Vestegnens Kulturuge 2017: digital art, mindfulness and poetry

Vestegnens Kulturuge (FB; programmeprevious years) is usually almost exclusively family oriented, but this year it turned up some ‘high’ culture in the shape of a subset of events around 1980s poet Michael Strunge amidst the broader theme of PÅ ELEKTRISK GRUND (sic; FB).

Sadly though much of the week was a wash-out, grey and chilly with prolonged rain and some slushy hail to finish. Two events were cancelled: Mosensdag in Vallensbæk, due to the bog/marsh, which acts as a flood basin leading water away from nearby houses, being completely under water, and Copenhagen Art Run in Ishøj Strandpark, deemed unsafe due to the conditions.

Where last year there were giants, this year there was Tryllebundet (Spellbound), six exhibits in containers showing the latest in digital art, coordinated by Vallensbæk’s DIAS Kunsthal. As well as the works themselves DIAS put together a number of accompanying activities and a Google Map of the area’s public art – now that is handy!

Forstadsmuseet had a Hvidovre-based game (with notebook and pencil), plus re-runs of some of its walks, while Rødovre opened up its bunker, a kommunale kommandocentral under Arne Jacobsen’s library, who knew, as part of its Cold War project.

Each of the six kommuner had its special day, largely unrelated to the overall theme, made up of events organised by local foreninger with the communal culture centre as venue. Hvidovre, perhaps making up for the lack of a shiny culture centre while we wait for the new bymidte, mounted two special days, pushing the boat out on the second Saturday of the ‘week’ in Hvidovre C with a range of events including a 12 hour mindfulness themed soveconcert (Sleep Concert), from GoSlow and sound artist Karsten Pflum. Gosh.

The previous Saturday was centred around Hvidovre town hall at the opposite end of the kommune. This included readings in Risbjerggård from personal fave Søren Ulrik Thomsen, a contemporary of Michael Strunge, and Caspar Eric, very much inspired by him.

Other Strunge related events included several riffs on the title of his 1984 collection Væbnet med vinger:

  • Bevæbnet med vinger – exhibition in Ishøj Bibliotek; the library also hosted a Shared Reading evening
  • Væbnet med vinger: the musical and Væbnet med ord og vinger (film premiere), both in Hvidovre Medborgersal
  • Den blå engel: bevæbnet med vinger – installation for Copenhagen Art Run

Michael Strunge (1958-86) was born in a clinic in Rødovre (venue of Denmark’s first punk gig by Sods in 1977) and grew up in Hvidovre, specifically in Berners Vænge, on the modernist Bredalsparken estate. He went to Sønderkærskolen (reminiscences) before attending Vestre Borgerdyd Gymnasium on Sjælør Boulevard in Valby.

Between 1978 and 1985 he published 11 collections of poetry, most of it written in a flat he shared with his girlfriend in Hvidovre. He died in 1986 at the age of 27, like his heroes Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, jumping out of a window at Webersgade 17 in Østerbro (plaque), and is buried in Assistens Kirkegård.

A figurehead for his generation and usually dubbed a ‘punk’ poet, but we’re not really talking John Cooper Clarke here:

Søren Ulrik Thomsen was born in Kalundborg and spent most of his childhood in Stevns, but at the reading admitted to living on Arnold Nielsens Boulevard from the age of 2-6, in one of the red and white blocks at the Hvidovrevej end. He knew Strunge well, although was careful to stress that they were very different in personality.

Fondly known as Hvidovre’s tourist bureau, SUT cited the “rigtig smukt forstadsbyggeri” Berners Vænge in Politiken’s Riv byen ned series. A poem in his latest collection has the title I Hvidovre, på novemberdage (translation by Susanna Nied, p19), while a recent essay includes the indispensable quote:

og jeg ser for mig, Hvidovre for fyrre år siden, som med små selvbyggerhuse og lys og luft mellem boligblokkene vel både historisk og geografisk var “den første forstad”, med alt, hvad det indbefattede af søde drømme om en lille sort folkevogn og et tv-apparat og i det hele taget et bedre liv end det, der levedes f.eks. på Vesterbro, som Hvidovre må være udflytning af

[and I see before me the Hvidovre of forty years ago, which with its small self-built houses and open spaces between the tower blocks was probably the first suburb, both historically and geographically, with all that entails: sweet dreams of a little black Beetle and a television and all in all a better life than that lived for example in Vesterbro, which Hvidovre may be a relocation of]

Perhaps the suburbs still have an authenticity of time and place, less found in today’s Happy CPH. In København con amore (2006), the product of trips to the outer reaches of CPH with photographer Jokum Rohde, SUT presents photos of two very local spots, Hvidovrevejens Partyslagter at Hvidovrevej 277 (now Pangs Smørrebrød), while Lis’s Kaffebar at 340 C is now occupied by Hot & Cool and French Chicken. Things are changing, even in Hvidovre.

Back to Strunge with Vestegnens KulturCast, an enthusiastic effort from Vallensbæk Kultur- og Borgerhus, with two dedicated episodes plus full interviews with Anne Marie Mai and Jørgen Aabenhus. The second episode has readings from Asger Schnack in Taastrup Bibliotek and from school students in the 9th class in Vallensbæk. All well worth a listen.

In 1985 AMM and MS published Mai Strunge, a book of their conversations and letters. She followed this up in 2008 with an anthology, En bog om Michael Strunge, on what would have been his 50th birthday, co-edited with JA. In her interview she stated that MS was an ‘anarkistisk kameleon’, unconstrained by fashions/styles in poetry and uninterested in socially engaged poems with a message.

JA examined MS’s relationship with life in the suburbs, not least as reflected in his 1981 poem COMA, observing people waiting at a bus stop on Hvidovrevej. At that time Hvidovre was very homogeneous, middelmådig and småborgelig, a poster child for the velfærdssamfund – and a prime case for teenage rebellion. There’s a tension here with hygge, of which I’m guessing MS wasn’t a big fan, but as JA pointed out hygge is more likely to be found in the home than at a bus stop.

By way of contrast, when asked a brace of Vestegnen residents named the slower tempo of life, which you notice as soon as you get off said bus, vs too much traffic, too many people and the lack of greenery in the city, as the advantages of living in the suburbs today.

More Strunge? see Litteratursiden, which also has a recent feature on 1980s literature, and biographies by Knud Munck (2oo1) and Peter Rewers (2015). For more SUT, see People vs place in Copenhagen.

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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

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 | Deutschlandfunk Kultur

After Benjamin:

Walk on: re-examining Jane Jacobs

Next up: Will Self and Owen Hatherley on JJ (5 July, Hoxton; report)…JJ in NetudgavenAndy Merrifield on JJ (excerpt from The amateur)…Curbed’s illustrated guideJJ at the dog park

Updates: new biog outon The Urbanist@owenhatherley on JJSlate on her cheerful hurly burly (cached) featuring JJ: the opera, with Robert Moses looking down from above and JJ looking at her feet…JJ: the film (Gdn & Olly Wainwright | Observer & again New York Times | Vogue | Jonathan Glancey | Architecture & Design Scotland; finally seen 14 Aug 2017)…also namechecked on Slate’s The quest to make the perfect place (cached) on New Urbanism and its attempts to recreate the small town in the city as an alternative to the typical suburb – sound familiar? Graphic novel style: the urban pastoral vs Byvandring.nu’s technocrats.

Lots about Jane Jacobs at the moment, “American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist best known for her influence on urban studies”. A Google doodle celebrated the 100th anniversary of her birth on 4 May with accompanying hashtag #jj100, there’s a six month New York based celebration, a year long effort in Toronto and a conference in Delft for starters, plus the annual walking weekend. Is Jane just the American (OK, Canadian) Gehl-like Good Thing you can’t argue with?

Jane Jacobs Google doodle

Happy Birthday to Jane from Google

Jane’s Walk (#janeswalk | @janeswalk | blog) offers a cornucopia of delights, including Jane’s Ten Big Ideas, a quick guide to Jane’s written work and a summary of walkability research. From coverage elsewhere, the Guardian ran two pieces, with Saskia Sassen on the day itself and a piece on Jane vs Robert Moses. US based Strong Towns has screeds of stuff. See also the Project for Public SpacesJane’s last vid and Treehugger on Jane at home. And what might JJ say about smart cities?

iSlate, however, weighed in with Bulldoze Jane Jacobs, calling for a stop to the deification and a re-examination of her ideas, which have led to “nearly all-white, aesthetically suburban playground[s] for the rich”:

Governments…spend millions on implementing Jacobs’ recommendations—making streets more walkable, supporting new, local businesses, de-emphasizing cars—and nearly everywhere they do, gentrification and displacement follow.

Other less fashionable areas outside the downtown core are all too often left untouched.

So much so Copenhagen, with its swathes of almost identically tasteful apartment blocks shooting up all over, re-writing of Carlsberg’s cultural heritage and over-hyped ‘one size fits all’ lifestyle. Meanwhile its outer districts, and even more much of Greater Copenhagen’s five fingers, are seemingly left to their own devices.

My results from Curbed’s Jane Jacobs quiz:

Your neighborhood is a work in progress.

The sidewalk ballet (the dynamic unfolding of the city’s life, a form of art represented by interactions of neighbours, passers-by, children playing, shopkeepers) in your neighborhood could use a few more rehearsals. Some Jacobs-approved approaches may have taken root—there are a few newer buildings mixed in with the old, or your neighborhood’s avenues offer a mix of shops, restaurants, offices, and residential space—but the neighborhood still has long blocks, or large swaths of only housing or office buildings that leave it quiet for much of the day or evening.

So, back to the walking, an invaluable aid for those who find themselves adrift. Jane’s Walk in Copenhagen turned out to be a one-off (I know, I know…), but for 2016 we find diverse delights in Birmingham and Coventry, GhentLiverpool, London, Tokyo, Zagreb and Zurich, plus Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (all in Hebrew). With a special shout-out for Eugene Quinn’s Funk ORF! (Vienna).

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.

2017 update: Adrian Yekkes on Bulgarian modernism

#CAFx2016: Copenhagen Architecture Festival

Copenhagen may not have a decent open house event but it does have probably the world’s biggest architecture-cum-film festival, on its third run-out this year (see post re 2014 and 2015). The Copenhagen Architecture Festival (aka CAFx; Twitter | Facebook | Instagram), took place from 10-20 March, still dominated by film but accompanied by debates, walks etc in 12 themes at more than 30 venues, with presences also in Aarhus (AAFx) and Aalborg (ALAFx).

Of the themes, Københavns Forvandlinger stuck out as by far the biggest – subdivide, guys! The most eye-catching events were sold out when I looked, but at least there was some hand-wringing around gentrificationCopenhagen vs the rest of Denmark also looked on point.

Providing further food for thought was Det urealiserede København, showcasing the 1960s proposal for a motorway round the Lakes, which has a certain perverse appeal in the face of the bucolic set of potential projects generally rolled out. 2015’s six best, which you could visit on a guided bike tour, included Cykelslangen, which surely opened in 2014 (and still makes me want to poke someone in the eye). But it’s not all about Copenhagenized and Copenhagen Dreaming – two housing projects, Brygge Blomsten and Sundholm Syd, were also recognised.

Film i s-toget meant that instead of TV 2 News the screens in the trains showed historical film clips, if only after midnight and at the weekend. More multi-media in the shape of three new audio walks, with one on (inevitably) Vesterbro bag facadenLyt til København offers short recordings made at random spots, while Ghettoblaster from young folk in Nørrebro probably does what it says on the tin. Part of a Lyd og rum theme, there was also a workshop on Havenlyd og byrum, the sounds of the lost harbour.

In the handful of place-centred events, an exhibition looked at DSB Byen, the area behind the central station, which we nosed about back in August 2014. The creative classes have now moved in, with a three part event from AMPD (Facebook), themselves based on Otto Busses Vej. Here’s the latest wheeze for the some of the area, involving IKEA and green roofs.

The Brønshøj council estate of Tingbjerg, designed by Steen Eiler Rasmussen in the 1950s, surely merited its own theme, like Aarhus’ Gellerup – so will get its own post shortly here.

Website critique: it’s very blue, and I wish things wouldn’t slide up and down when you hover over them. Then there’s a Mine Favoritter section, but no way of favouriting things. Would never have happened on my watch. On the plus side this year you can filter by type – see walks, including one on bikes, the gentrifying tracks of Nordre Fasanvej (involves games) and yup! Vesterbro.

Interestingly, the EN button takes you to an on-the-fly Google translation. Google as globish? As far as #some goes, it’s strictly PR in best exclamatory style! No attempts at coverage or recordings of the very interesting talks etc for those not able to attend. Instead there was Snapchat.

Ground control in Copenhagen

I’ve been catching up with some urbanist reading lately, starting with Lynsey Hanley’s Estates, moving onto Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism and back to earth with John Grindrod’s Concretopia.

Yesterday I polished off Anna Minton’s Ground control (2009 edition). Having worked as an infopro in urban development environments for most of my career it all feels rather like coming home, although some of the jargon has changed, and Ground control helped to fill in some of the gaps and answer some of the questions raised by our recent trip to London.

urbanist classics

my one note reading pile

What made me sit up though were the references to Denmark. To me central Copenhagen feels like the privatised public spaces described in the ‘Clean and safe’ chapter:

One of the problems the new ‘clean and safe’ parts of the city wrestle with is how to make places exciting. All too often they are strangely sterile, soulless and lacking in atmosphere, as the drive to create new places places little attention to real historic and cultural identity…

The contradiction is that while the managers of business districts want to create a ‘buzz’ and an atmosphere, they plan entertainment very carefully…the unexpected rarely happens…the growing micro-management of activities threatens to design out lingering and wandering around.

In Copenhagen the “authoritarianism and control” is innate, it doesn’t need to be imposed or enforced. Undesirable people (homeless, groups of youngsters, political protestors) and activities just don’t happen – or only when the Brøndby fans come to town. There is definitely the “feeling of an invisible hand directing what is going on”, with a chain of near identical public places “produced according to the same tick-box recipe”, changing and deadening the atmosphere and resulting in “participants who are unable to depart from the script”.

There’s a lot of idyllic Danery in the civil society section. In the chapter on fear of crime, ‘R/respect’, trust and happiness’ Minton discusses the role of strangers in cities in preserving the essence of civility and safety. Richard Senett (1977) described the city as the place “where strangers are likely to meet”, defining ‘civility’ as “treating others as strangers and forging a social bond based on that distance”. Jane Jacobs (1961) based her case on “natural surveillance”, built around the informal social controls of strangers, “eyes on the street”, resulting in an “almost unconscious network of voluntary controls enforced by people themselves”.

Hence the role of strangers determines levels of trust in places, a “trust between strangers which occurs naturally in healthy places and is still part of daily life to a far greater degree in countries like Denmark”. The use of the word ‘like’ seems crucial here, as this statement goes against widespread reportage by internationals and the concept of ‘negative politeness’ as a key Danish value, which on a bad day can verge on the passive aggressive.

Minton notes that trust and happiness are highest in Scandinavian countries “like Denmark”, where “stark, visible differences between social groups are also among the lowest”. Networks of likeminded people, rather than “places which promote the diversity of strangers”, increase trust and social capital: “The more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust one anyone”. So there you have it. Danes “unconsciously trust each other and look out for each other” because they are all the same.

Plus there are downsides. “Life is no fun if it is perfectly safe…More importantly, when life becomes too safe, paradoxically we become more fearful and less trusting, as the natural human bonds which occur spontaneously between people are stifled”. An article in Politiken this weekend asked if Danes are addicted to tryghed (safety, security). It’s possible to see Denmark as a protected environment on a national scale, its own little homongenous enclave with an inwardly focused national discourse. To such as extent that there’s widespread surprise when ‘others’ comment on what they do – see the reaction to Steve Bell’s cartoon in The Guardian.

The final chapter on possible solutions to the problems of the 21st city concludes with a section on reinventing the public, where Minton returns to Happy Danery: “many genuinely public places in towns and cities around southern and northern Europe, in [long list concluding with Scandinavia] are thriving. Families and groups of people stroll arm in arm taking the passeggiata, children run around and old people sit together on benches”.

I want to go on holiday with Anna! She cites – of course she does – Jan Gehl, “Danish urbanist and architect, credited with transforming Copenhagen” into a place where shopping is not the main reason for coming into the city. Apparently “four times as many people come into the centre of Copenhagen as did so in the past…simply to stroll around and take in the atmosphere”. This is a long way from my experience of the centre of the city, where over-designed and under-peopled asphalted public spaces are broken only by basketball pens and bike parking facilities. Plus pavement cafes, oh those pavement cafes…all this is why I as a rule I choose to wander in areas further afield, as yet untouched by the flattening hand of the ‘human scale’.

/rant

Update, 27 Feb: The Urbanist’s How do you create a healthy city episode offered more on this theme, with UCL’s Nick Tyler selecting Copenhagen as his example of a happy city. He redeemed himself somewhat by being more than a little troubled by “the cycling bit”, stating that “there are people who don’t cycle”, and that an unbalanced stress on cycling, with the potential for conflicting situations, could tip things out of balance. Cities need a whole variety of people – that’s where the vibrancy is. Quite. Plus a whole variety of scale, so the city doesn’t turn into Middle Earth.

Is it now taken as read that every city is travelling towards becoming a cycling city? It certainly is for The Urbanist’s next speaker, high heeled bike riding Bianca Hermansen of Cititek, who doesn’t choose to walk or use public transport. She’s in the nudging camp, favouring a context which “compels people to change their behaviour”, yikes, and preaching her message whenever she gets the chance. It’s all about lifestyle – and never mind anyone who doesn’t choose or aspire to that lifestyle. Luckily this segment only lasted four minutes.

Update, 2017: Anna’s latest, Big capital: who is London for? (Rowan Moore | Peter Watts).