Reflecting on language, literature and lifestyle

During a recent week in Berlin I was surprised – and chuffed – to find many of the much-loved titles from my 1980s Literature of the Weimar Republic undergraduate module more than readily available, if perhaps not the Expressionist dramas I tackled for my dissertation. (And Babylon Berlin’s nasse Fisch was everywhere.) Meanwhile the UK is knee deep in redemptive nature writing, and the first BrexLit titles have hit the shelves. Literature is, of course, a reflection of the society it emerges from.

So what of Danish literature? As someone with a serious book buying habit I was eager to dive in, but became gradually disillusioned, as chronicled over three years ago in My struggle with Danish writing. I finally came to the realisation that, like eating rugbrød and wearing black all the time, it’s not compulsory to read modern Danish literary fiction, you can opt out of that as much as any other aspect of the Danish lifestyle which doesn’t fit. Bang goes that career in literary translation!

Here’s a quote from Morten Hasseldahl (Gyldendal): “we haven’t been very good at developing stories that reflect the cultural diversity that increasingly has characterized our society. We need to relate to an international world. Our literature still primarily focuses on white middle-class men and women…Books are increasingly considered exquisite, destined for a small elite.”

Last year’s books round-ups and prizes do however bring up some new themes which go beyond “the humdrum lives of writers who are not yet famous” (source) – maybe global trends just take a while to filter through to Fortress Denmark.

As you might expect in a small country there are more than a few ‘two country kids’. Mathilde Walter Clark is the daughter of American physicist John Walter Clark and a Danish mother, whom he met during a study visit at the Niels Bohr Institute. Encountered before via Report from the flatlands of statistics (2014; best quotes: “Early on I learned to measure my experiences using two rulers…I find myself in a state of perpetual provocation: in America by inequality, and in Denmark by conformity”), MWC’s latest is Lone Star (2018). A novel in two parts, made up of memories from her childhood summer holidays in the US and a ‘road trip’ as adult around Texas in search of her American roots, an afternoon’s dipping in and out was quite rewarding, although it’s perhaps a tad self indulgent at nearly 450 pages? (MWC is a fan of literary maximalism; see her 2012 ‘essay’ Virkeligheden i tynde, tynde skiver.) A USeng translation has recently been commissioned.

More from the transnational turn in Anita Furu’s Mit halve liv (DR | Politiken | Bogselskabet), which won the ‘debutante’ prize at Bogforum 2018 (AF was born in 1962 – hvad så? – and didn’t attend Forfatterskolen, raising some eyebrows). This tells a tale inspired by the life of Anita’s farmor, born in Kiev but sent to CPH after a pogrom in Russia in 1906. Adopted by a prosperous lady, she marries a Norwegian businessman and spends time with him in San Sebastian, returning to Denmark in the 1950s, where she comes to terms with the loss of a family and a past.

It all looked and sounded very promising, with a quote from Sebald’s Austerlitz at the start, but any depth of feeling fails to cut through the usual sparse Danish prose, made up of one clause, factual sentences in the present tense. Maybe it’s all between the lines, if not on p217, with this one-liner on a first impression of Copenhagen: “Aldrig havde jeg set så tyst en by…stiv-net. lunken, tavs” (lit: “I had never seen so quiet a city..stiffly-neat, lukewarm, silent”).

CY Frostholm’s Træmuseet (The museum of trees) has just won Kritikerprisen (The Critics’ Prize), and as an “essayistiske collage” had my name on it from the start. Unlike CYF’s usual Oulipo-inspired outputs this one offers 500+ pages of arboreal musings in eight sections, starting with walking in Fernando Pessoa’s footsteps in Lisbon and followed by excursions to England, Scotland, Denmark and France, bolstered by quotations from Brecht and other familiar tree-fanciers. Can we call this for nature writing Danish style, as well as one for the slim place writing canon? Sadly it’s not exactly accessible for your average bookish reader.

As ever I have issues with the materiality of Danish books, and even bookshops. While Berlin’s monster Dussmann felt like coming home, somewhere to settle in for the evening, Danish bookshops feel sparse and clinical. Then there’s the language thing. We can save linguistic determinism for another day, and but to this non-native speaker Danish is not an attractive language, and feels almost archaic, sitting somewhere between Middle High German and Anglo-Saxon prior to the Second Sound Shift.kos

Over to Dorte Nors: “Compared to English, for example, on paper, we only have about half as many words to play with” (source). While I am normally a fan of minimalism written Danish for me tends to monotony and repetition – do Danes find more nuance? Am I just unable to tune in? FWIW this also makes literary Danish difficult to translate – it easily comes over as banal, calling for extensive editing, almost a transcreation process if it is not to slip through your fingers entirely.

So, have we moved on much further from my previous post? As ever I’m grateful to the Danish library system, which so often supplies barely-opened books for my curated reading pleasure. And all the above may well graduate to reading-in-the garden books this summer – after I’ve finished my German purchases, of course.

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Vestegnens Kulturuge 2018: a sense of place?

The theme of this year’s Golden Days festival was history’s B-sides, so broad as to be meaningless. Arranged over seven streams, there were some events of interest under architecture (although I take issue with Vestegnen as a B-side (another), it rather depends where you are coming from, ikke) and literature, but overall the programme felt rather thin, characterised by the picture of an arse (bagside) as motif and the very Danish concept of Rumpegalleriet. Lost its way? Too many festivals?

Vestegnens Kulturuge took place as ever in week 37 (10-16 Sep to RotW), despite kicking off earlier with Rødovre Kulturnat on the 7th and Vallensbæk’s Mosens Dag on the 9th.

The overall theme was between light and shade, bringing us an Ole Rømer sound and light show (review) at Taastrup Bibliotek (plus exhibition and lecture), tours of Taastrupgaard Museum and 1950s Vridsløselille, and an evening walk down Hvidovrevej with Benn Q Holm (pic) to investigate Hvidovre’s identity.

Also on offer was Vestegnens KulturCast, mainly interviews with local volunteers, and the first ever glossy festival mag, with stories from kendisser who grew up in the area – once upon a time, everyone grew up in the suburbs.

This year’s thing was nests (FB), with six birds’ nests constructed by Veronica Hodges over the summer. Each kommune was represented by a bird, and some of the nests were decorated with papercuts, but overall they lacked the impact of either Thomas Dambo’s giants or the on-trend artistic chops of last year’s containers. And despite mainly to be found in central locations, none looked much visited.

We made our now traditional road-trip around the six locations, taking the nests in two tranches to gain a ‘nested’ view of six kommuner one weekend in September.

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Rødovre’s nest is to be found in the garden of Heerups Museum at the historical heart of the kommune, and is in the shape of a viber, the lapwing which swims in the nearby (also bird-shaped) Damhussøen lake. Abutting the Copenhagen suburb of Vanløse, like my ‘home’ kommune of Hvidovre, Rødovre is a classic dormitory town dominated by social housing, but thanks to the efforts of an ambitious mayor has some points of interest in the shape of a tranche of public buildings by Arne Jacobsen, no less, and Denmark’s first shopping centre.

From the fringes of Copenhagen we forged our way down Roskildevej, straight through the kommuner of Brøndby and Glostrup, who no longer participate in the kulturuge, and bypassing Albertslund for now, to reach Høje-Taastrup (sic). Five kommuner in the space of just over 10km and 15 minutes, that must be some sort of record, and probably made sense back in the day. But do the differences go further than the street furniture?

Taastrup’s blackbird’s nest is in a rather more urban setting, outside the newly opened Medborgerhus beneath the railway line built in 1847 around which the town grew up. While Taastrup now rubs shoulders with the new town of Høje Taastrup (estd. 1978), it retains the feel of the market towns found elsewhere on Sjælland, with a tree-lined main street and small shops. With banners over the street promoting the Ole Rømer connection there was a festive feel about the place.

From the edge of Vestegnen we backtracked to Albertslund, which always presents very well. Built to a 1957 master plan, Albertslund’s coat of arms features a cockerel, and a family of swans had taken over the lake, however the nest is named for the isfugl (kingfisher), and can be found opposite the town hall. Home to 28K inhabitants and 106 nationalities the town is out of step with the prevailing image of Denmark 2018, but the area around its civic buildings is evocative of an era of bigger aspirations. The nest, built on its own small island, was closed for unexplained reasons.

Continuing south brings you to Vallensbæk, one of Denmark’s smallest kommuner both by area and population. On Vestegnen it distinguishes itself for voting Conservative; with a housing stock made up almost exclusively of homeowners it straddles a brace of motorways within touching distance of the tower blocks of Brøndby Strand. A svane (swan) graces the communal coat of arms, and its nest was equally neat and tidy, located in newly landscaped grønne strøg running south from the station to the marina. They like a bit of relandscaping in Vallensbæk – see also the confusing juggling of Gammel Køge Landevej where it meets the O3 ring road, an attempt to turn it back into a country road.

Backtracking west to Ishøj, like Taastrup verging into the countryside, but with a rather different identity. With one of the highest proportions of non-ethnic Danes in the country, Ishøj-the-town is dominated by social housing and has a centre dating from 1977. Emphatically planned for shoppers loading their wares into the car from an underground car park, it’s not beagle friendly, but redeems itself by boldly making no concessions other than some yellow sunshades. We finally found our way to the library garden where an avocet’s (klyde) nest lurks in a corner. An avocet, in Ishøj?? A sparrow, maybe.

All of which brought us back to Hvidovre, which for all its quests for identity is the true dormitory suburb, seemingly asleep for the past decade, with no development noted at all. A swallow’s (svale) nest stands in the garden of the Rytterskole in what remains of the historic heart of the kommune, which could have been Hvidovre’s centre, yada yada, and but for a brace of bad luck (not included in Copenhagen’s 1901 land grab) and bad decisions (a council functionary who commanded riv det gamle lortt ned). As things stand it’s just too close to Valby to make sense as a separate entity, split by a motorway and lacking the dynamism seen in Rødovre, rather more at the heart of things if only a couple of kilometres further north.

Vestegnen’s mini-towns can be seen as analagous with the UK’s new towns, if – as ever – on a different scale. Sometimes referred to as Copenhagen suburbs, they are slowly developing a sense of place, but still merge into each other as classic sprawl, awkwardly bissected by traffic arteries leading elsewhere.

We also took in a new artwork, Vallensbæk’s Gænger (Runners; vid), which lights up at night driven by the power of people crossing the cycle and footbridge over the ring road. Or at least should do when the bridge is finished – we were shooed off by JCBs engaged in resurfacing the thing.

Gænger (Runners, 2018), by Mogens Jacobsen

Events elsewhere (3): Biennale

Third post (EdFoc | ArchiFringe) in a series of posts on events #nothere, looking at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Visiting the Biennale Architettura was one of the highlights of my trip to Venice in 2014. I checked in virtually in 2016, and this year again. It’s a good way of getting out of the Danish bubble, not least to see what the increasing band of ‘my’ countries is up to.

Politiken gave the main exhibition, with the theme of Freespace and curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, five stars, hailing a women’s takeover, a discreet and peaceful experience in full daylight rather than the usual dramatic theatre-lit conditions, the radical and new put to one side in favour of looking back, using old techniques in new ways in the name of beauty…it does sound their sort of thing, as reflected in the curators’ manifesto, which emphasises the capacity of architecture to find “additional and unexpected generosity” in each project, stressing the architect’s obligation to provide “gifts” to the wider public beyond the confines of the client’s brief alone (Olly Wainwright).

This year’s Danish national contribution, Possible spaces: sustainable development through collaborative innovation (English | KADK), showcased four projects, curated by Natalie Mossin (KADK; FB), framed by BLOX itself (press release | English).

The UK’s, Island (again), curated by Caruso St John Architects with artist Marcus Taylor, consisted of a new public space on the roof of the pavilion drawing inspiration from the landscape of Venice and the issue of climate change; “the peak of the pavilion’s roof protrudes up through the floor, suggesting both an island and a sunken world beneath, but the building is empty of exhibits”. This feels rather more creative and challenging. One might ask if Island is an appropriate concept for a UK contribution in 2018, and Frieze calls it “the most problematic and provocative to feature in Venice this year”. Island was awarded Special Mention, behind the Swiss crazy house (all three). Others less impressed (tweet).

Of the 65 “ever more impenetrable” national participations, the architectural equivalent of the Eurovision song contest (we know, Olly Wainwright), here’s four + four, largely culled from the Gdn and Frieze:

  • Czech and Slovak Republics (sic?): has a similar feel to Russia 2014 (this year doing stations), plus more great wordplay
  • Finland’s Mind-Building: a micro-museum of library design, celebrating past and future buildings, a “rich, focused curatorial paean to the transformative power of public libraries, both on the individual imagination and on the wider society”; libraries are certainly my idea of freespace
  • France’s Infinite Places: celebrates an “unfinished architecture in perpetual motion”, displaying ten adaptive reuse projects transformed into cultural centres, homeless shelters and residential complexes (The Spaces)
  • Ireland’s Free Market: with its great play on words
  • Canada | Germany | Hong KongKorea

Off to Kosovo and Macedonia shortly, so it’s interesting to note I picked up on Kosovo in 2014 – the links are now dead, but the Shkami tower, made up of 720 wooden stools (pic), and the postcard wall (720 images of Kosovo “showing slow but absolute erasure of regional identity”) made an impression. (The postcard I chose, nr. 145 of an office building from 1977 on Bulevardi Bill Clinton by Invest Biro, has been chewed by our forever young beagle.)

As far as Macedonia is concerned – can’t wait!

As promised, a chunk of Robin Hood Gardens duly turned up (pic), despite criticisms of poverty tourism.

Scotland’s collateral event, The Happenstance (A&DS | coverage | report | Glasgow | Embra | tweet), curated by WAVEparticle (interview), consisted of a ‘freespace’ in the garden of the Palazzo Zenobio, exploring young people in Scotland’s response to the Biennale theme and inviting all-comers “to build new possibilities together for the freedoms we urgently need to claim”. Involving play as an ‘active agent’ and a Living Library of Ideas (The Spaces), sounds all a bit too eagerly cute for me.

Freespace is open to interpretation, a good in itself, and like conference themes can attract some contributions that might have been made to fit whatever, and/or veering towards the arty, or somewhere inbetween (see Chile).

Events elsewhere (2): ArchiFringe

Updates: unimpressed review of this year’s Art FestivalA wall is a screen, combined walking tour and themed film night, in Leith…talking of the festival, we have artwashing and over-tourism (it was ever thus), plus the council’s call for a tourist taxGlasgow Doors Open Days Festival inc 39! walks and a pop-up hub as part of Doors Open Days throughout Scotland…see foot for ArchiFringe 2019…Art Festival 2019 pics

Second post (first: EdFoc) in my series of posts on events #not_here, looking at ArchiFringe (@archifringe), taking place for the third time in Edinburgh and across Scotland.

Edinburgh is, of course, The Festival City – it used to (at least) announce itself thus on a signpost on the A90, not far from my family home. It being 2018, such analogue delights have been replaced by a wide-ranging website, listing ten or so annual festivals including The Fringe, the original ‘alternative’ festival. The Fringe has begat further fringes, including Book Fringe and Architecture Fringe (@ArchiFringe), the latter a response to Visit Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture & Design.

This year’s ArchiFringe took place in June, with the obvious point of comparison of CAFxWalking Heads hails a “bold and creatively challenging menu, with unexpected happenings in both likely and unlikely locations” including “an echoing Cumbernauld underpass” (celebrating the new town) and “forgotten parts of Kelty” (street art; 2019: This is Kelty).

Having grown up in Edinburgh, the place names resonate across the North Sea, even as the places change. Many a time I have hopped on the Kelty bus, enjoying its non-stop surge down the Queensferry Road before hopping off at the Barnton Roundabout. Now when I go back it’s a process of revisiting half-remembered places and finding new ones; the Dick Vet as Summerhall, Lauriston Place Fire Station as event location, hosting a Pecha Kucha Night.

There are commonalities to be found too, with a different take, a different lens. Copenhagen’s brokvartererne have their parallels in Edinburgh’s tenements, once torn down and now gentrifying, creating a need for affordable housing.

The festival’s theme/provocation of COMMON/SENSES invited that British favourite, the play on words, and some diverse responses:

Ironically, fewer commonalities here, given the local ‘one size fits all’ approach and lack of delight in the edgy.

Other provocations included Univer-City (@EdiSolidarity; see Crumble article, LFA’s Knowledge territories), addressing “the historical and ongoing domination of our city’s built and aesthetic form” and Frankentypes, for lovers of typology, “seeking to pluralise expected architectural representation and building types by creating new hybrid structures” (one | two | three).

Creative kudos to Shore 2 Shore (poetry, in Dunoon!), to Sarah Calmus for the Uber Dérive, and to Jenny Knotts for Architext, memories of Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre as a play script in the form of an architectural plan:

Finally, the irresistible Baby Pianodrome (own site), an amphitheatre made from 50 upcycled pianos, to be found in the Botanics in August:

Where I feel less at home is with bothies and ‘hutting’ (paging David Cameron). Like Gaelic on road signs, the bothy-as-lifestyle trend seems to have emerged since I flitted to Denmark. ArchiFringe featured The Shieling Project, which doesn’t exactly capture the remoteness anticipated, resembling rather an idealised edit of hygge combined with an update of the ‘wilderness’ hut more likely to be found in Scandi proper (ie the other side of The Bridge) or Finland, yet one more tie-in with general Nordic envy.

You want more? See Antiuniversity Now’s Solus and the city, a small ‘solitude shed’ based on a bothy, in err…East Dulwich, and the Bermondsey Bothy. The Royal Scottish Academy has a forthcoming Bothy Night, celebrating Shelter Stone, a bothy book “made from 70 per cent recycled midge trap waste” (that’s surely a joke). We are now heading into full commodification, not least with Shed of the Year.

More gratifyingly, Alec (son of Iain Hamilton, creator of Adorno’s hut) Finlay has picked up the hutting ball and run with it, “responding to rewilding, ecology or the renewable avant-garde” with Hutopianism, part of Machines à penser at the Prada Foundation, a fringe event at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Where I find a sad lack of melancholy in the prevailing Danish discourse, here a brace of events (Chez Etym & moreRepurpose idea) celebrated the role of memory in constructing the present, and the future, of place. And where I sense a smoothing out and flattening of complexity here I find ‘comfortable chaos’ (Urbanistas), dissent (Pecha Kucha GLA) and disruption (Salon des Refuses), heralding new styles of living rather than a cradle to grave comfort blanket, ghettoised by age, with life starting and ending in an institution (update: see a caring place: presentations | case studies | notes).

ArchiFringe 2019: theme/provocation In Real Life, hubs at The Lighthouse (@The_Lighthouse; tweet & another) & Custom Lane (@CustomLaneLeith), and an in-need-of-an-edit podcast. Lots of creative, provocative and unsettling approaches to place, esp:

Events elsewhere (1): EdFoC

Update, June 2019: all very bike-focused this year, with one novelty: Dovecot Studios‘ sold-out tapestry tour

My Twitter bubble keeps serving up interesting events elsewhere offering food for thought to compare with the local summer festival scene. Some common themes keep coming up as well – it’s all quite inspirational. So, here’s the first in a series of posts on events #not_here, looking at the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling (@edfoc).

I grew up Edinburgh, for me the archetypal walking city. I biked as a student, in Bristol and Frankfurt, and ever since have chosen not to, not really a radical lifestyle choice even in (or just outside) Copenhagen. In the same way as hygge and those happy Danes, the picture painted of cycling in CPH is seen through a rather rosy lens, obscuring any number of cultural (and geographic) differences. EdFoC portrays some of these differences, even if it is suffering from a dose of Scandimania.

Unsurprisingly, there was nary a mention of walking on the programme (shared space issues! entitlement!!) – OTOH it’s a relief not to have it conflated as a sort of second best. As it happens the council does a pretty good job IRT walking, vs its near-invisibility in CPH. (The comparatively low number of pedestrian journeys in CPH is generally waved away as why would you, if you can cycle? The high cost of public transport, particularly for impromptu short trips, surely also plays a role.)

The festival is aimed at ‘all types’ of cyclist, but a lot of events involved challenge style riding/touring, some for charity but others aimed more at self-empowerment – maybe this sort of thing goes on in CPH, but if it does it’s passed me by (although grim-faced lycra-clad MAMIL groups do plague both paths and country roads at weekends).

A couple of these events did however capture my imagination – the Ride to the Sun (@RidetotheSun) from Carlisle to Cramond for the summer solstice (over 1000 participated) and the Night Ride the week before. Cycling can be more than a convenient means of transport after all…

Guided ride offerings were mainly on the pricey side and in tourist corner (an Outlander location tour, anyone?), so I was happy to note the free event exploring Edinburgh’s 20th century buildings, with accompanying fab pic. A shout-out too to the UNESCO Chair Refugee Cycle, held as part of Refugee Week and a Summer Fun Day in Glasgow. (Noted also that good works are clearly done by Bike for Good and Bikes for Refugees.)

Danish envy aplenty however behind the cry to Copenhagenize Scotland, cancelled on this occasion due to high priest Morten Kabell falling ill; the grass isn’t always greener, folks. Some Celticization of Denmark wouldn’t go amiss, if only Scots (and Brits) could drop the habit of constantly running themselves doon in the name of self-irony.

Meanwhile pressure group Spokes (@SpokesLothian), celebrating its 40th anniversary, seems to at least equal @copenhagenizers in their zeal to transform the city, here’s hoping they don’t go the full Gehl. A tram is a better place to start, even if it stops just after tackling its first hill.

Literature got a look-in with the on-point Women’s Read and Ride tour (event), and EdFoc even runs a writing competition – for me one of the 2017 winners gets a special prize just for the multi-layered title of her story, Freedom of movement. Bless her.

Are events similar to EdFoC held in DK? I tend to avert my eyes from the self-congratulatory cycling discourse hereabouts, but I can’t help noticing that in Scotland it’s all rather different, and definitely made from girders – see Conquer Kaimes, cycling up this 9% gradient demon…

my breathless pic from Nov 2017, after walking (almost) to the top of Kaimes Road

So, a festival embracing diversity, with events featuring both lycra and cake (probably not together), people doing things for themselves, and lots of different ways of answering the question. Edinburgh has all the Copenhagen it needs.

Next up, and staying in Edinburgh, ArchiFringe.

#CAFx2018: Denmark does urbanism

2019 update: CAFx ran this year from 4 to 14 April, with the theme of Changing ideals (Skiftende idealer). This year in particular it felt very academic focused, a refreshing change, with barely a child-friendly event to be found. The international urbanist audience was also well catered for. Two streams of note: social housing, celebrating Danmarks Almene Boliger’s 100th anniversary, and the inevitable Bauhaus anniversary stream; also a critical look at the role of investment funds in heritage and urban development and a contribution to the manifesto meme. This year’s Bygningspræmiering saw the Publikumspris go to Amaryllis Hus in Grønttorvet.

Has the Copenhagen Architecture Festival (@cpharchfest & FB) come of age? This year’s eclectic programme drew Politiken‘s critic to call for a refocus on architecture rather than all the other bits and bobs (eg this). And a new name is perhaps called for, with events spreading as far as Odense; how about Denmark does urbanism?

A renewed spatial turn saw the festival coinciding with the opening of BLOX (sic) on 6 May, of which more below, and the launch of Politiken Byrum, an excellent news service on all things urban, but with most of the content paywalled. Both seem ready to embrace a wider range of interests than the strictly architectural. There have also been sightings of a more nuanced approach in the media generally over the past year, less focused on the lovely and recognising the increasing growth of issues long encountered elsewhere, such as gentrification — time to discard some of the mantle of exceptionalism? Perhaps encounters with BLOX will lead to more self-analysis and a broader focus in future.

According to Politiken Byrum around 220 events were scheduled over the fortnight, with the over-arching theme of At huse hjem/Housing homes. New forms of living beyond the nuclear family, no longer the most widespread form of household in the land, were examined at major conferences on housing needs and post-war housing in Scandinavia. Subthemes included increasing migration to the city, increasing house prices and increasing segregation…times are certainly changing. and Copenhagen feels very different from when I moved here over a decade ago.

Tours included the traditional cycle ride with city architect Tina Saaby to the best new buildings of the year, with the new Publikums Pris won by Axel Towers, an office complex opposite Tivoli boasting a rooftop restaurant and a new perspective on public space from its walkway.

Axel Towers: shiny!

The portfolio of guided walks on offer illustrated some of Copenhagen’s current tussles with its identity, featuring ‘fringe’ areas such as Nordvest (gentrification on Rentemestervej with added street art vs industrial heritage and I ❤ Tagensvej) and Sydhavnen (the growing gulf between old and new).

The inner city’s balcony scourge also got a mention. Perhaps next year there will be space for a dissection of the typehus, bursting to the edge of its plot and surrounded by paving, the suburban equivalent of New Copenhagen Vernacular apartment blocks, so close together that they effectively close off entire areas to non-residents.

In cultural heritage corner, the Jewish Museum offered walks on immigration and diversity in Nørrebro (FB) and Jewish CPH (FB). Storrs Antikvariat looked at changing ideas of house and home with two authors, while Medicinsk Museion had a small (read: minute) exhibition on the use of its 18th century building by the Kgl. Kirurgiske Akademi, not least as flats for academicians and their families. (Famous residents included Nobel prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, who moved in at the age of one in 1886. Bohr had lifelong luck in solving his personal housing needs, spending the last 30 years of his life in residence in what is now Carlsberg Akademi.) Doubtless this is the sort of thing of which Politiken Does Not Approve.

Which brings us back to BLOX

BLOX: the new and extraordinary venue for life in the city

Designed somewhat unexpectedly by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA, who won a competition way back in 2006, this does-what-it-says venue is the new home for the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC), who previously occupied an old warehouse on the wrong side of the waterfront. A multi-functional complex, the building has luxury apartments on the top and automated parking in the basement, with offices/’work desks’, a fitness centre and cafés in the middle.

Koolhaas is known for his “f*** context” provocation, and this is basically what the avalanche of critique of the building comes down to: like DAC’s new branding, it’s just not Danish enough. Even the font looks alien, for goodness sake.

Personally I don’t have a problem with any of it, but then I loved the bold approach taken to the waterfront in Koolhaas’ Rotterdam. BLOX is interesting, extending over Christians Brygge like a heap of Tupperware, with escalators and covered walkways to provide changing levels and protection from the weather. The only disappointment in my customary walk round the building was the children’s play area, which feels exposed and out of place in the heart of a big city.

Realdania, the somewhat shady fund who bankrolled the thing, have backtracked, saying they would not commission the design today, while for once the Gdn’s Olly Wainwright let me down. But six days after the opening a group of architects came with a riposte: cities do not stay static and neither are they museums; if CPH wants to compete as an international city it needs distinctive architecture; the glass facade is open to and reflects the city, etc.

And this part of the city already hosts buildings in a range of styles — BLOX practically rubs shoulders with the Black Diamond aka the Royal Library, which back in the day (1999!) also gave rise to an avalanche of critique. A stroll along the waterfront out of the city centre takes you to a section of PoMo buildings almost universally derided, but which today offer rather more than the apartment blocks shooting up in what remains of the harbour.

Of #CAFx2018, sadly, details of the events vanished from view as they happened, but PDF programmes are to be found hidden under Press. For a look at how the festival has developed over the years, see my posts for 2016 (with nods to 2014 and 2015) and 2017).

Fernando Pessoa: multiplicity in Lisbon

In January we spent a few days in Lisbon. Fabulous place, a million miles from anything even vaguely Nordic. On the lookout for connections, it was no real surprise to discover that global traveller HC Andersen visited in 1866, publishing Et Besøg i Portugal in 1868. Rather more surprising was the link to Denmark’s other 19th century literary titan; like Kierkegaard, poet Fernando Pessoa was a prime exponent of the use of the the heteronym in his writing.

Now feeling like an old friend, prior to our trip to Lisbon I had never heard of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Portugal’s modernist poet, writer, translator, philosopher – and anointed flâneur. How can that be? A lifelong Anglophile, Pessoa lived in Durban from the age of seven to 17, attending Durban High School, from which he matriculated with a prize in English. His earliest works were written in English, he translated a number of books from Portuguese into English (and vice versa), and in 1925 he even wrote a guidebook to Lisbon in English (Lisbon: what the tourist should see, unpublished until 1992).

The word pessoa means person in Portuguese, deriving from the Latin persona, the mask worn by Roman actors; just one of the small details which make the man so intriguing. An outsider’s outsider, for most of his life Pessoa worked as a freelance commercial translator while contributing poetry and essays to journals and newspapers. He was interested in theosophy, spiritualism and the occult, corresponding with Aleister Crowley, and helped him to stage a fake suicide in Lisbon in 1930. A keen amateur astrologist, Pessoa made horoscopes of his clients and friends, as well as of his heteronyms and even of literary journals. All this had a strong influence on his writing; he felt “sometimes suddenly being owned by something else”.

In 1915 as part of a group of artists and poets, including close friends José de Almada Negreiros and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa created the literary magazine Orpheu, which introduced modernist literature and art to Portugal, if in only two issues.

From 1905 to 1920 he lived in 15 different locations in Lisbon, while from 1907 until his death he worked in 21 firms in Lisbon’s downtown, sometimes in more than one at the same time. Two favourite haunts were A Brasileira, the preferred café of the Orpheu group, and Martinho da Arcada on Praça do Comércio, his ‘office’ during the 1920s and 1930s. Given all that it’s not surprising that there is a full Pessoa audio tour and map experience.

Pessoa created over 70 heteronyms, imaginary characters allowing him to write in different styles. The best known are:

  • Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915), the ‘master’ of the other heteronyms and even Pessoa himself, a rural, uneducated poet of ideas who wrote in free verse (Complete poems and more | Uncollected poems)
  • Álvaro de Campos (1890- ), a well-travelled naval engineer who returned to Lisbon to stay in the fateful year of 1926; influenced by Futurism (poems inc Lisbon revisited, from visits in 1923 and 1926)
  • Ricardo Reis (1887- ), a doctor who composed Horatian odes; as a Royalist Reis fled to Brazil in 1910
  • Bernardo Soares, bookkeeper and flâneur, a ‘semi-heteronym’ who wrote mainly in prose; pages from his journal were found in a trunk in Pessoa’s apartment and published in English in 1991 as The book of disquiet

De Campos and Reis discussed the work of Caeiro in essays and with each other, rejecting the interpretation of their publisher, Pessoa. Pessoa-himself gradually becomes another heteronym, another mask.

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist,” wrote Álvaro de Campos, sparing the author the trouble of living a ‘real’ life.

José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, paid the ultimate tribute to this dazzling and sustained feat of the imagination in his novel, The year of the death of Ricardo Reis, which sees Reis return to Lisbon on hearing of the death of Pessoa.

It’s difficult to gauge the true significance of all this to Portugal’s cultural life, however the man himself is pretty unavoidable in the cityscape and seems to have attained iconic status, in a similar way to James Joyce in Dublin. We made tracks to the Casa Fernando Pessoa, a house museum-cum-shrine and the city’s premiere literary location, the site of Pessoa’s last home from 1920 until his death.

On the ground floor was an exhibition of some of the numerous representations of Pessoa in art, while the second floor houses a reconstruction of Pessoa’s flat, with memorabilia including his school report in a glass case, his glasses and a rather functional bookcase – if not the trunk/s where he stored his writing. After his death 25,574 items were inventoried.

The museum is also custodian of Pessoa’s personal library of 1200 books (no Kierkegaard).

a Pessoa collage

Top right is a portrait by Almada Negreiros, but the most common image of Pessoa on the street is that seen in the cutout bottom right, taken from a photo of yer man striding (definitely not strolling) through town. A shot of him enjoying a glass of port comes a close second. In a 1931 photo, deep in conversation in the Café Martinho, he looks like a small amiable owl.

There are two Pessoa statues in town. The one in familiar kitschy style outside A Brasileira (not in fact his favourite café), was even in January a prime selfie spot; Pessoa would surely prefer the rather more surrealistic representation round the corner outside the house he was born in.

The 1925 Lisbon guidebook is available in at least three editions (2008 | 2011 | 2015), and I’m pretty sure I spotted a coffee table version in the airport bookshop. There’s even a graphic novel, Another side of Pessoa by João Viegas.

What of his writing? The consensus (Gdn | Alfred MacAdam) seems to be that The book of disquiet is for sleepless nights, something to dip into at random, something to be reread rather than read…in the same way it feels more in the spirit of the man to take him a poem at a time:

I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist. I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me…That’s me. Period.

For more poetry see the Poetry Foundation and Poetry International, or one of the many published collections by Richard Zenith (other translators are available).

The trunk and the fable, by Emília Nadal

Sources: Exploring Lisbon with Pessoa | Fernando Pessoa: an Englishly Portuguese, endlessly multiple poet (64 min vid with transcript) | Fernando Pessoa and the multiple faces we show on the netFernando Pessoa’s disappearing act | Inside ourselves | An interview with Richard ZenithLooking for Mr Person (Parnassus 24(1) 1999; via Questia) | ‘Oh Lisbon, my home!’

More? MultiPessoa | Pessoa’s trunk | Wuthering Expectations

Updates: more Pessoa spotting (“maybe more cities than I know use once-obscure Modernist writers as their mascot, as their brand”)…the Lisbon edition of Vide Verden, a Danish cultural travel book series, has a chapter on Pessoa by Dan Ringgard, plus one on HCA by Henrik Wivel…Literary Tourist reports on a HCA tour…Pessoa at Eurovision: Portugal’s 2017 winner Salvador Sabral is lead singer in a band named Alexander Search (each member of the band adopts a different character when on stage, obv)…Nicholas Shakespeare on Barry Hatton’s Queen of the sea: a history of Lisbon

On Pessoa, DR inevitably traces the parallels with Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms, his daily walks in a small European capital, his one brief platonic relationship, his writing process standing at a desk and wandering from one manuscript to another, from one pseudonym to another; his idea that we choose who we are, responded to by Pessoa in multiples, ending up as a shadow.

Henrik Wivel retraced HCA’s 1866 journey as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of his birth in 2005, resulting in the travel book Det jordiske Paradis. Wivel visited the O’Neill family, descendants of the family visited by HCA 150 years earlier, an Irish-German family who emigrated to Portugal in the 18th century and exported wares to the rest of Europe, including Denmark. HCA got to know the three O’Neill brothers nearly forty years earlier when they lived in Copenhagen, and diligently paid each one a lengthy visit. The home of the oldest, then Denmark’s general consul, now belongs to the American Embassy and can be visited with prior notice.