen’s cityscape tick – and whether there is a distinctively Danish style of architecture emerging from all these disparate shapes and spaces.

The original lovely 1930s terminal is still there

Even arrivals in Copenhagen are filled with fun. It is about as far away as you can get from the grim journey through a dank customs hall at JFK or Heathrow, followed by a miserable subway ride on the A Train or the Piccadilly Line – both of them colored blue and making riders feel blue. No, Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport is clean, modern and minimal. As Hugh Pearman, editor of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ RIBA Journal, says: “Of present-day airports, my favorite is Copenhagen. So civilized, so well-connected by train to the center. And the original lovely 1930s terminal is still there; rather than demolish it, they moved it to the other side of the airfield.” I go to look at it and it is indeed a peach.

But there is also something quite comical and cynical about the Danish character. Inside the airport’s arrivals area is a bright blue flashing sign reading: “Welcome to Wonderful Copenhagen” – which the locals despise. It is amusing in a kitsch, 1980s way, but kitsch is not big in Denmark – and woe betide falling foul of the public here. This is a society that might be the happiest the world (according to multiple surveys) but it can also snap back if it considers design to be poor. Architects have to try harder.

Engineers try harder too – for centuries they were the ones who really built Copenhagen. From that castle I visited first to the monumental earthworks surrounding the city; the canals and bridges too. Building was practical and functional in those days. Bridges have a special place in the heart of a city set on an island, or rather multiple islands. And one particular bridge has come to define modern day Copenhagen – the Øresund Bridge. It was a marvel anyway, carrying bus loads of thirsty Swedes over from Malmo to drink themselves stupid every Saturday night in Copenhagen’s better (and cheaper) bars.

This is an even better way to arrive than by plane

But since the global success of the state broadcaster DR’s detective show The Bridge, this bridge is even more of an icon. It is worth getting the train from Kobenhaven H (the Central Station) out to Malmo and then coming straight back to see the city rising ahead of you over the Oresund straits. This is an even better way to arrive than by plane, looking through the windows of the train, drinking a cold Carlsberg.

Back in the city I meet Christian Dalgas – a music promoter who runs the Copenhagen Jazz Festival every summer. Dalgas tells me amazing stories over a beer as we sit on fold-up chairs outside the festival offices in Norrebro, a trendy working class area. We talk about Denmark’s social democratic spirit, about how black American musicians came to Copenhagen in the 1930s and how the city’s jazz scene is one of the most vibrant on earth. Dalgas, like all Danes, speaks English in that wonderful lilting way.

“Do we have a particular accent? Yes I think we have,” he says. “I can always recognize a Dane when he speaks English – he is so Danish – just like most Austrian or Dutch people can be recognized. I don’t know where it comes from, probably from the sound of the Danish language, but I notice that you find it lovely!”

What about design, though? Where does that distinctive Danish note come from. “Design is very important to the Danes,” he says. “The interest comes from a long tradition of designers like Wegner, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen, Kjaerholm and maybe especially Borge Mogensen. It is about accessibility too. Just as Ikea brought design to the Swedes over the water, a supermarket chain here called FDB/Brugsen made good design accessible for everyday people. We spend a lot of time in our homes due to the weather. We don’t go to the pub at night. Our houses are built to last and are well protected against the cold from outside, so we want something nice to look at.”

The city is getting a bit more metropolitan

Dalgas lives in Amager, which is sandwiched between the Airport, the Oresund bridge and the east of the city. It has old beaches and new buildings. “It’s a 15-minute bike ride from the city center and used to be unattractive. Now this has changed,” says Dalgas. “At Amager there is a great beach park, we have clean water in the harbor where you can swim, the Metro system is expanding. All this means that the city is getting a bit more metropolitan, with more and more people are moving here, and most important there is a clearly defined agenda on sustainability and green energy. The future looks better than ever for Copenhagen.”

In Amager, green development takes precedence in this eco-minded country and the 8 House is one of the most tantalizing tastes of this. Unlike so many ecological buildings that take themselves too seriously, it is amusing. You can cycle up the slope of Bjarke Ingels’ building to your penthouse, and there are green roofs to preserve energy and provide habitats for wildlife.

The 8 House is part of the new town development of Orestad and everywhere you walk there are crazy modern buildings: jagged lines, jutting balconies, chrome, steel, wood and stucco. It is a feast for the eyes. The juxtaposition between this exuberance and the boring sprawl of the suburbs so common in countries such as Britain and the U.S. is stark. These are high flats I want to live in, places I can see myself raising children in.

A short ride on the swish new Copenhagen Metro – which of course is spotlessly clean, safe, quiet and boasts beautiful minimalist stations in concrete, glass and steel – is the Bella Center. This glass conference center is a cut above many such facilities around the world. Here the United Nations met in 2009 to try to hammer out a deal on climate change. It is no surprise that the Danes hosted this meeting. What will surprise you is the hotel: it is jaw-dropping.

They also need a cowards-only floor with no windows

Danish architecture often backs down. Generally it is refined and it refrains from causing a scene. Not so the Bella Sky Comwell Hotel. Its two towers lean outwards away from each other. It is a mind-boggling sight. The jagged lines of windows tearing into the skin of the building make it almost disconcerting. They have a women-only floor, but they also need a cowards-only floor with no windows where you do not have to stare out, trying to work out how the thing even stands up.

What is it about Danish architecture that seems to have struck such a chord right now? Why are Danish architects on fire? I ask Kim Herforth Nielsen of 3XN Architects. Nielsen designed this very building. “It is due to the high level of competition within Danish architecture and design,” he says. “You might compare it to the restaurant business where you saw a trend that started with Noma and suddenly you had a new Nordic cuisine. In the same way we have really good architects in Copenhagen which raise the standard and level of creativity.

“At the same time we have been lucky that there has been a need to develop new areas in Copenhagen: the Harbor front, Orestad and the North Harbor. Lastly, there has also been a desire and an intention from the politicians to develop the city in new ways. The sum of all of these parts leads to a higher standard of design.”

Born in Copenhagen in 1974, Bjarke Ingels wanted to be a cartoonist before discovering his passion for architecture. His work is characterised by a bold, graphic approach that saw him named Innovator of the Year for architecture by the Wall Street Journal in 2011. Among early major projects are three major housing projects in Ørestad: VM Houses (2005) and 8 House, both mixed used housing developments; and Mountain Dwellings (2008), a parking facility with terraced housing. Mountain Dwellings is noted for its external representation of Mount Everest, achieved by varying the size of the holes that help ventilate the building in an eco-friendly way.

The vision is to create a self-contained island

Bjarke’s “Yes Is More” philosophy – published in comic book form – pushes for a third way between the predictable corporate style and the avant grade extreme. He seeks: “A pragmatic utopian architecture that creates socially, economically and environmentally perfect places as a practical objective.” His most ambitious project to date is creating the master plan for the two-billion-dollar zero-emission resort of Zira Island in Azerbaijan. Although construction has yet to start, the vision is to create a self-contained island “combining high-end living with low-end resource usage”.

I ask whether there is now a Danish style, different to super modernism and the globalized vision of so much other design and architecture? Are these buildings as uniquely Danish as Risalamande rice pudding? “If it is possible to talk about this in a general way, I believe that Danish design is created out of the dialogue and collaboration between client and architect,” he says. “In this way you not only design and create an architectural statement but the work also results in more meaningful statements and thus a better architectural work of art.”

What he seems to me to be quietly saying is that Danish design and architecture is about listening, about dialogue, about being democratic. They do not build freeways or concrete tower blocks in places the people do not want them. So the locals come to love the new structures because they are not forced on them.

Of course, nor everyone loves every new building. Back near the Little Mermaid, is one such contentious building: the Copenhagen Opera House. From the waterbus that ferries me from Copenhagen’s center to the island of Christiansholm, I watch it start to fill my vision. It is certainly not beautiful: it is lumbering and lacks grace. It is in the middle of nowhere on some old docks. And the cost? Well that is a cool half a billion US dollars. Maybe it was all the gold they used inside.

Inside the Opera House is eerily quiet

Designed by architect Henning Larsen and opened in 2005, the building was financed in part by shipping magnate Arnold Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller and, sure enough, it sits in view of the Maersk HQ. Inside, it is eerily quiet. I buy an orange juice and sip it in the huge lobby, wondering whether there is more atmosphere on concert nights. I hope so.

I am now so near to the legendary 1970s squat of Freetown Christiania that I cannot resist a visit. I came here as a teenager once and in my days of Marxist agitation I saw this two fingers up to polite society as a revelation. Today it looks rather faded and odd – though the junk-shop chic of the décor still appeals. The way residents have self-built houses in eccentric shapes shows what you can do if you put your mind to a Saturday afternoon of tinkering rather than going to the football (or the pub). In its own way Cristiania reminds me of Danish film director Lars von Trier’s searing satire The Idiots – which rips into Danish society’s super-liberal mores.

In the evening, I enjoy a rowdy night out with an old friend, Danish journalist Simon Christensen, who I first met at a music festival. We meet in Vega, my favorite music venue in Copenhagen, whose cool 1960s interiors took my breath away the first time I saw them, and they still do today. It is a time capsule. “There is lots of great design in Denmark,” says Christensen. “It comes from 1950s furniture and architects and interior designers -and there is a great focus on it from the state, which entails funding and art museums and art festivals. It is the benefit of being a kind of socialist welfare state with lots of focus on culture and cultural history.”

Simon and I go for a bite to eat in the nearby Meatpacking District in Vesterbro. As the name suggests, it used to be the city’s butchers and slaughterers who worked here. Today, it is chefs, waiters, barmen and DJs. The whitewalled, honest, industrial warehouses have been transformed into the place to see and be seen on Saturday nights at restaurants such as Bio Mio and bars like Jolene.

This is the famous Danish hygge

In the Fish Bar, I sit at the bar enjoying fresh oysters and seafood while the atmosphere builds around me. The staff chat warmly, other customers include me in their own conversation and it all feels like one big family. This is the famous Danish hygge, hard to pronounce and almost as hard to define. It is similar to the Dutch gezelligheid or coziness, a feeling that life is all about enjoying yourself surrounded by good friends. This is a country where family and social time is important, so working late or at weekend is considered odd behavior.

I enjoy a reasonably early night as I want to be up early to revisit one of my favorite Copenhagen buildings. The SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery) sums up everything about Danish architecture and design. There is the main old building by Vilhelm Dahlerup from 1896 and the modern extension seemlessly stitched on the back by Anna Maria Indrio 102 years later, which offers wonderful views over a park. The spaces are sublime and the place is filled with cultured Danes bringing their children to see great Danish paintings by the likes of Oluf Høst and Christoffer Wilhelm

Eckersberg. This is an art gallery that is not stuffy, with the relaxed air even extending to live music. The SMK sums up how unselfconscious the Danes are about culture, art and design – and democracy. These freedom-loving, clever people are unaffectedly civilized, and so is their capital city.

Before I have to head back to the airport, I stop for a last guilty treat at the hotdog cart in front of the Town Hall. As I eat my order, dripping with onion, remoulade and mustard. I watch the passers-by in one of the most thrilling and bustling squares in Europe, enjoying the quiet interaction and the backdrop of varied architecture.

If only more design were like Danish design. If only more people were like Danish people.


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