#CAFx2018: Denmark does urbanism

Has the Copenhagen Architecture Festival (Twitter | Facebook) come of age? This year’s eclectic programme drew Politiken‘s critic to call for a refocus on architecture rather than all the other bits and bobs (eg this). And a new name is perhaps called for, with events spreading as far as Odense; how about Denmark does urbanism?

A renewed spatial turn saw the festival coinciding with the opening of BLOX (sic) on 6 May, of which more below, and the launch of Politiken Byrum, an excellent news service on all things urban, but with most of the content paywalled. Both seem ready to embrace a wider range of interests than the strictly architectural. There have also been sightings of a more nuanced approach in the media generally over the past year, less focused on the lovely and recognising the increasing growth of issues long encountered elsewhere, such as gentrification — time to discard some of the mantle of exceptionalism? Perhaps encounters with BLOX will lead to more self-analysis and a broader focus in future.

According to Politiken Byrum around 220 events were scheduled over the fortnight, with the over-arching theme of At huse hjem/Housing homes. New forms of living beyond the nuclear family, no longer the most widespread form of household in the land, were examined at major conferences on housing needs and post-war housing in Scandinavia. Subthemes included increasing migration to the city, increasing house prices and increasing segregation…times are certainly changing. and Copenhagen feels very different from when I moved here over a decade ago.

Tours included the traditional cycle ride with city architect Tina Saaby to the best new buildings of the year, with the new Publikums Pris won by Axel Towers, an office complex opposite Tivoli boasting a rooftop restaurant and a new perspective on public space from its walkway.

Axel Towers: shiny!

The portfolio of guided walks on offer illustrated some of Copenhagen’s current tussles with its identity, featuring ‘fringe’ areas such as Nordvest (gentrification on Rentemestervej with added street art vs industrial heritage and I ❤ Tagensvej) and Sydhavnen (the growing gulf between old and new).

The inner city’s balcony scourge also got a mention. Perhaps next year there will be space for a dissection of the typehus, bursting to the edge of its plot and surrounded by paving, the suburban equivalent of New Copenhagen Vernacular apartment blocks, so close together that they effectively close off entire areas to non-residents.

In cultural heritage corner, the Jewish Museum offered walks on immigration and diversity in Nørrebro (FB) and Jewish CPH (FB). Storrs Antikvariat looked at changing ideas of house and home with two authors, while Medicinsk Museion had a small (read: minute) exhibition on the use of its 18th century building by the Kgl. Kirurgiske Akademi, not least as flats for academicians and their families. (Famous residents included Nobel prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, who moved in at the age of one in 1886. Bohr had lifelong luck in solving his personal housing needs, spending the last 30 years of his life in residence in what is now Carlsberg Akademi.) Doubtless this is the sort of thing of which Politiken Does Not Approve.

Which brings us back to BLOX

BLOX: the new and extraordinary venue for life in the city

Designed somewhat unexpectedly by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA, who won a competition way back in 2006, this does-what-it-says venue is the new home for the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC), who previously occupied an old warehouse on the wrong side of the waterfront. A multi-functional complex, the building has luxury apartments on the top and automated parking in the basement, with offices/’work desks’, a fitness centre and cafés in the middle.

Koolhaas is known for his “f*** context” provocation, and this is basically what the avalanche of critique of the building comes down to: like DAC’s new branding, it’s just not Danish enough. Even the font looks alien, for goodness sake.

Personally I don’t have a problem with any of it, but then I loved the bold approach taken to the waterfront in Koolhaas’ Rotterdam. BLOX is interesting, extending over Christians Brygge like a heap of Tupperware, with escalators and covered walkways to provide changing levels and protection from the weather. The only disappointment in my customary walk round the building was the children’s play area, which feels exposed and out of place in the heart of a big city.

Realdania, the somewhat shady fund who bankrolled the thing, have backtracked, saying they would not commission the design today, while for once the Gdn’s Olly Wainwright let me down. But six days after the opening a group of architects came with a riposte: cities do not stay static and neither are they museums; if CPH wants to compete as an international city it needs distinctive architecture; the glass facade is open to and reflects the city, etc.

And this part of the city already hosts buildings in a range of styles — BLOX practically rubs shoulders with the Black Diamond aka the Royal Library, which back in the day (1999!) also gave rise to an avalanche of critique. A stroll along the waterfront out of the city centre takes you to a section of PoMo buildings almost universally derided, but which today offer rather more than the apartment blocks shooting up in what remains of the harbour.

Of #CAFx2018, sadly, details of the events vanished from view as they happened, but PDF programmes are to be found hidden under Press. For a look at how the festival has developed over the years, see my posts for 2016 (with nods to 2014 and 2015) and 2017).

Advertisements

#kbhlæser: Copenhagen reads!

Update: Aarhus has just trumped CPH with its LiteratureXchange (FB), an avowedly international festival running from 14-24 June

Kbh Læser (FB | Twitter: @kbh_laeser#kbhlæser), is an annual literary festival masterminded by Copenhagen Libraries.

Most of my posts seem to be about events these days, and this one is a rewrite of an old messy post on the festival, updated for 2018. When I first started this blog my focus was primarily the formidling angle, ie how events are presented on the web and how they are amplified (think pictorial broadcasting), shared and archived (or not). Of particular note in this regard is the rise of Instagram and the A3 newspaper.

As I started exploring CPH as place this became an additional focus, and now I’m increasingly exercised by how many festivals feel invisibly labelled “Danish only”, aimed at an audience I’m certainly not a member of, and to be making limited to no efforts to appeal to a more diverse, or, dare I say it, intercultural, audience.

For a public library led event, Kbh Læser is disturbingly highbrow – you’d be hard pressed to find many bestsellers here, and if you aren’t au fait with critical theory you may well be more than a tad turned off. Themes tend to the abstract; 2018 has the somewhat opaque catch-all theme of Manifest (Manifesto; think Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto).

Unusually for these days, there is no English version of the website, although the newspaper (64pp; too much already; selected articles in news) has a couple of English features. Elsewhere, the enthusiastic Ark Books (“For the Danes we’d like to provide the world’s literature, and introduce Danish literature to those who can’t read Danish”) offers its Manifesto Month (2017: Growth Month).

With my name on it, if in a four-way clash with the Beast from the East, were Georges Perec & OuLiPo at Storrs Antikvariat (a new secondhand bookshop in NV), Den Røde Sofa med Mette Dalsgaard (literary translator from Russian) and Flanørens Europa with Fabian Saul (as seen at Flâneur in Copenhagen nearly three years ago) and Mette Kit Jensen (in Kunsten.nu on the city), on what a drift through the streets of Europe can teach us about modern identity. (See also Fabian’s piece in the A3 rag entitled Notes for a pamphlet: walking the Assistens Cemetery of Copenhagen: the city as cemetery and Goethe Institute-supported project Traces of Resistance, now in the UK.)

Also with an international flavour we have a Flytningemanifest (and in English), Beirut læser and København læser syrisk litteratur (“Syrian literature as a part of literary Denmark”, hurra). We also have an art writing piece by Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese political cartoonist currently in CPH under the ICORN programme.

More of note:

  • in place related corner, several articles on bookish things in areas of the city: FrederiksbergVesterbro (unpick: “Istedgade…emmer af diversitet og mangfoldighed”) and Østerbro (just Poesiens Hus then), plus profiles of the new Litteraturhuset at Nybrogade 28 (seemingly beset by delay and various teething issues), Arbejdermuseet and KBH Tegner (comics and related)
  • a Litterært Manifest-kort, a map with 12 places; why-oh-why not online, not least when the project has received support from at least three worthy institutions? (this isn’t the first time, either)
  • Læseforeningen guided community reading events in Kulturtårnet, Ørestad Bibliotek and the tower of Vor Frue Kirke
  • Europa.Manifest, the output of visits to CPH central library during the autumn of 2017 by European and Danish philosophers, now available as a book
  • a Mikrofest from 24 small publishers, party and anthology in one (all in all an encouraging amount of wordplay around mani/fest; fest means party på dansk), with an online portal to come later in 2018
  • ENIGMA, the suitable enigmatic newish museum/not for post and telegraphy type things, has MANIFEST NOW, a virtual exhibition and installation at the main library, consisting of cut-ups from 15 manifestos displayed at random and/or put back together
  • and finally, Kbh Læser: the blog

#kbhlæser in previous years:

Event website critique (2015): usual fish in a barrel stuff. With 159 events from 77 organisers, and 58 venues, you need several ways of finding your way around the programme, but as ever there was no way in via theme or audience. A map/app would have been nice, although there was a list of what’s on at each venue. No search…and while the design is contemporary enough, you are diverted to Copenhagen Libraries’ rather creaky site for full details, where when it’s gone, it’s gone.

In archive terms, there is one page on the festival’s history plus brief summaries of the festivals in 2014 (the body in literature) and 2012 (Copenhagen). 2018 update: now replaced by photo selections on the about page (2015-17 only), although the 2017 programme is still advertised.

CPH 850: city identity at Golden Days

Latest, Feb 2018: CPH has got itself a Light Festival; the website is entirely in Danglish, which led to some comments on FB; with 40 installations it feels a tad OTT, and Politiken’s review agrees, suggesting that they turn it down a bit, what with one of CPH’s qualities being its dimness, a component of hygge…Byvandring.nu offer some pics with refreshingly downbeat commentary…meanwhile Edinburgh Lumen has gone for “three unique installations…transform St Andrew Square, Assembly Rooms Lane and The Mound Precinct into zen-like portals of tranquility”…how old is CPH? latest

This year’s Golden Days festival (case), running from 2-17 September, took the 850th anniversary of Copenhagen’s notional founding by Bishop Absalon as its theme:

Byer skabes af mennesker, og ingen by har værdi uden sine borgere: Vi er alle skabere af byen. Det er kernebudskabet, når Golden Days Festivalen i 2017 fejrer 850-året for grundlæggelsen af København.

[Cities are created by people, and a city without its people has no worth. We all create the city. This is the message at the heart of Golden Days 2017, celebrating the 850th anniversary of the founding of Copenhagen.]

This truism demonstrates that it may be about CPH but really it’s all about Us. What is it with Danes and place? Or perhaps, what is it with Brits and place? Anyway, Copenhagen’s place-myth, the one everyone grew up with, dates back to Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish Geoffrey of Monmouth, who related how King Valdemar handed a small island over to his foster brother Absalon, Bishop of Roskilde. In 1167 Absalon built a castle on the island, today known as Slotsholmen in the heart of modern Copenhagen.

Archaeological finds date CPH as rather older than this, as pointed out by various sections of the press, but they’re sticking with it, needs must, playing with the myth med glimt i øjet and a fake news style eventFup og fusk! But in a country where supermarkets regularly celebrate spurious birthdays, it’s not really important.

Moving on, early publicity portrayed a fiendishly complicated festival, with 10 people to bear witness to the development of CPH’s cultural heritage around whom the whole shebang would revolve in a set of 10 spor (tracks, trails), with events, guided walks, maps, using “modern network theory” to reveal how the 10 individuals were connected with their contemporaries and with each other. Gosh.

The site design did seem to have had a bit of shine-up, greeting you with shots of the 10 and clips of Copenhagen, plus a blocky menu on the right. Events were keyworded with an appropriate individual, somewhat arbitrarily at times, and you could also browse by location (of the venue), category and day. On the added value content side there were short ‘essays’ and maps with spots for each of the 10, also to be found in this year’s free magazine.

Festival director Svante Lindeburg’s explanation of the curational strategy described a metro diagram, enabling you to see, for example, which of the 10 had connections to the Royal Theatre. This sounded fantastic, but in practice was let down by poor execution and a limited dataset.

Below I have overlaid the maps for near contemporaries Carl Jacobsen and Herman Bang, showing disappointingly no connections:

map overlaying spots for two of the 10

For starters, I’m peeved that the map can only be opened via the site, despite being made in Google Maps. I’d like to fiddle with it! Next, what are the connecting lines about – join the dots? Third, it’s not possible to browse by place. The squares/nodes merely present the text from each individual’s map.

Here’s what you get at the Royal Theatre if you overlay all ten maps and zoom in – there’s not a lot of network theory here:

the unnamed Royal Theatre appears on four maps

Who is Copenhagen?

What of the 10 themselves? Perhaps refreshingly, no Kierkegaard and no Hans Christian Andersen. Less happily we have Women: 2, and Immigrants: 0. That’s just lazy. It’s a shame no one was galvanised enough to come up with an alternative 10, although DR has offered up a five women of the 19th century without trying too hard.

the CPH 850 10: pick a person for events and an essay

The first woman of our 10 is hostess Kamma Rahbek (1775-1829), included largely as a peg for hanging salons on. A meta-salon at KU Bibliotek presented the 19th century salon as gammeldags networking and the equivalent of today’s bookshop readings, with åndrig samtale og et let traktement. Of several contemporary wannabees a Tove Ditvelsen salon at was held at Gentofte Hovedbibliotek; Danish sweetheart Tove lived in Gentofte from 1945-50 and would have been 100 this year, so there was cake…with her writing on growing up in Vesterbro before WW2 Tove might have been a better choice as the second woman of our 10, rather than folkelig inter-war entertainer Liva Weel. Sorry Liva.

A couple of events gave a nod to gender or explored the distaff side of the city – a literary evening in the form of Gin&Gender #9 and a walk from KulturenNu taking in the three statues of named women in the city (for the record: Caroline Amalie, queen consort to Christian VIII, in Kongens Have, women’s education advocate Natalie Zahle in Ørstedsparken and scientist Inge Lehmann, a newcomer on Vor Frue Plads (pic).

A sole event was spotted on newcomers to the city, an Historisk morgen hosted by the National Museum in the Hamad Bin Khalifa Civilisation Center, looking at the effect of immigration (from Russian Jews, Swedish maids and Turkish guestworkers) on Nørrebro as place and its redevelopment as a diverse area in a multicultural society.

It would have nice to have made a passing attempt at presenting a rather more diverse selection of people to represent 850 years of the city’s history. Coupled with a lack of English or any other language other than the dansk throughout, there’s a clear message of who the festival is viewed as being for, and a clear picture of the city’s people-myth. Even going forward.

Where is Copenhagen?

Now then, when you say Copenhagen where (and what) exactly do you mean? The CPH urban area has a population of nearly 1.3 million and is made up of 18 councils, including Copenhagen itself on 606K. While not quite as extreme as Manchester (541K) and its urban area (over 2.5 million), you don’t have to travel far out of the city centre to hit another kommune, a fact that probably doesn’t feature on many mental maps of the city.

As in previous years a number of events were held to the administrative north (specifically in Gentofte, Gladsaxe, Lyngby-Taarbæk and Rudersdal), dressed up as Flugten fra København (the flight from Copenhagen) and limiting the relationship of city and suburb across place and time to a clutch of royal hunting lodges (C4), salon venues (KR) and post-WW2 housing developments (EW). Just don’t call it Copenhagen.

The Frederiksberg-shaped hole in the middle of the city, created in 1901 when CPH swallowed up Valby, Vigerslev and Brønshøj, was neatly filled by an exploration of the kommune‘s continued independence via walks on its eastern and western borders, noticeboards at strategic points and a podcast series. The difference does go beyond street furniture and parking regulations – it’s Danish scale in action.

Other than that CPH 850 meant the city centre and the inner parts of the ‘bros; few events extended further than your average city-breaker, ignoring the city’s own outer areas never mind its post-war suburbs and sprawlYet as cultural historian Ann-Sofie Gremaud of the Denmark and the new North Atlantic project pointed out, Copenhagen exists in many other places, in music, literature and film, and not least in all the people who have lived there or had a direct connection to its growth. Some of this Copenhagen was celebrated in an event at Nordatlantens Brygge, while KulturenNu led a walk on the city and Dansk Vestindien, now the American Virgin Islands, sold to the USA 100 years ago.

Some CPH 850 takeaways

  • Zoom København – the book version, by the prolific Martin Zerlang (who also did a turn retelling the whole tale in 85 minutes); update, Dec: library copy inspected and lugged back after an unopened month or so, ticking all the usual boxes in terms of materiality and style, feeling more like a coffee table item than something corresponding to 21st century reading habits…there’s a post to be written here; the worthy output of a lifetime’s research, but FWIS a disappointingly conventional chronological presentation, dropping the 10 people and the angle of how they might be connected – maybe they should have taken a leaf out of Niall Ferguson’s latest?
  • Københavnerkanon – they love the canonic in Denmark, and CPH is no exception; a panel came up with a top 20 based on 300-odd Facebook and Instagram submissions, subjected to a vote and whittled down to a top 10 revealed on 2 September
  • Copenhagen on film – series of films and talks marking the publication of a mursten entitled Filmens København (Gyldendal; Politiken)
  • Copenhagen in literature:
    • 10 forfattere. 1o perioder. 10 oplaesninger. – 10 authors gave readings from their own back catalogue and from one of the 10 historical periods
    • Litterær københavnercabaret (FB) – readings and songs in Literaturhaus
    • a literary drunks’ map of CPH (FB), one of three maps on offer _in_ CPH libraries (and which typically haven’t seen the digital light of day)

Any walks of interest? In Brønshøj, Oline Brønd, following in the footsteps of her grandfather Evald who has led more than 180 guided walks in CPH, traced the suburb’s identity from Absalon’s Brønshøj Kirke, founded in the 1180s, via the first school in the area, now Kulturhuset Pilegården, to Ib Lunding’s iconic 1928 water tower, soon to be converted into a venue for cultural events.

As well as the selection of tours from Kulturen.nu two rather unexpected delights looked at the city through a different lens: KLOAK, a sewer tour led by former Golden Days director Ulla Tofte, and a nine stop Science walk from Videnskabernes Selskab.

Overall though CPH 850 felt both of and for the creative class, offering an inward-looking, exclusive and rather one dimensional view of cultural heritage and identity, similar to that currently presented by DR’s Historien om Danmark. While I realise Golden Days is heavily dependent on sponsorship and the involvement of local cultural actors, it would be nice to see the festival taking more risks in terms of events and venues, and a more inclusive look at its potential audience – and perhaps presenting a more complex picture of Copenhagen reflecting all its people in the process.

#CAFx2017: Denmark’s architecture festival

Last updated: 24 May 2018

This year’s CAFx (2014-16 | Tingbjerg) took place from 27 April to 7 May with the theme of Arkitektur som identitet/Architecture as character. For social delights (mainly photos of people enjoying themselves) see Twitter | Facebook.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get this out of the way first:

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

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

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

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

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

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

People vs place in Copenhagen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUT’s slides:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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:

The Danish tree

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


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

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

autumn colours in Søndermarken

autumn colours in Søndermarken

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

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

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

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

Moving forward three centuries and south to Vestegnen we find Vestskoven, a new forest established in 1967 with the aim of adding some interest to the pancake-flat landscape – after nearly 50 years it’s maturing nicely enough, as is the forest closest to home, Brøndbyskoven, established by a far-sighted mayor in 1952, with its beech bench and pines combo.

Brøndbyskov's Heidegger bench in autumn

Brøndbyskov’s Heidegger bench in autumn

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

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

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

Madvigs Allé. Frederiksberg - could almost be Hamburg

Madvigs Allé. Frederiksberg – could almost be Hamburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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