A Walter Benjamin moment

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

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

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

Copenhagen’s arcades

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

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

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

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

Sankt Annæ Passage

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

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

Jorcks Passage

Jorcks Passage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Párizsi Udvar

The Arcades Project methodology

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

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

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

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

Why Paris? 

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

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

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

We’ll see how we get on.

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

Primary Benjamin:

Secondary Benjamin:

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

After Benjamin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

best street naming ever, in Dessau

best street naming ever, in Dessau

The Danish tree

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


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

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

autumn colours in Søndermarken

autumn colours in Søndermarken

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

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

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

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

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

Brøndbyskov's Heidegger bench in autumn

Brøndbyskov’s Heidegger bench in autumn

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

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

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

Madvigs Allé. Frederiksberg - could almost be Hamburg

Madvigs Allé. Frederiksberg – could almost be Hamburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Days: Denmark in the 1970s

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

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

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

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

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

toilet door at Herlev Hospital by Poul Gernes

toilet door at Herlev Hospital by Poul Gernes

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

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

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

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

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

1970s bus outside Frederiksberg town hall

1970s bus outside Frederiksberg town hall

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

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

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

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

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

Summing up…

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

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

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

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

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

Bauhaus in Denmark: it’s funkis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s funkis

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

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

Frederiksberg - Novozymes (1935)

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

Virum Torv 2/Frederiksdalsvej 70 (1937)

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

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

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

Modernism and Danish scale

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

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

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

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

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

CPH - Hotel Astoria (1935)

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

Update: VINK on the Astoria

Studying walking and my practice

I’m currently participating in the Walk Exchange’s Walk Studies Training Course, a six week online seminar which “takes the form of a walk that facilitates interaction with the city through the lens of critical readings and examples of artistic practice”. Now I don’t do performance or play, let alone self-identify as an artist (at best a curator/formidler), so it’s all a bit tricky. (For more on tours as performance or artwork see B_Tour’s Imagining new spaces for an urban society through artistic guided tours | full lecture.)

From my course application:

The trigger [for my interest in walking as a practice] was moving to Denmark, which for me has not proved to be a fairy tale. Key factors are the homogeneity of Danish society and what I have come to call ‘Danish scale’ – Danes do not often dare to dream.

Walking (in a city which worships the bicycle) has played a key role in coming to terms with this. Brought up in an Edinburgh suburb in a walking family with dogs as constant companions, daily walks with my two beagles, a questing breed, have led to an intimate knowledge of Hvidovre, the suburb I live in. Weekly excursions to Copenhagen, in the main the less touristed parts, are illuminating in making connections with my life experience in a range of UK urban environments. Overseas trips provide further input – maintaining a holiday methodology in Copenhagen makes it almost feel like being on holiday once a week.

After 10 years in Denmark I still feel adrift – but it’s been a rewarding process getting to know the city better.

As far as walking in Denmark and writing about it goes, it’s a very different culture. There is, however, a wave of site specific work going on over the summer, spotted first in the shape of En landsby på højkant on Amager (reviewanother | Byens NetværkReumert-salon):

My aim in undertaking the course was primarily to put a stop to going down rabbit holes and work out what my walking practice is all about, so I can move onto a more productive phase. Here’s the course process:

  1. Read the attached text and the website linked above.
  2. Look through the walking exercises submitted after last week’s walk. Pick a few to try out during your walk.
  3. Complete this week’s walk along with a few of the exercises developed last week.
  4. Create instructions for a walking exercise that reflects your walking experience. Make sure this instruction could be completed by a solo walker, or a group of walkers. Include your instructions in the comments section below.
  5. Add any reflections, thoughts, writings, photographs, ideas, etc. to your personal page.

It’s an odd thing, with the reading a very mixed bag and the requirement to create a walk and integrate others’ into the next week’s walk representing a further challenge. Plus it feels quite anonymous – compared with a MOOC it’s not very social.

Of the other participants the Edinburgh Walking Workshop, founded in January 2016, is obviously of interest. From performance corner (see founder Jeni on on walking as a creative process), where walkers can engage with the prompts/provocations in any way they like.

Looking through their work so far I enjoyed Jeni on The Esplanade and Account of a group walk to Musselburgh, plus Kay Cur’s Purposes of walking to the airport. And, just seeing the placenames (Crags, Hermiston, Oxgangs…).

I find responding to the exercises hard, but rewarding afterwards, and it’s highlighting some key issues to unpick.

Full posts to come, but for now here’s a quick overview:

  • week 1: territories in transit – a solo walk to Hvidovre’s former centre, now a transit zone (text and photos)
  • week 2: pigeon patrol – a beagle led walk in the garden to reflect on cultural approaches to nature in the city (text)
  • week 3: going for a walk – a drift through shared space and its associated obstacles (text and photos)
  • week 4: the last walk/invisible walking – a drift on Nordic taciturnity and the designing out of personal contact (text)
  • week 5: soul experiments – hitting a dead end (text)
  • week 6: walk anywhere anytime – from oppositional practices in everyday life to the articulation of cultural narratives (text and photos)

Post-course reflection: I only actually went a specific WSTC walk in week 1, which ironically featured the least creative response. In the other weeks I used the exercises as a kick-off for my own walks, with mixed success. The exercises helped create a focus, however my issues with walking art remain. See Debbie Kent:

Does there really have to be a big gap between walking art participant and someone who takes a country walk to look at the landscape or who goes on a tour to learn about the history of a place?

She suggests that “the artist’s walk might tend to have the intention of affecting the participant or the audience in some way, whether by involving them in an unusual activity or shifting the way they perceive and process the world”, but is this specific to walking art?

 

Walk on: re-examining Jane Jacobs

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 at CPH:DOX…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?

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?

Slate, 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).