Bloom: celebrating the nature of nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#CAFx2017: Denmark’s architecture festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get this out of the way first:

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

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

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

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

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

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

People vs place in Copenhagen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUT’s slides:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On looking and dog walking

tracks for a human, most dogs, labrador and beagle

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

The writer walking the dog describes dog walking thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Howard Nemerov’s Walking the dog:

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

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

foto

walk? who said walk?

Scandinavia and Nordicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nordicism and its clichés

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

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

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

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

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

And just to clear things up…

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

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

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

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

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

And AHRC/R3 New Gen Thinker Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, who fronted R3’s True Norse in 2016 (which I remember as being poor on Denmark), has a book out, Beyond the northlands: Viking voyages and the Old Norse sagas, which might spread some more light on things.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the Vikings episode of DR’s Historien om Danmark (temasite & book | reviews & viewing figures | Historier om Danmark | Giv det videre | Museum Lolland-Falster). Will it be a Jorvik style presentation?

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, 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