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.

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)?

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.

And 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.

A Walter Benjamin moment

We’re visiting Paris in the New Year. So this seems like an appropriate time to revisit Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the touchstone for misplaced migrants and restless walkers, who as it happens also spent some time in Denmark.

Benjamin stayed at Skovsbostrand, Bertolt Brecht‘s house in Svendborg, in the summers of 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1938. In September 1938 he was in Copenhagen, where he obtained some transparencies from a “master tattoo artist”. On 18 September he visited the Brechts in Dragør. He also spent a weekend in Gedser, just across the Baltic from Germany, with Gretel Karplus (later Adorno), between 22-23 September 1934(?).

Like Brecht, Benjamin wasn’t taken with Denmark, finding the southern tip of Fyn “one of the most remote areas you can imagine”, with its “unexploited” nature and lack of links to the modern world a mixed blessing. The summers in Skovsbostrand were isolated and lonely, and drab compared to the likes of Ibiza. Maybe he got on better in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen’s arcades

Obviously every self respecting urban walker has to have a go at walking with Walter, so last year I launched my Copenhagen Arcades Project. First, an aside on arcades. The standard English translation for Walter’s passage, the word arcade evokes something grand, probably glazed, involving arches. Passage: not so much; think back passage, ginnel, jitty, wynd.

With a couple of exceptions Copenhagen’s arcades are definitely passages, or even smutveje (shortcuts), definitely not designed for lingering. Much of the city centre is made up of karréer, a (usually) five storey building complex encircling an inner courtyard, a space somewhere between public and private. This part of the cityscape is hidden from view, unvisited by the passer-by. A smutvej can open up this terrain.

Having said that, our first stop, August Bournonvilles Passage, is already an anomaly. Named in 2005 when the stretch was pedestrianised, this shortest of shortcuts is most notable for Stærekassen, a chunk of Art Deco built for Statsradiofoni (now part of DR) in 1931. Its mosaic roof portrays four cultural worthies, Hans Christian Andersen, Johannes V Jensen, Carl Nielsen and Adam Oehlenschläger, with the last also to be found as a statue just round the corner.

Walking past Nyhavn and up Bredgade brings us to Sankt Annæ Passage, between two of the city’s most fornemme (exclusive) streets. Opposite the eponymous plads, this passage is promising from the outside with a wrought iron sign, but disappoints within, mainly giving access to offices housed in the courtyards.

Sankt Annæ Passage

Emerging out of the far end of the passage brings us onto Store Kongensgade. A short stroll back towards the city’s main shopping drag of Strøget takes us to Pistolstræde. Glazed over in a recent refurbishment with smart signage, this web of backstreets is populated by shops and cafes mainly at the luxury end of the spectrum, and feels a tad self-conscious. How do these shops stay in business? There’s never anyone in them. (One answer: they move to the suburbs. Konditori Antoinette moved to Hvidovrevej, just down the road from us, in August, and feels a bit out of place.)

Finally, time for the real thing! Five blocks further down Strøget lies Jorcks Passage, as good as it gets. Built between 1893 and 1895 by Vilhelm Dahlerup, responsible for countless Historicist buildings in the city, this arcade is worthy of the name, housing a pleasingly eclectic range of premises as well as mini toddler statues in bays along the walls.

Jorcks Passage

Jorcks Passage

The buildings surrounding the arcade link back to our first smutvej, with DR broadcasting their first radio programmes from the premises in 1924, and forward to our last. KTAS (now TDC) opened their first telephone exchange here in 1896. It remained in operation for a scant 13 years, replaced by Telefonhuset at Nørregade 21. This lasted 5o years, from 1909 until 1959, before moving to Borups Allé 43. That building is still owned by TDC, although their current HQ is at Sydhavn.

Left behind is Sankt Petri Passage, allegedly offering public access through the karréer from Nørregade to Larslejsstræde, although it has always presented me nothing more than a massively closed wooden door.

What other options are on offer today for the city centre flâneur? In his Travels through Germany Michael Gorra “subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin’s Arcade project”:

Most German cities have reconfigured their central shopping districts into pedestrian zones, in a way that makes the arcade seem merely an extension of the street itself, a space far less odd and magical than it had been for Benjamin, liminal only in the way it opens onto an underground parking garage.

In Malled: 60 years of under cover shopping Will Self describes shopping centres as non-spaces, abolishing time and space (is a table outside a cafe in a mall inside or outside?). With a limited retail offering they are all the same, places where nothing happens by accident. The design ensures that you can only progress forward, slowly, encountering a series of fixed scenarios and then moving on.

Benjamin’s arcades were designed for shopping and strolling, places to see and be seen. For me Copenhagen’s central shopping district offers little room for flâneurie, celebrated for its early pedestrianisation but lacking the brio of the passeggiata. Likewise its malls lack allure, with Fields, once the largest shopping centre in Scandinavia, rising in a grey desert and neighbourhood centres built in the 1950s and 60s tending to the functional.

When I think ‘arcade’ I’m at Glasgow’s Argyle Street or Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade, and before you know it you are in a something shiny like Princes Square. So my arcade of choice is instead the heart-achingly stunning Párizsi Udvar in Budapest, currently in need of restoration and resembling rather more a cathedral.

Párizsi Udvar

The Arcades Project methodology

Benjamin started his research for what is known in English as The Arcades Project in 1927, before he moved to Paris in 1933. When he left in 1940 he entrusted the result, a vast compendium of notes and reflections assembled from a range of sources and arranged in 36 categories with multiple cross-references, to his friend Georges Bataille, then working at the Bibliothèque Nationale. What could Walter have done with a database package and a customised taxonomy?

Much has been postulated about this approach to writing, which Benjamin himself called ‘literary montage’. As “the strolling spectator who collects mental notes taken on leisurely city walks and transcribes them into written form…he does not just write about the flâneur but he writes as a flâneur” (source). Further, “to read Benjamin’s key work is in itself analogous to the practice of flâneurie” (source).

Certainly his methodology can bring some comfort to every writer of endless drafts (I’ve had this post in my drafts for more than a year) and random notetaker – to what extent is The Arcades Project Walter’s notebook? He himself expected his research to result in a small article, polished off in a couple of weeks, and did at least succeed in siphoning bits off into published essays. His exhaustive approach can perhaps also shed new light on issues of #curationism.

But still, his belief that you don’t properly understand something unless it passes bodily through you rings very true: if you are blocked, write out your work again, in a fair copy. In that process something will happen, new connections will surface as you quote yourself, a different person in time and space. It’s like going for a walk and seeing things more clearly.

Why Paris? 

From a 1929 essay, quoted by Edmund White in The flâneur (full quote):

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved…The great reminiscences, the historical frissons – these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist.

The flâneur is in search of experience, not knowledge. Most experience ends up interpreted as – and replaced by – knowledge, but for the flâneur the experience remains somehow pure, useless, raw…Practical Romans…show no curiosity about their city’s past…Parisians are the ones who wander their own city.

We’ll see how we get on.

Update, Jan 2017: as well as a draft on our trip to Paris I’m now embarking on Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss, not least to follow up on WB’s Frankfurt years (my own: 1982-83) – he presented (and withdrew) his post-doctoral dissertation to the Germanistik department at the university in 1925…WestMarket, Copenhagen’s new food market, as essentially an arcade…

Primary Benjamin:

Secondary Benjamin:

Benjamin in Berlin: Berlin chronicle (review snippet) | Berlin childhood around 1900 | In search of WB’s BerlinA stroll through WB’s Berlin

After Benjamin:

What’s in a name? Creating and curating urban narratives

Exploring place names can increase the interest of a location, triggering a sense of place and evoking cultural or natural associations – like mini cultural narratives, place names create experiences of belonging.

Take Hvidovre, my personal suburb, abutting its polar twin, Rødovre. Tricky for most foreigners to pronounce or even differentiate, with the first featuring a silent H, the second an unfamiliar vowel, and both the ever-softer blød D. Stick with this, it gets even better.

Research traces the two names back to the 17th century, with the ovre suffix coming from Old Danish awartha, meaning åbred (the banks of a stream) or bevogtet sted ved åen (a protected place by the stream). Records of a village with the name Aworthæ date as far back as 1186, when Pope Urban III acknowledged receiving it as a gift from Archbishop Absalon. Variants in spelling abound, and there were several villages bearing the name. To differentiate between the two villages south of Copenhagen Rødovre was initially called Øvre Ovre, as it lay further up Harrestrup Å (stream) than Hvidovre, aka Ydre Ovre. The Latin spelling of Hawerthi was also used by villagers in Øverød, north of Copenhagen, as the name for their locally produced Havarthi cheese.

According to one wag if you say Øvre and Ydre Ovre quickly enough they sound like Rød (red) and Hvid (white) Ovre, but most attribute the prefixes to the local parish churches – plastered in red in Rødovre and in white in Hvidovre. The two colours are used on local street signs – red on white in Hvidovre, and white on red in Rødovre. One street has signs in both variants.

Street names in Hvidovre range from a handful of natural features and the great and the good to batch naming after Greek gods or trees. Former farms and market gardens have been kept alive in the naming of housing estates – Bredalsgården is now Bredalsparken. And in a nice touch, a stretch outside Hvidovre C was recently named Laurits Olsensvej (again), after the hero of the 1919 railway accident at nearby Hvidovre Station (and setting off a debate about whether it should be Olsensvej or Olsens Vej).

Copenhagen’s current expansion means busy times for the city’s street naming committee, the splendidly named Vejnavnenævnet. They had a clear run in Ørestad, a tabula rasa on reclaimed land. In an approach to warm the cockles of a jaded urbanist’s heart they went for a modernist theme complementing the aspirations of the area. Streets in Ørestad City are named after architects, such as Arne Jacobsen, who also has his own Lounge in Fields shopping centre.

car park on Kay Fiskers Plads, named after the architect responsible for some pearls of Danish modernist architecture

Streets in Syd are named after artists, including CoBrA founder (and author of Fin de Copenhague) Asger Jorn, while those in Nord after writers (eg Karen Blixen) and musicians (but no Carl Nielsen). Rather more could be made of this though – there are no explanations on the street signs or other information to be had, other than an article in the local rag.

Sadly now though the naming committee seems to have dropped the ball, with streets in the new district around Bella Center to be named after random female writers including, pleasingly if rather improbably, Virginia Woolf. Equally random is the choice of Nobel peace prize winners for the area around Enghave Brygge, where I had spotted a couple of rather nice street signs earlier in the year; historical names disappearing here include Enghave Brygge itself.

Coal Road - named after the quay erected on the same spot in 1920 to supply coal to the nearby power station

Coal Road – named after the quay erected on the same spot in 1920 to supply coal to the nearby power station

Six streets around Rigshospitalet and Bispebjerg Hospital are to be named after pioneering female medics, in recognition of the lack of streets named after women. This well-meaning fashion has led to questions about whether gender is the now the sole criterion, and why all the streets have to begin with E, making them difficult to differentiate, particularly for those feeling a tad under the weather.

In 2014 12 new names were approved for the streets of Carlsberg Byen, a new area emerging on the site of the old brewery. While streets in the south east of the area at least refer back to the area’s historic functions, those in the south west are rather more tangential, supposedly acknowledging Carlsberg founder JC Jacobsen’s engagement in Denmark’s cultural life. Whereas Bohrs Tårn is memorable enough, with Nobel prize winner Niels Bohr living in Jacobsen’s house for 30 years, other figures are relatively unknown, and meanwhile some of the area’s most significant architects are being airbrushed out of history. Both Carl Harild, responsible for listed buildings such as Ny Carlsberg Bryghus and Tap E, and Svenn Eske Kristensen, the mastermind behind not least the ‘iconic’ Lægerkælder 3 (now to become a boutique hotel), are invisible.

Similar issues have been encountered in Nordhavn, a new district emerging on reclaimed land previously occupied by the old Frihavn (freeport). It’s a common trope for streets in harbour areas to be named after other port and harbour cities, and Århusgadekvarteret is no exception. Once again, the new names have not gone without comment, and in the end three streets were allowed to retain their original names, with the proposed Liverpool Plads (square) now named Nordhavns Plads.

Some of the new names feel somewhat random, based on ports of all shapes and sizes with no particular relationship to Nordhavn or even to Denmark (Murmansk, anyone?), and ranging from Southampton (which no one can say) to Sassnitz to Skt Petersborg; the clutch around Harwichgade, Calaisgade, Dover Passage and Dunkerquegade at least has a little topographical logic, and ferries used to sail from Harwich to Esbjerg, back in the day…Previous names were rather more grounded in function, such as Jernvej (Iron Road) or Tværgade (Cross Street, now the out of scale Kielgade). Others were named after luminaries now forgotten, such as the freeport’s founder Ferdinand Wilhelm Lüders.

But while Lüders may have lost his road he has gained a car park, currently one of the area’s chief draws with a rooftop exercise area, adorned by a frieze in weathering steel which also tips its hat to the former Glückstadtsvej.

frieze on P-Hus Lüders showing scenes from Nordhavn's history as a working harbour

frieze on P-Hus Lüders showing scenes from Nordhavn’s history as a working harbour

More riding roughshod over the past in Valby, where Grønttorvet (old pics), a market which provided fruit and veg to the cities’ restaurants for nearly 50 years from 1958, has recently moved to Høje Taastrup, reopening in April 2016 after a three year delay as Copenhagen Markets (rather than the initially proposed Det Nye Grønttorv, a nod to creeping Anglicisation). The area had been slated for redevelopment a la Carlsberg since 2006 and is currently experiencing the first stage of gentrification as Det Gamle Grønttorv, while we wait for delights such as Himmelhaverne. Among local concerns is the loss of local heritage, as epitomised in the proposed batch naming of the roads after types of apple, such as Cox Orangevej, more resonant of Donald Duck’s home town than authentic cultural history (latest | Magasinet KBH).

Much fun (and academic ink) can be had tracking Viking place names around the North Sea. Take THING sites – assembly sites throughout areas of Scandinavian influence can be identified by their common ting, thing, ding and fing place names, such as Gulating (Norway), Tinganes (Faroe Islands), Tingwall in both Shetland and Orkney, Dingwall (Highland) and Tynwald (Isle of Man), plus Thynghowe in Sherwood Forest, and not least Folketinget, Denmark’s parliament.

The names a city bestows on its streets are reflections of its current values. Royals may have won over Communist heroes on the streets of eastern Europe, but it’s worth remembering that in the latest chapter of the city’s toponomy St Petersburg only narrowly  beat Leningrad in the public vote. Meanwhile Londonist has a nice article about the role of placenames in city branding. In new Copenhagen street naming follows the best PC fashions, with a distinct leaning towards listing. Should do better!

best street naming ever, in Dessau

best street naming ever, in Dessau

The Danish tree

Updates, 2017: trees by the Rundetårn killed by piss – or maybe they were just olddo you know an iconic tree?…R4’s Front Row on the poetry of felled trees: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charlotte Mew, John Clare and William Cowper all wrote poems lamenting the felling of loved trees…Peter Wohlleben’s The hidden life of trees reviewed: “vi i Danmark har et ‘bondesamfund’, der ser træer som noget, der skal dyrkes frem for at få lov til at gro frit”…


The UK’s National Tree Week has come round again. Last year we looked at Hvidovre’s trees – this year let’s broaden things out a bit.

With a winter as dreich as Edinburgh’s, a chilly spring which emphasises the bareness all around and an unreliable summer tending to the damp, there’s not much competition for autumn as Denmark’s best season. In October and November its trees come into their own, adding some welcome shades of colour to the grey.

autumn colours in Søndermarken

autumn colours in Søndermarken

It’s worth unpicking the Danes’ relationship with trees, and nature as a whole, a predominantly anthropocentric and functional take on things. Whereas in London it’s the building that’s in the way rather than the tree, and in Hamburg there’s a pocket park round every corner, the Danes’ loves of keeping things neat and tidy means that nothing is left to chance.

Take the case of the forest. North of Copenhagen is the area known as Kongernes Nordsjælland, offering a gently pleasing landscape of lakes and undulating land. As the playground of the royal family and the nobility over the centuries there is a long tradition of forestry – and hunting grounds aplenty. In the late 17th century Christian V planted around 12K beeches and oaks between networks of paths in support of the sport of par force hunting:

The entire North Zealand peninsula area was patterned with a Cartesian-based road system consisting of stars surrounded by distinct squares. Stone posts indicated whether roads led towards or away from the centre of the star. The mathematical approach reinforced the king’s image as a representative of reason in line with Baroque ideals. (source)

Par force hunting has been illegal since 1777, but the forests which remain were recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2015. The forests’ champion, the Dansk Jagt- og Skovbrugsmuseum (being subsumed into the Landbrugsmuseum in Jutland in 2017) offers a window into Danish discourse on hunting, not a pretty sight for a former sab, but the area is not uninteresting for map fans.

Moving forward three centuries and south to Vestegnen we find Vestskoven, a new forest established in the 1960s with the aim of adding some interest to the pancake-flat landscape – after nearly 50 years it’s maturing nicely enough, as is the forest closest to home, Brøndbyskoven, established by a far-sighted mayor in 1952, with its beech bench and pines combo.

Brøndbyskov's Heidegger bench in autumn

Brøndbyskov’s Heidegger bench in autumn

Before things start sounding too idyllic in this man-made paradise however it’s time to note the government’s current attempt at weakening the 1805 Skovlov, permitting even more nature huts, running tracks and clearings for wind power facilities among the trees.

Trees in the city are also often an appendage to human-centred activities. Bispebjerg Kirkegård offers a Danish scale Sakura experience for the Instagramming hordes, who avert their eyes from the bare plain where an avenue of poplars was felled (before | after). Most of the city’s new developments are similarly sterile, with trees a decorative afterthought at best where previously they provided shade and shelter – see Israels Plads (full story). In the case of Nordhavn, I suspect the wind and salt would put paid to any sylvan glades, but Carlsberg, come on…trees just don’t seem to fit with Copenhagen’s sleek branding and aggressive building programme. To put it bluntly, to thrive a tree needs 1.5m root space and 15m2 ground space, the size of a parking space – and as popularly proclaimed, that’s space for 10 bikes.

The Copenhagen enclave of Frederiksberg adopted its first tree policy in 1872 and has a map of every tree in the area, including those in private gardens. Streets such as Frederiksberg Allé have a quality lacking elsewhere in the city, with a tree on every corner planned in from the start.

Madvigs Allé. Frederiksberg - could almost be Hamburg

Madvigs Allé. Frederiksberg – could almost be Hamburg

While the city centre does have its delights, such as the horse chestnut on Vandkunsten and the plane tree on Gråbrødreplads, more symptomatic is the felling of a 114 year old chestnut on Enghave Plads in 2011 to make way for the metro, with the wood used to make stools for both locals and hipsters. For me, that’s in you-couldn’t-make-it-up corner.

Pressure group Red Byens Traer has been calling for a policy on trees since 2013 (now in draft), and the tide may finally be turning. The latest vision for the town hall square, to come into being in 2019 once the decade-long metro works are complete, comes with 60+ trees (in bags? is there sufficient root space?), and, in a rare nod to the city’s cultural heritage, the return of Dragespringvandet (the Dragon Fountain) to the centre of the square at a cost of DK 12 million.

Not wanting to be a wet blanket, but I have my doubts that sub-mayor Morten Kabell is a true convert to urban nature – this feels more like a way of silencing the critics, as well as a continuation of the city’s perpetual motion. Trees do seem to come and go in Copenhagen at an increasing rate – take Holbergs kastanie, a horse chestnut on Fiolstræde. The original, one of 2500 chestnuts bought in around 1720 for Frederik IV’s parks and gardens, lasted over 200 years – its 1954 replacement was felled in 2016. (Plus that fountain is a clunky horror.)

On Sunday Hvidovre’s two Xmas trees were lit, creating two more gaps in the increasingly empty local horizon. In the ‘burbs the sound of the power saw can be heard all year round and car ports and stockade style fencing are the prevailing fashions. A recent post on a local history forum stated how hyggeligt it was to see ‘your’ tree lit up – surely a rather fleeting pleasure? But then, in blocks of flats the tradition is to hurl your Xmas tree out of the window on New Year’s Day, for someone else to dispose of.

Too much wildness is just not hyggeligt. The Danes seem to have a ceaseless urge to control and remake the nature which remains in their small country – for a final example compare and contrast Østre Anlaeg with the new SMK forecourt.

Østre Anlaeg. a rare patch of wilderness behind SMK (national gallery)

Below is a 1948 poem by Piet Hein, set to music in the 1980s and now part of the school songbook. Written in a post-war spirit, with maybe an HT to Martin Luther, the sentiment is just as relevant today.

Du skal plante et træ.
Du skal gøre en gerning,
som lever, når du går i knæ,
en ting, som skal vare
og være til lykke og læ.
Du skal åbne dit jeg.
Du skal blive et eneste trin
på en videre vej.
Du skal være et led i en lod,
som når ud over dig.
Du skal blomstre og dræ.
Dine frugter skal mætte
om så kun det simpleste kræ.
Du har del i en fremtid.
For den skal du plante et træ.

(Martin Luther auf deutsch, probably apocryphal: Wenn ich wüsste, dass morgen die Welt unterginge, würde ich heute noch ein Apfelbäumchen pflanzen.)

Landmarks: the modern house in Denmark

Picked up on this coffee table book by Michael Sheridan somewhere or other. The library duly obliged.

Sheridan’s landmarks are 14 ‘single-family houses’ from the 1950s and early 1960s, “cultural landmarks designed to become part of the natural setting with an intimate relationship to the landscape”, dubbed humanistic modernism:

Simple and unpretentious forms, the celebration of craft and organic materials, a profound attention to human comfort…at once rational and romantic, sober and sensual, elegant and economical, deeply humane.

The houses, and the book, are indeed lovely things, if set to be filed under ‘Exclusive’.

Sheridan opens proceedings with an extended essay on the development of the detached house during the 20th century. As we have seen, unlike in Germany most architects in Denmark rejected “the industrial aesthetic and clean break with tradition” of 1920s modernism, remaining focused on neoclassicism. The origins of Danish functionalism can instead be found in the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, with Erik Gunnar Asplund as chief architect. Asplund’s vision was of “a warm, sensuous modernism grounded in the experience of the individual” and a Romantic view of nature.

The Danish translation of this ‘humanistic’ version of modernism idealised the garden rather than the factory and was based on a vernacular ideal. Said Kay Fisker (perhaps “the most influential Danish architect of the 20th century”):

We strive after an architecture that serves people, which conforms to nature and isn’t intrusive, on the contrary; it tries to be anonymous.

This explains a lot about Danish architecture, if not Denmark itself, right up to the present day.

Anyway, after 1932 the yellow brick box with asymmetrical windows and a gently pitched roof became the model for the detached house in Denmark, based on Fisker et al’s design for Aarhus University.

‘Funkis’ developed further after WW2 with the adoption of ideas about space and structure from the US and Japan. During the 1950s houses were frequently financed by state loans, restricting the floor area to 130m and limiting construction costs. Hence bedrooms were small and corridors largely eliminated, replaced by a communal living area oriented towards the garden.

In place of the brick box with windows these houses were conceived as a set of independent elements. Load-bearing walls were constructed from brick and timber, with open frames connected by large areas of insulated glass. Structural elements were often left exposed, with ceilings, interior walls and floors covered with untreated wood, stone tiles or natural fibres.

The end of the 1950s saw the closure of the state loan scheme, and the Danish housebuilding industry began to embrace standardisation and prefabrication in the shape of the typehus. Buyers could select their new home from a catalogue or a group of model houses, often erected as part of a competition or exhibition. Two architects, Henrik Iversen and Harald Plum (nephew of maverick WW1 profiteer Harald Plum), developed a series of 12 IP Typehuse of assorted sizes. Hundreds of IP houses were constructed up to 1985, with Iversen and Plum working with local builders to ensure quality.

The early promise of the typehus was however quickly overwhelmed by economic factors, with uniformity replacing innovation. More than 450K typehuse were constructed around Denmark over the course of 20 years, built at the rate of 50 per day, typically in clusters of around 20, and transforming both the landscape and society. These houses were long, rectangular boxes resting on a concrete slab, with prefabricated wooden roof trusses. Brickwork was reduced to a set of freestanding walls that sometimes extended beyond the interior, with gaps filled by windows.

So much for the diversion into mass housing. Sheridan presents 14 ‘landmark’ houses from the period in loving detail. Most are still private homes, with a handful saved for the nation by Realdania (English), who then let them out, in what always seems to me a bit of a weird move.

The earliest house presented is Jørn Utzon’s house (1952; Arkark) in Hellebæk just north of Helsingør. It was Utzon’s first completed work, and remained his base for the rest of his life. Also by Utzon is the House on Stilts (1953; Arkark) built for interior designer Svend Middelboe, raised one storey to make the most of the lakeside views.

Jørn Utzon’s house (1952)

Some architects employed creative solutions to get round the size restrictions imposed by the state loan scheme. Eva & Nils Koppels’ house (1952; Arkark) for the appropriately named heating engineer Jørgen Varming in Gentofte had a double height living area, while Karen & Ebbe Clemmensens’ house (1954; Arkark) in Jægersborg (“near a heritage-listed bog”, says Realdania) added a studio to the living area.

Sheridan includes two houses by Erik Christian Sørensen, who later embraced Brutalism and was responsible for not least the 1969 Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, now, alas, in need of renovation. His own house in Jægersborg (1955, Arkark) featuring load-bearing outer walls offering flexibility, a gently (30 degree) pitched roof covered with felt, and, unusually for Denmark, no cellar, was much copied by typehus builders, while the house he built for for Mee Tholstrup (1955; Arkark) on the hyper-desirable Rungsted Kyst sold in late 2014 for DK 6 million.

But the most fabulous house in the selection for me is Knud Friis’ house (1958, extended in 1970; Arkark) in Brabrand on the edge of Aarhus, dubbed “early ‘mild’ Brutalism” – no doubt the neighbours dubbed it The Bunker – run a close second by Arne Jacobsen’s house for Erik Siesby (1959; Arkark) in Sorgenfri. On the other hand Halldor Gunnløgsson’s house (1959; Arkark) on Rungsted Strandvej tips over into oh-so-sterile Scandi.

Knud Friis' house

Knud Friis’ house (1958)

I’m also less moved than many by Bo & Wohlert’s Louisiana, it’s just too staged, and the same can be said for the house they built for Arne Bøgh Andersen, aka the Ambassador’s House (1961; Arkark), also on Rungsted Strandvej, a modified version of Ønskehuset from a 1959 exhibition. Wohlert is also represented by an extension built for no other than physicist Niels Bohr’s summer house (1957) in Tisvilde, taking timber to its limits.

Better is the Bendix-Harboe house (1959; Arkark) in Charlottenlund, built by Knud Peter Harboe (1959). Knud gets a post in Graham McKay’s Misfits series, well worth a look, with pics also of some of the other ‘landmark’ houses.

Sheridan’s oversized baker’s dozen is rounded out by:

  • Poul & Hanne Kjærholm’s house (1962) on Rungsted Kyst; Hanne (1930-2009) was a woman architect of note, married to furniture designer Poul, with whom she designed picnic areas with concrete tables and toilets, now those I’d like to see
  • Inger & Johannes Exner’s house (1961; Arkark) in Skodsborg, the only one we have bagged so far, defying the passive-aggressive stares of the tenant to take a couple of snaps (there’s a Bronze Age burial mound in the garden, supposedly the site of trysts between Caroline Mathilde and Struensee, but where wasn’t?)

All bar one of the 14 houses are situated north of Copenhagen, in the so-called Whisky Belt, a favoured area for architects rather like Peredelkino for writers near Moscow. While it’s fun reading up on the architects and building a picture of the connections, there’s also mileage in keeping an eye open for less illustrious versions locally – as it happens our house was modelled on a competition house of the period and exhibits several now familiar features, such as a closed frontage with large windows opening onto an extensive garden, and a flexible interior, evidenced by the marks where internal walls have been put up and taken down. A fair few modernist inspired gems have been found on our daily walks as well.

modernist inspired house at Birke Allé 19, Hvidovre (1964)

Birke Allé 19, Hvidovre (1964)

Landmarks is also available på dansk as Mesterværker, published by Strandberg in 2011, with an accompanying TV series.

Golden Days: Denmark in the 1970s

Golden Days is Copenhagen’s autumn festival, at the highbrow(ish) end of the packed event spectrum. While its first outings celebrated Denmark’s Golden Age (1800-50), lately it has tackled rather broader themes – in 2013 philosophy, in 2014 World War 1, and in 2015 heritage itself.

The 2016 festival (calendar | programme aka 28 page content-thin broadsheet | case) explored the 1970s. All very  hyggeligt and nostalgic (the cassette! potato printing!) if you actually grew up in that lovely decade. What follows is a summary of events in the areas of literature, art and architecture, plus some general musings.

My struggle with Danish writing continues. The festival provided a 1970s literature checklist, made up of Suzanne Brøgger’s Fri os fra kærligheden, Kristen Bjørnkjær’s Kærestesorg, Vita Andersen’s Tryghedsnarkomaner,  Peter Laugesen’s Hamr & Hak,  Dea Trier Mørch’s Vinterbørn and Villy Sørensen, Kristen Helveg Petersen & Niels I Meyer’s Oprør fra midten. All of which I have just copied and pasted, you’re welcome. Among retrospective looks are Peter Øvig Knudsen’s typically massive Hippie (flippet also used).

As a golden entry in Denmark’s tiny place writing corner we have Dan Turèll’s Vangede billeder, published in 1975, on growing up in a 1950s suburb. Urban hero Søren Ulrik Thomsen’s first poems were published in Hvedekorn i 1977, but his first collection City slang wasn’t published until 1981.

Artist Martin Bigum (1966- ) now lives in Frederiksberg, but grew up in Brøndby Strand, finding himself unimpressed by its iconic tower blocks. His vej mod kunsten (journey to art) is described in Min personlige kunsthistorie (key excerpt), with an exhibition at Arken. At the other end of town, Louisiana has a Poul Gernes exhibition (article | guide), highlighting not least his udsmykningsarbejder at Herlev Hospital (1975) and Palads Biografen (rather later).

toilet door at Herlev Hospital by Poul Gernes

toilet door at Herlev Hospital by Poul Gernes

Onwards…1970s architecture was thoroughly chewed over and mainly spat out, with a guide (65 pages, OK-ish at DK 49,95 but with DK 30 postage I’ll wait for the library or try to track it down in a shop, thx all the same) and exhibition on 1970’erne – det forbudte årti:

Golden Days guider dig rundt i hovedstadens idealistiske og udskældte arkitektur
Parcelhuse og brutale betonbyggerier er ikke i høj kurs, og egentlig vil arkitekterne helst glemme 1970’erne. Men bag de forbudte facader gemmer der sig historier om et samfund præget af både fornyelsestrang og et stærkt ønske om at skabe lige muligheder for alle.

The guide features 11 buildings, many old favourites, while Politiken highlighted four. All begging to be mapped…

Concrete has yet to be treasured in Denmark, and 1970s tower blocks are emphatically not Danish scale, even if at the time they offered the residents of cramped city flats lys og luft in a split new home with all mod-cons. It’s much the same story as the UK, with social problems and some poor quality builds leading to a ‘ghetto’ reputation for the biggest estates, now being refurbished eastern Europe style with colourful stick-on panels.

I went on Frederiksberg’s 1970s bus tour, where the city archivist didn’t even try to hide his dislike of some rather classy housing (but he has written a nice long article). Interesting, if not surprising, to hear that FRB was in the same state as CPH proper in the 1970s – current discourse makes it sound like it has always been a green conservative paradise. The proposed sanering of some areas was met with resistance, as it was in next door Nørrebro.

1970s bus outside Frederiksberg town hall

1970s bus outside Frederiksberg town hall

A bus tour was also offered round Gentofte, Gladsaxe, Lyngby and Rudersdal. In the 1970s the suburbs were the place to be, with the CPH urban area growing by up to 12 km2 per year, and in Denmark as a whole the built-up area doubling. As elsewhere the new-builds were predominantly housing estates and tower blocks, but by the late 1970s ‘low rise high density’ became more popular in an attempt to recreate the Danish landsby, plus a range of experiments into collective living.

BL (Danmarks Almene Boliger), who represent the Danish social housing sector and in 2015 offered a series of events on the tower block as cultural heritage, stepped up to the plate once more with Sunday events on three contrasting estates, complete with langbord lunches:

  • Gadekæret (Ishøj; 1976-79) – a reconstructed landsby made up of 650 element built yellow brick and red tiled terraced houses around a pond, described as En by der er blød som en krop by poet Inger Christensen in 1969(?) and lovingly drawn by childhood resident Ib Spang Olsen
  • Galgebakken (Albertslund; 1972-74) – 600 terraced houses, known as Albertslund’s Christiania; residents included Social Democrat politicians Mogens Lykketoft and Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, and writer/director Jørgen Leth
  • Urbanplanen (Amager; 1965-71) – the ultimate Corbusier-style estate with its own shopping centre, library and church; ironically the largest car free area in the city and the subject of some re-evaluation with En landsby på højkant (part of the current wave of site specific theatre) and Morten Pape’s autobiographical novel Planen (the estate abuts Ørestad Nord, a more recent regeneration effort which also has its critics, plus ça change…)

15 storey tower block in Urbanplanen, condemned in 2010 but still standing

Also place related was Konfrontation med 70’erne (Soundcloud), audio at 20 spots around town. If like me you find These soundscapes can be a tad uninspiring, but these are rather better than the norm, as is more intriguing is Last night a DJ saved my life, four podcasts on the story of the 1500 British DJs who kept the disks spinning in provincial Denmark during the 70s (a subgenre of interest is Brit musicians with err…Danish links, from Slade drummer Don Powell to Rick Astley).

Summing up…

The festival benefits from considerable amounts of funding and sponsorship, although state funding is to cease. I’m not entirely surprised, not least because it’s not very clear who the target audience/s is/are, and with over 100 partners and 200+ events it’s hard to work out what’s going on.

Events fall into three categories: something random from a big hitting cultural player tagged with the branding, pricey ‘experiences‘ organised by the festival secretariat for BYTs (in 2015 this included a polterabend and a wedding), and events organised by community organisations. It’s the last which are the most interesting, uncovering areas outside those more usually pimped by Visit Copenhagen, as well as ensuring the festival reaches the entire region.

There are however issues with history and the learning therefrom more broadly, identified by among others Michael Böss in his 2014 book Det demente samfund (Altinget | Politiken). Denmark is a very youth oriented society, and its ‘here and now’ culture constantly reinvents the wheel, fetishising the elements of ‘heritage’ which fit a single Danish national identity and self-image – hence, perhaps, no concrete, and little recognition of diversity or ‘overseas influences’. The country seems to be in a rush forward, neglecting and ignoring the past, at best relegating it to folkelig corner as outmoded and rather quaint. (See the IHR’s History now and then series for more on this.)

In previous years I’ve also got rather worked up by the festival website. There’s a search box but no easy access to search/browse by eg keyword, category, audience, venue. The jaunty design feels extremely tired, even if the massive mugshots, an issue for those not benefiting from ‘good genes’, are accidentally-on-purpose somehow on trend. And don’t go looking for any  social media action or event amplification, as there is none. It all feels rather amateurish. And isn’t it time for a My Golden Days app?

Finally, after going all out with Hello Heritage, “a weekend dedicated to visitors and expats” in 2015, this year there’s no English to be seen.