Bloom: celebrating the nature of nature

Festival Watch 2017 continues with Bloom (#bloomdk | FB), a new entrant from the Golden Days stable emerging from 2015’s Open Air Academy. It took place over the Kristihimmelfartsdag (Ascension Day) weekend at Søndermarken, one of two almost conjoined parks on the Frederiksberg/Valby border straddling Roskildevej, a stone’s throw from the ‘new’ district of Carlsberg.

Themed around nature and science, the festival positioned itself as a response to the post-factual era. Speakers came from backgrounds including biology and astrophysics, with more than a smattering of sessions slanted towards ‘lifestyle’. But it was all free, benefiting from lots of lovely sponsorship, taking place in the open air on a warm and rain free weekend.

Now then, I was grateful for a copy of the festival booklet from the library to leaf through, as the website was arty rather than usable. (I’m not the only one; comments on #some ranged from “I’m too old for this” to “how smuk“.) The situation was not much improved by offering the programme as a dense 54 page PDF. And despite the number of sessions in English there was no English version – OTOH there was a lot of English appropriation going on, with the now obligatory “talks og walks” and eight(!) stages with English names (I’m appropriating Wanderlust). Plus they went a bit over the top with schematics and classifications, different types of event and something called Bloom Balls. Let’s hope someone had full control of the big spreadsheet.

While the Danes’ relationship with trees is worth unpicking, Søndermarken is known for its sylvan lovelies, and a clutch of Bloom events went beyond saplings in bags. Saturday saw Perspektiv: træer, with four speakers exploring the videnskab (lit: science; here: what we know) behind trees. There were also three tankefrø (lit.: seed thoughts) exploring the cultural history of the oak, the beech and the lime.

Hans Christian Andersen called the oak “det største og ypperste træ i skoven”, a sentiment no doubt echoed by writer Jens Blendstrup, who together with artist Ole Lejbach completed a four year Ege-ekspeditioner (oak odyssey), resulting in an exhibition which toured the country in 2015 and is now available as a book. We also had a cabinetmaker and the founder of OAK – the Nordic Journal (“echoes of the Nordic way of life”) on the oak in Danish design, plus oak hors d’oeuvres from a food artist. Ah well. Here’s a picture of Klopstock’s Oak in Lyngby instead.

Klopstock’s Oak, where every July members of the Danish Klopstock Society meet for a reading

The beech is Denmark’s national tree, even featuring in the national anthem. Amongst Søndermarken’s beeches we find Ewald’s Beech, planted in memory of youthful Golden Age poet Johannes Ewald (1743-81), with a reed-covered parasol acting as shelter for a bench. Here though we had writer and boatbuilder Sigurd Buch Kristensen, a biologist and an architect, who posited the question of whether the Danish chair is an invasiv art. Plus beech snacks. In lime corner we had inter alia Neal Ashley Conrad on Proust and lime blossom tea dipping, and sessions from a landscape architect and an entomologist. You probably had to be there.

Lindehøjen, a group of limes on an artificial mound, site of Bloom’s Sound stage

Moving on, the walks n talks included lots of sciency stuff, with ant and bat walks for good measure, and three representatives from Denmark’s slim walking canon. Bakkehuset’s Gertrud With led off with Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850), author of the national anthem, who as son of the nearby palace’s steward had Søndermarken as almost his private playground. Famously, following a 16 hour walk with Norwegian philosopher Heinrich Steffens he composed Guldhornerne, a 1200 page epic poem, in one sitting.

Next up, RUC’s Dan Charly Christensen went for a walk with Oehlenschläger’s contemporary, the physicist Hans Christian Ørsted (1777-1851; of inter alia the eponymous park), who held Kantian beliefs about the unity of nature and the relationships between natural phenomena. Even more physics on the final walker’s walk, led by Henrik Bohr, grandson of Nobel prize winning physicist Niels (1885-1962), who lived for 30 years just round the corner in JC Jacobsens æresbolig (now Carlsberg Akademi) and made regular head-clearing walks in the park.

Adam Oehlenschläger, patron saint of Danish walkers, at the top of Valby Bakke

Frederiksberg was part of the same parish as Hvidovre until 1857, while Valby was not handed over to Copenhagen until its 1901 land grab, so it’s interesting to note that garden designer Marcus Friederich Voigt made a trial run for Søndermarken at Holmegården, just north of the 12th century Hvidovre church, in 1794. Clearly a spot of some note, a great-grandmother of Karen Blixen was installed in the manor house by her lover in around 1810, where she gave birth to three children. In 1833 the house was bought by Søren Kierkegaard’s great uncle, who owned it until 1853. (Our local museum notes that records do not show whether Søren visited Holmegården – but he could have done). Sadly, the original manor house burnt down in 1931 and the garden has long since been built over.

Originally designed in the best Baroque style for Frederik IV in 1709, Søndermarken was laid out in triangles around three long avenues in a ‘goose foot’ system. This layout can just about be detected in the surviving path network. FVI’s 1795 redesign incorporated the latest Romantic motifs such as a hermit’s hut, a Doric temple and a Swiss cottage, plus waterfalls and grottoes. Open to the public from 1852, people flocked from the increasingly built-up centre of Copenhagen to admire the view from the top of Valby Bakke, one of Copenhagen’s highest points at 31 metres above sea level, and to enjoy a picnic on the Smørrebrødsplænen lawn.

After falling into decline Søndermarken’s Romantic features were restored in 2012, with the addition of 21st century essentials such as climbing frames and exercise areas, plus a small dogs run free area (unfenced). Today you are more likely to see lycra clad joggers than poets or physicists taking a constitutional. It’s a nice corner of the city, but surely destined to become the playground of escapees from the hyper-dense new area around Carlsberg.

(Talking of playgrounds, the forthcoming CPH Stage has a clutch of performance style walks around the theme of the city as stage. Of passing interest are OmniPresence on surveillance culture, Inge Agnete Tarpgaard’s walking workshop and Cantabile 2’s Hidden Number.)

Søndermarken’s hermit’s hut, occasionally let out for artists’ residences

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Rising ground: travel vs place

I have bookshelves groaning with travel literature shelved by place. This includes Philip Marsden‘s The crossing place (1993, Armenia), The Bronski house (1995, Poland; not to be confused with, although sitting next to, Radek Sikorski’s The Polish house) and The spirit wrestlers (1998, Russia). After that things gradually went boat-shaped for Philip, culminating in him buying Ardevora, a farmhouse on the banks of the River Fal. Rising ground: a search for the spirit of place (2014; extract) sees him return home to write about Cornwall.

Marsden describes the reasons for this shift from travel to place: “Getting a bit older perhaps, having a young family, being a little less restless. But more than that is the sense that looking deeper into the local is ultimately more revealing than reaching for the exotic”. And it was never just about the travel. “I have written travel books certainly, but have come to each subject fresh – explored it, researched it, teased it out and tried to unravel its attraction. Only then do I assemble the form that it requires to tell.”

But Rising ground is not just about place. It’s also about a journey westwards, tracking earlier ‘topophiles’ of the region such as John Leland, the father of topography, the first to write about people and their relationship with the physical aspects of the landscape, a roving antiquary who suffered a breakdown under the weight of knowledge he had amassed. And John Whitaker, who unlike the ‘crag-happy’ Romantic poets of his era felt that places should be examined to reveal the past, not the picturesque. (It’s quite distressing how many of these early writers of place came to a sorry end. Charles Henderson, who read the landscape like a palimpsest, layered with the text of former lives, died in Rome on his honeymoon at the age of 33, while John Blight, author of A week at the Land’s End, was confined to an asylum for 40 years, dying there in 1911.)

Marsden himself grew up on the edge of the Mendips, where as a child he explored Aveline’s Hole, a 10,000 year old cave cemetery. Revisiting “fuses childhood wonder and adult knowledge, both of which originate in the universal drive to make sense of the world through an understanding of place…a need to belong”.

The second chapter introduces Ardevora as character, run-down with malfunctioning pipework: “knowing a little of the past brought with it the first sense of belonging”. In intervals between house renovations he explores thinking around space and place, starting with Heidegger’s Building Dwelling Thinking (1954):

‘Dwelling’ meant much more than just living in a house. It described a way of being in the world. In Old English and High German the word buan – meaning both ‘building’ and ‘to dwell’ – is linked to the verb ‘to be’. So to be is ‘to be in a place‘. Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an ‘authentic’ existence…

‘Place’ is somewhere distinctive, where people react to and live with the particular topography around them, whereas ‘space’ is an idealised location, abstracted from the real world, a template which can be dropped over any point on the earth’s surface and allow meaningful discourse about it…

Physical surroundings (places) have the capacity to create mythologies around them…[but] every topophile knows that some sites are better than others – not just prettier or more dramatic, but endowed with a certain quality that attracts to it a host of stories and ideas.

All this inspires him to compose a topophile’s history of Cornwall, following the axes of time and place on foot to Land’s End in a chronology spanning the ritual landscape of Neolithic times, the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and on to the 20th century.

In Tintagel he probes Geoffrey of Monmouth’s telling of the Arthurian legend, with the castle perhaps the product of “suggestive topography” where idea and place became intertwined in stories which “bounce down through the centuries, their edges rounding and their shape altering with the collective spirit of each age”. Geoffrey drew on the tradition of the locus amoenus or delightful place, in medieval polarity with the hostile wilderness, defined as comprising a tree (or several trees), a meadow, a spring or brook, possibly with birdsong. “The most elaborate examples add a breeze”. Often asserting a collective sense of belonging, with a recurring motif of a sense of enclosure or encirclement.

Returning to the Mendips as his parents sell his childhood home he walks to Glastonbury, whose tor was a constant presence in his childhood. The mythic heart of England, the town was a one-stop pilgrimage site reducing the idea of earthly sanctity and of the nation to a single place, until it was sacked under Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as universalism took the place of local cultism.

Visiting his parents’ house for the last time he finds only “hollows and imprints” of his family’s presence, “the memories of the place separated from the place itself”. Lying in bed in Ardevora he hears the iron casing of the stove cooling down with a clicking sound, creaking like an old ship, settling down again and getting used to its refit, coming back to life.

The walk westwards is “like walking the plank”. In West Penwith, the “end of the end-end” in Welsh, the ages are rolled into one in a post-modernist bundle. Nearing the coast the land becomes more marginal. Many feel an altered perception as they reach Land’s End: “We began to feel that we could walk like this for ever, never having to turn back but always going on, to see what was round the next headland, and the next”.

In pre-Christian Europe there was a belief that when the sun dropped below the horizon it went on to shine on the realm of the dead. This makes a walk to Land’s End a “rehearsal for the last perilous journey, or perhaps the realm of the future and the time beyond our own death”. Topography gradually seeped into popular consciousness, going beyond the local (what you can see) to the map or plan, an abstracted version of space which creates its own imperatives.

Beyond Land’s End lies Lynonesse, embodying a sense of loss, of that “vanished era when everything was larger and better”, a locus amoenus which goes one step further with the addition of Tennyson’s King Arthur. The mountain that rose from the land was called Camelot, where “save the Isles of Scilly, all is now wild sea”, the site of Arthur’s last day on earth. Mortally wounded, Arthur is carried out to the land’s end, where a barge takes him away into the western ocean.

As for the Isles of Scilly, “like all the best places, [it] draws you into a state of ceaseless questioning…the reduced scale brings questions closer, and adds a heady combination of freedom and isolation”.

To return to the theme of travel vs place, there’s a a sense that all place writing is travel writing, as any book about ‘place’ to a degree moves through the land. And a journey offers a familiar narrative structure, with walking in particular giving “the slow pace with which to be fully attentive, to notice“. Where place writing differs from conventional travel writing is in the deep mapping required to exhaust a place – in a travel book both reader and writer see a place for the first time, as a tabula rasa, and then move on, without building a permanent relationship. Rising ground is about what makes certain places special and about our fundamental response to landscape, whether personal or collective, cultural places which have accrued meaning and stories.

Our reaction to places, to certain landscapes, lies at the heart of both our personal lives and our collective lives, our culture and traditions…It is us who imbue it with spirit and meaning…Something in our make-up drives us to animate the world around us, to fill it with significance.

Globalisation, with the accompanying increased pace of life and communication, is affecting our relationship to place. It is getting more and more difficult to build and maintain connections with a place (aka the local, home) – perhaps one reason for the current boom in place writing, a given genre in English, with its own prize (the Wainwright). How much is this a British thing, built on a melancholic sense of genius loci developed over generations?

Place writing is not much found in Denmark. Having pondered long on why, I wonder if it is partly down to the fact that in a small, homogeneous, essentially inward-looking country there is a lot less moving about, hence less need to find a place or to make it anew in order to belong. This must affect the Danes’ relationship with place – and be indicative of how it can present an issue for the outsider.

The sense of a need to belong to a place is rather less resonant here, with the Danish sense of national identity perhaps taking its ‘place’. There’s also a dominant narrative about people, when I can’t help thinking they protest too much – no one reading about Jack Clemo (who raged against his physical impediments, against nature-lovers and the sentimental, against chapel-goers, and derived a perverse pleasure from devastation) in Rising ground could be in any doubt that place writing is as much about people and their stories as it is about the landscapes and buildings they inhabit.

the walk to Land’s End concluded (Richard Carew, 1602; source)

Sources: The ClearingGranta Books | Guardian | Ramblings | Start the Week. See also my post on Place writing now.

#CAFx2017: Denmark’s architecture festival

Update, 5 June: London’s Festival of Architecture is running throughout June, while it has got itself a dedicated ArchFilmFest as well

This year’s CAFx (2016 inc Tingbjerg | 2014 & 2015) took place from 27 April to 7 May with the theme of Arkitektur som identitet/Architecture as character. For social delights (mainly photos of people enjoying themselves) see Twitter | Facebook | Instagram.

Co-founded by Josephine Michau, who has a background in film distribution, the festival quickly expanded to take in the black-clad big-glasses-wearing young urbanist set, as well as spreading outside the capital. It’s now really three festivals, with CAFx in Copenhagen, AAFx in Aarhus and ALAFx in Aalborg, with plenty of lovely things.

Aalborg: haven’t been there since 2007, when it came over as pleasingly robust. Centred round the Utzon Center (2008) and the Create City Campus (2013), the programme gave a handy overview of current/recent developments, eg:

Aarhus: visited in 2006, seemed like York on a dull day – not particularly urban, definitely not gritty. But as European (co-)Capital of Culture lots going on this year (interestingly, the city architect is English Stephen Willacy, who has been in DK for decades, as is the Capital of Culture director):

Films: in a battle of BIG vs small, each city had showings of BIG Time (new Bjarke Ingels doc; MurmurPolitiken | DR) and Citizen Jane. I’m ambivalent about both figures, taking more to BIG lately for Jantelov-busting habits and buildings which are definitely not your usual boxy apartment block, but rather less to Jane J – the sidewalk ballet is too choreographed and as for eyes on the street, that’s just sinister.

Copenhagen: the hot topics may be Axel Towers (too shiny?), Palads Teatret (tear it down?) and Amager Fælled (build flats on it?), but here things were pleasingly more nuanced.

Let’s get this out of the way first:

Walks on offer included a couple of performative delights. At Teglholmen, an interactive and performative walk from Studio Debris (FB) explored the past, present and future of this part of the harbour, where traces of the past are just about hanging on.

Anja Humljan’s The Urban Yoga, an exhibition with lecture and multi-sensory guided tour attached (also in Aarhus), aimed to “bring you back in touch with your living and working environment”.

The slogan for the Brug byen theme: The city is your playground!, was guaranteed to set my teeth on edge, and the blurb was somewhat perplexing:

Public space belongs to everyone! Or does it? This program dissects the different layers of the city, focusing on how we use the city – and on who uses it. While Airbnb turns private homes into tourist attractions, the recreational spaces of the city become more and more planned: public space should serve many purposes and users.

But how do we protect the hidden, inspiring, and unplanned spaces where the city really does become a playground?…we will also seek out the places that oppose planning…we will start debates on the urban spaces of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg – all in order to find new playful and creative ways of being city-dwellers.

Let’s here it for people who don’t want to play! Much of the city centre seems to be meticulously planned in the very name of play, as long as you follow one particular lifestyle that is…anyway, events included some tough questioning for Papirøen and other multi-functional architecture, public space as free space, and Indre By: hjem eller turistmål?, acknowledging Copenhagen’s current tourist boom.

People vs place in Copenhagen

On 4 April I attended Guardian-alike Politiken’s event Byen mærker os (“the city marks us”), where three speakers, moderated by Marcus Rubin, engaged in a conversation about people and place in Copenhagen. The event was framed around the assertion that the city marks us – and we mark it – through its buildings and the spaces inbetween. Urban space (byrum) affects both our moods and the way we experience the city.

Copenhagen’s egenart may be celebrated abroad, but there’s a prevailing discourse centred around the idea of a ‘generous city’ (generøs by) which I find problematic. Would the event present any challenges to the one-note Happy Copenhagen image?

The speakers each presented four slides showing places they either loved or hated. First up, Martin Zerlang, professor in literature and modern culture at KU and go-to academic on matters urban. He drew gasps by kicking off with the assertion that it is not people who make a city, but rather both people and place, the interplay between them and the stories they tell, such as a bollard on a road marking the spot where a doomed wedding party fell into a lake.

His ‘love’ examples were the Enghave Småhuse threatened with demolition and (predictably) Cykelslangen, while his bile was directed at balconies which don’t fit in (and, more often than not given the weather, never have anyone sitting on them) and Rem Koolhaas’ BLOX. Koolhaas’ “f*** context” approach has resulted in a building which blocks Slotsholmen and Christian IV’s buildings from view, while giving nothing back.

Next, Christian Pagh, partner in kulturdesignbureauet Urgent.Agency “with substantial experience in turning site-specific qualities into creative and value-adding design solutions”. For Christian it’s all about people – his loves were quirky architecture in Christiania and a celebration of Sankt Hans Aften in Christianshavn, with late lamented pop-ups in Carlsberg Byen thrown in for good measure.

He then proved wholly unoriginal in castigating a building at Kalvebod Brygge (can we have a moratorium now please, in particular in ibyen’s Min by column; heck, it’s just a few office buildings and a hotel) for ‘closing down’ the harbour, and UCC at Carlsberg for looking like it could be in Hamburg (? their new developments are rather more interesting), with the supposedly slim Bohrs Tårn that isn’t.

Last, and the main draw for me, canonical poet of the city Søren Ulrik Thomsen, who from his first collection City Slang (1981) onwards has placed the city at the centre of his work. He didn’t disappoint, coming up with a bunch of one-liners plus a well-placed quote from Theodor Adorno.

SUT’s slides:

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Just what is a city for? Growing up outside Copenhagen he wanted something more – anonymity, urbanity, grit…different things going on, different people living different lives, space to be yourself and do your own thing. He is often criticised for indulging in nostalgia, but for him the past provides the fuel for thinking about today, giving pointers to where we could be going wrong.

Copenhagen’s council helmed developments are turning the city into a big village – the very thing he wanted to get away from – planned to the nth degree to facilitate one sanctioned lifestyle supporting an experience economy where everything is fælles (for and of the community). He is particularly down on andelsboligforeninger (institutionalised collectively owned housing) with their langbord dinners and organised events, but also on carfree streets and semi-private gårdhaver (courtyards).

With the current pace of building large areas of the city will be forever date-stamped State of the Art 2017, uniform and lacking diversity, dominated by the most affluent. Where once a mix of traffic and people created buzz, now all is empty and trist, an ideologically driven hyggehelved inhabited by the rekreativ klass (the logical development of the creative class), who leave few traces. Where is place in this scenario?

SUT expounding his theory of the hyggehelvede (while most cultures have a couthy tendency only in Denmark is it a cornerstone of national identity, and even architecture)

After a short break our panel discussed how we should respond to the development of the city, and how we can (learn to) live with the pace of change. Three hot topics:

  • Amager Fælled, where the proposal for new housing on common land has caused uproar
  • the covering of the railway tracks around Vesterport, involving the demolition of the Palads Teater, which up to now most people loved to hate
  • the latest proposals for tall buildings (albeit at Copenhagen scale; 100m is considered dangerously high rise), surplus to requirements and just not Danish

There was consensus around the need for more social diversity through the building of truly affordable homes (billige rather than almene boliger), if rather less on SUT’s other remedy – more traffic to create buzz, even if it might bring the dividend of improving cyclists’ bad behaviour.

The generous city prevails, as seen in the portfolio of tours planned for DAC’s 2017 summer season, including Carlsberg, where listed buildings are remade without a backward glance, skyscraper-spotting by bike (article), and a trip round the former harbour, now a rekreativt byrum:

Københavns Havn er synonymet på byens vækst og fremgang ift. befolkning, arkitektur, boligsammensætning, infrastruktur, kultur og Liveability.

(Copenhagen’s harbour is synonymous with the growth of the city and its increasing prosperity, in relation to its population, architecture, housing market, infrastructure, culture and Liveability.)

Amen to that. Everywhere Martin’s hyggelige (nostalgic?) stories are hidden from view in the history-free city. Every year there are fewer layers to unpick or places to discover, with everyone the same and doing the same thing, leaving few unique traces. Copenhagen is increasingly a city devoid of grandeur and aspiration, grit or buzz, all the things that make a city urbane. Blink and it could be a giant theme park for the extraction of money.

I am guilty as charged on a city being somewhere you go to use and then come home. Growing up in a middle class Edinburgh suburb with plenty of space the city centre was where people at the extremes of the social scale lived, while I took the bus “into town” for any number of other reasons. It offered (and I trust still does) rather more than housing, events and coffee shops – even offices and hotels.

Another of DAC’s summer tours is taking on this style of place in Copenhagen. Metropolzonen (a name which has been quietly dropped) stretches from the Lakes to the harbour. A central area rich and resonant in space and place, inspiring and exciting, used by thousands every day, but which DAC claims is a “no man’s land which very few have a relationship with”. This doesn’t play in a lifestyle city, so things are about to change, with the area to be transformed fra transit til ophold. As SUT would say, it’s Adorno’s Sundhed til døden (The health unto death, riffing on Kierkegaard’s The sickness unto death) come to life.

SAS Hotel (1960) and Axelborg (1920), heart of Metropolzonen

On looking and dog walking

tracks for a human, most dogs, labrador and beagle

I got into walking as a ‘cultural activity’ after our first dog moved in. He’s now eight and a bit, joined two years later by a little brother. Being beagles, known for their stubborn nature and equipped with the second best nose in the canine kingdom, they are not the most trainable of hounds. (My mother: don’t get a beagle – they run away). This can make walks challenging.

The writer walking the dog describes dog walking thus:

a strange activity somewhere between Romantic walking for inspiration and walking to work and leisure walking and a chore like washing up…

We have a repertoire of five walks which can be extended or reduced depending on the season (our routes on the coldest and hottest days of the year are practically identical), a beagle-scale interpretation of the 30 minute walk round the block. We have also tried beating the bound/aries, or at least as much of them as is within beagling distance, off-pavement action permitting.

While the beags keep their noses on the job I am free to make my own observations of our patch, exploring the unexpected in the local streetscape from prize winning modernist housing to a Le Corbusier style block, tracking the latest teardowns and outdoor fashions, and monitoring the state of trees. Our walks are the perfect justification for wandering into areas where a daily routine would never take us.

After growing up with dogs I had my own take on how things should be, and getting to grips with Danish dog walking habits has taken its toll. I never got the memo which said you should train your dog to ignore other dogs – round here most dog walkers would rather cross the road than exchange greetings. End result: a food chain of unsocialised dogs ranging from the French bulldog who reacts to a beagle, who himself reacts to a labrador.

It’s a different matter in parks and open spaces, where it seems that beagle owners are the only ones who pay attention to dogs on leash signs. And the few dog parks are packed with over-excited dogs getting a rare social fix – a stressful environment with a fight just waiting to happen. (Sadly, most dog parks aren’t well fenced, which makes them a no-no for beagle nr 2, a true escape artist.)

All this has a parallel in the unspontaneity of Danish social life, where encounters are planned ahead with those you know and eye contact on the street is avoided. Just the first of many lessons into Danishness learned through walking.

So we tend to walk solo on our own particular kind of drift, with the twin inspirations of John Zeaman’s Dog walks man, a unique combination of doggy memoir and psychogeography, and suggestion 15 of the Lonely Planet guide to experimental travel:

If you don’t normally walk a dog, take one for a walk and be led by what interests the dog.

In On looking Alexandra Horowitz, psychologist and animal behaviourist (plus owner of “two large, non-heeling dogs”) describes how she was inspired by walking with her dog Pumpernickel to consider how her daily journeys could be done better. In the book she undertakes 11 walks round the block with assorted experts in the way of seeing. Some lessons from her walks:

  • from her 19 month old son – the world at a different granularity, overlooking the edges or limits of an object
  • from  a typographer – the compulsion to read what was readable, to parse all visible text (it’s the same for editors, I’m thinking)
  • from a naturalist – the power of the search image, a mental image of what you seek, ignoring everything else (this explains the efficiency of how a dog finds food – and how we can spot our friends in a crowd but not find something under our noses when it deviates from the expected)

Her reaction to a walk with Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces presents a refreshing take on Jane Jacob’s ‘sidewalk ballet’. Alexandra is a pavement rage type: “slow-moving pedestrians clutching recent purchases and looking at the storefronts, up in the air, anywhere but where they are going…the storefronts that attract their attention are ubiquitous and cluttered – to my eye, visually messy”. For her “a surfeit of slow walkers and loiterers” is a hindrance, for Fred “it’s social; it’s kind of getting a sense of something.”

On that block of Broadway with Fred Kent, I was starkly reminded of the very simple truth that there are many ways to look at the same event.

Alexandra also revisits the territory of her earlier Inside of a dog. Most dog walks are done to allow the ‘animal’ to pee or to get exercise – just as most human walks are done to get from a to b in the quickest time possible. What about walks simply to ‘see’ the world?

Walking with Pumpernickel means seeing the world through her choices, the subjects of her attention and what she balks at or lunges towards. Walks geared to Pumpernickel’s needs:

  • into-the-wind walks – eyes closed, nose in the air, nostrils working
  • smell walks – revisiting old smells, finding new ones…walks defined by smell rather than length or destination (for humans, odours tend to be either enticing or repugnant, alluring or foul, evocative or evaded, but to a dog, smells are simply information, their world a topography wrought of odours)
  • sitting walks for the more mature – in a field with ample olfactory vistas and plenty of dogs upwind (the beags do this in the garden)
  • social walks – to interact with other dogs
  • to avoid: long blocks with no trees or lampposts

Returning alone to her walk round the block Alexandra finds herself alarmed at the limitations of ‘amateur eyes’. Her 11 companions, equipped with diverse sets of coordinates and systems of navigation, have helped her overcome the ‘selective enhancement requirement’ for paying attention, highlighting the different parts of the world we have learned to ignore or do not even know we can see.

She realises that she is missing much simply in the name of concentration (attention’s companion: inattention to everything else): “we miss the possibility of being surprised by what is hidden in plain sight right in front of us”.

From Howard Nemerov’s Walking the dog:

Two universes mosey down the street
Connected by love and a leash and nothing else.

…a pair of symbionts
Contented not to think each other’s thoughts.

foto

walk? who said walk?

Scandinavia and Nordicism

I picked up on Scandinavians: in search of the soul of the north (Amazon) by Robert Ferguson via a review in the TLS. More reviews: Scandi gloom | Irish Times.

Hailed by Richard Eyre as essential reading “for anyone interested in the allure of the Scandinavian landscape, character, history and literature”, I was interested to see how the book would tie in with the UK’s Scandimania, so availed myself of a review copy.

Ferguson has lived in Norway since 1983 and has a largely Norwegian-focused back catalogue. As he himself attests, his Scandinavia is based on “a 19th century dream”.

His first idea was to take a road trip along European route E6 from Trelleborg in Skåne to Kirkenes on the Norwegian-Russian border in a quest for the Scandinavian sense of melancholy. This might have worked, but instead the book is a retelling of historical episodes from the Vikings to WW2, combined with lengthy sections rooted in the literary life of Oslo.

While the commonalities of the three core Scandinavian countries, a crucial part of their self-image, cannot be denied, I’m wary of seeing them as essentially the same. A glance at the map shows puny Denmark at the bottom left hand corner of a landmass stretching, well, true north, an obligatory side-step on Ferguson’s road trip. This geographical difference has implications which are frequently overlooked due to the Danes’ lengthy political dominance of the region. Further, Sweden features very little in Ferguson’s retelling, and with the book’s acknowledgements including one “for help with questions on matters of Danish culture and language” it seems that perspectives may be a little constrained.

The dust jacket (re)states that the quintessential Scandinavian is perceived as “tolerant, socially progressive and possessed of a gently introspective melancholia”. The bagside of the first two is touched on, with a discussion of Janteloven (“the requirement for a degree of social conformity that some found – and still do find – oppressive”), noting that famous Scandinavian artists, writers and filmmakers tend to be extreme figures, “ferociously individualistic and fuelled by a kind of cornered anger”. (Likewise, celebrities tend to go over the top at the drop of a hat.)

Where we are really in trouble though is with the issue of melancholy, supposedly the heart of the book. I’ve never connected this with Denmark, and indeed fairly early on Ferguson is told in one of his name-dropping conversations with writers, here with Danish poet Jesper Mølby (can’t trace), that “we Danes aren’t melancholic”. Bleak maybe, it is conceded, but lacking the romance of melancholia. Ibsen is with me on geographical determinism, “convinced that it was the topography of Norway that made its people so secretive, so brooding, so guilt-ridden”, but we can also see an element of correlation not causation at work: “it was almost as though Scandinavians had embraced the cliché as truth”.

Danish culture offers up two gloomy personalities for discussion. Of the first, the melancholia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be attributed to English fashions of the time and a popularity for all things Danish following the marriage of James VI & I to Anne of Denmark, an early example of Scandinavian allure. The character of Hamlet may even be based on John Dowland, an English lutenist at the court of Christian IV.

The second gloomy Dane, Kierkegaard, is presented here as a cautionary tale on individuality. Ferguson’s interlocutor descriibes him railing against “the Christianity of the Danish state church [which] took all the power and danger and challenge out of stuff”, resulting in an ‘asymmetrical paternalism’ which refuses to recognise the existence of bad or even alternative thoughts and treats the thinker of them as a ‘victim in need of treatment’. Today, substitute the welfare state and a system of unwritten social rules for the church and you have a society where diversity is as rare as it is welcomed. Ironically, in Denmark the popular view of Kierkegaard is as doomed lover.

Ferguson has a subscription to glossy Danish archaeology magazine Skalk, and Vikingery features large, as well it might. As far as I’m concerned all that was done and dusted in Primary 3, along with Robert the Bruce and his spider, although I have re-visited things slightly after trips to Orkney and the Faroes. It’s notable though that Scottish/Celtic Viking connections are Norway related, while England’s Viking invaders hailed from Denmark. Their heartlands are to be found on Jutland, a small world away from today’s Copenhagen, if not exactly rugged or remote. If William the Conqueror had sailed east, things could have been rather different. (For the full Viking experience, see Destination Viking – based in Lerwick – and the accompanying Viking Routes.)

Moving on, of the 15 chapters a good handful have a Danish story at their heart – Denmark is the one with the history, albeit one of constant shrinkage all the way up to 1864 (“tensions over Slesvig and Holsten had flared up again”), a national trauma recently commemorated in a Sunday evening TV series which didn’t export too well. With Copenhagen a centre for German culture in the 18th century and many Spuren (traces) to be found in the city, Germany’s influence on Danish culture feels generally under-explored.

Many of the retellings in the book are reproduced in the form of conversations with local literati – this framing device doesn’t work for me, not least because it comes over second hand, with a touch of the unreliable narrator about it. Other chapters, in particular that on the Scandi experience of WW2, may well be mainly the output of diligent desk research, while a 50 page interlude, a play called Ibsen’s ghosts, is out of place. All in all it’s a bit of an oddity, and not one for the Scandi fanbase looking for the comforts of hygge (nary a trace) or Booth-like repartee. Plus it cites Norway as the world’s happiest country, surely some mistake?

At the end of the book Ferguson reflects on his experience of moving to another country:

I began thinking again about immigration and the rootlessness that comes when it doesn’t work out. I was lucky. Even though I was an immigrant, I never thought of myself that way. I had chosen to come to Norway out of a deep attraction to what I knew of the culture. For me, it was and remains a peculiar sort of honour simply to be allowed to live here.

This sums up the book, focused on the allure of the classic Scandinavian dream and ranging too widely to present a more nuanced picture. As Ferguson is finally almost happy to concede, the narrative of melancholy is a cliché, a literary illusion based on “all the outside world ever knew about the Scandinavians” and an expression of Nordicism. The local experience may be rather different.

Nordicism and its clichés

So, the Scandinavian dream and its attendant Nordicism is an external creation of a familiar type – see Edward Said’s OrientalismOccidentalism and a list of other isms, right down to nesting Orientalisms. Nordicism is less explored, awaiting critique akin to Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (review), or Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania (Misha Glenny reviews both). I haven’t even come across a ‘how to write about’ piece (The BalkansAfrica…).

Maybe Nordicism is just in a different place on the hype cycle. A handful of titles examine the allure of the north and the UK’s relation to it, going so far as to ask: Is the UK really in Scandinavia, with an ancient geographic link via Doggerland (article | Unofficial Britain)?

The Nordicist image of Scandinavia/Denmark (they tend to blur together) is a weird combo of Nordic noir (why the long face) and hygge (why so happy) – both through a distorted lens. Resorting to linkage:

For me the happiness thing comes down to glass half full vs glass half empty countries. Being ironically negative is part of the British DNA, one reason why the Danish gritted teeth style of happiness may grate on some. On the other side of the coin we have Bulgaria, 134th out of 158 countries in the 2015 World Happiness Report. Risa Buzatova explores Bulgaria’s consistently poor scoring: while happiness, or perhaps contentment, can be found in countries rich (Denmark) and poor (Bhutan), “Bulgarians cultivate pessimism with an almost peculiar sense of care and national pride”. (Update: the 2017 World Happiness Report has Denmark slip below Norway at 2nd, with Bulgaria up a tad at 105th, the sixth highest rise.)

Finally, The Conversation debunks hygge by invoking Vikingery. It seems the allure of the Scandinavian dream will be around for a while yet.

And just to clear things up…

  • purists define the Scandinavian countries as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, perhaps with the addition of Iceland and the Faroes, both of which were under Norwegian and then Danish rule for centuries
  • include Finland at your peril, although it was under Swedish rule until 1809 – now you are talking about the Nordics
  • Orkney and Shetland were under Norwegian rule until 1472 and hence have Scandinavian heritage – they form a nice contrast with the Faroes, originally settled by Celts
  • Nordicism is not a purely UK phenomenon – it has certainly reached Belgium, and my US based cousin is currently experiencing the arrival of hygge on the other side of the Atlantic

Updates: came across a 2012 piece, which basically says look how European we areImmigration to Denmark is nothing new – just ask the Vikings…Knut Skjærven, a Norwegian photographer living in Copenhagen for many years, asked in a kronik in Berlingske (2 March): Hvordan undgår jeg at blive dansk? (how do I avoid becoming Danish; via Infomedia) – a slightly misleading title, however the piece underlines some of the differences between the two countries outlined above:

I Danmark tænker man horisontalt over flade marker. I Norge tænker man vertikalt op og ned ad bjerge. Neuronerne er koblet forskelligt. Og det er ganske vist.

Here’s Times Resonant on the range of ‘loci’ where identity between cultures can be expressed:

…language (a Norwegian novel), the physical body (performance art), the natural world (imagined Swedish pines), and the built environment (that bridge in that crime series). Stepping back from that, there follows the fact that what ‘outsiders’ might refer to collectively as ‘Scandinavia’ is actually bound together by perceived differences in identity as well as commonalities.

Vikingery:

The Centre for Scandinavian Studies’ Rethinking Scandinavia conference in June had several streams of interest. Full papers in due course, it says. Of most interest:

  • Frans Gregersen’s keynote on The battle between the three Scandinavias, the past, the present and the future
  • papers on Swedish exceptionalism and Sweden bashing, the other side of the coin – or hype cycle; I certainly remember it being all about Swedish exceptionalism in the 1970s, which never appealed and was finally debunked by Andrew Brown’s Fishing in utopia (interesting that Sweden as metonym preceded Denmark)
  • in panel 5, Anna Sandberg (KU) on Transnationale forestillinger: Danmark i tysk litteratur og kultur omkring 1900, featuring three texts which fremstilles Danmark med sin geografi og historie adskilt fra resten af Skandinavien – ha! (another example: Danish sadly lacks the concept of fylleangst – it’s worth unpicking why…)

It seems that worrying about Scandi identity and studying its reception overseas has a long history (and is the new black, as the sociology of translations). As a Germanistik graduate I don’t remember a similar Teutonic concern, but the Danish Anglo press does frequently note the obsession with what makes a Dane a Dane. For more see the latest issue of Scandinavica on Peripheral figures: British and Irish receptions of Nordic literature and culture.

The theme of August’s Nordic Research Network conference was The N/north as home. Interesting opening keynote by Stefan Brink on the role of academia in nationalism and state building (not streamed; unSwedish vs unDanish), plus a roundtable on the theme itself.

An urbanist’s trip to Paris

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been to Paris. In a world before budget airlines Paris nudged Bruges as first stop for Brits venturing onto the Continent. My first visit was in 1980, in a sponsored student hitch from Bristol. I also have evidence of a 1982 visit, part of a summer hitch round Europe, with photos from the top of Samaritaine looking towards La Défense and Sacré-Cœur. After that things went very German, but I was there again in 1992 with my mother, when we visited the Musée d’Orsay and Versailles, and went for a boat trip on the Seine past La Défense, at that time dominated by something angular and shiny. I can also come up with a couple of short stops in the 1980s, and I was there some time in the 1990s for a conference.

Never took to it – too French. So for our New Year 2017 trip we honed in on themes of interest rather than revisiting the tourist classics, in a three step urbanist’s Paris programme.

Step 1: local government nerdery

What is Paris, anyway? CityMetric’s Jon Elledge has engaged with this at length, with, obv, London as baseline. He reveals just how small the City of Lights actually is:

Paris - the maroon pimple in the very middle?

Paris – the maroon pimple in the very middle?

Paris ‘proper’, as in the area within the périphérique ring road, is only six miles across, smaller than inner London. Venturing beyond tourist hotspots quickly brings you to suburbs (and the too often notorious banlieues) with their own councils. This has an effect on development, take it from me, living just outside Copenhagen ‘proper’. The creation of the Metropole du Grand Paris in 2016, covering the city and its suburbs in an area bigger than Greater London, may “help to reintegrate the banlieues and make the city work better”.

It’s all about density and taut town planning. Paris is one of the densest cities in the western world, with an average of 21,500 people per km2 compared with London’s 5000. Dubbed a ‘horizontal city’ by UNESCO, it is emphatically low rise, high density, dominated by buildings of four to six storeys.

The satellite view of Paris displays a homogeneous mass, divided by laterals and diagonals, interspersed by the odd circle:

(image: Airbus Defence and Space)

This geometric layout is of course the result of Haussmann’s famed urban renewal programme, resulting in “broad, strictly linear streets, unbroken facades, roundabouts radiating avenues, uniform city lighting, uniform street furniture…rebuilt and outfitted with all those identical trees (mostly plane trees and chestnuts), benches and kiosks” (Edmund White).

The inauguration of the Boulevard Périphérique in 1973 created a further physical and mental boundary between Paris, and not-Paris. While restrictions on building height and a policy of facadism means that the city ‘proper’ has largely maintained its Haussmann era appearance, this “small, beautiful city is surrounded by all of the messy, lively and less-than-pristine stuff that it does not want to process” (source), socially segregated with a central ghetto for the rich. The less elegaic urbanist press notes that Paris may even be in decline, a ville muséewith anything edgy pushed to the fringes – and other than the odd grand projet, that’s where where the interesting stuff is to be found.

More critique:

  • “a spiral layout of arondissements self-replicating until they hit the périphérique“(Lauren Elkin)
  • “mostly characterised by architectural reticence and courteous homogeneity” (J Meades)
  • “everyone has said that it was marvellous for so long that mankind has taken itself in by its own flattery” (Ian Nairn in 1968, via Owen Hatherley)

All this goes some way to explain my issues with the place. As you wander down the interchangeable streets, past yet another lovely square, thing start to blur and fall out of time, an endless parade of cafés offering the same plats du jour and boulangeries giving birth to people hurrying home with a baguette…in some ways then, comforting compared with sterile Scandi, but ultimately unchallenging, lacking eccentricity and in places just too conformist.

And cars, cars, cars. If the empty post-nuclear holocaust feel of central Copenhagen is the way to go, Paris has a problem. Queuing to take a selfie at the Arc de Triomphe in wedged between four lanes of French drivers may be one explanation for Paris Syndrome.

Step 2: cultural connections

Paris 1928: a city that attracted people dreaming of a better world after World War 1. This was the year when the surrealists Magritte, Dalí and Buñuel brought their bizarre new vision to the people, and when émigré writers and musicians such as Ernest Hemingway and George Gershwin came looking for inspiration. 

Paris in 1928 was where black musicians and dancers like Josephine Baker found adulation, where Cole Porter took time off from partying to write Let’s Do It, and where radical architect Le Corbusier planned a modernist utopia that involved pulling down much of Paris itself.

It’s a bit like Vienna 1908, “when Freud waved cheerily from a tram at Schiele and the Second Vienna School sang a capella to delighted cafe-goers”. Among old friends we find Samuel Beckett, James Joyce (who arrived in 1920 at the invitation of Ezra Pound, supposedly for a week, but ended up living there until his death), Ernest Hemingway (whose posthumous Moveable feast has unexpectedly regained popularity – see Being Human 2016) and Peggy Guggenheim.

There’s also a clutch of Scandis and related, not least Rilke, whose only novel, The notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), is the narrative of a destitute young Danish poet wandering around Paris and hoping to write, plus a pair of Danish sculptors, Astrid Noack of Norrebro’s Atelier fame, in town between 1920-29, and Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (vid), member of CoBrA. Robert Jacobsen (more sculpture, CoBrA fringe) and Richard Mortensen (painter), who feature the sort of Danish names it’s impossible to differentiate, were both in Paris between 1947-69, and now have side-by-side streets named after them in Ørestad Syd. Update: Inger Christensen also stopped by.

The big beast though is polymath Asger Jorn (1914-73), in town briefly during 1936-37 and working with Le Corbusier on the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux for the forthcoming World Exposition. Jorn contrasted Corb’s rationalist approach with the more ‘spontaneous’ ideas associated with the Danish and Scandinavian traditions, moving on to become a founder member of both CoBrA and the Situationist International.

Despite the above overflødighedshorn we confined ourselves to a quick peek at Walter Benjamin’s plaque before retracing parts of Simone de Beavoir’s regular stroll from Montparnasse to St-Germain-des-Prés.

The Boulevard du Montparnasse isn’t what it was, with le jazz hot and l’existentialism froid not much in evidence (source). Instead doormen prevent curious entry to cafés such as Le Select, La Coupole and La Rotonde, above which SdB was born. Both Le Dôme, where SdB edited Sartre’s Being and nothingness, and Café de Flore, where she wrote two essays, a novel and a play by the stove during WW2, were fully occupied by the sort of tourists who favour a full lunch.

You’ll find Les Deux Magots (Magots as in Chinese figurines…), an Existentialist haunt also favoured by Samuel Beckett which has awarded its own literary prize since 1933, next door to Louis Vuitton. We moved on, to a rather more successful turn around Perec’s place.

Where I get excited by a fleeting connection with Rachmaninoff in Gentofte, in Paris, as in London, there’s an endless web of connections to unpick – see 19 Quai Voltaire and the Café de la Mairie. Going a step further is Rue Watt, named after Scottish inventor James Watt and in its wrought iron incarnation featuring in a song, a film and two novels.

Rue Watt, redeveloped in 2005

Step 3:  building, buildings, buildings

Architecture for me starts with Art Deco. Paris’ Art Nouveau confections are like pralines, too rich for every day and cloying en masse. With the aim of escaping the false utopias of the culture industry we explored Cité U, founded in 1925 in a spirit of peace, unity and friendly cooperation, with 40 residences from around the world (top picks: Germany and the Netherlands).

Le Corbusier may not have achieved a Haussmann-style remake of the city, however his UNESCO recognised Paris traces include Immeuble Molitor, an apartment building conforming to four of his five points of architecture. Corb’s last home is on the top floor, overlooking the Parc de Princes and a short stroll from Roland Garros.

We spent three nights on the edge of La Défense. Initiated in 1958 by a team of visionary architects as a modern business district for Paris, its first building is one of its most impressive.

CNIT (1958) with friends, boasting the world’s largest self-supporting concrete vaulted ceiling

Making a rather bigger statement is the Grande Arche from 1989, at the westernmost point of the Axe historique, connecting it physically and visually to the city. The architect, Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, who died two years before the inauguration, is also responsible for Hvidovre’s Sankt Nikolaj Kirke, on a rather different scale.

Some Defacto factoids:

  • Europe’s largest business district – 3.5 million m2 of offices over 560 hectares, with 25K residents and 180K daily workers, plus 8 million tourist visitors per year
  • also a recreational venue – renewal plan launched by President Sarkozy in 2007, classified as a tourist attraction in 2009
  • Europe’s largest shopping mall – CNIT has 36 outlets, while Les Quatre Temps houses 265 shops, 35 restaurants and 16 movie screens (180K m2, 40 million visitors per year)
  • 12 hectares of green spaces including Parc Diderot and a vineyard
  • 100+ buildings and towers (19 taller than 150m)
  • 60+ works of art by 50+ artists from 14 countries
  • downloads inc guides to architecture, artworks & history and stories | map & signage

With pedestrians and motorists strictly separated as advocated by Corb, it’s more Barbican than City. The central pedestrian promenade impresses, with some striking artworks, while less impressive are the individual skyscrapers, which lack the interest of those in London or Rotterdam. They work rather better as a group and at night.

La Défense from the ‘near’ end of the Esplanade

Some rather more exciting architecture can be found in the nearby grands ensembles of Courbevoie and Nanterre, both neighbouring communes half in, half out of La Défense.

Outside Paris ‘proper’ meaning less money for renovation has left Courbevoie’s concrete Charras, dating from around the same time as the first now glass and steel towers a few streets away, untouched since the 1960s. Both Les Damiers, four nearby Brutalist ziggurats, and Nanterre’s Cité Pablo Picasso (or Tours Nuages), consisting of 18 towers with a total of 1607 apartments, provide further provocations to a future forever just around the corner.

(For more grands ensembles see Laurent Kronental’s project, breathlessly covered by CNN | Dezeen | Gdn.)

Tours Nuages, a big snake and a glimpse of La Défense

More utopias…President Mitterand commissioned a slate of grand projets in a programme aimed at revitalising the city in 1982. Many of the projects were constructed on the working class eastern side of Paris, bringing a re-emphasis to the Seine, but the usual trinity of costs, over-runs and operational issues caused controversy. Mitterand’s eight buildings include the baffling Bibliothèque nationale, four glass buildings designed to resemble open books, and the Ministère de l’économie et des finances, a 70m long piece of PoMo not unlike a motorway tollgate (height restrictions precluded the construction of a tower).

Contemporary prestige projects, redeveloped as part of the Paris Rive Gauche (map & booklet; previously Seine Rive Gauche) initiative, include Les Docks, which couldn’t be more French, and Les Grand Moulins, which we managed to miss due to approaching the ‘back’ way.

An initiative commissioned in 1985 on 130 hectares of land previously owned by SNCF between the railway tracks of the Gare d’Austerlitz and the Seine, Paris Rive Gauche is the largest development project since Haussmann’s time. It accommodates approximately 15,000 residents, 50,000 employees, and 30,000 students and staff from the Paris Diderot University, with the Avenue de France a 40m broad artery.

We explored the Masséna district, made up of several neighbourhoods each coordinated by a different architect. Masséna Nord, launched in 1995, includes Les Grand Moulins, now part of the university, as well as some innovative housing based on coordinating architect Christian de Portzamparc‘s theory of the ‘open block’ (îlot ouvert), with free-standing blocks designed on principles of diversity and contrast. Here height regulations have been relaxed to allow buildings of 50m for residential purposes and 150m for non-residential purposes.

Rue Hélène Brion in Masséna – on-street parking and trees

Streetnaming here is delightful, focusing on important people of the 20th century, with a Rue Elsa Morante and a Thomas Mann school, a Rue Olivier Messiaen and a Rue René Goscinny (decorated with call-outs from his cartoon that have already become local attractions).

For more see my Paris Flickr album (130 photos) and developing map:

More Paris:

Walks and walking:

Too late! Blue Crow’s Brutalist Paris map, reviewed in AnOther’s Brutalist buildings to visit in Paris…the Promenade Plantée, Paris’ High Line (came first!)