An urbanist’s trip to Paris

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

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

Step 1: local government nerdery

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

Paris - the maroon pimple in the very middle?

Paris – the maroon pimple in the very middle?

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

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

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

(image: Airbus Defence and Space)

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

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

More critique:

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

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

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

Step 2: cultural connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rue Watt, redeveloped in 2005

Step 3:  building, buildings, buildings

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

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

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

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

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

Some Defacto factoids:

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

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

La Défense from the ‘near’ end of the Esplanade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Paris:

Walks and walking:

Too late! Blue Crow’s Brutalist Paris map

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.

Bauhaus in Denmark: it’s funkis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s funkis

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

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

Frederiksberg - Novozymes (1935)

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

Virum Torv 2/Frederiksdalsvej 70 (1937)

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

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

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

Modernism and Danish scale

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

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

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

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

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

CPH - Hotel Astoria (1935)

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

Update: VINK on the Astoria

Virtual Biennale

The 2016 Biennale Architettura in Venice runs from 28 May to 27 November, curated by Alejandro Aravena with the theme of Reporting from the Front. We were lucky enough to pay a visit in 2014, when I concluded that “a fine line was walked between the effective and the pretentious”.

In contrast to Rem Koolhaas’ 2014 erudite edition Aravena “pitches activism against starchitecture”. Olly Wainwright: “does it make for an engaging show, or a tedious traipse through holier-than-thou humanitarianism and architectural self-flagellation”? His review of the pavilions is headlined “a souped-up pre-school playground”, singling out Belgium and Switzerland for their “refreshingly narrow focus” and Poland for shining a spotlight on the labour conditions of the people who actually build architecture. (More pavilions: Dezeen’s top 10 | A+U.)

Sifting through the coverage from my filter bubble, Dezeen doubtless has loads of stimulating stuff but tl;dr. Worth a look though is the provocation from the Architecture Foundation’s Phineas Harper. Update: see also Cosmopolitan Scum.

After 2014’s Cliff and concrete cows this time Britain’s contribution (interview) is all a bit chest-beatingly downbeat. The curatorial team has come up with Home Economics, a reflection on the home as the contemporary frontline of British architecture, reimagined in timescales of days, months, years and decades.

Compare and contrast with Denmark’s all trumpets blazing celebration of self, entitled Art of Many and The Right to Space (interview). On #some Everything Goes and Art of Too Many have been suggested as alternative titles. The exhibition consists of a “wunderkammer of architectural prototypes”, an overflødigshorn of 130 recent projects from 70 practices, aimed at demonstrating humanism based on cooperation. The pavilion also boasts a video installation with (obv) Jan Gehl and a 520 page catalogue (cost: DK 320, a rather lower krone to page ratio than often seen).

the Danish pavilion (Carl Brummer, 1932)

As well as missing the inventiveness and humour of other contributions, it sounds a tad mundane, tapping into the oft seen Scandi “we know best” flaw. For coverage på dansk see Arkfo and Politiken, largely critiquing the Danish effort, plus commissioner DAC (dansk) bigging it up.

Bylyd has a recording from the launch debate, bringing up some interesting points which get behind the familiar soundbites:

  • Bjarke Ingels is a fan of generous (sic) spaces “proportioned for machines”, who knew, and wants architects to go beyond “little boutique statements” – go him!
  • Jan Gehl, marking his 50th anniversary in research, sees the right to walk as fundamental, preferably in public spaces – as ever, you can’t argue with that; as Gehl Architects’ Helle Søholt points out, public space is “challenged by increased security, climate adaptation, densification, commercialization and data” as well as the demon car (which brings to mind the segment on 9 June’s Urbanist where Skopje’s citizenry fight to retain their Brutalist buildings and wide open spaces)
  • we spend 90% of our time indoors, much of it sitting down, while 40% of the world’s carbon emissions come from construction, yikes
  • issues around professions working together rather than in separate ghettoes – echoes of #FLthecity

Denmark is not involved in the Nordic pavilion, achingly PC in 2014 and in 2016 curated by two internationals, ArchDaily founder David Basulto from Chile and Rotterdam based Brit James Taylor-Foster (interview). In Therapy presents 300 projects exploring architectural themes instrumental in constructing Nordic society with psychoanalysis as a framework, including an abstracted interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. In Dezeen: “the architectural heritage of [Norway and Sweden] is constraining the newest generation of designers”, with Nordic architecture “on the verge of stagnation”. Interesting.

The range of collateral events is overwhelming – see UCL Urban Lab’s Turning Tables and LSE Cities’ Conflicts of an urban age for starters. And whoa! Scotland has a presence under the banner of Prospect North, curated by inter alia Lateral North (Facebook) and part of a nationwide year long Festival of Architecture. The exhibition “delivers a series of innovative mapping strategies, individual narratives, portraits and evocative imagery highlighting Scotland’s place and identity within an economically emerging northern region”. Related events inevitably include How Nordic is it?.

See the Scotland on Sunday report, which highlights co-curator Dualchas Architects‘ accompanying book, in which ten Scottish writers (including Kathleen Jamie) provide contributions about Scotland “when the map is turned and the compass realigned” to remind us that the north of Scotland is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. See also ArchDaily.

Russia’s Fair Enough, a fake trade fair riffing on the lifestyle of architecture, was probably my 2014 favourite. This time they’re exploring the proposed revamp of VDNKh (critique | Calvert Journal), Moscow’s Stalin era exhibition centre. Dare to dream! There’s lots more on the Soviet Union’s failed utopian architecture in Calvert22’s Power & Architecture season: see reviews/articles from Dezeen, PORT magazine and The Spaces. Plus “amidst all the bourgeois romanticism of the humble; amidst all the identikit, tired old dancing on the corpse of modernity, monumentality and utopia” we have in search of progressive architecture, on ‘palatial Communism’ in action.

Some Sofia highlights

So, after making some advance connections, what of Sofia, “on the frontier between Europe and Asia, a mélange of East and West, Orthodox and Ottoman, with a dash of communism thrown in” (Telegraph); “a chaotic melting pot of Euro, Russo and Ottoman culture” (Wanderlust)?

The city has a colourful and complicated history. Founded by the Romans as Ulpia Serdica in AD 29, it became a major regional capital under Constantine the Great. During the Middle Ages the city passed back and forth between the Bulgars and the Byzantines until the Ottomans captured it in 1382, holding on for nearly 500 years. In 1879 Sofia became the capital of newly independent Bulgaria, and a hectic period of building followed. The early 20th century saw two Balkan wars and a brace of abdicating kings, before the city was flattened during the Second World War and rebuilt under the Soviet model, following the pattern of compact old town encircled by a ring road and tower blocks, in this case overlooked by Mount Vitosha.

Sofia today has over 1.3 million inhabitants. For Eva Hoffman visiting in 1993 the city’s “ramshackle, neutral tenor” appealed: “the undemanding, modest size and scale or the teasing combination of Eastern European elements and strong, southern heat and light transports everything into a different modality…Sofia looks like a cross between a rather dilapidated provincial town in Eastern Europe and an equally dilapidated provincial town in Italy or Greece.” While its low built neighhourhoods have a “characteristic characterlessness” the faces are varied:

Tall, lean women with disctinctly Slavic features and a bony stylishness; men with very dark eyes and beards who look like models for Byzantine icons or covers of Harlequin romances; Orthodox priests in black, capacious robes; and Pomaks, or Bulgarian Muslims, in cowl-like head-dresses. The human brew seems thicker, more pungent here, as if created by a long-brewing history.

Since 1989 some streetnames have been “resuscitated from the pre-Communist pantheon” and now honour those previously denounced as “Fascists, Monarchists, Capitalists and Enemies of the People”. There are “rows of trees, green fields, pizzerias, shopping malls and children’s playgrounds” covering up “the stark childscape of mud and concrete” on Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a name (really, I could quote the whole thing).

Arriving in Sofia around lunchtime, after the first salad-with yoghurt-on-the-side of many (for a vegetarian the food is great if a bit one note – there’s only so much yoghurt and feta you can eat in a day), we contrived to spend the entire afternoon beyond the bottom end of the main drag of Boulevard Vitosha, exploring every nook and cranny of NDK, the 1981 National Palace of Culture, now housing a range of cultural agencies

Sofia's National Palace of Culture (1981)

Sofia’s National Palace of Culture (1981)

Kapka: “I spent many happy formative hours there, gaping at festival films and classical concerts”.

Proof positive of the difference history makes, NDK is full of memories, held in affection and still evolving…public space on the grand scale, with a dazzling use of materials, scale, narrative. The “gloriously long row of malfunctioning fountains” outside was under redevelopment, while the “giant grey wreck of a monument”, built in record time in 1981 to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the First Bulgarian Empire, is a bit of a headscratcher. No winner was selected from a 2014 competition to replace it, but amid calls to reinstate parts of the 1934 Sofia Pantheon, destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944, it seems likely to be on the way out.

After all that the Soviet war memorial, built in 1954 but missing the Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum and spattered with graffiti, was a bit of a disappointment. Post 1989 the mausoleum was used for performances of Aida and 101 Dalmations, but in 1999 the government decided enough was enough and set out to blow it up, forgetting that the thing was built to withstand a nuclear attack. Rapidly becoming a running joke, it was eventually dismantled piece by piece, a pleasing metaphor for a period of history that just won’t go away.

Lenin has also been moved from his prime spot in the city centre, now occupied by a statue of Sophia dating from 2001, 24m of bling. Multiple Lenins can however be found in the Museum of Socialist Art, outside the city centre incongruously overlooked by a new mall. Opened in 2011 with EU funding, the museum boasts 77 statues from 1944-89 in a sculpture park, including plentiful examples of Georgi Dimitrov, accused of complicity in the Reichstag fire in 1933 and Bulgaria’s first Communist leader.

Museum of Socialist Art

Museum of Socialist Art

Places of worship abound, from Sveta Nedelya church at the top of Vitosha where 150 were killed in an attack on Boris III in 1925 to the Banya Bashi Mosque (1576) and the synagogue (1909; biggest in southeastern Europe and third biggest in Europe), the tiny but evocative 4th century St George’s Rotunda, the twin beasts of the 6th century St Sofia’s church and the Russian-built behemoth Aleksandâr Nevski Cathedral completed in 1912, honouring the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78. We also popped into a Roman Catholic church, a Romanian church and St Nicholas’s Russian church (1914), took photos of a wedding and attended an X Factor style talent show in a 19th century theatre for good measure.

At every turn it seemed there was another neo/Byzantine pile, offering a place to linger. Other public spaces of note included the newly refurbished Mineral Baths (1913) next to the mosque, with hot mineral water on tap to the side, and Halite, the 1911 market hall. Like many buildings in the city it covers layers of history, housing some Roman remains in the basement. More intimate are Graf Ignatiev and Slaveykov squares in the heart of the old town.

The Largo, a Stalinist complex of government buildings, now blends in without attracting undue attention and is most notable for the Ruritarian uniformed guard outside the presidential palace. The former royal palace at Ploshtad Battenberg is now an art gallery. More problematic are the five floor TSUM (1956), Sofia’s answer to Moscow’s GUM, practically an empty shell, and the 1970s station, as in Bratislava in need of sensitive redevelopment. Modern architecture is arriving, not least in the shape of the 2006 Mall of Sofia, while the latest metro stations are stylishly done:

F Joliot-Curie metro station (2009)

F Joliot-Curie metro station (2009)

The pedestrianised Vitosha offers splendid views of the eponymous mountain, a 2290m high skiing spot only 15km from the city centre, tricky to photograph. To get a bit closer we took a bus and trolley bus ride to the 10th century Boyana church, decorated with 13th century frescoes, protected by Queen Eleonora, the second wife of Ferdinand I, and now by UNESCO, and the National History Museum, housed in a 1970s government residence and kicking off another marathon photo session:

National Museum of History

National Museum of History – should have bought that postcard!

The museum does its level best to explain Bulgaria’s complex history through a stonking range of exhibits, but which quite possibly raised more questions than it answered (Kapka and her classmates also struggled with History). The Royals are more than a little perplexing, with the owner of the patriotic shoes below, now Simeon Coburgotski, working as a business consultant in Madrid with a Spanish wife, having left Bulgaria clutching his mother’s hand in 1946. He returned in 1996, attracting little attention from the ‘socialist’ government, touring wineries and generally having a good time, before becoming prime minister from 2001-05.

patriotic shoes

Sofia is the sort of city I can imagine falling for in a big way, a magic place. And Bulgaria, criminally under-valued, is now one of ‘my’ countries. I can’t wait to go back.

My photos: Sofia April 2015National Palace of Culture | National History Museum

More: Vagabond (English monthly) | Sofia: the insider’s guide | In Your Pocket | Visit Sofia | Travel Bulgaria. Walks offered by Free Sofia Tour (see handy map). There’s also an efficient TIC in the underpass by the university.

Tingbjerg: the housing estate at the end of the bus route

The recent Copenhagen Architecture Festival offered five events on and about the Brønshøj housing estate of Tingbjerg, designed by Steen Eiler Rasmussen in conjunction with landscape architect C. Th. Sørensen in the early 1950s and constructed over a period of 20 years.

Tingbjerg masterplan

Tingbjerg masterplan (photo: Natacha Berté and Robert Martin, KADK)

Only 10 km from Rådhuspladsen, Tingbjerg contains around 2000 properties and is home to over 6500 people. Situated at the top of Vestvolden where it joins Utterslev Mose, we’re talking lys og luft again, with buses gliding round the access road past tastefully designed yellow brick low rise with white shutters to the top of the estate and back again.

houses on the estate's access road

low rise on Ruten, the access road around the estate

But it’s the usual story – classified as a ‘ghetto’ until autumn 2012 Tingbjerg is currently the subject of an(other) urban renewal effort. Sticking to infrastructural issues, assorted paths lead to the estate’s allotments and across Vestvolden, but road access to both Husum, for big shopping and trains into the city centre, and nearby Gladsaxe is poor, and the Hillerød motorway creates an uncrossable barrier to the north.

Utterslev Mose (marsh)

Utterslev Mose, just a short stroll away

I took the 132 bus the full length of its route from Friheden, one 1950s utopian housing project on the southern fringe of Copenhagen, through suburban sprawl to another, Tingbjerg, at its northern border. The community council’s walking route highlights the major sights: Sørensen’s byggelegeplads (adventure playground), the tower block, the only building above three storeys on the estate and originally built to hide the varmecentral but today housing apartments, Gavlhusvej with decorative brickwork on the gable ends, and the unique Arkaderne blocks.

Arkaderne (collonades)

the collonades: Arkaderne

The estate also houses a church (1983) and a library (1993; CPH’s smallest). Two shopping parades offer a limited range of retail opportunities, with the smaller due to be pulled down in the summer with the opening of COBE’s new Tingbjerg Culture House. Tingbjerg school (1970) became a heldagsskole, with 35 hours of classtime per week, in 2008.

the main shopping parade

the main shopping parade

The CAFx events included a guided walk with Peder Boas Jensen, an architect who worked both on Tingbjerg and on Avedøre Stationsby, right at the other end of Vestvolden, and a utopian suburb type seminar, with four academics speedily running through some off the peg slides as the lights came on in the tower block.

the tower block at dusk

Højhuset at dusk

More: photos on FlickrMenneskebyen | Mønstersamfundet | Tingbjerg Forum. Per Fly’s Bænken (2000) was filmed on the estate, plus 2012 saw Visit Tingbjerg, a contemporary art festival on the estate.