Bauhaus in Denmark: it’s funkis

Update: out and about in Næstved at the weekend we came across an unexpected funkis cluster, documented in Huse i Næstved. This included Farimagsvej 10, which I was unable to photograph but would look quite at home in Gdynia, and the spectacular Staalgaarden from 1934 – it’s out there! See Farver i funktionalismen (2008) for more about funkis in Denmark.

I am an all round Bauhaus freak. Imagine my distress when Nan Dahlkild stated on the Valby Bedre Byggeskik walk that there was no Bauhaus in Denmark – not a surprise, but worthy of further exploration.

While there are links between Bauhaus and contemporary movements in Denmark, the latter tended – and tend – to take a less utopian and internationalist approach, being rather more design led.

Vi lader os ikke imponere af Størrelse, Tempo, det grandiose, det gigantiske.

(Trans: “We will not allow ourselves to be impressed by size, pace, the grandiose, the gigantic.”)

Between 1926-28 the journal Kritisk Revy, edited by Poul Henningsen (of PH lamp fame but also a formidable cultural commentator) published a series of articles critical of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and De Stijl in the Netherlands, accusing them of formalism and the lack of a human (or even practical) dimension. The 1928 visit to Copenhagen of Hannes Meyer, shortly to succeed Walter Gropius as leader of the Bauhaus, and publication of his manifesto in Danish gave rise to an article in Arkitekten likening Gropius’ house in Dessau to a dentist’s waiting room.

There were some exchanges on the ground though. Edvard Heiberg, who had previously worked under Le Corbusier, taught at the Bauhaus for three months in 1930, lending his expertise to designs for housing in Tørten and the furniture for the Trade Union School in Bernau. He lived in one of the masters’ houses, which he described as “badly insulated and undemocratic in form”. Resigning shortly after Meyer was deposed, he wrote a feature article in Politiken on 6 December 1930 about his Bauhaus experiences.

Painter Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen was a student at the Bauhaus from autumn 1930 to spring 1931, where he was taught by Klee and Kandinsky. This influenced his graphical style in particular. Petersen later adopted surrealism.

Links between the Bauhaus and Denmark can also be seen in furniture design, in particular the stress on good craftsmanship. In 1942 the Danish Cooperative Movement (FDM) created a popular range of wooden furniture which continued in production until 1983. In contrast to the architecture of the period, the furniture has made a popular return, going back into production in 2013.

It’s funkis

So what was different about modernist architecture in Denmark in the inter-war period? Generally known as funktionalisme or funkis for short, two main styles can be identified.

Buildings more akin to those found outside Denmark, often in white cubist style with flat roofs, experimenting with concrete and other new materials, such as Arne Jacobsen’s white factory at Nordre Fasanvej 215 from 1935 (international functionalism):

Frederiksberg - Novozymes (1935)

Buildings incorporating Danish traditions and materials, making use of brick and tiled roofs, such as Virum Torv (1937; national functionalism, rather more widespread):

Virum Torv 2/Frederiksdalsvej 70 (1937)

The design for Aarhus University, with its staggered blocks following the undulating terrain, is a prime example of the connections and divergences between the Bauhaus and Denmark. The design follows the Bernau Trade Union School layout in a freer form, making use of the Danish vernacular such as yellow bricks and curved roof tiles.

While the first funkis house in Denmark was built as early as 1924 (by Heiberg for himself and his family), it was the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition which really kickstarted things. New housing complexes such as Arne Jacobsen’s iconic Bellavista (1934-37) and numerous smaller projects, based around the idea that housing should suit the residents’ needs rather than be based around old tropes such as spisestue, salon og herreværelse, were built during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Rather than traditional karréer (blocks around an internal courtyard) the new housing was built in parallel blocks, offering better ventilation. The keywords were lys og luft (air and light), with bigger windows to let in more light and balconies facing the evening sun. These features are just one of those which make funkis buildings out of step with today’s Denmark – the energy required to heat these less well insulated houses is just too expensive.

Modernism and Danish scale

The funkis buildings of the 1930s are also out of step on a more abstract level. A booklet produced for the 2008 Golden Days festival has portraits of 20 buildings from the period. It’s a little book with a big agenda (and, once again, no map). The language frequently feels negative and subjective, utilising words such as “naked”, sober”, “factory like”. At the foot of each entry is a carefully chosen contemporary quote:

Vi forstaar, at Tyskerne nu har den fastest muligt indstilling til Arkitekturproblemet imod de sidste Tiders eksperimentelle og sentimentale Funtionalisme…men ikke har Evne til at skabe det varige og det ophøjet skønne. (Vilhelm Wanscher, art critic and author, on Arne Jacobsen’s Bellavista)

Der er noget troldsk over sceneriet. Ungerne sidder nogne og brune – som en samling grillstegte hanekyllinger – omkring de hvislende flammer. Det er det skinbarligste og pudsigste djævelsskab, man pludselig er dumpet ind i. (Erik la Cour Halved, journalist, on Kaj Gottlob’s Skolen ved Sundet)

For me modernist buildings, not least the Bauhaus, are Mozartian in their perfection, everything exactly as it should be, catching your interest and admiration in their simplicity. But in Danish discourse they are cold and clinical, ‘ungenerous’ and lacking ‘human scale’, features extolled ad nauseam in the architectural press, where smallness is lauded as a key quality.

Happily though on the ground it’s a different story. We often go funkis spotting – below is my current favourite, Ole Falkentorp’s exquisite Hotel Astoria from 1935, just outside the central station:

CPH - Hotel Astoria (1935)

Sources: ‘Bauhaus og Danmark: fra eksperimenterende håndværk til industrielt design’ (in Architectura 2006:28:23-52) | Edvard Heibergs eget hus | Den store bog om Brugsens møbler og historien om Det Gode Liv | FDB-stolen: Folkets klassiske møbler genoplives | Ideernes Kobenhavn: en guide til mellemkrigstidens byggeri (Golden Days 2008) | Rasmus Friis: Rentemestervej 14

Update: VINK on the Astoria

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